Wellbeing and Mindfulness Virtual Drop-in

Fridays 4:00 to 5:00 pm online, live via ‘Teams‘ – Starting on 25.9.20

We live in stressful times. There is just so much in the news and social media to cause us to worry. And then there are the stresses and strains of everyday living. University life is an exciting and positive time, and it comes with the challenges of a significant life transition, and academic work as well!

Here’s a fun and relaxing way to increase wellbeing and feelings of calm. Build skills to handle stress and improve mood.

Would you like to increase your coping skills? Is there a way to increase wellbeing and resilience? Here’s your chance to be kind to yourself and to create a nurturing space for yourself. We can’t ‘magic away’ the struggles of everyday life, but we can increase our ability to cope, and strength to face our challenges.

These sessions aim to introduce you to practical, easy to use, skills that can help to enhance your physical and mental wellbeing, and increase your ability to handle stress and manage difficult emotions.

The sessions offer ‘wellbeing hacks’ drawn from a wide range of sources – Movement & Yoga, Mindfulness, Breathwork, Compassionate Mind, CBT, Polyvagal Theory, EFT, Guided Imagery and the NHS Five Ways to Wellbeing:

  • Breathing and focusing techniques to help calm and centre
  • Simple mindfulness meditation practices to focus and quiet the mind
  • Visualisation techniques to increase feelings of wellbeing
  • Movement and postures that can settle emotions, and help us to feel more grounded
  • Learn how self-compassion and self-acceptance can be a key to wellbeing
  • Improve your memory, concentration and cognitive functioning
  • You will be offered resources to take away and practice to help strengthen these skills.

To sign up, just email me on Shehzad.Malik@Cumbria.ac.uk and I will send you the ‘Teams’ link to join.

Wellbeing tips, by students for students

Back in March as part of University Mental Health day we asked students to tell us their Mental Health and Wellbeing tips.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to share their thoughts. We had lots of really good ideas and wanted to share your wisdom with other students, in your words (in a few places we’ve added a comment or a link). Here is what you told us:

Student tips on wellbeing included getting out for some exercise and fresh air

Self-care

  • Enjoy the little things
  • Take time for yourself, even when you “don’t have time”
  • Set aside some time in your day to do something for yourself that makes you happy… take the time to recharge your batteries and clear you mind for the next day
  • Make time for things you love
  • Look after yourself and give yourself time
  • Watch you fave Netflix show
  • Make sure you always speak out if needed
  • Take a nice relaxing bath, (or shower if no bath available)
  • Selfcare Sundays
  • You are the number one priority! Put yourself first and worry about others later, self-care before anyone else
  • Listen to music and relax (here’s a breathing exercise to do just that, from my colleague Pat Redfern)

The company of friends, it’s good to talk

  • The most important thing is to talk to a family member or trusted friend about what’s worrying you. Let them hug you and give you a shoulder to cry on
  • Spend time with people you love! (You’d be surprised how much evidence there is that kindness is good for us!)
  • Talking to people always helps
  • Keep very social with your friends so you’re never lonely
  • I walk my dog, and talk to family and friends about my worries
  • Talk about it, have a cup of tea and a nice chat (with biscuits)
  • Do things that make you happy and spend time with people that are supportive
  • Make sure you always have a date with a friend booked in the diary!
  • Having a good balance between finding time for yourself, and socialising with peers and friends
  • No topic is taboo, even if it is hard, talk as much as you can about your mental health
  • Be around people who care and they will help bounce you out of any bad feelings/moods
  • Just talk about it, people will listen and it’s a weight of your chest
  • Do not keep toxic people in your life, even if they are on your course

Mind your thinking, and learn to meditate

  • Take every day as it comes. If you’ve got things on your mind, switch off at night, write them down and put them aside, come back to them when the time is right. Don’t overthink every little thing, it will seem worse and spiral out of control
  • Practice mindfulness as a normal thing (Excellent idea! As well as lots of other benefits, mindfulness has been shown to help develop skills in stepping back from rumination (negative-overthinking) here’s a practice to get you started)
  • Think of a positive thing you’ve done today, even something small counts
  • Download the ‘headspace’ app. Take advantage of the sleep music and exercises
  • Accept yourself, there is only one of you

Small steps and a good balance

  • Start writing, rather than facing assignments as whole, less stressful, less full on
  • Get organised, and reward yourself with each step (this fits very nicely with suggestions in our procrastination blog)
  • Make sure you plan time well, so that you make time to step back and take time for yourself
  • Social life and studying should be evenly split
  • Take deep breath, get a cup of tea and make a plan, and start again

