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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Needless to say, one of the key things in managing exam stress is the actual study you do. So of course, starting early and preparing well is going to be very helpful. Once you’re at or near the actual exam the challenge is more about optimising things as much as you can, with whatever your level of preparation.
Another important area is specific study, revision and exam skills. You will be developing these throughout your time of study, together with your academic confidence generally. At the time of the exam there are a number of recommended strategies around the specifics of dealing with the exam paper: for example, read the exam questions carefully, make sure you understand the question. Make a few rough notes or brainstorm just to get some initial ideas and to get that inner process started. Start with a question you feel the most confident in, to get as many marks in the bag as you can, and get things going. Here are some tips on managing the exam preparation and revision.
Here, let’s focus on what you can to do to manage your emotional state (anxiety, wellbeing): Getting your state right will optimise everything else. Being in a good state has longer term and short term factors. There are things you can do in the time leading up to your exam, and on the day.
General self-care: Looking after yourself, investing in your wellbeing will pay off and be a more sustainable strategy. There’s lots of good advice on improving well being on this blog and elsewhere. Here’s a brief reminder of some of the practicalities for getting the best out of yourself:
Regular exercise: in any shape will help. Little and often, doing something you like doing. There is lots of evidence to suggest a strong positive impact on mood and cognitive functioning.
Eating & Nutrition: This includes the usual advice, eating plenty of vegetables and fruit. Avoid high sugar and highly processed foods, complex carbohydrate (Low GI, sustained release is better). Avoid excessive caffeine. Alcohol in moderation, avoid drugs. Drink plenty of water.
Some kind of meditative activity: this can include things like mindfulness or yoga. Mindfulness is a great way to build resilience and develop emotion management skills as well as enhance cognitive processes. It tends to work cumulatively, rather than as first aid in an anxiety situation.
Sleep hygiene & Routines: sensible use of screen time (avoid excessive use, avoid at bedtime and definitely not in bed!), avoid caffeine in the evenings. Read, listen to music, relaxing sounds, or an audiobook at bedtime.
The night before: Staying up late (or all night!) can sometimes work as a short term solution when you have to hit an assignment deadline (most of us have done this at some point, hopefully got away with it, and vowed not to leave things to the last minute again!). But is not a sustainable strategy for studying. And for exams it will not be helpful, even if you manage to cram lots of knowledge into your head, you probably won’t be in a fit state to deploy that to effectively. So be kind to yourself, and get some rest the night before.
Let’s talk about managing anxiety: The days before and during the exam can be challenging for most of us. On a very practical note: Get organised and show up early, get things ready the night before, and get up early so no there’s no need to rush around getting more wound up.
Anxiety is a normal response to stressful situations. In fight or flight mode our adrenalin system kicks in and is there to provide additional resources when there is a perceived danger situation. This works really well where we need to deal with situations of physical threat, but is less effective when we have complex tasks to deal with (studying, thinking, writing assignments, exams, job interviews, first date etc.).
A small amount of adrenalin can be helpful in giving us a bit of alerting energy. However, too much of it will cause a drop in productivity. There is an optimum range for this. So as adrenalin levels go up, initially performance increases, however it soon tapers off and begins to drop as adrenalin increases.
Here are some tips to manage your state during the period leading up to and especially on the day. With performance anxiety there is usually a cycle: feeling anxious – negative thinking – more anxiety – more negative thinking. Interrupting this at both points (thoughts and feelings) is a good strategy to manage anxiety, stop it spiralling further, and even begin to turn it into a positive cycle (feeling calm – increasing confidence).
Manage unhelpful thought patterns. Watch out for catastrophising thoughts. Remember: thoughts are not facts. Thoughts with a negative bias amplify stressful feelings. Instead, try saying something like: “I’ll do my best, staying calm and focusing on the task will help me to get the best out of myself”. If you think you should have done more, earlier on then there is not point in beating yourself up. Better to approach this with self compassion: “OK I could have done better, I can learn from this, and improve things in future”.
Learn to use calming strategies. There are a range of good ways to settle anxious feelings, using the breath is a powerful way to calm things. Here is a breathing technique that you could try. This audio file is a breathing exercise which lasts 6 minutes, the link opens in Dropbox where you can directly play the file or download it for offline use. We are very interested in getting feedback so please feel free to let me know how you get on with it.
Selye, H. The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956 (2nd Revised edition 1978)
Yerkes, R. M. & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relationship of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459–482.
*The Yerkes–Dodson law suggests that there is a relationship between arousal and performance. originally developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. This law states that a relationship between arousal and behavioural task performance exists, such that there is an optimal level of arousal for an optimal performance. Over – or under-arousal reduces task performance. This graph shows a version of the Yerkes–Dodson law, it leaves out that hyperarousal does not seem to adversely impact simple tasks.
Life can easily rush by, and we can miss moments that can make us happy or happier. Taking time to focus on the here and now, can aid with your 5 Ways to Wellbeing.
When we feel low, we often get into a spiral thinking pattern known as rumination, where we often focus on the past. Thoughts that often start with, “If only…“, and focus on lots of regret and disappointment, they include “I should have…“, “I could have…“. Conversely, when we ruminate when we are feeling stressed or anxious, we often fear about future events that haven’t even taken place, thoughts often start with “What if…“. The more we ruminate, the more it impacts on our ability to think straight.
Think of a real problem
Think of a solution
Act upon the solution
When we ruminate, we repeat and don’t get to an end point
Think of a problem
Worry about the problem
Think about the problem some more
Worry about the problem some more
Repeat on and on and on and on and on and…. you get the idea.
The more we ruminate, the more habitual it becomes. When negative rumination gets a grip, it can lead to unhelpful behaviours such as self-isolation, heavy drinking, self-harm, comfort eating, etc.
What can be done about rumination?
Try to be more aware of your thoughts processes
“I don’t need to go over these thoughts right over and over again right now, I can think about my options when I am in a more positive mood”
“I can’t stop my thoughts but I can choose not have ruminations right now”
Do something that will take your attention away from your thoughts
“What can I do now that will make me feel better?”
“Is there someone I can talk to to help me problem solve?”
“Instead of focusing on the negatives, is there something else that I can take notice of?”
Taking notice can be in many forms. It can include meditation, mindfulness, and there are plenty of apps that can help you with that. ORCHA is an organisation that reviews health based apps including ones for mindfulness, on the basis of how effective they are. To see some of the apps they recommend, click here. If you are a campus based student at the University of Cumbria, there are mindfulness sessions available at various times of the year, some of which are free to attend.
Of course, at this time of year, there are so many little, but beautiful moments to cherish and take note of. The UK being a temperate climate, makes Autumn a particular good time to take notice. Take a look around outside, and focus on the changes.
This heightened awareness of what is going on around us, can enhance your self-understanding. Taking more notice in our lives doesn’t make our problems go away, but helps us to tune into what is important in our lives, or to give a break from rumination.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 haveI’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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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“.