Journeys

Today’s blog is written by the University of Cumbria’s Chaplain, Rev. Caroline Kennedy.

During lockdown, the journeys we’ve been able to make have been restricted, and for many of us that must be quite a change. If you’re someone who loves travel and has looked forward to and enjoyed, exploring new places, or holidays in other countries, then life might feel smaller and limited right now. And if, like me, you’ve been used to travelling for work or study, hopping on to trains or taking the car out regularly, you might also feel that life is a bit narrower. Even shopping is something most of us go out less to do, and the enforced changes brought about by lockdown will surely have an impact on our habits, possibly meaning that online buying is the preferred option for many of us in the future.

Photo by Kun Fotografi on Pexels.com

To state the obvious, journeys involve movement; the going from one place to another. Before lockdown, we probably took the small everyday journeys for granted- going to see friends, calling in on relatives, meeting in the pub, having something to eat in the Cube if we were on the Fusehill campus…and although things are changing and lockdown is easing, it’s hard to imagine that all of these things will come back fast. Yet a journey doesn’t have to be understood solely in terms of physical movement. Journeys can be connected to inner growth and change, to experience and to the passing of time. You’ve no doubt heard phrases like ‘life’s a journey,’ and ‘life has many paths.’ The image or metaphor of life as a journey is a very ancient, deep seated one, and it can help us to understand and grapple with the idea that life holds tough times as well as periods of happiness. In a long journey made on foot it’s probable there would be different scenery, places where the path was steep and rocky, as well as points of being high up with wonderful views. The journey metaphor can encourage us in the places where we struggle and seem to be making no progress. It reminds us that there could be something wonderful round the corner, that at the end of a steep uphill climb there’s often a great view, and that stopping to look back and see how far we’ve come is a really important part of journeying well and understanding our current situation. 

I wonder what stage of life’s journey you’re in now? And whether you feel as though you’ve reached the top of a hill or are starting to climb a very steep one. Perhaps you have a sense of reaching a plateau, being in a flat place where there’s not much change. Maybe, because of the pandemic we’re still facing, the view you’re dealing with has suddenly switched from a wide open space where you could walk or run fast, and knew where you were going, to a ravine you didn’t expect to come across, or a place with a high wall blocking your progress. Whether you’re a student about to graduate or planning to go into another year of study, or a member of the university’s staff, the view you have now is probably different from the one you saw before the arrival of Covid 19.

The writer of psalm 139, addressing his thoughts to God, says in verse two: “You mark out my journeys and my resting place.” This person, living in what we think of as the Mediterranean basin and believed to have been writing from his position as king almost three thousand years ago, surely understood life as a journey, held and directed by a god who wanted his character to develop and saw a much wider picture than the circumstances faced by the writer at the time. And taking a wide perspective, understanding our own situation as part of something much bigger, can be a very helpful lens to see things through, one which eases anxiety, and lessens the tendency to drive and put pressure on ourselves.

In fact, understanding that the world of our own immediate experience isn’t all there is can be part of what ‘s called awe. The word ‘awesome’ is so commonly used now that we can take it generally to mean ‘good’ or ‘great,’ but awe is actually about wonder; about being aware that there are things so amazing and so much bigger than us, that we’re left breathless. Like seeing a huge mountain topped with snow, a waterfall higher than we’ve ever seen, or being in a powerful storm. American scientists have found that experiencing awe releases endorphins, the hormones that make us feel good. So to be able to experience awe, or a sense of wonder at what is much bigger than us, is a great attitude or ability to carry on a journey through life. If you’re based near our Ambleside campus, then getting out into the countryside close by could be a good way of promoting this. Looking at the night sky or getting up early to watch the sun rise are recognised ways of promoting a sense of awe and wonder at the mystery of the natural world around us.  Being up on Donkins Hill at the heart of the campus itself gives a great sense of the mountains close by, and a feeling of being held in a wonderful, colourful bowl of countryside with all sorts of possibilities for exploration and escape from day to day pressures. The campus isn’t open currently, but when it is, try standing or sitting up on Donkins Hill and just take in the view. 

Take notice of your surroundings, low mist in the evening light at the Ambleside campus

To continue with the journey metaphor, if we don’t have a map or SatNav, if we come across unexpected disasters, or if we meet people along the way who ask us to go somewhere with them for a while, there will be points when we need to stop and rest, re-think our route or direction, look for another way, or decide to spend some time taking in what’s right in front of us. I wonder whether you feel the compass that guides you through life is a reliable one, or whether you’ve always been too busy to really think about what helps you navigate each stage? Whatever is leading you, the practice of stopping to look back and see how far you’ve come is a good one to remind yourself of your achievements so far, and how much ground you’ve covered. And if you need a bit of encouragement and are feeling low in your own sense of value, taking a few minutes to write a list of your achievements (academic and personal- from gaining qualifications and completing assignments to things like walking the Roman Wall,  finishing a book, writing a blog,  managing a budget, making new friends…anything that for you has meant a step forward), is a great way to remind yourself that you have ‘made progress’ and are in fact, journeying well, whether this particular time feels like being stuck in a bog or not. 

