We know how crucial looking after our mental health is, but do we always spot the warning signs in ourselves? Here are a few tips and tricks for keeping on top of our everyday worries, and a few words of advice for when it all gets a bit too much.
As a society, we’re becoming increasingly vocal about mental health. But when it comes to our own issues, it’s all too easy to be dismissive. We ignore small symptoms or worries in the hope that they’ll fix themselves, or we decide that other people have bigger problems. I’m not going to patronise you with the ‘you wouldn’t ignore a broken arm’ spiel: you’ve heard it all before. But still, stigmas persist and the first step is always acknowledging mental health problems when they arise. They’re normal, they’re common and they are very much valid.
You start university. Everything is new, everything is exciting. You’re living away from home, you’re constantly meeting new people, you’re partying more than is probably acceptable (not to brag: I’ve been to a party before). On top of that you’ve got unacceptable academic workloads, financial stress, ill-advised diet decisions (but chicken cottage is so near!) - it’s a melting pot of overwhelming experiences. University years can be the best years of our lives: as long as we remember to put ourselves, and our mental health, first.
I’m going to run through a few scenarios along with some strategies that you may find helpful.
1. You’re coasting along, adopting the ‘everything is fine’ approach, and suddenly you’re crying on the tube over some smudged nail polish.
(These scenarios may or may not be based on fact).
Talk to people if you can - the more you normalise these conversations, the less they will feel abnormal or embarrassing. You don’t need to mock yourself for feeling this way. If your friends are aware that you’re struggling, you’ll hopefully be able to mention it casually if you need help or reassurance. No drama. I promise - you’ll be surprised at how many people can relate to your problems. Talking to your friends might help them through their next tube breakdown, too.
2. You’ve identified that there’s a problem. You’ve spoken to some friends about it tearfully in the smoking area, after seven shots of tequila. You’re reluctant to speak to a health professional because that’s terrifying.
Don’t just rely on the love and support of your drunken friends, however valuable it may be. Take small steps. You can request help anonymously through your university or the NHS website. There's tonnes of advice available online if you’re not ready to talk face-to-face, and charities you can call if you’d like to chat to someone anonymously. If you can, talk to your GP or counselling services - there’s no obligation to sign up for or agree to anything immediately. An initial consultation could be all you need for some general reassurance.
3. Your doctor or the NHS website recommends therapy and/or medication. These immediately conjure up images of troubled teens on American sitcoms and seem way too drastic for you.
Try to dissolve the stigma around words like ‘therapy’ or ‘medication’. These work for lots of people and they’re not abnormal or shameful. It’s often a trial and error process. There are so many different types of medication and therapy available. If one doesn’t work, another might! Don’t be afraid to ask questions and research what other people have found helpful. People say that finding the right therapist is like dating: you might have to kiss a few frogs.
4. You have a to-do list longer than the queue outside The Breakfast Club at 11am on a Sunday. Small things are stressing you out: your thoughts are often negative. You’re mainlining caffeine and staying up late to fit everything in.
Practice self-care. These things seem obvious, but it’s worth keeping a checklist of things that calm you down: chill with friends, do a bit of exercise, try some meditation (apps like Headspace and Calm make this really easy, and are often free for students). Try to maintain a balanced diet, cut down on binge drinking (and probably caffeine), but don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Self-care doesn’t need to be another chore to stress about! Treat yo' self to a candlelit bath every once in a while.
While you’re at it, put down your phone. Social media can put pressure on us to live a certain way or compare ourselves to others, and taking a break from this can be invaluable. Turning off notifications and unfollowing anyone that makes you feel negative could make a huge difference to your go-to thought patterns.
5. You’re doing as the doctor told you to. You’re taking medication, or you tried a few therapy sessions. It’s not working. But surely they know what’s best for you?
Your health, your choices: even if you try medication or therapy, you’re under no obligation to continue. Doctors or health professionals can be a great help, but they don’t know how you’re feeling or how your body is reacting. Talk to people about what seems to be working or not working, and do whatever makes you most happy. Even if that means unfollowing your high school friends or cancelling social plans to binge watch Julia Roberts rom-coms.
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