Sir Cary Cooper, 50th Anniversary Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health, shares his top ten tips for students on how they can take care of their mental health and wellbeing over the next few months.
(1) Stick to your routine
Planning a routine that works for you and sticking to it is vital to keeping focused and on-track with your studies. Changes to the format of your teaching as a result of national and local restrictions, combined with vacation periods with less structured time, mean you need to put some thought into managing your daily workload and schedule effectively. Make sure you also include time in the day to relax, socialise, and give your brain a break.
(2) Connect to friends and family
Keep socially connected to people in your life. Reach out virtually to your friends, your course-mates and your family; if they hear from you on a regular basis will bring them comfort and improve their mental health too. If you are staying in your University accommodation during the Christmas vacation period, connect with other students who plan to do the same. If you share a common nationality or a common culture, it may also be a welcome reminder of home at this time of year. Form relationships and a virtual support network together with people who can relate to and share your experiences.
(3) Speak to your tutors
At times when you have much less, or do not have any face-to-face teaching taking place in-person, it’s really important to still see your course leaders’ faces virtually – and for them to see yours. Turn your camera on, and interact with people verbally over Zoom, Blackboard, Teams or video call and you will feel much more connected. Remember, your course leaders, academic advisors, tutors, lecturers and University staff are there to support you. If you have any worries, share your concerns with them; don’t tackle difficulties on your own.
(4) Spend time with your household
Your household is your family, so look out for each other as best you can. Take care of others in your household bubble. If you notice a change in someone’s behaviour or mood over a period of time, talk to them about it and check-in to see if they are ok. Try to spend time together socially, preparing meals, interacting with each other face-to-face and having fun. Having just one short conversation a day with someone could make a big difference to wellbeing.
(5) Don’t overwork yourself
With less social, sporting and society events filling up your calendar, you find yourself with fewer welcome distractions from your studies. This is not necessarily a good thing and can lead to over-working and increased levels of stress, especially when you are studying from your bedroom. Remember that your university experience is about more than solely working towards your degree. Take another look at your work-life balance; are you spending time studying that you used to spend on other activities that are also important for your personal growth and mental wellbeing. Reclaim this time to pursue your passions, grow your wider skillset and explore new pursuits.
(6) Get a good night’s sleep
It can be hard to keep regular sleeping hours, especially if you have deadlines, stay up late chatting to friends, or regularly end up working late into the night. A disrupted sleep pattern can have a big knock-on effect on your wellbeing and mood. It may also mean you miss out on the precious few hours of daylight available at this time of year. Minimise screen time in the evenings and prioritise a good night-time routine rather than staying up late to work; your mind and body need it more than you might think.
(7) Reach out for support
University can be a very stressful experience even at the best of times, and with the additional pressures COVID-19 places on students’ mental health, it’s more important than ever to get support if you need it. If you are feeling lonely, anxious, depressed, or your mood is consistently low, speak to someone; your University’s Wellbeing services is a good place to start. Lots of help is available in the form of online support, resources and counselling. Share your feelings with your friends, family, your tutors or someone in your trusted wider support network if you feel able to; the more you talk about what you are experiencing, the more it can help.
(8) Get out and about
It can be hard to motivate yourself on cold winter days to leave your house, but your brain and body will thank you for it. Try to get outside at least once a day to take a walk or exercise; plan this time into your lunchtime or morning routine. Why is this important? We need to be exposed to full spectrum light every day, which provides our bodies with a dose of vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 helps combat symptoms of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), but can also help strengthen your immune system to fight disease.
(9) Think about your long term ambitions
The impacts of COVID-19 have created wider challenges that might be affecting your longer term plans for the summer, or after you graduate. Finding the graduate job of your dreams at the moment is tough, so be flexible with your plans and aims. Keep an open mind-set to other options and possibilities; embrace the journey and uncertainties. Try to adopt more of growth mentality; be agile, be positive and be active. Think about the small steps you can take now, rather than the larger ones you can’t. This might mean exploring alternative options such as: pursuing further study, internships, upskilling, volunteering work and following more unconventional routes. Think more about your abstract long-term ambitions and what you are working towards years down the line and the person you want to become. Avoid disappointment by not putting pressure on yourself to achieve fixed, set goals in a matter of months; this can take a toll on your mental health.
(10) Take a break
Over the Christmas vacation period make sure you plan to have a break and take some time to get into a different headspace. This might mean a change of scene, and going back to your family home if safe and permissible for you to do so, or it might mean making smaller changes to your routine and surroundings to help you feel refreshed and relaxed. When national and local restrictions ease, this could mean spending a night away with a friend or family member, visiting a place that means something to you or exploring a new one. Planning to take days off and have a holiday, no matter how small and low-key, is really important.