On March 1st it was St David’s Day. “And what,” you might be asking, “has that got to do with where I am now? I’m really not interested in hearing about some old saint…” 

Fair point. Saint David though, has a link with the practice of kindness which is being recommended nowadays to boost our mental health as we journey through life. During Mental Health week recently, kindness was the theme that was promoted. Saint David (the patron saint of Wales), is believed to have said to his followers before he died “Do the little things.”  This didn’t mean finding tiny and easy tasks.  It meant doing the things that seem very ordinary and wouldn’t attract attention. The things you can’t point to on your CV when you want to demonstrate success, but that really matter to other people. Like taking time to listen to someone who has trouble expressing him/herself, encouraging someone who’s feeling low, sending a card or making a call to an elderly relative, praising someone who doesn’t get much praise, cooking dinner when others are tired, and being generous when you feel overlooked. Doing things for others makes us feel good, and the value of the ‘little things’, unseen by the wider world (and that’s the point), shouldn’t be underestimated. These actions move us in a direction that’s to do with contribution and service, with the development of our character, and they add to our inner journey, our growth as people. When we feel stuck and bored, unable to make progress in the way we’d thought, or to move on in a way that’s visible to others, noticing what we might be able to do quietly for good, in our immediate environment, paying attention to the ‘little things,’ can help us to re-focus, look out and move in our souls. 

The organisation Mind says that giving to others is one of its Five Ways to Wellbeing. Being kind to someone else is also being kind to you. And in times of change, when things may feel uncertain and unclear, as they do now on a national and worldwide level due to the Corona pandemic, it’s worth remembering our ‘circles of influence’ as Stephen Covey, the Leadership guru and organizational consultant advises. These are the areas of our lives we CAN control, and they encompass the values we decide to live out, the amount of time we put into our relationships, the way we behave in our families, the encouragement we give to our friends, the level of effort we put into our studies as well as many other things. These are all the things under our hands, the things within our reach, which done well, can actually be transformative. They’re the steps along the way to successful living, and they involve us in the process of prioritising and deciding what is most precious, most of value to us. 

I’ve spoken to lots of people who, over the last few months, say they’ve re-evaluated, changed their priorities, and don’t want to ‘go back to normal.’ This could mean they want to slow down, spend more time with their families, get outside more…make changes which mean that their lives will seem richer, not in financial terms, but in relationships and feeling alive. You could say they’ve decided to change direction or take a detour on the journey of life. Perhaps they’ve found a shortcut or gone off the main road and decided to travel a bit more slowly, but in a way that seems to have better views!

Wherever you are on your journey, remember that it’s important to be you. Your life matters to the world, and you will have skills and abilities and experiences that no-one else will have in quite the same combination. There are things that only you can contribute and bring, and taking time to notice and reflect on your skills and the things you enjoy is important to help you understand which direction to take and when to stop for a rest.  Put hope, and faith in the way you’re made, generosity and openness in your backpack as you journey this year, as well as some awe and wonder, courage and patience…I’d love to know how you get on, and imagine you’ll make great progress! 

The importance of relationships

Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com

Today’s blog features an article on the topic of relationships, and the importance of making each contact count. This is especially important during the age of the COVID-19 epidemic. However, this post was written before the UK government advice about social distancing and social isolation. For up to date guidance on social distancing please click here

Today’s blog is from a guest blogger: Arwen, the new Apprentice in the University of Cumbria HR Department. Who is “big into cooking and baking, relaxing AND delicious”.

“When you see that word, you might only think about relationships with a partner but any friendship or familial bond is a relationship. The coffee guy who makes your morning de-zombification beverage every day is a relationship. We don’t always get the most out of these micro-encounters but taking the time to say hello or smile or realise that you already do, that you’re out in the world interacting and having an impact on other people’s lives can make us feel connected, feel not so small, feel significant. Do you take the time to notice the small things that add value to your day?

Relationships are always complicated and we usually carry these complications forward in some way. The lack of early trust in a new relationship when you’ve been lied to in the past, automatically searching for ‘supporting evidence’ to what someone has told you rather than immediate belief. Worry about how you measure up when you know your new partner’s sexual history. Am I good enough? Am I not as much fun? Am I as experienced?

Good communication is always talked about as being key. Not everyone is a good communicator and not everyone who we are trying to communicate with is in the right place to listen to -or receive- what we are trying to talk about.  You can keep in mind the bigger picture: that you love and value this person and they have your respect and esteem. Great. But sometimes you may just want to be on a planet, where they are not.

