Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Why It's OK To Not Go Clubbing At Uni

Worrying about the pressure to go out at uni? You should just focus on doing what you enjoy, says Ruby.
- Ruby Ellis

We know all too well that university brings with it a lot of pressures, such as homesickness, independent learning, and of course a sudden increase in workload. But there was one that I wasn’t really expecting and the one that hit me the hardest: the pressure to go out.

Having struggled with anxiety in the past, clubs are one place that I find it difficult to cope. One of my symptoms before a panic attack is that my senses get really heightened. Loud music, flashing lights and being pressed up against random strangers can make it an intense and frightening experience that for me is sure to set off feelings of nausea and hyperventilation. The answer to this seems obvious: why don’t you just not go clubbing? And why do I still find myself going out every so often, knowing I will hate it and usually ending up walking back in the dark alone because I panicked in the club and had to run out as fast as I could?

I don’t mind drinking. In fact, I really enjoy a glass of wine after a long day. But excessive drinking, the feeling of not being in control and of course the hangover the next day is not my idea of fun. Yet drinking and going out is so deeply ingrained into university culture I felt like I had to force myself to go out. Freshers’ week was awful for me. I started off almost enjoying myself, but was so physically and mentally exhausted by the end of each night from trying to control my symptoms that by the end of the week I couldn’t cope anymore and was an anxious, homesick mess. I felt like a failure because I hadn’t gone out and met loads of new people, which is what I was told Freshers’ was all about. I felt like I had missed the prime opportunity to make friends and I had essentially failed. I thought I was the odd one out and was never going to make any meaningful friendships. I also thought that everyone was going to think I was the boring girl who never went out.

Thankfully, the reality couldn’t be any further from that. Through my course and other activities, I have met loads of people who I don’t have to go out to bond with. Sure, some of them do enjoy clubbing but I’m under no obligation to join them, and we can hang out in other ways like film nights and going out for food instead. And even those who were out every night at Freshers’ have revealed to me that they don’t think clubbing is all that, and they were just faced with the same pressure to go out as I was. You may come across the odd person who thinks that you are “boring” if you don’t go out, but you must ask yourself, are they really all that fun if the only way they can enjoy themselves is by drinking themselves into oblivion?

Clubbing is a big part of university culture, there’s no denying it. But the great thing that I have learned is that it is not the only part of it. You will meet people from all over the country and even the world who have different interests, and there are so many opportunities available to you. Now is the time to learn a new skill, pick up a new sport or hobby and explore your interests. I started to learn yoga, which is now my go-to if I’m feeling low; it makes me feel amazing. Most importantly, you are here to get a degree, to learn and to grow as a person. If you are feeling isolated because you don’t enjoy going out, just know you are not alone and there are people who feel the exact same as you, but they are just not speaking out about it; but most importantly that does not make you any less of a person than anyone else. Embrace it and start filling your time with things you truly enjoy.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

That First Appointment

Kate tells the story of the GP appointment which set her on the road to recovery.
- Kate Dickinson

I sat, quietly shaking at the centre of the busy GP waiting room. There was a baby in a pram to my left, a man with what seemed to be a rather severe cold to my right, and a mother trying (but failing) to control her three small children sat opposite me. It was as bad as being at a party, in a new place, knowing no one around me, completely out of my depth and feeling thoroughly awkward. There were enough people there to have populated a party as well, and very much like the few house parties I'd grudgingly attended in my first two months of university, I had arrived unfashionably late and been left with the choice of either taking the only remaining seat, located at the centre of the room, or standing. Reluctantly I took the seat, where I waited anxiously for my appointment.

My appointment time came and passed, but still I was left waiting, the anxiety building. Each time the speakers clicked into action I braced, as though hearing my name being called would be painful. It wasn't – just terrifying. "Kathryn Dickins, Ystafell Tri, Room Three" came the kind-sounding voice of a lady (oh, can you tell I went to university in Wales?).

Terror bubbled inside me as I got up and walked across the room, through the foyer and down the corridor, locating room three halfway along on the left. I knocked. The same kind-sounding voice from the speakers answered, and I went in.

"So, how can I help you today?"

I had perched myself awkwardly on the chair next to her desk, having quickly decided that taking the seat closer to the door would probably be considered strange, if more comfortable. I stared down at my lap, trying to force the words out that would neatly answer her question, but nothing. A solid minute must have ticked by, though it felt much longer, and I could see her becoming irritated by the silence. Appointments are only 10 minutes and I had already wasted 10% of that. I had foreseen this happening though and, finally conceding that on this occasion my words were unlikely to appear, I reached into my pocket for a pre-prepared notebook that I duly passed across, before receding back into myself again. I fidgeted as she read:

'I took an overdose last week.
I went to the hospital and I'm fine.
They told me that I'm probably depressed and should go to my GP about getting antidepressants.'

