The Mystery of Post-Assignment Blues and How to Recover the Joy

You’ve got to the end of the semester or the academic year, and you’ve submitted your assignments, survived your exams… it’s all done, phew!

Wait what! Where’s the elation, the euphoria? This is very confusing!

During the stress and struggle of the days leading up to deadlines, we imagine how wonderful life will be after the work is done! The relief, the joy, the freedom!

Yet strangely sometimes we don’t feel as ecstatic as we had imagined. We expected to feel just great. What happened to all those good feelings, what a disappointment!?

Time and time again I hear students describe this as an anti-climax, a feeling of emptiness; sometimes even feelings of anxiety, as if you’re standing on the edge of a precipice.  

But since submitting my dissertation last month I’ve been in a weird limbo. My executive dysfunction has got quite bad because I have no urgent deadlines, so I can’t even bring myself to do the things I really want to do and instead just daydream about them all day. So trying to get myself unstuck has been a bit of a struggle.

Anonymous student

Please don’t beat yourself up about not feeling as you expected to. Let’s consider what might be going on, and what you might do about it:

The crash in mood is a comedown from all that adrenalin. This is a very real phenomenon; it happens all the time. If you’ve been in a heightened state of excitement and alert for a while, you’ve been pushing out that adrenaline (and dopamine), you’ve been using up your resources, the batteries can get pretty flat. The higher you were and the longer you stayed there, the more intense the comedown.

Solution: That flat feeling is your system recharging, and the neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine, are restocking. Don’t fight the feeling, accept it, rest up, pamper yourself, sleep. It will pass, and you will soon feel much better. I call this ‘cognitive override’, you might say to yourself:  I’ve been working my socks off, and achieved so much, I’ve made it through. This feeling won’t last – it’s just my nervous system recovering, I will feel better once I’ve recharged.

You’ve got used to having all your time structured around the work you had to get done, you’ve had a purpose, now you’ve got all this empty space and that feels weird. Life feels empty – you don’t know what to do with all this time on your hands, the days ahead feel like a vacuum.

Solution: You’ve got so used a particular state of alert and focus. When the situation changes your nervous system doesn’t know how to come out of that, just yet. You need a bit of time to get used to the new situation and become convinced that there really is nothing to do but chill for a while. And then when you’re ready, to begin to discover what you want to do next.

There’s a feeling of anxiety, you’re on a cliff edge, about to step into the unknown. This fear of the future is understandable – suddenly there’s more uncertainty than you’re used. You’ve been in a place where you always had the next goal in front of you, the next task. Now it all seems more uncertain.

Solution: Accept the feelings, as natural, give yourself space, time to think about the future, accept that uncertainty is a part of this major transition in your life. So maybe the uncertainty of not knowing is the feeling you get just before you discover something new.

So, what next? Once you’ve had a chance to recharge those batteries, give yourself permission, a bit of space, to be uncertain. Take a bit of time, to reconnect with yourself, and your surroundings; rest, take a walk, talk to friends, meditate. In this space of not knowing exactly what will happen next, let yourself rediscover the sense of freedom, the excitement of new possibilities…

Kindness is the New Rock and Roll

I wish I’d come up with this aphorism, because it nicely sums up an important piece of wisdom (credit goes to the band that used it as the title of their last album, and a song on that)

We are in Mental Health Awareness Week – hosted by the Mental Health Foundation. The theme is kindness. They rightly say that: in times like these when the world feels upside down, Kindness is the way to turn things the right way round.

“We all know that being kind is the right thing to do but did you know that kindness is good for you? A little act of kindness can boost your mental health, reduce stress and it can cheer you up to think of someone else – not forgetting, of course, to be kind to yourself. It is a path to a society that better protects our mental health”

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week

They point to research evidence for the positive impact of kindness on protecting and improving mental health. Their survey has shown that almost three quarters of UK adults say it’s important that we learn from the coronavirus pandemic to be more kind as a society. Also almost two-thirds of UK adults say that being kind to others has a positive impact on their mental health.

Psychologists have long shown that kindness to others (altruism) also has a positive effect on the giver (Fehr & Fischbacher, 2003; Kurzban, et al., 2015; Wang, et al., 2020).

There is evidence that accessing states of caring and compassion have a profound healing effect on us (Gilbert, 2010) and there appears to be a evolutionary neuro-biological basis for this (Porges, 2011).

Based on ancient wisdom, a growing body of research suggests that kindness & compassion meditations activate these healing systems within us. These meditative practices can be effective as part of the treatment of a wide range of mental health conditions and promote physical and emotional wellbeing (Graser & Stangier, 2018; Hofmann, et al., 2011; Shonin, et al., 2015).