Photo by Edward Jenner on Pexels.com

How do I talk to someone when I can see they have a problem and want to support them? Opening a whole case of worm cans. How do I talk to someone about their alcohol dependency? Seeking advice from Al-anon friends and family is a wonderful start and can be done without involving the person you are concerned about. Local groups are available and are there to support you at this time and not this person. You can get advice and not feel so alone.  You might not want to use the exact term in conversation ‘Al-anon Friends & Family’ it can easily be misconstrued as ‘I’ve been talking to my friends and family about you’ (cue detonation)

Giving time to process is an important part of difficult conversations and for both parties- physical and emotional space to deal with the bombshell (I think you need help)

How do we move forward? Open questions are great at enhancing a dialogue. Most of us are not trained communicators and don’t realise that we ask closed questions and effectively shut down the conversation. Being empathetic rather than sympathetic is another big difference. Put yourself in their shoes but don’t pity how much they hurt your feet. Listen without judgement, actively listen and show them you are paying attention through small nods or comments: Yes. Oh. I can see how that would be difficult for you. Could you tell me more about…….?

Importantly: please don’t talk about a time when you or someone else you know were in a similar situation. You make it about you and not about them, they feel unlistened to and disengage.

Talking to someone about a problem you think they have is deeply personal and can affect you both. Helping someone through their crisis is not a quick or easy process. When people are afraid or hurt they can lash out, a support group or counselling for the both of you is a good consideration.”

5 Ways to Wellbeing during self-isolation

Like most people, I would imagine that the students and staff at the University of Cumbria are adapting to a new way of living thanks to the pandemic of COVID-19 aka the Corona Virus. In particular, getting used to self-isolating and social distancing. The very first point I want to make is that in a world of misinformation, in this rapidly changing world; it is important to get accurate and up-to-date factual information. So wherever you are in the world, a good starting point is the World Health Organization (WHO) who have a Corona Virus specific website. WHO have specific guidance on how to stay safe. If you are in the UK, the government have a website for people to find accurate and more local advice and information. Assuming you have read the guidance, and your are self-isolating or using social distancing, here are some 5 Ways to Wellbeing ideas for you to try or to help you think of your own techniques.

  1. Connect with people

Connecting with people when in self-isolation might sound contradictory, but it isn’t. There are a number of digital apps such as Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp that can enable you to video conference to your friends, family, colleagues, etc. Make time to have some daily contact with the ones you love and care about. Sometimes it might be worth planning ahead, and setting a specific time of day to connect with those that are closest to you. If you are coping well, think about those who you know with particular set of vulnerabilities such as those who live on their own, those who have long-term physical or mental health difficulties, or those who are much older and may feel physically and psychologically distant from others.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Also keep connected with the outside world where you can. Keep up-to-date with the news, but remember to only look at reliable news sources, and also remember to take a break from just reading about COIVD-19. Reading blogs, or listening to podcasts can also be a way of connecting to the outside world. Remember if you are a student or member of staff, you can connect anonymously to others out there via the Big White Wall, which is an online mental health and wellbeing community, that is there to support you 24/7.

If you are with others in the same household and it is safe to do so, why not switch off the telly, and play games for a change? It could be board games, card games, or other types of games. Stuck for inspiration? Try these “parlour games“.

2. Be physically active

At the time of this blog being published, the UK government is still encouraging people to take up some form of physical exercise each day. A minimum of 20 minutes per day is advisable, but if you can do more, then go for it. Simple yoga could be a start, and you can even do it from your chair. If you are little more adventurous, there are plenty of apps out there including the “30 Day Plank Challenge”, look for it on your usual app store. The NHS also has a 10 minute home cardio workout available online and it doesn’t require you to have any gym equipment. One of the University’s lecturers, Mark Christie has even got some fun exercises for you to try out.

Paper O-lym-pics

If you can, give friends, family, peers words of encouragement to keep active, as it can be very challenging to keep motivated and physically active. Being physically active also helps with your mental health and wellbeing too.

Other options of getting exercise into your daily routine when stuck at home or halls is to spring clean. Now is a really good opportunity to get those nooks and crannies cleaned that often get neglected. Depending on your type of accommodation, you could aim to do one room, every other day. Sort out anything that is broken or no longer used. Anything that is still good working order, or reusable that you no longer need, you could either sell or give away once it is safe to do so. If you have a garden, may be do some weeding, or mow the lawn. All of these will help burn off a few calories, and help get some exercise into your day.

3. Keep learning

Obviously, if you are current student at the University of Cumbria, you’ll need to keep on track of your programme of study. Keep an eye on Student Global emails, and any other correspondence from your tutors which may come directly to your student email account, or via Blackboard, or via official University social media accounts. Don’t forget that My.Cumbria has lots of really useful resources on there including reading and note-taking, managing your studies, dissertations, being critical etc. My.Cumbria does get regularly updated, so do keep checking on the pages from time to time. There is a page specifically on studying at home during COVID-19.

