University is hard. Some people say that university constitutes some of the best years of your life, and as a worldly-wise 20-year-old, I’d be inclined to agree. But it’s also really fucking hard. First of all, if you’re going to uni, chances are you’ve moved away from home. So there’s that to get used to. Some, myself among them, find the newfound freedom and independence exhilarating. But there’s also that reality of no more home-cooked meals, no more cosy heated house in the winter, no Mummy and Daddy paying for your power and Internet, no fridge and pantry stocked with food you didn’t have to buy but can help yourself to whenever you like…
Then there’s the workload. In some ways, the university system was a relief after having to navigate the overcomplicated and often unnecessarily difficult NCEA system we have in high school here. Finally I’m receiving grades that actually tell me how well I’m doing (or not). Now I can understand what my assignments are asking me to do. Now I’m learning more than just how to memorize essays in order to regurgitate them come exams.
But it is a step up. At least in my area of study, university involves much fewer contact hours (lectures, tutorials, etc), and consequently demands a much greater volume of study outside of this time. Also: if you don’t go to class or do your assignments in high school, your teachers are gonna be right on your back about it. At uni, no-one gives a shit if you’re not there in your 9am Monday lecture, and no-one gives a shit if you don’t turn in an assignment on time. So you have to learn how to discipline yourself to do the study and go to the classes. And all this while learning how to cook, keep your living space semi-livable, and tiptoe through flat politics.
The point here is: everyone is going to find university hard at some point. Everyone is going to struggle. There’s a reason they don’t just give out degrees on the street. And it’s especially difficult when you’re battling a mental illness.
However, with the right regimen in place, it is more than just survivable. As the school year is getting underway, I thought there’d be no better time than to write this post. I’ve been at this uni game for a couple of years now, and I’m also a bona fide sufferer of an anxiety disorder. Over the last couple of years I’ve picked up a few habits that make full-time studying while living with anxiety completely doable. This is going to be geared towards others who suffer from anxiety disorders, but if you have another mental illness or you’re simply looking for ways to cope better at uni, hopefully you find some of these pointers helpful.
- Do things in advance. If you have anxiety, you’ll know what I mean when I say that deadlines and time limits can really make the bad feelings flare up. I’ve found that the best way to combat the anxiety that accompanies impending deadlines is to get onto things well in advance. This is a habit I got into last year and honestly, it’s made such a difference to me. I would always plan to have any particular assignment done at least a couple of days before the due date, so I had that little safety net of extra time in case something went horribly wrong (as I would constantly envision it doing). That safety bubble of time saved my ass on more than one occasion, and the rest of the time I turned in my assignments well before they were due, which I’d argue is not a bad way to be in the slightest.
- Keep a planner or a diary. I keep both a wall planner and a diary-style planner, and I find both are helpful for different reasons. The wall planner allows me to see my entire semester laid out, including due dates of assignments, as well as upcoming social events so I have time to plan my study around them. Keeping a diary with a week to a spread is useful for planning my weeks in greater detail, so that I keep on top of my study, social happenings, and general life stuff (i.e. groceries, remembering to do my washing before I run out of undies). I’ve kept a wall planner since first year, but adding in a diary this year has created a very effective combination for minimizing uni-related anxiety.
- Get enough sleep. This is a pretty new one for me. I started getting good and restful sleeps around the time the anti-depressants started working for me. Before that, I would quite often stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning studying (or worrying), and then wake up around 8, too anxious to stay asleep any longer. Surviving on 5 (restless) hours of sleep a night wears you down pretty quick. Nowadays I’m trying really hard to get to bed before midnight, and I have my alarm set for 7.30am every weekday. Some mornings it can be a challenge, but it’s worth it when I’m able to take advantage of the whole morning I’ve got ahead of me. I also try to shoot for 7+ hours of sleep a night, and I can definitely notice a difference in my concentration, energy levels, and overall mood throughout the day. It definitely makes getting through lectures, tutorials and study sessions a lot easier.
- Eat well. I mean, we’re students, right? Eating well is never going to be easy. We’re young, we’ve probably got the metabolism of the Gods, it’s so tempting just to binge on chicken nuggets and blocks of el cheapo chocolate. Plus, eating well is not always kind on the wallet. So I am by no means a poster girl of eating super healthy all the time. But this year, I’m making a definite effort to cut down on the amount of sugar and shitty fast foods I’m eating. I’ve noticed that, as amazing as junk food tastes at the time, it just makes me feel like shit afterwards. So I’ve been trying to avoid that as much as possible. Thanks in large parts to my mother, I have a comfortably full fruit bowl in my room, so I tend to snack on fruits a lot. Dried fruit is also really cheap at the supermarkets, which can make a nice alternative. And drink lots of water!
