Nina Klaff gives her top tips for self-care at university.
University is a place for mental athleticism. While in physical sports, one pushes one’s body to its limits; as students, we train our brains. Just as a sprinter runs the risk of a sprained ankle or shin splints, our minds take a beating simply being at university. The difference is, physical athletes get breaks and rest if they’re injured, whereas we’re expected to just power through. We have to juggle learning to live alone for the first time with undertaking the most rigorous education of our short little lives. In between getting lost in a new city, staying sociable, getting enough rest, trying desperately to stay healthy and fit when you’re being taunted with pizza by every society, and all the while trying to stay engaged with your studies, it’s easy to forget that the mind that composed the 3,000 words you just submitted is completely inseparable from the body that typed it. You may have just revolutionized socio-political discourse in the 21st century, but you are also just a human being: a bundle of matter made up of molecules and cells and electrical impulses. You are one of the most fascinating and beautifully complex machines in the world, and you need to take care of yourself. Unless you’re the Nokia Brick phone of homosapiens, you need proper fuel and recharging to function well.
We’ve all heard the equation for a healthy and happy life: sleep well, eat healthily, drink enough water, and exercise. But what does that even mean? How do you fit in locating and signing up to a gym when you can barely even find your tutorial room? How can you sleep now when you have an essay due in six hours on a topic with words you still don’t fully understand and that possibly won’t even count towards the glorified piece of paper they call a degree that Future You will have to foot the bill for? And then how are you expected to find time to eat, let alone cook, three balanced meals a day when you have a social event you’re expected to attend that you find so terrifying it can only dealt with by ingesting some mind-altering substances that eventually leave your Serotonin levels lower than the Mariana Trench (Google tells me this is the lowest point on earth)? And this doesn’t even begin to cover the added pressure of not being mentally well.
Here are some quick tips to remind you you’re not alone. Do with them what you may – I may even start doing some of them myself.
Food can be so difficult. Being left to your own devices for the first time can be incredibly challenging, especially if you struggle or have done in the past, and there is nothing worse than having to think about feeding yourself when you find it stressful. If you’re having trouble, I urge you to talk to someone –the TWSS door is always open! One way around this is to revert to basics and reset your digestion clock: try to eat three full or five smaller meals a day. Cutting corners here or overcompensating is where it can get complicated and stressful. Your body needs a certain amount of nutrients in order to make each bit of you work, and when it doesn’t get what it needs, that’s when it can be the most difficult not to think about food. There are so many interesting things you could use your brainpower on, like whether Ed Balls will win Strictly this year. Try not to serve yourself less than you know you’re hungry for, you won’t feel satisfied and Future You will still be hungry.
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with a quick meal! Being healthy doesn’t mean you have to eat quinoa-stuffed kumquats with a drizzle of unicorn tears for dinner. There are plenty of cheap, easy recipes out there. Jack Monroe creates some amazing recipes that are ideal for the student budget, making them in bulk and freezing them in portioned Tupperware’s is a great way to ensure you’ll always be prepared for the times when you haven’t got time.
Try and go to bed without your phone, laptop or T.V. Replace it with the reading you have to do and you’ll be dozing off in no time. The way I understand it – which is very limited – these devices produce blue light which your brain translates into energy and can prevent you from sleeping. If the gossip on the group chat between your friends from home is too good to leave just yet, at least turn on Night-Shift mode if you have an iPhone, as this makes orange light which is better for your eyes and contains less energy – basically, it makes you wince less.
If the idea of being in leggings in a room full of people searching for the key to their heart chakra terrifies you, why not try some exercises from the comfort (or discomfort if my memory of halls serves me right) of your own room? There are loads of ways to go about this from doing triceps dips off the edge of your bed to taking classes online. Yoga With Adriene is a great place to start. She has some great videos that can apply to any level and her 30 Day Yoga Camp is a nice way to integrate exercise into your everyday life, and best of all, it’s totally free.
I’m a sucker for rhyme, so I’ll let these do my work for me:
Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear,
Beer before liquor, never been sicker
Beer before wine, you’ll be fine,
Wine before beer, sick for a year.
The bottom line is: try not to mix your drinks, try and alternate a glass of water with every alcoholic drink to help stop you waking up with a mouth drier than the Sahara desert the next day, and never drink on an empty stomach.
Stress wreaks havoc with your body and mind and can actually cause long-lasting damage to your general wellbeing. Your body holds onto tension as tightly as Theresa May clutches the keys to Number 10, and this can make you stiff and cause problems all over, from your hormones to your digestion. Exercise is a stress buster of course, but if you don’t have time, some simple breathing exercises can take the edge off, and even help you sleep. Hollywood made them popular with paper bags with the most satisfying crinkle, but unfortunately I have yet to find one that compares in the U.K. Until I do, try inhaling for four counts, holding your breath for eight counts, and exhaling for eight. This is a great way to reboot your body’s natural stress-beater – but make sure you don’t do a Ross and tally in Mississippis or you may find yourself very much out of breath.
Another thing to consider is following the Alexander Technique. Adopting the semi-supine position is a great passive way to realign your posture that is basically a glorified lie-down, for those of you as lazy as me:
Lie with your back flat against a hard floor, your knees bent and your feet flat, hip-width apart, as close to your bum as you can comfortably get them. Breathe as deeply as you can, and really notice the weight being off your core and your spine. If you need to, use a book under your head for support, or a pillow under your back wherever is uncomfortable. Just doing this for a few minutes a day can make you feel calmer and more aligned.
For the times when even going for a long walk listening to Nils Frahm doesn’t relax you, I have two words: Complementary Medicine. Contrary to my long-standing belief, this doesn’t mean they’re free, nor that they’re especially praising, rather that these therapies, such as acupuncture and massage, can be used to support traditional treatments. There have been a huge number of studies into the benefits of these on patients suffering from stress, but also a plethora of other mental health issues and physical ailments, ranging from schizophrenia to fibromyalgia. It may not sound feasible on a student budget, but it would certainly cost you less than the Nike trainers you’ve been taught to think are cool.
If you’re having any issues with any of the topics covered in this article, please remember that you’re not alone. It’s okay not to be the kind of person who remembers to bring a reusable cup every time you buy a coffee. It doesn’t matter that you don’t own a printer, or that you sometimes wear the same jumper two days in a row. What it boils down to is that life is about balance. Aiming to eat healthily, sleep twelve hours a night, exercising every day and to be teetotal is noble in theory, but generally unrealistic in practice. Whether you’re a hedonist or an ascetic, life is all about discovering who you are and what you’re interested in, and university is the perfect place to start. So relish the times you drink 5 Old Bristolians and dance until dawn if that’s what made you smile, or if your idea of a perfect afternoon is waking up early and volunteering with a charity, do so, but look after yourself: you’re the only You you’ve got.
Illustration by Laura Wyatt
This piece is part of our series of Mental Health Week articles. For more information about student counselling and mental health support at the University of Bristol, please visit: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/students-health/services/mental-health/