All staff and students at the University of Cumbria also have free access to LinkedIn Learning, which is a great resource with short (as little as a few minutes) and long (several hours) online courses on a vast range of subjects, such as improving your Microsoft Office skills, presentation skills, procrastination, interview tips and advice, etc. There are also some fun courses available on LinkedIn Learning such as how to play the guitar, piano/keyboard, improving your photographic skills, learning to use music production software, etc.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

You will still need to get your studies and home-life balance right. Take a break from your studies now and then. So why not consider taking up a new hobby or one that you have put on the back-burner? For a start you could try yoga etc (see above). Now could be a good time to try a new recipe, if you are stuck for ideas you could try the BBC who have a great website just for recipes, that include the option to search for recipes based on what ingredients you have (and given how some foodstuffs are hard to get hold of at the moment, this is a great opportunity for you to rummage to the back of your cupboard for things that get seldomly used).

4. Give to others

With your new hobby or extra skill, now is the chance to give to others (where it is safe for you to do so – e.g. potentially those in the same household as you, or wait after the isolation phase has passed). Could you write a poem for a loved one? Or make a cake for your housemates? Can you revise or work on a topic with your peers on your course via Zoom or Skype or similar digital platforms? Are you able to give your time to someone you know is struggling with self-isolation by talking to them on the phone? May be you could consider being a volunteer for an organisation once this epidemic has passsed. There are lots of charities and those in need, that are always looking for volunteers, this could be walking the dogs at a local animal shelter, working at the local foodbank, mowing the lawn for a local elderly neighbour, etc.

5. Pay attention

Although it is good to keep up-to-date with the news about COVID-19, it is worth investing in the time to switch off from the news, and switch off from social media. Mindfulness can be very helpful for you right now. Paying attention to how you are feeling and learning to relax during self-isolation and social distancing can be a good skill to have. There are a number of mindfullness apps available, Headspace if probably the most well known, but there are others (search you normal app based store). The NHS has some useful information on mindfulness that can be found here.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Final thoughts

Remember that the COVID-19 is a pandemic, but it will come to an end. Life will eventually come back to some sort of normality. Use the tags on this blog to explore other parts of Live Well @ Cumbria. Keep following the updates from reliable sources. Stay safe, stay well. Remember to keep a look out for each other. Take care.

If you have any further suggestions do let us know.

Big White Wall comes to the University of Cumbria

The University of Cumbria’s students and staff going through a tough time can now access free online support with Big White Wall. Whether you’re struggling to sleep, feeling low, stressed, anxious, or unable to cope, Big White Wall can help you get support, take control and feel better.

You will have access to a 24/7 online global community and professional support from trained professionals. Big White Wall provides a safe space online to get things off your chest, explore your feelings, get creative and learn how to self-manage your mental health and wellbeing.

On Big White Wall, you are totally anonymous to other members in the community, and your personal information is kept secure while you are on the site (see Big White Wall’s privacy statement here). The University will not be informed if you’ve signed up to Big White Wall or know of your activity on the service unless they are seriously concerned about your safety.

Most members report feeling better and more able to cope with their workloads as a result of using the service and nearly 90% use Big White Wall outside of 9-5pm.

To join us, simply go to www.bigwhitewall.com from the 27th January 2020, and sign up under ‘organisation’ with your University of Cumbria email address (this is only used to confirm that you are a student or a member of staff at the University).

To find out more about Big White Wall, you can watch this short (2 minutes) video clip.

An introduction to Big White Wall

Homesickness

Exciting times ahead (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

For many, coming to University is an exciting time, moving away from home, making new friends, starting a new adventure. However, for some, coming to University can be daunting, leaving behind friends, family, and all the support networks that have got you this far in life.

Being in a new environment, can be stressful. It can lead to anxiety brought on by leaving behind people and places you know and love. All this can lead to homesickness. It can potentially affect any student, whether you have moved just a few miles down the road, or if you have moved from the other side of the planet.

What is homesickness?

There are generally two peak points in the academic year when homesickness strikes. At the start of the academic year (late September and through October), and just after the Christmas break (in January and and early February). It normally affects 1st year students (or one year students such as PGCE students), but can affect 2nd and 3rd year students too. For those who do feel homesick, it is usually short-term, lasting a few weeks at most.

What ever you do, don’t hide your feelings! (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Homesickness manifests in different ways. For some the following thoughts, feelings, and behaviours might be noticeable:

  • Sleep becomes disturbed, or you struggle to get to sleep
  • Feeling sad, anxious, or nervous, without a clear reason
  • Feeling lonely or isolated
  • Sometimes overeating or sometimes struggling with appetite
  • Poor concentration (not great when you are in lectures)
  • Headaches (which can be a secondary cause from the stress and poor sleep)

Remember, it is very normal to feel or experience some of the above issues, and it isn’t something to be embarrassed about. Around 65% of students will experiencing some level of homesickness.

How to overcome homesickness

The best way to combat homesickness is to get involved in university life as much as possible. The worse thing you can do it to lock yourself in your room and hope the problems will go away. With that in mind, try and get out as much as you can. If you want to study, go to the library; if you want a coffee, have a drink at one of the campus’s refectories. Sitting in your room all day or all evening lets your negative thoughts get the better of you.

