It’s healthy and usual to feel a wide range of emotions: happiness, joy, sadness, anger and anxiety, to name but a few. These feelings only become a problem when they stop us doing what we want to, prevent us from achieving our aims and generally interfere in our lives. Our state of mind can be affected by all sorts of things including lifestyle, relationships, past experiences, biological and genetic factors. There are ways, however, we can look after ourselves and have a greater influence over our moods. So this leaflet is all about promoting positive mental health.
Ways to feeling great
Take up a new activity. Being at university provides the perfect opportunity to try out different activities and learn new skills. It’s possible to get involved in numerous different sport, musical and creative pursuits. So learn or try something new. Open yourself up to new experiences.
Keep things in proportion. Often it is our perspective and interpretation of a situation or event that most affects how we feel, rather than what has actually happened. It can be easy to get carried away with our thoughts; jumping to conclusions and imagining worst case scenarios. If you notice this happening, try asking yourself the following questions: Is there any evidence to support this thought? How important will this be in a year’s time? How would other people I know view this situation? Does it help me or hinder me to think in this way? What can I do to improve my situation? Consider keeping a diary. Writing can be helpful when coping with new experiences. Acknowledge your thoughts, feelings and reactions, and work out what might be helpful in the situation. Challenge negative thinking and try to think positively; consider how much your lifestyle affects your moods. Translate worries into concerns and then into a plan of action. Taking control can make you feel better. Remember how you have coped with difficult situations in the past.
Strike a balance. Although your studies are likely to be your priority, it is important to allow yourself time for enjoyment as well, as this will help minimise stress. Enjoyable activities may involve socialising with friends, listening to music or engaging in a hobby. Try to allow yourself an hour each day for having fun or being creative. Try to keep your sense of humour. Allow yourself to see the funny side in misunderstandings and embarrassments. Laughter heals!
Connect with others. Interact or have contact with someone else. Even a brief chat can lift your spirits. Make time for friends and family.
Help others. Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, as linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you.
Eat healthily. The food we eat can have a significant effect on how we feel. For a steady flow of energy during the day aim to: eat three regular meals, have five portions of a range of fruit and vegetables, minimise sugar, opt for wholemeal and whole grain carbohydrates where possible and drink plenty of water. Avoid too much of anything, especially alcohol or drugs. Alcohol is a depressant. Even a small amount of alcohol before bed stops us getting enough deep sleep.
Exercise frequently. Exercise not only helps improve physical health, it also lifts mood, lessens stress and anxiety, enhances sleep and gives us more energy. Exercising outdoors brings the additional benefit of fresh air and, often, proximity to nature. You can also include a social element by playing a team sport, or doing activities with others such as jogging with housemates. Get outside – blue skies can lead to blue-sky thinking, but any fresh air is a good idea!
Get sufficient sleep. Most people need approximately 6–8 hours of sleep per night to feel good and function to the best of their abilities. The student lifestyle can make it difficult to get an adequate amount of sleep, with the pressures of deadlines and exams, various social events and noise in shared accommodation. Try to stick to a routine as much as possible, going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time each day.
Finally: Increase how much you value yourself (your self-esteem). Learn to say ‘No’ when you mean ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ when you mean ’Yes’. A high self-esteem helps us get through our difficulties. A low sense of self-esteem can mean we feel helpless, powerless, angry and even depressed.
Managing time is a skill that can be learnt, so you needn’t panic! Read on for some useful tips on taking care of yourself and your workload. When struggling to balance all the different demands in your life, you may feel: irritable, stressed out, angry at yourself or others, guilty, lacking in confidence or belief in yourself, or even overwhelmed.
Tips to manage your time:
- Schedule tasks and prioritize your work – be realistic about what can be achieved. Plan ahead for any work that needs to be undertaken by timetabling it.
- Avoid procrastinating. Try not to leave assignments until the last minute. Try not to allow the work to build up.
- Set up deadlines. Have a goal – one that is achievable each week – and do your best to stick to it!
- Avoid too much multi-tasking.
- Learn to delegate (where you can). If you have family or support around – utilise it!
- Take some breaks, or reward your dedication in some other way – be kind to yourself
- Learn to say ‘No’ – be assertive
- Consider when and how you study best. Is it during the morning or evening? At University or at home? In quiet surroundings or with background music? Knowing more about which environment best suits you will help you to focus better.
- Plan time for each commitment in your life – this will help you to feel less guilty.
Relaxation is a natural and positive state which can counteract the effects of stress. When we are in a stressed state, our body will respond by releasing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare our body to respond to danger by increasing our breathing and heart-rate, and making other changes which help us to be alert and ready to respond quickly. Relaxation can bring our bodies back to their normal state by deepening our breathing, reducing stress hormones, slowing down our heart-rate and relaxing our muscles. As well as the positive physical effects of relaxation, it can also increase our energy and focus, help to combat illness, relieve aches and pains, heighten our problem-solving abilities, and boost motivation and productivity. While we won’t always be able to avoid stress, we can learn to mitigate the experience and symptoms of stress by practicing some effective relaxation techniques. There are lots of different techniques available to help us to achieve relaxation. There is no single technique that will suit everyone, so make sure you try one that you feel comfortable with and which feels best for you.
- Deep breathing for stress relief. With its focus on full, cleansing breaths, deep breathing is a simple yet powerful relaxation technique. It’s easy to learn, can be practiced almost anywhere, and provides a quick way to get your stress levels in check. Deep breathing is the cornerstone of many other relaxation practices too, and can be combined with other relaxing elements such as music. It is also an ideal way of beginning a longer relaxation session, which might incorporate progressive muscle relaxation or visualisation. The key to deep breathing is to breathe from the abdomen. For deep, abdominal breathing, the out-breath is as important as the in-breath. Slowing the breathing and using more of our lung capacity helps to restore the oxygen and carbon-dioxide balance which has been lost due to the rapid, shallow breathing associated with tension and anxiety. So the next time you feel stressed, it is worthwhile to take a minute to slow down and breathe deeply.
- Progressive muscle relaxation for stress relief: Progressive muscle relaxation is another effective and widely used strategy for stress relief. It involves a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body. With regular practice, progressive muscle relaxation helps you become familiar with what tension, as well as complete relaxation, feels like in different parts of the body. This awareness helps you spot and counteract the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies stress. You can combine deep breathing with progressive muscle relaxation for an additional level of relief from stress.
Where to get help
Student Counselling usually run relaxation and stress workshops. Please seek out the service for more information. If you stop being able to do normal social and academic things, seek help. Don’t wait until the problems have grown impossibly large! Sometimes simply talking through a problem can help you find a solution.