Hear from our Wellbeing Intern, Sarah Holt, on her personal experience with mental health as a student and the coping strategies she’s found helps her throughout the day.
The next few weeks may leave a lot of us feeling apprehensive; to how we’ll manage another day in lockdown, complete assignments and stay calm. It’s been four years since my mental health diagnosis and since then, I feel as though I have become a lot better at recognising how I’m feeling and regularly putting different coping mechanisms into practice. In this article, I wanted to share some of the different feelings I experience throughout the day and what coping strategies I use to manage them.
Low motivation and fatigue can make it difficult to wake up on any normal day, but at the moment I’m finding it even harder to get out of bed and start the day. It’s not only cold and dark outside, but my normal routine has been disrupted, making it difficult for me to stay motivated.
To help with this, I’ve started making the mornings all about me. I do this by planning something nice I’d like to do for myself the night before. This could be making a nice breakfast, listening to my favourite playlist in the shower, or making a hot drink and getting back into bed. By giving myself this time to enjoy myself without guilt or expectation, it makes the day less daunting and usually helps to improve my mood too.
I try to stay away from making daily to-do lists, especially around assignments or work-related tasks. Some days I’m more productive than others, and I’ve found that writing down everything I need to do can add to the intense pressure that I often put on myself to get everything done. If I fail to reach these unrealistic targets I’ve set for myself that morning, it can leave me feeling deflated and less confident in my ability to complete my tasks all together.
Instead, when I sit down at my workspace, I fill my to-do list with really simple tasks I’ve already achieved like waking up, having breakfast and getting dressed. This way, I am reminded of what I have already accomplished that day, and this puts me in a better headspace to complete my other tasks. It’s also a good reminder to celebrate the small wins that no one else may think are impressive, but I do, as I know how difficult it can be to get even the smallest of tasks done on really tough days.
Some days, I really dread tasks that require intense concentration. I don’t like giving myself too much silence to overthink and overcomplicate things. As a result, I usually feel an urge to overstimulate my brain with lots of noise and distraction, making it even harder to get things done.
For days like this, I’ve found it really helpful to find playlists that help with concentration. My favourite includes Hans Zimmer (The Crown Season 1 and 2 soundtracks), classical music (Bridgerton Vitamin String Quartet covers) or simply just White Noise. These playlists encourage concentration, while providing enough stimulation that I feel comforted while working.
It can be frustrating when I write essays or assignments and I struggle to articulate my main points. Sometimes my brain can feel foggy and it seems as though there is a block between my brain and fingers, and this block gets bigger and bigger the more stressed or worried I feel, especially when I’m working to a deadline.
For times like this, I record a voice memo of myself trying to explain my points out loud, or I send a voice note to a friend. This usually helps me to understand my argument better, as I feel like in my head about how I sound on paper and can focus more on what it is that I’m trying to say.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become better at noticing when I need to take a break. This is usually different for every person, but for a long time, I felt defeated that I usually need to take breaks more frequently than others do. However, I now realised that we all work differently, and taking a break is not a bad reflection of me or my worth.
I know I need a break when my eyes can feel dry or tired from looking at a screen, or I start to feel uncomfortable where I’m sitting, or the work itself stops making sense. It’s important to regularly check in with yourself and your body, to assess how it is your feeling and where to go from here.
During my lunch break, I try to get outside if I can. Walking is a great way to release some anxious energy, and fresh air always helps me clear my head. If the weather is against me, I’ll try opening a window and taking a few deep breaths to let my body know it’s time for a break. Then, I’ll usually distract myself with other tasks that aren’t work related, like cooking, listening to a podcast, or phoning a friend.
Battling negative self-talk is most often the hardest part of my day. This negativity can make me feel demotivated and incapable of doing anything. It’s taken me a really long time to acknowledge that this negative self-talk is not an accurate reflection of me or my capabilities. Don’t feel guilty if this negative self-talk knocks you sideways and makes it difficult to carry on, they do the same to me sometimes too. Rather than engaging with it, I remind myself that I am trying, I am doing my best and that is enough.
On really anxious days, I have a few grounding techniques that I like to use on the senses around me. The first is square breathing. I do this by following the square outline of a wall in front of me. I breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and out for four seconds. Using the outline of the wall is a great visual reminder that I am safe where I am, and this helps me to calm me down.
Having said this, there are times when I find it really difficult to regulate my breathing and take deep breaths. The more I concentrate on doing it, the harder I find it is to do. For days like this, I place my hands on a surface nearby. This could be a desk, or if I’m outside I’ll concentrate on my feet being on ground. I focus intensively on this sensation and what it feels like. From doing this, my body is physically reminded that we are grounded in this moment and this distraction helps my breathing regulate itself.
If it gets to this point in the day, and I haven’t been able to improve my mood or release anxious tension on my own, I always like to tell someone how I am feeling. I either text a friend or someone I’m close with and tell them that I don’t feel too great today. Opening up with someone is an important form of release that may not come naturally to some of you, but the more we reach out to others the easier it gets. This is a regular habit that I have tried to get into, but it can be one of the most challenging.
You can check in with a trained counsellor on the Health Assured Helpline or App. Helplines and mental health services are an outlet for anyone who feels like they have something to get off their chest – don’t be afraid to use them.
I try to make the evenings all about relaxation when I can. This helps me to regulate my sleep pattern and also gives me space to acknowledge and celebrate how well I’ve done to get through the day. Unwinding in the same space you’ve been working all day is a challenging task, to help with this I like to transform my room into a different space by changing the lighting and using a candle or a diffuser to change the atmosphere. This lets my brain know that this is now a space to relax and unwind in.
After making an effort to unwind, this is usually when all the ideas I’ve been struggling with all day, finally click into place.
For moments like this, I’ve started keeping a notebook by my bed. If I have an idea, I write it down in the dark as this allows me to release these thoughts and know that they’ll be there for me in the morning. Having a notebook is also good for when my mind starts to overthink, as I have an outlet right by my bed to release these thoughts and then switch off.
For help, advice or support please email the Student Wellbeing team at email@example.com, or for mental health and wellbeing support from trained counsellors and advisors, please call 0800 028 3766 or download the My Healthy Advantage App.