Try and make new friends by joining clubs and societies. Look at the University of Cumbria’s Student Union group pages to see if there are any that you like the look of. If not, give a thought to setting one up. Look out for activities throughout Freshers Week to see what you can get involved in. Of course, there is nothing wrong with keeping in contact with your old friends and family back home, but it’s good to socialise in person, which easier to achieve on campus.

Reduce isolation, and improve socialisation to combat homesickness. (Photo by kat wilcox on Pexels.com)

Don’t be disheartened if you are not rapidly falling in love with your course or campus, it can take time to adjust to these new experiences. Depending on the course you are studying, you could be here for 2, 3 or 4 years, don’t let a few days or weeks put a stop to your hopes and dreams. If symptoms of homesickness persist, consider speaking to your personal tutor, or speak to Student Support Services, such as the Mental Health and Wellbeing Team. They could help identify specifics about why and how you are having the thoughts and feelings that you are experiencing, and help you overcome them.

Be Active – 1 of your “5 Ways to Wellbeing”

As mentioned in a previous post, there are 5 ways to wellbeing that you can adopt into your daily or weekly life, that will help you maintain, or improve your physical and mental wellbeing. One of the 5 ways, is to Be Active. Now this doesn’t mean you have to run a marathon, or be pumping 50kg of iron. It can be gentle exercise such as going for a brisk walk, or trying out yoga. Not only is exercise good for your physical health, but it can also help to maintain positive mental health.

The University of Cumbria has a number of initiatives to help you get more active or to stay active. One such initiative is UoC Active, which has been developed in response to a government strategy called an “Active Nation”. At the University there are two main sports centres, one at the Fusehill St campus, and one at the Lancaster campus. There is a small centre at the Ambleside campus. They offer a range of sports, exercise classes, and other leisure activities. Lancaster and Fusehill St campuses have a selection of classes, that at the time of this blog posting, includes, Yoga, Boot Camp, Step n Tone, Zumba, Box Fit, and Latino Dance (not all classes are available on both campuses, check the website for details). If you join the Lancaster campus sports centre, you automatically get to use the facilities at the Salt Ayre Leisure Centre owned by Lancaster City Council, and it has a swimming pool.

On campus, there are several security coded bike shelters to keep your bicycle safer, and are available to staff and students, who use their own bicycle or one of the hired bicycles. Reception also keep spare locks and a pump in case you need to borrow one. If you are bringing your own bicycle from home to University, we strongly recommend that you take out bicycle insurance, and get your bicycle security tagged (most local police stations can help out with this), just in case someone tries to nick your beloved bicycle.

Ashton Memorial in Williamson’s Park, Lancaster

If cycling or gym membership isn’t your thing, there are other ways to increase your activity, these include walking with friends in the many local parks that are close to campus, if you are in London there are some very big parks to visit such as Hyde or Greenwich Park, Lancaster Campus has the Williamson’s Park, Ambleside has Rothay Park, and both the Carlisle campuses are close to Rickerby Park. Visit your local tourist information centre for more information on local walks and leisure activities. If you are at one of the the North-West campuses, then you won’t be too far from the seaside, and a walk along the beach can be a very enjoyable day out. Even if you are in London, then a day trip to Brighton Beach can be achievable.

Roanhead in the Furness Peninisula. Long sandy beaches, sand dunes, and amazing views.

If you enjoy walking, and like dogs, you could volunteer at your local animal shelter. Animal shelters are often in need of volunteer dog walkers to help exercise dogs whilst they are waiting for their forever home. Use a search engine on the internet to find animal shelters near you, and give them a call.

My story with mental health whilst studying at university.

Below is the first of our guest bloggers. It’s been written by a recent graduate of the University of Cumbria. It is an honest account of dealing with a range of mental and physical wellbeing issues. Due to the honesty of suicidal thoughts and psychosis, it might be a difficult read for some people. It might be a blog to bookmark and come back to at a later date when you feel more robust.

“Studying at university is a challenge, but doing this whilst battling mental health issues can really take its toll. I’ve struggled with my mental health since I was young but during uni I really did struggle at times. At university I experienced anxieties, insomnia, depression, suicidal thoughts and psychosis. Now this wasn’t anything new for me, but at uni I definitely had moments which weren’t good. But onto those later on.

So first year… I really enjoyed it to put it simply. I had moved around a lot prior to going to uni so I was used to meeting different people which I guess made settling in easier for me. Something I was personally worried about was staying in the same place every night which I had not done for some time prior to university. During the first few weeks I was really fortunate to make friends on my course and on others. With the University of Cumbria being such a small uni I got to know people in all years very quickly. I studied Sports Science in my first year. Some modules I enjoyed, others not so much. Revision was usually met with going over a PowerPoint and then watching an episode of The Simpsons or watching Leicester win the Premier League. Not the best revision techniques anyway. I managed to pass my modules but decided to switch onto the Sports Coaching and Development course as my skill set suited that course more. At the end of first year I landed a job with Camp America at a camp in Illinois near Chicago as a Tennis Coach and Camp Counsellor. It was a great experience but when I got back my insomnia was awful. A combination of jet lag and a sudden bout of just feeling low rolled into one. In lectures I could not concentrate at all. My mind was always somewhere else. I had to resit my psychology exam in January of my second year which I scraped through at the skin of my teeth (0.2%). This anticipation phase building up to the resit I really did struggle with, especially with uni on the line for it. The rest of second year and going into third year was a good phase for me throughout university. Grades were improving and I was just in a much better place. I think the relief of passing that resit was almost overwhelming. Over the summer at the end of second year I started writing my dissertation so I was super organised and ahead of everyone for the beginning of my final year. I wanted to keep the momentum going as towards the end of second year were the best grades I had got to date.

