‘Balance is fulfilling’: how to look after your mental health at uni

Transition points in life, such as going to university, can be exciting, but they can also bring up feelings of stress, anxiety and nervousness. Making a big life change during a pandemic is even more of a challenge.

There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’re feeling a bit uneasy about the prospect. It happens to even the most confident and accomplished of us. Alex George, youth mental health ambassador to the government and author of Live Well Every Day, recalls feeling unsettled for a month when he started a new job in London. “It was my dream job, I was so excited about it, but I was so nervous," lui dice.

Going away to university is no different. “It’s such a lotmoving out of home for the first time, managing a pandemic, going to university, and dealing with a huge uptick in learning,” says Claire Goodwin-Fee, a counsellor and psychotherapist. “Remember, [you’re] pretty bloody amazing to get that far.”

So how do the experts recommend you look after your mental health when starting at university?

It’s normal to feel some anxiety about meeting new people, or jumping into unfamiliar situations, especially after spending time in isolation due to Covid-19 restrictions.

But try to focus on what you can control, rather than what you can’t. “In life you can only control what’s in your sphere of influence,” says George, who adds that he lives by that motto.

Per esempio, you can control your schedule and your behaviour. So it might be a good idea to reflect on what’s boosting your wellbeing, and what’s taking away from it.

Goodwin-Fee says it will also help to demystify what’s happening to you physically when you feel anxious. “Read up on your nervous system," lei dice. “So when your heart’s pounding, just know that that’s your adrenaline, it’s a hormone that’s rushing through your body.” You can reset your nervous system through various techniques: Goodwin-Fee recommends the 4-7-8 breathing technique.

Connecting with people is good for our mental health and one of the most exciting parts of going to university is the chance to make new friends. But it can also be daunting, especially during the pandemic.

Dr George recommends winning people over with a good old-fashioned cup of tea. “The first thing I did when I got to my halls and I was quite nervous, was I offered people a cup of tea," lui dice. “You wouldn’t believe the power of offering people a cuppa. You get chatting and realise you’re all in the same boat and you all feel similarly nervous.”

It’s also a good idea to try new things – whether it’s salsa dancing or spoken word poetryregardless of how nervous it makes you feel. “Even if you’re not very good at it, you’ll feel good about giving it a go,” says Dominique Thompson, a GP who specialises in young people’s mental health. “It’s about boosting your self-esteem. Trying new things is so important for us.”

At university you’re likely to be in charge of your own schedule. A healthy one involves regular routines, such as getting up at the same time each day, making time for exercise, cooking home-cooked meals each week, and getting your eight hours of sleep.

But it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends at university, partying until the early hours , or working extremely hard. Toby Chelms, head of student support and wellbeing at Leeds Trinity University, says it’s all aboutstriking a balance between what you need to do and what you enjoy. “A lot of people go one way or the other," lui dice. ”But a balance will leave you feeling more fulfilled.”

However you choose to spend your day, George recommends you schedule in time for self-care. He’s found it particularly helpful to switch off with an “unwind routine” in the evening. “I love sitting in the bath, with some music, and chilling out," lui dice.

New students will likely be asked to do more online or self-directed learning. If this turns out to be the case, schedule in breaks. “The front part of your brain is only really active for 45-90 minutes max, so after that time take a break, walk around, and stretch your body,” advises Goodwin-Fee.

We can all be our own worst enemies – many of us wouldn’t dare talk to our friends the way we talk to ourselves. “We tend to have an inner critic in our head,” says Goodwin-Fee. “But don’t always believe your thoughts. The voice that tells you you’re not good enough, or that nobody likes you – it’s simply not true.”

Our inner critic can be a perfectionist, or pile pressure on us. Your school or sixth-form experience was likely disrupted by the pandemic, and your inner critic might make you feel bad about any perceived gaps in learning. “You might fear you’re missing something, but not know what it is,” says Thompson. “The big message here is loads of people are in the same boat and universities and academic staff are preparing to fill that gap.”

Before you even arrive, you can contact your university to find out what support is available. That way, you’ll already have it noted down for when you need it. It’s also a good idea to sign up with a GP as soon as you arrive so you won’t have to go through the whole registration process when a problem does arise.

All universities should have a dedicated student support and wellbeing team and many encourage you to approach them whenever you want to, whether you’re feeling homesick, lonely or are struggling with your mental health. Jacqueline Mayer, head of student services, at the University of Lincoln, recommends: “Contact us before it gets to a point where it’s causing a lot of stress or anxiety.”

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