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Rector Carel Stolker: 'Students, stay healthy - mentally as well'

The current situation at our university is a strange one: no face-to-face classes, all buildings are closed and our students stay at home. We understand that it is difficult for students right now. Our Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker has a message for all of you. 'Take care of your health, both physically and mentally.'

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The article in NRC Handelsblad that Carel Stolker refers to, is this piece by Ykje Vriesinga: 'Zes tips om veerkrachtig te blijven in tijden van onrust' (in Dutch). Especially for our international students, we summarized the six tips from the article. Stay healthy!

Six tips to stay resilient in these tough times

I.    Focus on the things that you do control
As the world is struggling to get a grip on coronavirus, many coaches and psychologists are referring to Stephen Covey’s Circle of Influence. Covey discusses the Circle of Influence in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This book is essentially about managing the most difficult person in the world: yourself. In his book, Covey outlines two circles. The largest circle is the Circle of Concern: all the things you worry about in your life. Within that circle is a smaller circle called the Circle of Influence. Those are the things in your life that you actually have control over, for example, a decision that prohibits EU nationals from visiting the USA is a decision that you have no control over, but reminding yourself to sneeze into your elbow is within your Circle of Influence. Covey focusing your time and energy on the things that are within your Circle of Influence. Focusing excessively on things that are outside your Circle of Influence will lead to feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness.  

II.    Don’t be afraid to show emotions
Focusing on your Circle of Influence doesn’t mean you can’t show any emotions. According to Brooke Castillo, a world-renowned life coach, it’s impossible not to show emotions because human beings are easily shaken by external events that trigger primal fears about death and life security. Castillo sees coronavirus as the perfect chance to work on our mental resilience. Castillo says that even though our current situation is uncertain, even though it affects all of us, it is nonetheless an opportunity to practise the skills needed to free ourselves from unnecessary suffering. In order to do that, she says it is important to show your true emotions: cry if you’re feeling sad, scream if you’re angry and write your feelings down on paper if you’re feeling anxious or if you’re stuck overthinking. 

III.    Limit your daily intake of information 
It is important to limit your daily intake of information in order to not constantly disrupt your feelings and thoughts. In regard to coronavirus, there are so many doomsday scenarios circling around – reports on death tolls, conspiracy theories etc. – it can become overwhelming and stressful. Choose one or two moments in a day where you decide to gather news instead of exposing yourself to a continuous stream of coronavirus updates. 

IV.    Make sure you have routine and structure in your day
Wake up at your usual time. Don’t snooze too long, even though you might now not have the same kind of commitments. Try and live according to your pre-corona structure. Routine keeps a human being resilient. Routine gives stability and ensures that you worry less. This way, you can better deal with possible setbacks. The human brain likes habits because set routines require less mental capacity than new actions. This is the theme of a classic book, The Power of Habit, written by Charles Duhigg. 

V.    Consciously cultivate feelings of gratitude and connection 
Our brains are programmed to focus on dangers, on problems, on scarcity. This makes sense, after all, from an evolutionary perspective, as this ‘predisposition to negativity’ has helped our species survive for over 200,000 years. Every human being feels anxious sometimes and that is completely normal, says American neuroscientist Judson Brewer. Brewer says that suppressing anxiety or other unpleasant emotions has no effect. For our brains it actually feels good to keep focusing on the problem – in this case corona – for our survival. 

The solution is to offer the brain a ‘bigger better offer’, something that feels even better for our brains. Powerful emotions that can help achieve this are gratitude and a connection with something external – be it animals, people or nature in general. In regard to gratitude, you could consider keeping a gratitude journal, where you write down all the things that you’re thankful for. Scientific studies show that gratitude helps reduce stress and negative emotions. 

VI.    Realise that we’re all resilient together 
A lot of people believe that tough times like these bring out the worst in people. Studies by the World Health Organization show that disasters do lead to isolated cases of antisocial behaviour but that the majority of people demonstrate behaviour that exemplifies solidarity. Another common belief is that people are so shaken up in times of crisis that they are incapable of taking responsibility for their own survival. Most people actually find a new source of strength in times of emergency. Think of the thousands of volunteers that search through the rubble, trying to find victims after an earthquake. Elke Geraerts, a neuropsychologist from Belgium, advises to ask yourself what you can do for others. Helping other people and being a valuable member of your community will give you a sense of connectedness which in turn will give you energy. 

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