Emotional Wellbeing

Mental Health

Mandy Kloppers

How to Cope with life at university

It’s that time of year again when students go back to university for the start of a new academic year. How to cope with life at university isn’t straightforward- students fear uncertainty, they experience homesickness and they also fear coping with uni work and making new friends.
On the positive side, at least universities are welcoming students back. Last year, many students stayed at home and struggled through the curriculum at home with universities  ill-equipped to manage the new format.
Recently I have spoken to young clients who are returning to university and I have found that the uncertainty creates a lot of anxiety.
This is why I am writing this post to offer tips and advice on coping with life at university.

Grounding techniques

Progressive muscle relaxation is a wonderful way to physically slow your stress symptoms down. Tensing and relaxing your muscles reminds you of where tension exists in your body and it helps you to relax and destress.
As you work through your body, tense your muscles and then relax after about 20-30 seconds and NOTICE the difference between tension and relaxation.
Here is the sequence:
1. Right hand and forearm. Make a fist with your righthand.
2. Right upper arm. Bring your right forearm up to your shoulder to “make a muscle”.
3. Left hand and forearm.
4. Left upper arm.
5. Forehead. Raise your eyebrows as high as they will go, as though you were surprised by something.
6. Eyes and cheeks. Squeeze your eyes tight shut.
7. Mouth and jaw. Open your mouth as wide as you can, as you might when you‘re yawning.
8. Neck. !!! Be careful as you tense these muscles. Face forward and then pull your head back slowly, as though you are looking up to the ceiling.
9. Shoulders. Tense the muscles in your shoulders as you bring your shoulders up towards your ears.
10. Shoulder blades/Back. Push your shoulder blades back, trying to almost touch them together, so that your chest is pushed forward.
11. Chest and stomach. Breathe in deeply, filling up your lungs and chest with air.
12. Hips and buttocks. Squeeze your buttock muscles
13. Right upper leg. Tighten your right thigh.
14. Right lower leg. !!! Do this slowly and carefully to avoid cramps. Pull your toes towards you to stretch the calf muscle.
15. Right foot. Curl your toes downwards.
16. Left upper leg. Repeat as for right upper leg.
17. Left lower leg. Repeat as for right lower leg.
18. Left foot. Repeat as for right foot.
Practice means progress. Only through practice can you become more aware of your muscles, how they respond with tension, and how you can relax them. Training your body to respond differently to stress is like any training – practising consistently is the key.
Square method- slow breathing confuses the parts of the brain that release Adrenalin and gear you up for threat. Slow breathing contradicts the urgency and the brain switches off the alarm.
Mindfulness- when you are in your mind you are in dangerous territory where you are highly likely to spiral downward into catastrophizing mode. Mindfulness involves focusing on the here and now. Focus your fine sense on your surroundings, take in yur immediate environment. This focus externally slows overthinking and anxiety.

Embrace the change

Resisting reality will create more distress. Instead of telling yourself- I won’t cope, I won’t be happy, Why do I have to do this?, shift your ‘mental diet’ (aka thoughts) by creating a few positive coping statements. something like this:
I’d prefer to avoid this experience but it will help me grow and it won’t kill me.
I can cope with it even if I don’t like it
Change is scary but I will congratulate myself for facing life
The above thoughts will prepare you to cope with life at university.

Label your worries: real or only a possibility?

Coping with life at university is a lot easier when you learn to let go of worries that might never happen. These type of worries are often about the future and frequently start with “What if…?”
Example: what if I can’t cope with the amount of work?
Any worry that is future based is fundamentally a hypothetical worry. In other words- it’s only a possibility. It’s NOT worry based on reality. A reality based worry is happening now and you can do something about it. If your mobile phone goes missing- finding it can happen right now.
Learn to dismiss the worries that might never happen.
You can problem solve future issues but worrying alone is just wasted mental energy.

Problem solve

Get to the bottom of your worries. If you fear that your new roommates won’t be friendly, ask yourself what would be so bad about that.
You might say- well then it will make life more difficult..
And what’s so bad about that?
I will be unhappy…
Instead of worrying in a vague way, pinpoint what it is you fear and then problem solve around that issue. Create an actionable list
You might find that you fear being alone… so what could you do about that?
You could join student groups, you could question how likely it is that your new roommates won’t like you.
Ask yourself whether you can do anything now to plan ahead for the worry. For example- if you worry about breaking your leg on a future skiing trip, you could buy travel insurance. Nothing has happened yet, so let it go.
There is absolutely no point in worrying about it further.

Remove emotion by asking yourself these questions

To cope with life at uni, or any other worry- ask yourself these questions to bring rationality to the equation
What is the worst outcome
Best outcome
Most likely outcome
What could you do to cope if the worst happened? (Encourages problem solving)

Don’t believe everything you think

Thoughts aren’t facts. Our brains work overtime to keep us safe but there are many times when they don’t do us any favours. Your brain responds to modern-day threat in same way as it did when we had lions chasing us and we hunted for food. The same alarm system activates (the amygdala and hippocampus) whether a lion is chasing or we have a stressful deadline to meet at university/work.
When you feel anxious remind yourself that your brain is sending a gentle warning. It’s just trying to keep you safe but you need to assess the danger and not panic (like your automatic brain areas that are in charge of spotting danger are).
Life will always send you challenges and when you face them head on, your brain remembers and keeps that confidence for future similar situations. This is how we grow and gain confidence in life.
When you approach your fears you learn that you can cope even if things fail. Trying to avoid failure will mean you never reality test your fears. Failure will continue to loom heavy until you fail and realise it’s not the end of the world.
Keep a sense of humour, don’t take yourself too seriously and remember that we all screw up at times, feel sad, get rejected, feel alone etc
Congratulate yourself for loving your life. No one wants to look back and wonder what could have been. Find out now- see life as an adventure and see the anxiety as a normal part of life.
Mandy X