Photo by Nguyen Nguyen on Pexels.com

My final year of uni began and I was nervous but certainly motivated to do as well as I could. November came and this was when things were to take a turn for the worse. I noticed I was starting to have a sore stomach. Now I just thought this was stress/tiredness as my sleeping was pretty poor even by my standards.

Fast forward to January/February and this was when the vomiting with blood started. In the build up to this I had been drinking quite a lot on just not making sensible decisions. I remember one night saying to one of my mates ‘I’m sorry but I’d rather be getting high than either watching myself or my family die’. Anything to distance what I was feeling would be great at this point. I’d be getting inebriated to numb it all, all those nights I started thinking of suicide. Being physically and mentally unwell really exhausted me. Once vomiting with blood began, this was when I remember genuinely thinking ‘Something is wrong here’.

I went the Doctors the next day and they weren’t too sure what it was. So I had a lot of blood tests but again, no definitive diagnosis. After about 6 weeks of being sick most days, I eventually ended up in A&E on multiple occasions. Obviously with being sick this much my housemates knew about it, and my closest friends as well. Everyone else I was just hiding away so people didn’t see what state I was in. On an A&E visit, I had been in a lecture that morning and left halfway through as the pain I was in was just horrid. Within an hour I was being sick again and having a panic attack. I shouted my housemate and said I needed to go to hospital. He rang my mate for me and he came along with my other housemate. All 3 of them were amazing during this period! After having some bloods taken they again didn’t know what was up with me and deemed me not unwell enough to stay in hospital so I was discharged. They gave me some codeine pills to help with the pain. Little did I know at this point these pills were about to change my life for the next 4 months or so. I went into the doctors for an emergency appointment after hospital and then the Doctor thought he knew what was wrong with me. He said about something called ‘Gilberts Syndrome’. I had no idea what this was and when I heard the word Syndrome I panicked immediately. He reassured me very quickly though. This is an illness basically when your Bilirubin levels in your blood are very high which affects your liver. I had this since I was born as well, it’s just something that became more visible during this period. Now I had been abusing alcohol and cigarettes, so I told the doctor this and he wanted me to have an ultrasound on my liver. I had this a few weeks after and the results were that half of it was absolutely knackered, unsurprisingly really.

I started taking the codeine as they just really helped the physical and mental pain I was in during this time. Before I knew it they helped with sleep, removed nightmares or at least made them not as vivid. I had been used to having loads of nightmares which burnt within me like a forest fire. I started taking multiple pills a day just for the sake of it. Before I knew it I was getting high again off them and not really feeling with it with almost anything. I’d never had a good relationship with sleep but these pills improved that. However my aunt passed away in April, I went back to Stoke for the funeral and came off the pills so I would be all there mentally for the time I was seeing family again as they had no idea what was really going on apart from mentioning I had been having a sore stomach to a couple of them. I really struggled with this visit, to a point when I was in my brother’s bedroom and actually counted out how much codeine I had and whether it was worth ending it all. Now I have had suicidal thoughts since I was 16 but only thought about planning it once before which was when I was 17. But this time felt different. Really raw and heavy. I felt like depression was in control and I was just along for the ride trying to hang on whilst getting absolutely battered. I don’t know what made me not take them, maybe graduation in a few months? I don’t really remember to be honest. Anyway, I survived these days and went back to uni feeling quite scared. I could tell people on my course who saw me knew I was in a bad way, they looked and treated me differently. But I just played it off as they didn’t even know why I went back to Stoke. I was having suicidal thoughts every hour of every day for months which is exhausting on its own, on top of being physically unwell this made things unbearable. For my dissertation poster presentation I actually took them again so I was high during this as I was in ridiculous pain during the morning. I had got a reputation for falling asleep during conversations with people due to these pills, they were a nightmare but amazing at the same time. The pills almost became like my dark twisted fantasy. Giving them up was difficult though because they really did rid me of the blues, they opiated the hazy head I had. I’d find myself thinking ‘I’d love for you to stay. But that’s simply insane’ in reference to the codeine. †

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At this time was when I envied almost all things. Anytime I saw an animal, I envied it. Seeing a bird singing at that time almost brought me to tears, because it seemed happy and I felt like pure darkness. Anything from a horse, to a dog, I felt jealous. In the end I started therapy and have since been put on anti-depressants (Sertraline) and I am now in a much better place.