Here is a short introductory guided meditation to help cultivate this state of self healing. Please read the guidance below before you try it.

Please read the important guidance below before you begin
  • This guided meditation requires active engagement and participation, so while it can be calming, it does ask for some mental effort
  • A bit of perseverance is likely to pay off, with a bit of practice the positive effects of meditation increase
  • If you find it difficult to settle and follow along with the guidance, then you might need a bit more brain-training with a breath practice
  • By using the meditation, you are taking responsibility for your wellbeing. It is not a substitute for counselling or treatment. It is an educational and self-development resource
  • Meditative practices have been shown to offer powerful tools for mental health and wellbeing by helping to develop enhanced emotional and thinking skills. They are not a quick fix and require effort and practice
  • Meditation is not usually suggested as mental health first aid. It can be very helpful in managing difficult emotions, yet this skill takes time to build. I think when you’re feeling anxious or unsettled, there are lots of other helpful things you can to do first, for example here is a calming exercise which I have used with many people (link opens in dropbox where you can directly play the file or download it for offline use)
  • Of course if you are acutely unwell then please get appropriate support, make yourself safe, and come back to this practice when you are feeling stable enough to engage with it
  • I hope you find this meditation helpful, feel free to get in touch with any feedback

References

Fehr, E. & Fischbacher, U., 2003. The nature of human altruism. Nature, Volume 425, pp. 785-791.

Gilbert, P., 2010. Compassion Focused Therapy. Hove: Routledge.

Graser, J. & Stangier, U., 2018. Compassion and Loving-Kindness Meditation: An Overview and Prospects for the Application in Clinical Samples. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 26(4), pp. 201-215.

Hofmann, S. G., Grossman, P. & Hinton, D. E., 2011. Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: Potential for psychological interventions. Clinical Psychology Review, Volume 31, pp. 1126-1132.

Kurzban, R., Burton-Chellew, M. N. & West, S. A., 2015. The Evolution of Altruism in Humans. Annual Review of Psychology, Volume 66, pp. 575-599.

Porges, S. W., 2011. The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Shonin, E. et al., 2015. Buddhist-Derived Loving-Kindness and Compassion Meditation for the Treatment of Psychopathology: A Systematic Review. Mindfulness, Volume 6, pp. 1161-1180.

Wang, Y. et al., 2020. Altruistic behaviours relieve physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 117(2), pp. 950-958.

Homesick Blues…

Now that you’ve crossed over to university life!

How are you coping with all the excitement of change?

Moving away from home for the first time is bound to stir up the emotions. If you’re feeling homesick remember you’re definitely not the only one! Here are some tips from Vicky Ainsworth, Resident Life Assistant, to combat those homesick blues

TOP TIPS TO COMBAT THOSE HOMESICK BLUES! It’s OK to miss home, its OK to miss your friends and family, its OK to miss your dog your rabbit your fish. AND it’s definitely OK to talk about it.

BE HEALTHY: looking after yourself is so important! Although living off crisps, chocolate, lager and frozen pizza may seem like ‘the student way’ it will make most things including homesickness seem and feel so much worse. Eat some veggies, drink some water, do some exercise and get some fresh air. Although this may not cure everything we guarantee it will make things seem a little better and a little easier to deal with.

KEEP IT REAL: manage your expectation of what uni-life actually is. We have all seen the films and heard the stories but uni-life isn’t one huge wild party. Don’t let social media cloud your judgement on other people’s experience of uni either. Some days will be amazing, some days will be dull and boring, and some days will be really hard. Everyone is going through the same experiences but they are only posting about the amazing days. There is also the element of what I believe the kids are calling FOMO.

NOT NECESSARILY ‘OUT OUT’ BUT OUT: don’t isolate yourself in your room. Your new uni room is an amazing little safe haven but don’t rely on it too much, it can make your homesickness worse. Get out (and we don’t just mean the pub) get to know the local area, join a club, explore, maybe a part time job, volunteer at a local organisation of interest or go create some adventure.

TALK ABOUT IT: talk to your new housemates, talk to your Resident Life Assistant (RLA), talk to your lecturers, talk to the Mental Health & Wellbeing Team, talk to the Students Union. People are there and happy to help you feel more positive. Having a positive outlook will help you to make the most out of uni and your new home and also help to make new friends to enjoy it with.

KEEPING IN TOUCH…but not too much. This is a fine balance. Obviously stay in touch with your friends and family (they are missing you too remember) but too much contact can actually make homesickness worse. Plan a trip home to give yourself something to look forward to (and catch up on your washing) but don’t do it too early in the term. Going back too soon could get in the way of the process of getting know and settling in your new environment.

