How To Look After Your Mental And Physical Wellbeing At Uni

Looking After Your Mental And Physical Wellbeing At University

The mind and body are intrinsically connected; so if you feel off-balance in one, it will have an effect on the other. For example, if you are feeling stressed about a looming deadline, struggling with starting your essay writing or just feeling overwhelmed you may also find that you experience a change in your appetite or feelings of fatigue. Looking after your mental wellbeing is just as important as looking after your physical wellbeing, and vice versa.

Whether you are a fresher getting used to living away from home for the first time, or a third year student just about to take on the epic task of writing your dissertation, taking care of your personal wellbeing at university is vital. You may feel like self-care is a waste of precious time when there's reading to be done and lectures to attend; but if you neglect your wellbeing you will likely find that your attendance and the quality of your work will begin to suffer.

What can affect your wellbeing?

Everyone is different, and the things that affect your wellbeing might be different to the things that affect other people's wellbeing. However, some common causes of unbalanced mental and physical wellbeing include the following:

  • Loneliness and social isolation
  • Stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Relationship problems
  • Loss or bereavement
  • Financial worries
  • Issues at work or university
  • Poor housing conditions

When your mind is preoccupied with thoughts of your ever-increasing uni workload and how to spread your budget as far as possible, and you're unable to get any proper rest because your housemates are too noisy or you're feeling homesick, you'll start to feel pretty run down. Your mental wellbeing will begin to suffer, and you may find that you feel less happy than you used to. This can then cause you to feel less motivated to eat healthily or take regular exercise, and a lack of physical exercise coupled with a poor diet can leave you feeling tired and run down, but perhaps unable to sleep and rest properly, thus compounding the problem over time.

What steps can you take to improve wellbeing?

Start with self care

Self care is the practice of an individual taking the necessary steps to look after their physical and mental wellbeing in a number of different ways, along a continuum of needs. The Self Care Forum use the below diagram to illustrate the idea of a continuum of self-care:

At one end of the continuum we have pure self-care which is the responsibility of the individual; this includes things such as eating healthily, taking regular exercise, maintaining a good level of personal hygiene, and generally making the effort to look after themselves.

At the other end of the spectrum are the major physical and mental health conditions that require purely professional medical care. Along the spectrum, between the two extremes, are minor ailments and acute or long-term conditions that may require a mixture of self-care and professional care in order to treat them effectively.

Below we'll go into much more depth about the measures you can take to introduce more self care into your life in order to keep your mental and physical wellbeing on balance. What works for one person may not necessarily work for another, but here are plenty of ideas for you if you're unsure where to begin.

Recommended methods of self care...

Connect with people

Spending time with friends and family, or making the effort to meet new people, can help to give you a greater sense of belonging and alleviate any feelings of loneliness. There are a number of ways in which you can connect with others, for example:

  • Make time for people: It's important to prioritise spending time connecting with the people you love. Whether you hang out with friends in between lectures, spend the occasional weekend at home with your parents and siblings, or maintain regular contact via phone calls, text messages, or Skype, regularly seeing and speaking to loved ones strengthens those relationships. Strong relationships with friends and family means a better support network when you need it the most.
  • Join a society: There are plenty of societies and clubs you can join at university which will allow you to spend time interacting with students who have similar interests to yourself. This is a great way to make friends at the same time as learning new skills, enriching your university experience, and boosting your CV.
  • Volunteer in the community: Giving your time to help others can be very fulfilling and can offer you a different perspective on life. Many universities have schemes where students can sign up to volunteer at hospices, schools, care homes, or conservational projects, for example. Volunteering your time for free to help others can improve your wellbeing and enrich your sense of self-worth.

Eat a balanced diet

We all know that old adage “you are what you eat”, but it's true, to some extent. The food and drinks that you fuel your body with are important for your overall wellbeing. Your body needs a wide variety of vitamins and minerals in order to function efficiently; some of these can be made by your body, but most of them need to be consumed regularly. You should aim to eat as broad a range of foods as possible; it can be difficult to achieve this on a student budget but here are some tips that might help you:

  • Eat in season: Buy fresh produce that is in season as it will usually be much cheaper. Try local farmers' markets or cooperatives for fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices.
  • Ditch the takeaways: Fast food, takeaways, and convenience foods are handy on rare occasions, but relying on them daily can be expensive. Instead, perfect a few key recipes and cook your favourite meals from scratch to save money.
  • Buy in bulk: Team up with your housemates and buy things like pasta, rice, and potatoes in bulk as these form the basis for many meals and are cheaper in larger quantities.
  • Cook in bulk: Cooking can be pretty time consuming, so you can either take it in turns to cook for your housemates, or cook a big batch of something like chilli or curry and freeze portions for quick and easy meals throughout the week.
  • Swap out some ingredients: To save money try swapping out some ingredients for cheaper ones. For example, lentils or soya mince can be used in place of minced beef in bolognaise sauce, chilli, or shepherd's pie; and chickpeas, cauliflower, or potato can take the place of chicken in a curry.
  • Opt for tinned or frozen fruit and veg: Fresh produce can be expensive, but tinned or frozen fruit and vegetables are just as good for you but are much cheaper. In fact, frozen veg is actually said to contain more nutrients because of how quickly it is frozen after picking!
  • Eat more eggs: Provided you don't have an egg allergy or intolerance, eggs make the perfect student food choice. One medium sized egg contains around 70 calories, and a great deal of the nutrients your body needs. Try omelettes, scrambled or poached eggs on toast, or a Spanish tortilla filled with potato and veg.

For more tips on cooking and eating healthily on a student budget see our article ‘The Healthy Student's Guide to University Recipes'

Be active

Physical activity is pretty much a miracle cure for a wide variety of physical and mental afflictions. Whether you are suffering with a bad back, a lack of energy, depression, or low self-esteem, there's some form of exercise you can do that will help you to feel better.

Being more physically active, whether you run, play badminton, dance, or do yoga, will have a positive impact on your overall wellbeing in the following ways:

  • Weight loss and maintenance: Being more physically active helps you to burn unwanted calories and fat, and can lead to a slimmer, more toned physique.
  • Healthier bones: Weight-bearing exercise such as walking, running, and aerobics, helps to strengthen your bones and build muscle.
  • Improved sleep: Those who are more active during the day typically find that they are better able to fall asleep, and wake feeling more rested.
  • More energy: Exercise may make you feel fatigued at first, but over time your energy levels will increase and you'll feel much less lethargic.
  • Better resistance to stress: The fitter you become, the better your body will become at regulating cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone released by your body in response to anxiety. High levels of cortisol over a prolonged period have been linked to health problems such as heart disease, lowered immunity, depression, and anxiety.
  • Happier moods: Exercise changes your brain chemistry and releases endorphins, the ‘happy hormone' which can help to improve your mood and calm anxiety.
  • Increased self-esteem: Exercising regularly means you'll feel fitter and healthier, you'll have more energy, and you'll feel less stressed, or better-able to cope with stress. All of this helps to improve your self-esteem and boost your confidence.
  • Connecting with people: Going to an exercise class or playing a sport is a good way to meet new people to connect and interact with. Also, exercising with your existing friends is a good way to strengthen the relationship and keep each other motivated.

Get outside

Being outside during daylight hours can have a positive impact on physical and mental wellbeing. Exposure to sunlight enables your body to produce vitamin D, which is important for healthy bones and teeth, and for the regulation of the absorption of calcium and phosphorus from foods. Being outside when it's light also helps with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is a form of depression that typically appears in the autumn and winter, and often disappears in the spring and summer.

Symptoms of SAD include feelings of worthlessness and despair, lethargy and fatigue, persistent low mood, irritability, sleeping more and having trouble waking, and craving carbohydrates and gaining weight.

If you suffer with SAD you should aim to get outside in the sun for at least 10 to 15 minutes per day. You could achieve this by walking home from lectures instead of taking the bus, sitting outside to eat your lunch, going for a run in the park with a friend, or sitting in your back garden with a book.

Even if you don't suffer from SAD, being outdoors is good for the soul, especially if you can spend time around greenery like a park or garden. Listening to the sounds of nature can help you to relax and feel grounded when life gets hectic and overwhelming.

Rest and sleep

Sleep is when your body repairs and restores itself, so if you're not sleeping properly, your body can't rest and heal adequately. Getting too little sleep can leave you with no energy, unable to concentrate, and experiencing mood swings. This can then have an impact on your social relationships as well as affecting your ability to attend lectures and carry out other daily tasks effectively.

Common sleep problems that people experience include:

  • Insomnia: Difficulty falling asleep, waking in the night and being unable to fall asleep again, waking very early in the morning, or finding that sleep doesn't refresh you and you constantly feel tired. For more information see our article on ‘Dealing With Insomnia at University'
  • Oversleeping: Sleeping more than your body needs doesn't have the same impact on your life as insomnia, but it can cause you to miss lectures or leave yourself with less time for studying and socialising.
  • Nightmares and night terrors: A nightmare is more than a dream, it is intense and frightening, causing you to wake up and often leaving you feeling very scared. Night terrors occur during deep sleep and can cause people to sweat and scream and have difficulty waking from them.
  • Sleep walking: Getting up in the night and carrying out activities whilst sleeping. It's not usually dangerous in itself, but there is a risk of tripping over, banging into things, or causing an accident depending on the activities attempted during the sleep walking.
  • Sleep paralysis: Waking in the night but being unable to speak or move because the hormones have not yet reached the muscles. It can't harm you but it can be very scary and lead to anxiety about going back to sleep.