Get out in in the fresh air

  • Get some activities that are not to do with the university, like walking through the park or going to a place that calms you
  • Go for a walk whatever the weather!
  • Go for a nice walk
  • Walking with headphones
  • If you can take a break and get outside, even just 5 or 10 minutes away from a screen, getting some fresh air can clear a foggy mind
  • Spend time outdoors in nature
  • Go to the hills

Sleep well

  • Make sure you get enough sleep. Have a good regular amount of sleep
  • Give yourself time to relax and do a self-care routine, e.g. bath, read a book, pamper yourself
  • Have 20 minutes off your phone before bed every evening to help sleep. Try reading, drawing, knitting, sewing, talking to friend or yoga instead (yes definitely better than too much screen time)
  • Use headspace stories to fall asleep

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.

Breathe

During the current lockdown there is a lot of good advice out there. Our contribution here is just a small practical thing that you can do to help reduce stress and increase wellbeing. There is strong evidence that stress levels can have a significant impact on our immune functioning.

This is a short guided meditation. The visual element is just to add flavour, it is OK to close your eyes during the practice, if you like. At just under 8 minutes you can pop this on anytime you have a bit of time to spare.

Mindfulness isn’t the same as relaxation, but is a very good way of building wellbeing if practiced for a time. A very common misunderstanding is to expect to have an ‘empty mind’ or feel more relaxed (which may or may not happen). So if there is agitation or lots going through the mind, then there is no need to suppress anything, just observe what’s there.

Meditation is not first aid for anxiety. It can be very helpful in managing anxiety (and other 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, 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).

What to expect when you refer to the University of Cumbria’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Team

Sometimes we need some sunshine that clears the mist and helps us to see our way ahead more clearly

If you find yourself struggling to cope then there are a range of support services at the UoC. Of course reaching out to family and friends is usually a good idea as well. Even though you might not want to worry them, just think how you would want to help them if they faced a similar situation.

This blog has lots of information and tips on looking after yourself and improving your wellbeing, just take a look at the tags for the various topics. And we have also produced a list of self-help resources. If you’ve got to a point where you think you need professional advice and support then you need to know that UoC has a Mental Health and Wellbeing Team.

The Mental Health and Wellbeing Team had 600+ students make contact with us in the 2018-19; wanting help for a whole range of difficulties. These included low mood and depression, anxiety, panic and stress, relationship difficulties (with family, friends, colleagues, housemates, partners, etc.), current or historical abuse (sexual, physical, emotional), bereavement, homesickness, self-harm, drinking too much alcohol, eating problems, sleep problems, and a range of other emotional difficulties.

The team has practitioners from a range of professional backgrounds, with a wide range of therapeutic training, interests and experience. This includes Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Person Centred Counselling, Integrative Counselling, Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Mindfulness Based Counselling, Solution Focused Therapy, Advocacy and Motivational Interviewing. 94% of students who have used our service would recommend it to a friend

You can access our service if you are registered with a programme of study at the University of Cumbria by completing this self-referral form, which should only take you about 10 minutes. (If you are studying on a programme at a partner organisation of the University of Cumbria, you will need to access the support services at that organisation). Filling in the form with as much information about you and your present situation as you can, will give the team a good starting point to help you work through your difficulties. The details you put on the form will only be available to the Mental Health and Wellbeing Team (unless you ask us to share it with others, for example your GP, or it is required by law – please speak to us if you have any concerns about this).

We will then get in touch to arrange a therapeutic consultation with one of our practitioners. Your appointment will come via the email address that you provide in the online form, so do check this regularly. To ensure the message gets to you rather than getting filtered as spam, please remember to check your spam/junk mail folder as well.

Please respond to the message by accepting the appointment date and time (or requesting to reschedule, if you can’t make the one offered). Please note that we will usually close a file if the student does not respond or not show up for their appointment, and in that case you will need to re-refer yourself.

At our first (therapeutic consultation) meeting we will try to make you feel as comfortable as possible, so that you can let us know the situation you’re struggling with. We will advise you on the limitations of the service, including the limitations of confidentiality. It will be an opportunity for you to ask any questions you may have of the services we provide. We will then suggest things that you could do to help, provide information about resources and other services that might be appropriate, and decide what else might be needed from our service.

It might be that a single session is all that is needed for you to begin to resolve your situation. Or one of our wellbeing courses might be the most appropriate thing to do. Or referred to other services within the University, or referred to specialist services external to the University. Or it might be that further 1 to 1 work is needed.

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.