Silence. I peeked up. My GP's confused look that had emerged when I had produced the notebook suddenly turned to one of understanding. It was from that moment that I felt safe with her. I had been utterly petrified before this point, but she was so sympathetic, so caring and kind. In a moment and a few words I felt almost comfortable and slightly hopeful.

I hadn't been to the GP about my mental health in over a year and back then I hadn't felt any benefit in having gone. But this time, I felt it immediately. I had found a person who could see my pain and my suffering, and was, in an instant, committed to helping me get through it. I wasn't alone anymore. For the first time in years I felt as though someone truly understood me, understood my problems and, most importantly, was going to help.

A single consultation, that lasted far longer than my allotted 10 minutes, had given me hope. Having only days before believed that life was no longer worth living, I now felt as though it just might be. Little did I know at the time that my path through treatment and recovery would not be a simple one, but that does not in any way negate how beneficial and life transforming that first, most difficult, appointment was.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Coping with Loneliness at University

Lottie gives her top tips for those struggling with feelings of loneliness or homesickness during their studies.
- Lottie Thomas

Everyone becomes lonely or homesick at uni at least once, and most try to struggle through it because they think they are the only one. Coming back from a long break like Christmas can make returning to uni tough. So, here are my top tips for coping with those feelings of homesickness:

Start the day and take it one day at a time
When you wake up in the morning it can sometimes seem impossible to get out of bed and face the world, but the best thing you can do is just start the day. I used to find setting an alarm (not too early!) would really help me to do this. Getting up and jumping in the shower freshens up your mindset and washes away that groggy sleepy feeling. Teaching yourself to not think too far ahead and just focus on the day in hand is an important part of keeping those feelings at bay.

Treat yourself
Working yourself into the ground can make you feel even worse, so take time out of your studies to do something you really enjoy. Watch a film, bake a cake or just chill out and listen to some music. It’s really important to take the pressure off and allow yourself some time to yourself, or with friends. You deserve a reward for persevering when times are tough!
Tell people close to you
An important factor for me was telling my housemates how I was feeling. Although not everyone will feel comfortable doing this, it’s a good idea to tell someone just so you don’t feel like you’re suffering in silence. Once I told my housemates, they even shared the occasions that they struggled, and it made me feel less lonely. Just knowing that it’s on their radar is comforting, as you don’t have to explain why you might be quiet sometimes, and they might be able to help.

Allow yourself a bit of home
Buy your favourite food you only get at home or bring photographs to put up in your room. Don’t completely disconnect from home – it’s still where you spent most of your time before coming to uni. Get someone from home to send you something occasionally; my grandparents used to send me chocolate in the post sometimes which always put a smile on my face because I knew they were thinking about me.

Exercise/get outside
It is well known that exercise releases that concoction of endorphins or ‘happy hormones’, but sometimes a hard workout isn’t for everyone. I recommend getting outdoors in the fresh air and reminding yourself that the world holds so many possibilities. There’s adventure out there for everyone – you just have to find it.

Nothing lasts forever
It may not feel like it at the time but these feelings won’t last forever. Things are constantly changing, and as long as you keep this in mind you’ll be fine. If you find these feelings are continuing for long periods of time, and especially if you think they are affecting your studies, don’t hesitate to contact the support services at your university. It may be something else that’s more serious than homesickness, so letting someone know is very important. Universities know that many of their students are living away from home for the first time and are equipped to deal with people struggling.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

I’ll be there for you: The Importance of Friendship and Support

Sarah writes about the struggles of being a supportive friend.

-Sarah Williams

We all have those moments in which we’re standing in front of the mirror, saying things to ourselves that we would never consider saying to anyone else, because it would hurt their feelings. So, why are we less considerate of our own mental health? Why are we so quick to put ourselves down. Sometimes so down that it’s becoming out of control. Mental health difficulties feed on silence. They grow when they are left in dark corners alone.

At primary school, we are taught the “Gold Rule”, which is to treat others the way we want to be treated. Children who grow up in healthy, functioning homes expect love and respect from their peers or, in other words, the same support and treatment that they received from family members. For a child who has not been exposed to this sort of behaviour, the “Golden Rule” might translate a bit more ambiguously. Once we develop our own individual identity, we also, unfortunately, develop doubt, jealousy, and insecurity, which ultimately leads to self-deprecation. As a person who has struggled with depression and has friends who have also battled with depression, schizophrenia and eating disorders, I’ve learned the true importance of maintaining and providing a strong support group.

A friend of mine, (let’s call her Alice) who began struggling with schizophrenia during University, spent hours trying to convince me of her delusions about her boyfriend. Without going into detail, I can assure that this was not typical paranoia we all experience in relationships. These were irrational hallucinations that were haunting her, keeping her up at night, and deteriorating her heath. I used to leave our sessions, and I only call them sessions because she had begun referring to me as her therapist, rather than her friend- she tried certified therapists but would often lie to them because they were strangers who had not won her trust like I had- but, I would go home feeling so emotionally drained, with a heaviness in my chest and a confusion as to what was even real anymore.