- Avoid too much caffeine. As a former caffeine addict who quit coffee in first year, I can tell you it feels so good not to have that dependency anymore. Caffeine is known to aggravate anxiety, especially in those with anxiety disorders, so (as backwards as it sounds) I strongly encourage you to cut back on your caffeine intake if you want to get the most out of university life. I no longer have any coffee or energy drinks. If you’re looking for something to perk you up when you’re feeling low, I can recommend Powerade, Berocca, green tea or a hot chocolate (try putting a sprinkling of chilli powder in to make it more fun).
- Don’t get sozzled. Everyone handles alcohol, drunkenness and the aftereffects of heavy drinking differently. But if you have anxiety, chances are getting wastey is only going to make you feel worse. As someone who learned this lesson the hard way: if you’re on anti-depressants, you shouldn’t be getting drunk, like, ever. In New Zealand at least, drinking culture is a huge part of being a student. But it’s important to put your recovery before anything else, and if the friends who want you to drink with them don’t understand that, take a minute to think about whether they’re actually your friends. Nowadays, I like to enjoy a glass of wine on an evening, and to have a drink or two socially, but never more than that. And it’ll stay that way at least until I’m off the meds.
- Make time to socialize. If you’re as committed to studying as I am, it can be hard to break the habit of staying in on the weekends to get work done. Obviously, making time for study is important and I’m not advocating blowing that off in favour of a raging social life. But amongst the stress of uni, it’s important to remember that your friends still exist, and that making time to hang with them is not only fun but healthy, and will do wonders for your emotional state. In other words: it’s okay to chill with the people you like.
- Don’t over-commit. This is a big one. While it’s not ideal to have too much free time on your hands, you don’t want to go too far in the other direction and have no free time at all. If you’re trying to focus on your recovery, over-committing is a recipe for disaster. Sometimes being Really Fucking Busy is impossible to avoid, especially as the semester winds up. But wherever you can, make sure you’re leaving yourself enough time to finish all your work and still have some downtime. Rest and relaxation is so important, and absolutely something you’re entitled to (in healthy measures, obviously).
- Build regular exercise into your schedule. If you read last week’s post, you’ll have seen that I’ve planned go to to the gym four times a week during the semester. Last week was my first attempt at keeping to this schedule, and it went very well. Walking uphill to uni after a morning workout was a little bit painful, but exercising every morning meant my body felt tired come evening, and I slept better as a result. When you’re a full-time student, there can be a tendency to feel mentally exhausted at the end of a long day of study. But sitting on your ass for, y’know, a good chunk of the day can mean that when it’s time to get some rest your body just doesn’t feel ready. I’m sleeping so much better for getting regular exercise, and finding I’m also more energetic and able to concentrate on my work for longer.
- Seek professional help. I feel incredibly lucky to be attending a university that offers free healthcare to students under 25. If you’re in a similar situation, I urge yourself to take advantage of whatever your university can offer you. I have a great doctor with student health, whom I meet up with often, and I’ve also just started counselling sessions through uni as well. We all need to ask for help sometimes, and there’s absolutely no shame in talking to a doctor or counsellor about options for managing your anxiety if you find you’re not coping on your own.
- Remember that you are in control. Sometimes when I’m feeling anxious about work or social commitments or whatever it happens to be, I find it helps to remind myself that I am in control of my life. Not my illness. My illness doesn’t get to control me, or dictate how I respond to situations. It used to, but with a good medication regimen and a healthier approach to life in development, I am on top of it most of the time. At the very worst, if I get into a situation that triggers my anxiety, I can get out of that situation whenever I want to. Remembering that helps me to stay strong.
I’d like to conclude by saying that I don’t always succeed in practising what I preach, and you won’t succeed in doing all of these things all of the time either. Why?
- We’re all inherently flawed
- Everyone makes mistakes
- The journey to self-betterment is a never-ending one (but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it; quite the opposite, in fact)
- Sometimes life gets in the way and we can’t always do the things we need to do or be the people we want to be, yano?
However, I am getting better at doing most of these things most of the time. And all I’m interested in doing is improving on that. I know I’ll never be 100% put-together all the time, but I’m one of those assholes (perfectionists), so that’s not going to stop me from trying. And I hope you don’t let it, or anything, stop you from making the changes you need in order to build and maintain a healthy life.
Having said that university is really hard, I want to add that it’s also really, really good. I get to study something I’m really passionate about, and develop my analytical, researching and writing skills in the process. I love being in an environment that actively promotes learning and critical thinking. I’ve met so many amazing people at university, and I’ve been so lucky to come to a city I love for my tertiary education – a city I now consider home.
Then there’s the fact that the student life can be pretty sweet. I have no dependents, no life partner, no parents in the immediate vicinity – just me. I’m only responsible for myself. And I have an enormous amount of freedom to be and do whatever I want.
A quick life update: this has been a really good week for me. It’s been long, busy, and stressful at times, but also fulfilling and just generally super great. I’m loving my courses this semester, especially early modern science. Best of all: I’ve felt barely any anxiety this week, and definitely not had any yucky attacks. Yay!
Finally, if you’ve got your own university survival tips you’d like to add to the list, please feel free to share them in a comment below.