Ways to look after your mental health at university

  1. Go at your own paceIn this age of social media, we’re interconnected like never before. Individuality has flourished on the internet, and everyone can have an audience. We see great variety in the ways that people live their lives, and how they express this on social media. As great as this can be for individuals, it does also open up some problems. It’s easy to see an active user who likes to show themselves at their prime at all times. Their pictures could be carefully manufactured to remove imperfections, and their updates could show the success of their active working pattern. It’s easy to see these things and immediately feel like you’re doing something wrong. You respond by asking questions of yourself as if this person has the key to unlocking a happy, balanced and productive life for all. This is something you need to avoid in-general, but what I will say for your time at University is that if you peg your own standards to those of other people, you’re not focussing on honing those traits intrinsic to you. Social media is just one example. Another one is the people you actually have around you. One of the most terrifying things to hear when you ask someone how they’re getting-on with an essay or with seminar reading is “Oh yeah, I’m almost done, I just need to make my final edits.” Again, your immediate reaction is to reassess your own work-rate, but this does nothing but cause unnecessary stress and anxiety. Something really important to take from University is an understanding of what makes you work at your best level. Looking to other people’s working routines, whilst it can be useful for finding inspiration, becomes a problem when you try to to mould yourself to it. Everyone works differently, and one of the best things to leave University with is a concrete knowledge of what makes you work best. Not just for your success in your field, but for your mental health- working to your own rythym is an important skill, and it should be a major focus for your time at University.
  2. Make your wellbeing your first prioritySo, you’ve come to University, and your main goal is to get that degree. What you don’t know is that over the next three or four years it’s incredibly likely that the importance of that goal will fluctuate- it will probably become a remote possibility at some points; at others it might feel like a complete drag, and sometimes it could inspire bursts of energy and motivation. What I’m trying to say is that there’s a lot more to University than the degree. Foremostly, it’ll probably be your first experience of living alone. Moving away from home, for me at-least, was terrifying, and I’d say I’m quite an autonomous person. Alongside your degree, you’ll have to learn how to live without the constant safety net your parents produce. You’ll have to learn how to shop for yourself, how to cook for yourself, how to manage bills and finances. The hardest part of all of that though, is learning how to cope with the feeling of knowing that you’ve flown from the nest. Coming home after your first term at University is a strange feeling, and for me it was deeply uncomfortable because it just felt so different, and it lost some of its special comfort it gave previously.

    To add to this pretty gruelling list, you’re going to have to take manage your own life if you’re going to get a degree. This means organising meetings, organising group sessions, meeting academic staff, organising when you’re going to do your work etc. The list goes on and on. There’s far far more to a degree than you initially think, and over time the trials and tribulations of living away from home, leading your own autonomous life with people you hardly know will exert a lot of pressure on you. So yeah, the main goal is to get a degree, but at the same time, you will have a lot on your plate. So, be kind to yourself. You are going through a major change in your life, and it’s not going to be easy all the time. Take time to focus on yourself, to assess where you’re at in your head, and how you’re coping with all these changes going-on around you. Always make sure that the things you do at University are for you. There’s that much going on all the time that it’s easy to get lost in it all, to just get on with it and forget about yourself, but eventually you’ll realise that something has gone wrong somewhere. To avoid this, I say make yourself your main priority at University. As changes whirl around in this chaotic bubble, always make sure to take time to slow everything down, and almost take a birds-eye view on what’s going-on in your mind. Take breaks as and when you need them, and do not be afraid to say no to your friends. True friends will understand that they get to enjoy you because you follow your own rhythym and that is what makes you you. So, another very important thing to bear in-mind is to make yourself your own priority. Do this, and the degree will slot-in alongside.

  3. Exercise
    Exercise, it’s everywhere! Half of your Facebook friends now have ‘PT’ at the end of their name, and almost everyone is walking around in gym gear. The pressure on people to be at the gym, striving to look like the chiseled model on the cover of Men’s Health, or the petite yet well-endowed Instagram model, is so high at the moment. So I think in some ways, exercise has become tainted. To go to the gym means you’re just following the trend, and such. There’s been such a strong backlash to the emergent culture of exercise, that it’s hard to locate some happy middle ground.

    Amidst all this hype around exercise, if you strip it all down barebones, exercise can still exert a therapeutic effect on you when you find the right kind of exercise for you. I’m a believer that there’s a form of exercise that suits everyone, be it running, lifting weights, playing hockey, whatever! This feeds into what I’ve just said about making yourself your own priority, because exercising can induce a meditative-like state, it can be immensely fun, it can relieve pent-up stress, and it can do a great job of bringing like-minded people together and allowing them to enjoy each other’s company. The point is, exercise is a versatile thing and it can be made to work to your advantage. You don’t have to run around in the latest gym leggings, or worry about how big your arms are. I think there’s something truly powerful about exercising, and it unlocks feelings that sitting-down just can’t quite achieve. Sometimes it could just bring some much-needed variety after a long day at the library. At the end of it all, though, exercising has a lot of uses. It doesn’t have to be about following the latest fads.