I’d become angry and resentful at her for bringing me down. Our friendship felt so one-sided; I was convinced that she didn’t even care about me. I don’t want to compare whose situation was heaviest as I cannot even try to imagine how it is to be that severely sick, but what I felt in this relationship was loneliness. But at the end of the day, Alice gave me purpose. I realised that as heavy as my burden felt, hers was even heavier, and if she needed me to carry some of her load, if that helped her in some way, I was willing to do it. Because at one time or another, I was all she had, and I couldn’t bear to think about the severity of her mental health difficulties had I not been around.

Give your brain the space and time to think about something else. For my friend learning to paint and getting involved into it with her whole heart had positive effects. The worst thing you could do to a person in need is to abandon or give up on them. And the worst thing you could do as a person in need is to use your illness to take advantage of your friends’ time and energy, or to get angry with them for not understanding the root of your illness.

If you’re struggling with mental health difficulties, it’s important to see your friends as regular people, not therapists, or super heroes. We are all the same. We all have pain, and we all need each other.

For more information on how to support a friend, you can find it here

Blank Space - New Years Resolutions

Caitlin talks about her decision to set realistic new years resolutions and her goal of improvement, rather than perfection

Not to worry, I’m not about to start singing Taylor Swift at you: my crippling social anxiety and lack of any real singing ability has well seen to that.

But I’ll have a blank space, in place of my usual New Year’s resolutions this New Year. I’m writing this on New Year’s Eve, and for quite a few years prior to this, I’d be spending this dead time leading up to the countdown writing an unachievable list of resolutions. Inevitably I would never reach these goals, and a year later I would end up feeling a bit useless, justifying to myself in my diaries why they hadn’t come about. (No, seriously.)

2016 has been one heck of a year for me. I passed my A-levels, with much better grades than I deserved, given the circumstances. I got my place at my dream university, to qualify for my dream job. I met some really, really good people.

Put like that, my year seems very rose tinted (at least in my eyes.) I’ve been through much more than these successes this year, and it would be easy for me to say that I want 2017 to be my clean slate; the new me. I’ve experienced my mental health at the lowest of the low. I was diagnosed with anxiety in May, but I recognised now that I suffered for perhaps two or three years prior to this. Christmas is meant to be a happy time, and I can’t deny that some happy times were had this year, the same as every year spent with my incredible family, but four days after Christmas this year, I started treatment for depression. A big, scary problem that I would much rather leave in 2016, although I know that this won’t happen. To quote John Green, “the world is not a wish-granting factory.”

In 2017, I don’t want a new me. I want to find a way forward, and if that way forward continues to be medicated then so be it. The way forward almost certainly includes accepting that I am sometimes not okay, and accepting that I am allowed to just say that I want to stop sometimes! I’d like the old me back, or at least the good bits, sparse as they may be. I’d like to read more, write more. See the good in the world a little more. Look for rainbows when it starts to rain, and other clich├ęd, happy things like that. I want to find the version of myself that took great pleasure in the little things: neat handwriting, highlighters and pretty notebooks.

This New Year’s Eve, there will be a figurative blank space where I could have written my resolutions for 2017. I don’t want to lose my labels, my metaphorical dragons of anxiety and depression: they are a part of me now. I don’t want to set out to create a new me, because sometimes, rather than reinventing oneself, to keep on keeping on is the bravest decision.

Monday, 20 February 2017

The pressure of first year having to be the “best” year of your life

Hope shares her top tips on how to battle your first year of University alongside recovering from an eating disorder.

When you hear about fresher’s week and the whole university experience it is named as the best years of your life. The pressure is on. You have to have an amazing time. Drink lots. Go out all the time. Make friends and look amazing 24/7… the list is endless but in reality is this the case? And what is it like if you have a mental health problem at university? Does that make you different?

I spent my last year at school living in an adolescent mental health hospital. That was not how I, as an 18-year-old sociable girl wanted to spend my life. I missed out on holidays, legal nights out with not having to sneak in to clubs and the upper sixth form experience. I got discharged a week before University term began having done my exams in hospital. I knew not everyone was happy with me heading straight to University but I knew I had to. One of my motivations to get well was to go to University. My anorexia had already caused me to miss out on so much so I didn’t want to miss out on anything else.

I was terrified about getting unwell again and maybe that fear is what kept me well. I knew I didn’t want to have to drop out of University so I kept fighting. I fought through those days when I wanted to give up, I found strength in surrounding myself with friends and I stayed strong. That might seem terrifying to you but it is so worth it. It wasn’t an easy ride that first year. There was the usual university pressure but add to that nights of feeling huge, the unpredictable meals out and the drinking. But I did it and I am so pleased that I did. I wanted to share with you some advice that kept me going and kept me well whilst at University.