When I look back on uni despite all this, it was the best decision of my life. The people I met and were there for me. The lecturers were so supportive with me. Educationally and personally as well. I looked at them as mentors. The memories made I will treasure and look back on really fondly. I still keep in contact with the closest friends I made at university. The degree helped me get a job where I work now as a Graduate Intern for a company called ‘Hello Future’. I was not academic and despite being ill I achieved a 2:1. I went up two grade boundaries in 12 months which now I can’t believe still. But when I wasn’t being sick I was studying. That summer between 2nd and 3rd year was crucial to me getting a degree and I would encourage any student in this period to get ahead of their final year. It makes such a difference!

So I wanted to write a paragraph on coping strategies, interventions and everything in regards to this theme. What worked for me? What helped me get through things on a day to day basis? Setting a structure and sticking to it was really important. Making sure I get out of bed, shower, and brush my teeth and stay hydrated/eat properly. Sleep was always very alien to me so this was a time of day I struggled with. Listening to calm music always helped just calm me down. From this, when I was physically able to, running and walking helped so much. Every day I would run several miles, easily too. Now I had a perception that pills and alcohol improved things but they really didn’t. It bottled it up, didn’t deal with how I was really feeling and resulted in things being worse. I have had counselling twice. Once which didn’t last long enough and another which took place over about 8-10 weeks. The issue with this occasion was that at this stage I was out of my bout of depression, so it didn’t really work as affectively as it possible could have. Both times I have had therapy I really got on with the therapist. They are trained individuals and you can have really positive conversations with these people. Everything is kept private which I really utilised. Having someone to talk to really helped me, whether it was talking about mental health or just talking in general.

Final message – The key advice I would have to anyone struggling is to talk. Now I know this is cliché but it really does work. Take a few deep breaths, and enjoy life. Remove yourself from situations that have a negative impact on you. Take it a day at a time and don’t worry about what’s ahead. You have to live life in the now otherwise you won’t live at all. Obviously you need to plan some things, but don’t get caught up in it.

Remember to talk, whether its mental health related or just spending time with friends or family. It is good to have some alone time no doubt, but when you’re struggling, being by yourself can cause risks. I still struggle every day, but I have started to build my tool box of coping strategies. There’s a long way to go, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you can too if you look hard enough.

Remember to laugh, lots of laughter is great, the type of laughing when your stomach hurts, happy tears rolling down your eyes. Laughter is a sign of happiness, and happiness is amazing. It’s so amazing it doesn’t even have to be yours. Seeing people you love and care for being happy and laughing can genuinely make you feel better. Surround yourself around those who make you feel happiness and it’ll help you make it through a day at a time. Love yourself like someone you love.”

Remember if you are struggling with your mental health whilst studying at the University of Cumbria, you can always refer yourself to the Mental Health and Wellbeing Team. Click on this link to find out more. Or for alternative places of support, look at our main menu for “Urgent Support“.

How to get better sleep

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One of the main reasons students refer themselves to the University of Cumbria’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Team, is because they are struggling with sleep. It might be because they struggle to get to sleep, or they sleep too much, or they have disturbed sleep. Sustained sleep deprivation has a detrimental impact on your mental and physical health. But even short periods of poor sleep can have a negative impact on your mood, and your academic performance.

In their paper, Steven P. Gilbert & Cameron C. Weaver ((2010) Sleep Quality and Academic Performance in University Students: A Wake-Up Call for College Psychologists, Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 24:4, 295-306, DOI: 10.1080/87568225.2010.509245), discuss some of the issues that students in particular face, when it comes to poor sleep. They note that one of the first daily routines to change when students first arrive on campus, is their sleep. Sleep-cycle (the going to bed at the same time, and waking up at the same time each day) is usually the first thing that changes. If the change becomes permanent, then problems can start to arise. Missing the occasional night (e.g. going to a party, or a club night), can make us a little tired the next day, but chronic sleep problems have a significant impact.

Top tips for better sleep

Having a bedtime routine can really help. One of the best ways to train your body to sleep well is to go to bed, and wake up, more or less the same time every night, even on weekends and days off. It can be a challenge if you are a student on placement, working shifts, but where possible, sleep the same amount of hours each night. If possible, aim to start your bedtime routine at least 30 minutes before getting into bed. Have a warm bath and relax (baths are not just for cleaning your body, but can be a way to relax). Some people find 15 minutes relaxation techniques useful, such as mindfulness, breathing exercises or a few relaxing stretches can aid the process of falling asleep. Help your brain to switch off. You can’t expect your brain to go from being stimulated by computer games, films, revision, checking social media, etc. one minute, to being totally switched off the next minute.

Try to avoid consumption of food and drink too close to bed, but particularly avoid consuming caffeine, (such as coffee, tea, cola, chocolate, “energy drinks”), nicotine, (cigarettes or vaping) at least 4 hours before bed. These substances act as stimulants and interfere with the ability to fall asleep. Falling asleep on an empty stomach can be distracting, so make sure you have had a light snack close to bedtime, but don’t eat your full evening meal too late, as digesting lots of food, can also negatively impact on your sleep. It is best to avoid taking naps during the day, to make sure that you are tired at bedtime. If you can’t make it through the day without a nap, make sure it is for less than an hour and before 3pm.