SUPPORT: The LiveWell blog provides lots of tips and hacks to help you feel better. And this is the link to Health and Wellbeing Services at UoC. And here is some information about emotional support.

Procrastination !!

Part 1

procrastination

Procrastination is a delay in doing an intended and important task, despite being aware of the negative consequences of not getting it done.

We all procrastinate. Mostly we think of this tendency as an annoyance and just live with it. At other times it can become a hindrance to success, and can cause considerable distress, especially if it becomes chronic.

Remember, you are not alone, and there are things you can do to help yourself. This is the first in a series of blogs on the topic.

The good people at BBC Radio 4 have produced an excellent episode of ‘All in the Mind’ which looks at this issue and makes some interesting points: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0005t4x

Here are some of the key things I thought were useful:

Don’t rely on negative emotions to to motivate you: feelings like fear, shame, guilt can sometimes provide a kick. We’ve all heard ourselves say something like ‘Oh I work well under pressure’. However, we are not at our most productive when we are in a negative emotional state. Cognitive functioning: our ability to think, focus, reason, remember things is diminished when there is anxiety, or we feel low. Even if this strategy works, there are emotional costs, it doesn’t feel good, is stressful and impacts on wellbeing.

It is better to engage with positive emotions. Here are some ways of doing that.

Make it fun: One way to engage motivation is to find a way for the task to become more enjoyable. Is it possible to make some element of the task more fun? To find something positive in the process of the task itself?

Engage your identity: using language like “I am a runner”, I am a learner, a teacher, nurse, geographer, conservationist…

Remind yourself of the bigger picture: why is this important? how does it fit with what’s important to me?

Be kind to yourself: The worst thing you can do is be hard on yourself. Have you noticed that beating yourself up doesn’t really work. Rather than getting the job done, it just makes you feel worse. Better to have compassion and forgiveness for yourself when procrastinating. Ask yourself what would you say to a friend or loved one who was struggling to get going with something. Would you berate them, wag your finger at them? Or would you say something kind, supportive, tell them it’s OK to struggle sometimes, and is there anything you can do to help?

The myth of a different future you: We say things like “next week I’ll be less tired… have more energy… be more focused… clearer headed… I’ll be a better person… the writer’s block will be gone”. As if next week you’ll become this cape wearing superhero. The reality is: I won’t, I’ll still be little old me, pretty much as I am now, with pretty much the same resources and limitations, and this is what I’ve got to work with.

So I will take one small step that fits with the resources I have I’ve got right now, and do something (however small) right now. I can do just one part of the task that I can manage right now, and see how I get on.

I recently came across this quote (from Zig Ziglar) which sums up this last point:
You don’t have to be great to start, but you do have to start to be great.

Screen-time and Your Eyes

Smartphones are now ubiquitous, and can be a very useful tool for learning and communication. There are however a number of potential issues from a wellbeing perspective, these (and how to minimise problems) will be considered in a few separate blogs. Here I want to focus on eye health.

LED/LCD/AMOLED screens are everywhere, (TV, desktop, laptop, tablet computers, smartphones, and gaming devices). We know that there are potential problems with overuse of these screens. Spending too much time staring at a screen can lead to eye discomfort, eyes feeling tired or strained, dry itchy eyes, difficulty focusing and headaches.

These screens also produce blue light which is associated with additional issues. And with phones, the closer proximity and length of time looking at them adds to the potential problems. There is emerging evidence of damage to retinal cells and increased risk of macular degeneration. It seems that these risks can be significantly increased by looking at your screen in the dark. Many people report using their screen device in bed at night. Of course there are multiple things to consider with this pattern of use, for now just from an eye health perspective, this might of particular concern.

Here are some things you can do to reduce eye problems.

  • Pause now and again and look into the distance or stare out of the window
  • Blink your eyes now and again
  • Stretch your head and neck
  • You should also take frequent short breaks away from the screen.
  • Make sure you’re working in well-lit conditions but without light reflecting off the computer screen.
  • Completely avoid using screens in the dark
  • Use blue light reduction settings if available (but this doesn’t solve all the problems so don’t rely on this as your only measure)
  • Reduce overall screen time

Sources

http://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/eye-safety-at-home-and-work/#

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21600300?report=abstract

http://www.preventblindness.org/sites/default/files/national/documents/fact_sheets/FS104_BlueLight_1.pdf

http://www.nature.com/articles/srep11325

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jun/23/smartphone-users-temporarily-blinded-looking-screen-in-bed

utnews.utoledo.edu/index.php/08_08_2018/ut-chemists-discover-how-blue-light-speeds-blindness

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!