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I am in the process of writing my PhD thesis and it happens to be during the global pandemic crisis. My submission date was supposed to be June 2020 (we are in April 2020), but my supervisor has been kind enough to extend it to September 2020 due to the current circumstances so as to give me more time. However, I feel completely burnout, and I'm scared it will evolve into a depression.

I don't live in the country of my origin, so I am away from my family, support system and anything familiar. I also have a tendency to feel lonely and get stuck inside my head but I went to therapy when I first moved to where I am now and made so much progress. Normally, I have things under control, I go to the gym regularly, and hang out with friends on weekends, play basketball, go on hikes, maintain a relationship with my colleagues at the institute, and volunteer, which all help.

But since we are in quarantine, the isolation and the PhD stress are taking their toll on me, and I feeling super unmotivated, lonely, and defeated. I have extreme self-doubt and pretty much a negative outlook on my personal and professional life. I cry daily and I feel physically exhausted even though I have been getting enough rest and sleep. I try to write, but I can't concentrate. And the more I don't make any progress, the more anxious I become. This is in addition to the feeling of just wanting to be done with this phase and moving forward with other things in life. I feel stuck.

I don't know what to do, and I'm scared it would evolve into depression. What can I do before things spiral out of control?

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    Are you already seeing someone (a professional) to help you cope with stress? If not, did you consider it? – Dmitry Savostyanov Apr 25 '20 at 15:45
  • Are you able to travel home to live with your family for the time being? – astronat Apr 25 '20 at 15:48
  • @astronat I've been trying, but the flights are cancelled due to the pandemic. – Sara Simmons Apr 25 '20 at 15:53
  • Let me restate the earlier comment: You need to speak to a mental health professional about this. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 26 '20 at 12:44
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From what you've said you have already slipped into depression precipitated by external factors associated with the COVID pandemic. You could screen for this by taking a PHQ-9 questionnaire which is probably what a GP would do (https://www.mdcalc.com/phq-9-patient-health-questionnaire-9) but if you are crying daily and cannot concentrate then it probably isn't necessary.

If you have had thoughts of suicide or self harm you need to seek urgent medical help. If not, you still need to seek professional help on a semi-urgent basis. You should apply to your university's disability services or whatever it is called at your university for special circumstances and adjustments for which you will need a letter from your health provider and you should do this early rather than at the last minute.

In the meantime, you should try online cognitive behavioural therapy websites such as Headspace (https://headspace.org.au/) or Unmind (https://home.unmind.com/) or whichever equivalent your institution may have access to. Some have made their platforms available for free during the COVID pandemic to certain groups and this may be worth a look. You need to tell your supervisor and consider pausing the PhD or going part time if you can.

Most importantly, you are not alone and you can find many people who have written about how the COVID crisis has negatively impacted their mental health (https://www.theguardian.com/news/audio/2020/apr/24/what-is-the-covid-19-crisis-doing-to-our-mental-health-podcast) or (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/22/think-about-the-best-case-scenario-how-to-manage-coronavirus-anxiety).

Don't suffer alone, get help early, know there are many people who empathise with you.

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    You can also contact your previous therapist and they are likely to have added new online options! – Dawn Apr 25 '20 at 21:07
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Set aside a fixed period every day (even if only 15-30 mins) in which you will write, whatsoever. Throw the results away later, if necessary, but write for the duration of this phase.

Set aside a fixed period every day (even 2-3 hours) in which you won't write, whatsoever.

Feel free to extend the first phase if you are on a roll. By no means compromise on your second phase. Guarantee to yourself that you will not violate the rest phase. You are not allowed to write in it.

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  • This is a good idea. But I'd set the maximum time during which you are allowed to write to 3 hours per day. 2-3 hours of free time seems too little. – henning Apr 26 '20 at 6:57
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    @henning--reinstateMonica. The idea is not merely 2-3 hours of free time. These 2-3 hours are guaranteed free time that cannot be moved. Guaranteed writing time is intended to be a seed which can be extended as the "muse strikes". But the "block free time" is obligatory, non-negotiable and pre-determined. What you do with the rest of the day is fluid. Adapt (increase) these time blocks with time and experience, but I think these numbers are realistic for the beginning. Structuring the day is essential for unstructured times and seriously helpful. Don't forget the weekend. – Captain Emacs Apr 26 '20 at 10:19
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Unless you are in true lockdown you can probably still get out. If you live in a place that isn't overpopulated it is safe enough to go out as long as you avoid other people. My spouse takes a daily walk with a friend (long long walk) and they just maintain separation but can get exercise and chat a bit as they go along. But exercise is good for clearing your head as you probably know.

But just chatting with friends and colleagues (text chatting or video) can give you a break and a bit of human feedback and companionship. Many of them are probably struggling at least a bit themselves.

The desperation about your research and writing is pretty normal at your stage of completion. It isn't really a cause for concern unless you let it become one. Find a way to make some progress, even if small, every day. Find a way to get feedback from your advisor if they are willing. But when you get stuck, use some activity to clear your mind. Don't try to press too hard on your research or you may find yourself going in circles without advancing. The mind needs to rest. Take a break. Take a nap. Pet the cat. Cook something nice. Scream at the stars. Pretty much anything.

But if your depression is as you fear, then you probably need to talk to a professional, perhaps one provided by the university. Most places (well, many) will have a counseling office that provides personal and confidential advice to students. They might even recommend a break from your studies, though that might actually be worse.

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    And there are now online options for nearly all counseling offices! – Dawn Apr 25 '20 at 21:07

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