  4. Build healthy habits
    This is very much the mixing-together of everything I’ve already said. I can’t stress enough how important it is to stay-tuned to your own inner voice. For me the most important thing you can do is listen to this voice, and conduct yourself according to how you want to. When you combine all the things I’ve spoken about, you get into healthy habits. They’re healthy because they come from your genuine desires to help yourself. You may learn this at a point when you’ve gotten into friend groups that orientate around things that just aren’t your jam. It takes time to realise what your own inner voice is saying, and even longer to begin to act on it. But when it does become known to you, don’t be afraid to say no to people, or to let people go who don’t encourage you to live by the life you’ve decided to set-out for yourself. You should never be ashamed of living your life according to how you want to. To do so at University is a sign of great strength, because there’s a lot of forces pulling you in different directions and it’s easy to succumb to it all. You might begin to lose contact with people as you begin to do the things you really want to do, but that’s fine. When it’s all said and done and you’re on your deathbed, will they even be a memory? So put all these things together, and focus on what is best for you.
  5. Try to think that you are exactly where you need to be
    This is probably one of the hardest things to do, for anybody let alone a student. Many of us have plans for our lives, and most of us have expectations of ourselves, and these are constantly-changing as our lives go on. In our heads, there’s always worry of what you’ll be in the future, or what kind of a person you’ll be, or what kind of a person you currently are and if this person is good or desirable or whatever. We’re filled with self-doubt all the time, because we’re made to think always of where we are right now, and the end-goal; never the process in-between. There’s always deadlines to be met, obligations to be fulfilled, and the scale of it all is so huge that you’ll often just let it all get to you, and you’ll worry how on Earth you’re ever going to overcome it all and be the person you envisage in your head. When am I going to reach my end-point and really be my best self? When will I figure it all out? When will life get easier? Our heads are one constant rush at University and throughout life in-general, that we cannot possibly fathom to ask ourselves “Am I exactly where I need to be right now?”

    Face it, your deadlines are a long way away. Your Mum and Dad still don’t actually have a clue what’s going on in this myriad of bollocks we call life, and you are constrained by the person that you are now. It takes time to alter the chemistry of your mind, and to change the way you see and process things. Rather than worry about finding the answers to impossible questions about yourself, why not ask if you are actually exactly where you need to be? Maybe it’s okay to not have all the answers right now. It could be absolutely fine that you still don’t know who you are, what your tastes are, what kind of person you want to be. It’s also absolutely fine that your work isn’t done yet. I hate to repeat a cliche, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will you. You don’t have all the answers, you probably never will, and that’s absolutely fine. I am being serious as well when I say your parents still don’t have a clue what’s going on. I think the trick to mastering adulthood is making your children believe you know all the answers.

  6. Accept your flaws

    “You’re not perfect, sport, and let me save you the suspense: this girl you’ve met, she’s not perfect either. But the question is whether or not you’re perfect for each other.”- Sean McGuire

    You’d think I’m being the bearer of bad news to flat-out tell you you’re a flawed person, but I’m not. Flaws and imperfections, to once again quote from the wonderful film Good Will Hunting: they’re the good stuff. Blemishes, awkward laughs, flatulence, strange habits, the whole works. You’re a package deal, and you deserve to be loved entirely. But firstly, you have to learn to accept your flaws, and even embrace them. Your flaws are just as natural to you as your strengths, so why brush them under the carpet and pretend they aren’t there? I think what I’m trying to say is that honesty with yourself is quite an important thing. Be it acknowledging that you do not in-fact know how to win at the game of life, or be it bringing your imperfections into the light. Being honest with yourself about yourself is the first and most important step in beginning to accept yourself. It’s a hard thing to do when you have all these moulds you want yourself to fit into, but the truth is you might be incompatible with some of the ways you wish you were. I wish I were better at socialising, but I know my mental illness can make me go from happy and raring to go to absolute rock-bottom. I was ashamed for cancelling on people for so long, but why should I be ashamed about something I have no control over? That’s that process of being honest with yourself about yourself. See yourself as you are right now, and please be a bit kinder to yourself.

    I just want to finish by saying that this advice is written to help me just as much as it is to help you. I don’t embody most of this all of the time, and I’ve written these down partly as a reminder to myself of what I’m hoping to take from the very limited time I have left at University now. Right now I’m trying to be more honest with myself, and understand that the confusion I have about my life is fine, and there’s nothing I can really do about it. I’m not a wise sage who dispenses advice he actually lives-by, i’m an imperfect 3rd year student who makes a lot of mistakes and forgets to follow his own advice all the time, but that’s okay. You might finish reading this and think wow, what a waste of time, this doesn’t help me at all. That’s *sobbing* also fine. I just hope what I’ve written here gets you thinking about what’s right for you. At the end of the day, stay true to yourself, be kind to yourself, and embrace whatever happens along the way.

    Nick.

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