Shielding as a PGR


Jo Sutherst is a second year PhD researcher in Art History and Visual Culture and a keen facilitator for the Doctoral College’s PGR Writing Groups. You can find Jo on Twitter @JoSutherst.



Over the past year, the Covid-19 virus has relentlessly spread worldwide; our social worlds have become smaller and working from home has gone from being a novelty to a monotonous and mundane necessity. The list of things that we can’t do and the people we can’t see due to lockdown restrictions seems endless.

I usually have excellent mental health and am generally well-grounded. Despite this, in March 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, being told I classed as clinically extremely vulnerable to the virus and placed in the shielding group my mental wellbeing deteriorated. Despite already being a distance student and being used to working from home for long periods of time, as a very positive and active person, being told you cannot leave your house at all and that you will most likely suffer severe consequences if you catch the virus, was such a shock. The effects of long-term shielding, the worry about losing loved ones to the virus, and the over-consumption of stress-inducing media reports have taken their toll on my mental wellbeing. Unfortunately, I believe this will continue to have lasting effects long after my shielding days are over.

My home has become the epicentre of both my life and my experiences. Each day is the same; the lack of stimulation has negatively impacted my creativity and productivity. My ability to piece together ideas about my research has been stifled and, on some days, non-existent. My creativity and motivation are enhanced from exposure to new situations and people; before Covid-19, I regularly encountered novel situations through serendipitous conversations. Even driving different routes each time I went to the supermarket was stimulating.

In the first 9 months of the pandemic and shielding, my days were dominated by worries about how I could secure food deliveries, collect my medication, along with worrying about the health of my family and friends. The anxiety and stress forced my brain to take on a reactionary role; my thinking and decision making became limited to binary choices. Whilst I had more quiet space to focus on my research, I found it impossible to stay motivated and creative as my life felt monotonous.

Since Christmas, my focus has changed. I have added more routine and structure to my day. I attend as many Shut Up and Write sessions as possible, using them for both motivation and company. It can be tough to stay motivated with a monotonous and stifled daily routine in shielding, but the friendships I have developed in the sessions have spurred me on. I feel almost accountable to others for my progress and share in the journeys of other’s progress. Sharing with others has made me feel connected and, as a result of this, I have reconnected with my research.

I no longer check the daily death rate of Covid-19; I avoid the stream of negative global news and have muted social media friends who share stories of doom and gloom. I found I was getting annoyed by people who were sharing false information about Covid-19. So, I now concentrate on engaging in academic conversations on Twitter to increase my cognitive flexibility and scroll past potential trigger posts. I can’t avoid social media entirely due to the focus of my research, but I am coping with limiting my exposure.

COVID-19 is by far the most significant global event and challenge that I will face in my lifetime, causing exceptionally worrying times. Consequently, my PhD research momentum has slowed down, stifled by the lack of human contact outside of a computer screen. I have had to re-examine my aims of the research and adapt them to the current situation. I had planned for the research to be practice-led, using my creative work to inform the project’s direction and investigation. But now find myself reviewing how this might work, taking into account all the factors that directly impact my creativity. I do not doubt that my project will change for the better. It will not look the same as it did a year ago, but that’s ok. I have accepted that I need to adapt to a world of increased virtual interactions and communications. I remind myself that this change is not a failure; in fact, it is an accomplishment to admit that my original research plans may no longer be achievable in the current climate.

Coming out of shielding will be my next concern. I was privileged to have been given my first dose of the Astra Zeneca vaccine this past weekend. Whilst I was excited to get this done, I experienced a panic attack before the vaccination due entirely to having to be around people. I have adjusted to my new routine of shielding. Just being around other people triggered this unexpected experience (a new one for me). The government’s explicit message has been that other people and surfaces they touch carry an invisible threat of Covid-19. My confidence in others is now non-existent. I find it hard to trust that others will be respectful of those with greater vulnerability and maintain social distancing. The total lack of control I felt in the situation was overwhelming. But as with all things, it will get easier the more I can interact with people in the future.

My top tips for those who may find themselves in similar circumstances:

  • It is ok to feel how you feel – we all react and cope in different ways.
  • Just getting through each day is an achievement, so don’t be too hard on yourself when things don’t go to plan.
  • Try to keep to a routine as much as possible.
  • Avoid the news and negative people.
  • Be kind to yourself – take things hour by hour.
  • Focus on that makes you smile. Don’t focus on how much of your project you achieve each day.
  • Talk to people every day.

Finally, remember that nothing lasts forever. We will get through this difficult time.