Don’t be embarrassed about having a mental health problem - If you get the offer of support use it – in my first year, I was offered the chance to attend an outpatients eating disorder clinic. I chose not to. I felt like it was too much effort and I didn’t like the lady very much but because I didn’t use it, it meant I relied a lot more on my friends and family to support me. This worked for me as I was lucky they were all there for me but if it is offered try it and see if it works for you.

Have people accountable to talk to – I was very lucky as in my first week or so I told Emily and Nikki (my two new friends at University.) They were great and it has been good talking to them both looking back. Recently Emily commented on how much better I seemed and how proud she was of me. It meant so much to me and made me realise how lucky I was to have her as a friend. She put up with my funny eating habits and my rigid eating times. And she was there when I needed that little extra support to get food.

Be honest with yourself even if you can’t be with others – this is so hard I know that. And I still at times find it hard to be honest with myself but you have to be. If you are having a bad time, struggling to eat, exercising too much - challenge yourself. Yes, at first, it is scary coming out of that comfort zone but it is well worth it.

Don’t be afraid to go back to a rigid eating plan – when I was in hospital we stuck to a strict eating plan. This kept me well, helped me put on weight at university. And this was what I fell back on when things got tough. It doesn’t mean you have failed if you start eating easier foods again it just means you are finding new ways to fight it.

Try and think logically – I have very low self-esteem and spent much of university feeling huge. I would look in the mirror and see a fat whale like figure staring back at me. But in reality this wasn’t me. And you need to try and keep yourself in check. Try and ignore the voices that knock you down. They aren’t speaking the truth and surround yourself with people that value you. If you stick with it, it gets better and easier. I have far less fat days now than I used to and if I had let those days take control of me it would definitely not have been worth it.

Stay strong and keep talking – this is essential and I urge you to do this. Life is so much better when you fight your mental health problems and don’t let it suck you back in. I know from my experience with anorexia this can be hard but it is definitely worth it. Without anorexia in my life I have more energy, can have normal relationships, I can eat out more, I am so much more relaxed and I haven’t got this battle going on in my head constantly. Yes, it isn’t always easy but it is worth it.

For more information on understanding eating disorders, click here.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Equilibrium of Body and Mind

Leah provides some handy hints on keeping a healthy mind and body as a student 
 -Leah Brown

Being a student can be stressful at the best of times. With serious decisions around every corner and mountains of work to complete before deadlines, this time of your life is one of the hardest to keep healthy, both inside and out. It’s not always easy, so here are some simple ways you can help yourself to stay healthy and happy during these years. 

1. Stay Organised
This is something I learnt firsthand is tremendously underrated.  Keeping organised and on top of your schedule can help you remain calm about your tasks. It’s all too easy to bury your head in the sand when deadlines get closer and time seems in short supply. Keep notes, calendars, to-do lists, diaries, alarms and reminders. While it seems obvious, it’s something we often forget about and being organised relieves so much of the stress we students experience. 

2. Exercise
This is sometimes misinterpreted to mean that you have to visit the gym 2-3 times a week before you can reap any rewards. That’s a misconception - as a student I wasn’t into sports, but I did enjoy sticking my headphones in and going for a run or aerobics class where I could release the week’s built-up stress. Exercising in a fun way keeps you active while providing an endorphin rush that makes you feel great mentally. Don’t worry if you can’t afford a gym membership, there are lots of online stores that sell cheap equipment!

3. Meal Plan
I always found that having beans on toast or tinned soup for dinner made me feel unhappy and unsatisfied, but cooking meals every night took up too much time. The saviour of my beans on toast diet was to meal plan and cook in bulk! Healthy and hearty meals like chilli, Shepherd’s pie and curry can be made very cheaply. Plan out 3-4 dishes that are easy to cook, buy all the ingredients in one go, then spend a few evenings cooking in bulk. You can then portion up the rest to keep in the freezer so that you always have a healthy meal on hand. 

4. Don’t Sleep In
I know I know, it’s what being a student is about right? But while staying up until 6 in the morning and sleeping in until 12 sounds nice, it risks ruining your sleeping routine and ultimately impacting your mental performance. Sleeping through the day rarely provides the same quality of sleep as a nighttime snooze. Lack of sleep can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of worry and stress. Try setting yourself a semi-flexible bedtime Mondays-Fridays to give yourself a better routine. 

5. Drink Water. Lots of Water.
Did you know the majority of us don’t drink enough water? Staying hydrated can help fight tiredness and fatigue. Drinking water help your body function more effectively and benefits your overall mood and feeling of well-being. The link between stress and dehydration has been heavily reported on and is forgotten all too easily. As with everything, start small, trying to increase your water intake little by little each day.