There are a number of ways that you can try to improve your ability to fall asleep, and the quality of your sleep:

  • Go to bed and wake at the same time: Try to go to bed at the same time and wake at the same time each day, even on weekends. At first you might struggle to fall asleep and may have difficulty waking with your alarm, but persevere and eventually your body's natural rhythm will reset and adjust.
  • Establish a bedtime routine: Try to do the same things each evening before bed to relax your mind and body. It could be that you have a warm bath before bed, or maybe you would prefer to drink a warm cup of milk and read a book to relax. Gentle yoga stretches can also help you to wind down and get into sleep mode.
  • Limit screen time before bed: The light from smartphone, tablet, and laptop screens can stimulate your brain, keeping it active and awake when you want the opposite to happen. Try to avoid using any of these devices for an hour before you go to bed; the same goes for the TV too.

Cut down on alcohol, smoking, and drugs

During times of stress, anxiety, or depression many people turn to alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to cope. However, any substance that has the ability to alter your brain's chemistry and affect your feelings and behaviours can have a big impact on your physical and mental wellbeing either immediately, or over time.

Alcohol is a depressant, and it alters your brain chemicals. You may be in a good mood when you have that first drink, and you'll immediately feel a surge of confidence and self-esteem; but the more you drink the more the alcohol affects your brain, and it can actually bring negative emotions to the surface. Abusing alcohol on a regular basis can exacerbate feelings of depression and anxiety, and impede your overall wellbeing.

Smoking and taking recreational drugs also affects your brain chemistry in a way that you can't control. Whether you become physically addicted to the substances you are ingesting, or it is more of a habitual addiction, relying on cigarettes or drugs can have a big impact on your wellbeing.

How to cut down:

  • Keep a diary: Make a note of when you get cravings for cigarettes, when you use drugs, or when you drink alcohol, and record how you're feeling and what you're doing at the time. This way you can notice any patterns and address them accordingly.
  • Alternate drinks: On a night out, aim to alternate between alcoholic drinks and soft drinks. This will help to prevent you getting too drunk too quickly, and will also help to hydrate you and lessen the risk of a hangover.
  • Hang out with different people: If your usual group of friends are all heavy drinkers, smokers, or recreational drug users, try to limit the amount of time you spend with them and hang out with a different group of friends instead to avoid temptation.
  • Find alternative ways to relax: Rather than reaching for alcohol and drugs during times of stress or anxiety, try going for a walk or run, doing some yoga, reading a book, taking a bath, chatting with a friend on the phone, or meditating.

Give something back

Whether you volunteer and help out in the community, or do some random acts of kindness, giving something back to others can give you a greater sense of self-worth.

Here are some great ways that you can give to others:

  • Volunteer your time at a charity shop, community event, or soup kitchen.
  • Visit an elderly neighbour and keep them company or do their shopping for them.
  • Give a meaningful gift or send a thoughtful handwritten letter to a friend.
  • Pay for the coffee of the person in front of you in the coffee shop queue.
  • Stop and chat to a homeless person and offer to buy them breakfast.

Whatever you choose to do, by giving back to others you are enriching their lives as well as your own. Knowing that you've done something nice for someone else without asking for anything in return will help you to feel fulfilled and calm. Depending on how you choose to give to others, you could also enrich your social networks too.

Be mindful

Mindfulness is about being present in the moment and paying attention to the little details of your day. Practising mindfulness can help with mental wellbeing and is particularly useful for those who suffer with anxiety and depression as it can help you to feel more grounded during low periods or panic attacks.

If you're new to mindfulness and wondering where to start here are a few tips:

  • Breathe: Oxygen is our life force, so sometimes it's beneficial for your mind and body if you just sit for five minutes and focus on doing some deep, controlled breathing. Breathe in slowly through the nose for a count of four, hold for two counts, and breathe out for a count of four through your nose. Repeat this a few times and you'll notice you can take deeper and deeper breaths and you'll feel much calmer and relaxed.
  • Slow down: Stress occurs when you whizz through life and don't stop to savour it. Aim to have at least one meal per day where you eat slowly, enjoying each mouthful and focusing on nourishing your body, rather than quickly swallowing a sandwich on your way from one lecture to the next each day.
  • Practise yoga: The ancient art of yoga has been practised for thousands of years, and is a great way to achieve mindfulness. It encourages you to align your breathing with your movement, focussing on moving from one posture to the next.

For more tips on how to incorporate mindfulness into your everyday life, see our article ‘Tips For Bringing Mindfulness Into Everyday Life' in which a number of leading yogis share their top tips for improving your wellbeing.