Regular exercise also helps; burning up surplus energy, will help you feel tired (as well as all the physical and emotional benefits associated with exercise). It doesn’t have to be excessive or strenuous, but don’t do it immediately before bed, a few hours before is ideal. If you don’t consider yourself sporty, think about alternative exercise, such as a walk in the park, some yoga, etc.

It may seem obvious, but only go to bed when you feel sleepy, rather than spending too much time laying in bed staring at your eyelids! Whatever you do, don’t decide to prop yourself up and watch TV, or start using other electronic devices such as a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. That will only simulate your mind, and the bright light will trick your mind into thinking it is day time. It will also teach your mind that your bed is used for other activities other than sleep. If you use your smartphone as an alarm clock, turn on the night time settings that most smartphones come with, that way you won’t be disturbed by a text message coming through, or a social media notification. Bed should only be used for sleep, or if you are recovering from illness, or for a little romance!!!! Let your body and brain develop this association. If you do climb into bed, and get an idea for an assignment that you are working on, quickly jump out of bed, and make a note for the morning, before getting back into bed. That all said, there are some useful apps for helping and aiding with sleep; these include sleep trackers (but these tend to work better when you have a smart watch), or meditation/mindfulness apps.

If you do find yourself struggling, even when you have put all the above tips into practice, then do try and avoid clock watching. Frequently checking the clock during the night can wake you up (especially if you turn on the light to read the time) and reinforces negative thoughts such as “Oh no, look how late it is, I’ll never get to sleep” or “I’ve only slept for 5 hours.” If you haven’t been able to get to sleep after about 20 minutes or more, get up and do something calming or boring until you feel sleepy, then return to bed and try again. Sit quietly on the couch with the lights off (bright light will tell your brain that it is time to wake up), or read something boring like the phone book. Avoid doing anything that is too stimulating or interesting, as this will wake you up even more.

If you have any tips on improving sleep, please share below.

5 Ways to Wellbeing

Keeping well, or improving your wellbeing can sometimes be a challenge, but there is a simple, yet effective framework that you can follow. It is known as the 5 Ways to Wellbeing.

Back in 2008 the UK government commissioned research into Mental Capital and Wellbeing. The findings from the research can be found here, where you can also find the executive summary. From the research, guidance was created, that has become known as the 5 Ways to Wellbeing. The 5 Ways are below:

  • Connect – connect with the people around you. It could be family, friends, colleagues, peers, neighbours. It can take place at your place of study, workplace, or local neighbourhood. Increasing your connectivity (in real, not necessarily through social media) has been shown to improve your mental health. Isolation is a significant risk factor for developing poor mental wellbeing. Get in touch with the Student Union here, as they have lots of societies, sports teams, clubs, and volunteering opportunities that can help you connect with others like you.
  • Be active – Even simple forms of exercise has been shown to improve mental health. A walk in the local park, going for a bicycle ride, doing some gardening can make you feel better about yourself. The University of Cumbria’s campuses are all close to local parks, go out and get to know them if you are studying there. Or if you have access to transport, then the campuses are all close to National Parks, or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty that you could go and explore. The University also has Green Minds, a project to encourage staff and students to do some basic gardening, which is great for being active, but also for connecting with others. If you are reading this blog, and not a staff or student member of the University of Cumbria, may be see what is going on at your work or place of study.
  • Take notice – gardening is another great way to do this (see the Green Minds comment above). But why not go to a museum, art gallery, theatre, or cinema.
  • Keep learning – of course, if you are a student, then hopefully you will be learning all the time, but also try something new or rediscover an old interest. We often don’t make time to learn something new, but it can really something that you can do in your own time. As a student at the University of Cumbria, you will have access to LinkedIn Learning, and there are lots of online courses to choose from.
  • Give – do something nice for someone else, a friend, partner, or a stranger. I often encourage students to consider volunteering at the local animal shelter, helps with all 5 ways to wellbeing, taking a dog for a walk can be a new skill, it can increase activity, and help take notice.

Introducing the 5 Ways to Wellbeing in your life, and be beneficial to you. We’ll be posting more on this in the future. Give it a try and see what a difference it can make.

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining us as we blog about all things relating to student wellbeing. We will be posting about mental health and wellbeing in the main. Importantly, we will also be blogging about diet, mood/emotions, sleep, fitness, exercise, socialising/isolation, alcohol, meditation, drugs, mindfulness, smoking… the list goes on.

Most of the posts will come from the Mental Health and Wellbeing team here at the University of Cumbria, but we will have guest contributors including students, academics, other members of Student Support Services, etc.

We hope that students will find this blog informative, and useful in helping to maintain or improve their wellbeing. If you have suggestions for topics to blog about, please do let us know.

Many thanks for reading!