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Mental Health Tips for Your First Year at University

Going to university for the first time can be very stressful. Creating your own timetables, forcing yourself to be responsible and actually attend lectures and moving away from home to live in students halls. Suddenly, you are the only one responsible for your  education, what you eat, your sleeping schedule, and the way you spend your time. For many new students, this is very overwhelming, especially for those who are already dealing with mental illnesses. 

I went to university in the Netherlands, and then I spent my second first year at a different university in the U.K.. My second time going to university in the U.K. was noticeably less stressful. In this post, I have compiled the best tips that I used to make my first year at university in the U.K. a success, with regards to my mental health and productivity.

 Tell your personal tutor

Before your first day you will likely be assigned a personal tutor. Your personal tutor can help point you to resources, help you reflect on your progress, and will likely offer you periodical pastoral support. If you have any (mental) conditions that might impact your studies, it can be really helpful for you if your personal tutor knows about it as they can provide you with guidance and support. For your own sense of safety and comfort at school, it can be good to know that someone else knows what it is exactly that you are going through or are  worried about.

Ask for help

Many universities have excellent resources for students who are dealing with stress, mental illnesses, home sickness and much more. Make sure you know beforehand what kind of support your university offers and who you need to contact to make use of that support. It can be difficult to sort all of that out when you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, or depressed. Look on your university’s website, ask during the welcome week, or ask your personal tutor for this information. Write it down and store it somewhere that is convenient for you. That way, you know where to go when the going gets tough.

Don’t procrastinate

So, I procrastinate a lot. I have been procrastinating writing this very post. And it has been mildly stressful. When you procrastinate writing an important essay or studying for an exam, the thought of getting started can eat you up. During my first year at my university in the U.K. I did not procrastinate. When I got homework I did it right away, and all of my essays were handed in at least a week before the due date.  This was the least stressful school year I have ever had. Try it, trust me. Finishing your assignments on time will save you a lot of stress and make your school year more fun. After all, a party is way more enjoyable when you know you actually have time for it. 

Find a buddy

Last school year was the first time I have ever lived on my own. My family and friends were in an entirely different country. Needless to say my room was an absolute mess and I only ate food that took a maximum of five minutes to ‘cook’  in the microwave. Luckily, my neighbor had a terrible sleeping and eating schedule. We started making deals: she would only come over to my room if I cleaned it and we sent each other photos of our dinners to prove we weren’t eating the same thing as yesterday, etc. Having a buddy (or an accountability partner) makes living on your own easier. You know you have to eat right, sleep at normal hours, keep your room clean, get to class on time. Though it can be hard to stick to it when, for the first time in your life, nobody is paying attention to the way you live and spend your time. So get someone who does. 

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a technique that involves focusing on your awareness and accepting your feelings and thoughts. It really helps me to practice mindfulness when I am stressing over an assignment I still have to do. There are many mindfulness exercises that you can find online. My favourites include becoming aware of my breathing where I notice the way I am breathing without changing it, and an exercise with tea bags. I collect different flavours of tea and remove the labels. I then smell each bag and try to figure out which bag is which flavour. Mindfulness brings your thoughts to the present. While you are practicing mindfulness you don’t need to worry about anything else. It helps bring peace to a chaotic environment or situation.

Breathing

Breathing techniques are a great way to calm yourself down without drawing attention to yourself or your mood. I find them very effective at quickly decreasing stress, and I like to practice them anywhere, even in class. My favourites are the ocean technique and the 4-5-7. For the ocean breathing technique: place your hand upright in front of your mouth, the way you hold it if you want to check how your breath smells. Breathe on your hand as if you were fogging up a window. Now do the same thing, but with your mouth closed. The name comes from the sound you make, which resembles that of the ocean, when you breathe this way. The ocean breathing technique lowers your levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. I find it helpful to always start with my hand up and my mouth open before I close my mouth, but if you’ve got the hang of this technique you don’t need to do that. The 4-5-7 technique is easier. Breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold for five seconds, and breathe out through your mouth for seven seconds. As your breathing becomes slower and deeper, you can breathe in and out, and hold for longer. So go up to 5-6-8, then 6-7-10. There are a lot more breathing exercises to be found online.

Extra-curricular

When I think back to my first year at university in the Netherlands, I mostly remember the stress I felt, which was pretty much  all of the time. When I think back to my first year at university in the U.K., there are some moments when I was stressed, but I mainly remember the fun things that I did. I went to cooking classes, a society, church, yoga classes. It can be hard to find a balance between having fun and getting your school work finished, but if you don’t procrastinate you can fully enjoy the activities that your school offers. Your time at university is the time in which you grow and develop as a person. You experiment, step out of your comfort zone and experience what you like and don’t like. Your academic achievements are vital (it’s technically why you came to university), but there is so much more to experience than that. If you manage your time well, you can get good grades and enjoy yourself worry-free. 

Gratitude

Practicing gratitude is a great way to stay positive. At the end of each day, just before I sleep, I like to write down three things that I was grateful for that day in a journal. However there are other gratitude exercises. Find out what works for you. When you practice gratitude every day, you’ll notice you appreciate the little things much more. You know you have to write something down at the end of the day, so when you notice that you are grateful for something, you try to remember it so you can write it down later. 

Support network

Make sure you have a support network. Before the start of my first year I wrote down all of the people in my support network, that is, all of the people who could support or help me in any way if I needed it. It includes my family, friends, flatmates (which became more specific after I got to know my flatmates), professors, personal tutor, the coordinator of the student halls etc. Your support network is bigger than you think. So write down who can give you

  1. Emotional support
  2. Academic support
  3. Help you settle disputes with your flatmates
  4. Repair anything that you may have broken in your flat
  5. Anything else you might need

Don’t be afraid to cry

Finally, going to university for the first time can be tough for a lot of students. I have seen most of my flatmates (including myself) crying in the first week. It’s hard to live on your own and to suddenly be an adult. It’s hard to be away from your family and friends, and to be surrounded by people you don’t know. Call your parents or your friends, have a good cry about it, and keep at it. It will get better. Crying or breaking down are not signs of failing or weakness.

As long as you don’t give up you’re still winning.

Written by Merel Melchers

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