Starting university is a big step in any young person’s life – it brings with it more freedom, excitement, new friends and new experiences. But for many there’s no doubt that stress, anxiety and homesickness are often part of the picture too. Beginning your new life at university presents challenges like living away from home for the first time; developing a new social network; increased drinking and partying; managing a tight budget; maybe making time for a part-time job; and of course navigating new studies.
Juggling all of these new experiences and responsibilities can be a lot for anyone to take, and if you are prone to depression or other mental health problems it can be an even more difficult time as, according to MacGeorge, Samter, & Gillihan 2005, academic stress can further contribute to depression.
Fortunately, there are some ways to get these pressures into perspective and beat stress and depression effectively. Here are 5 ways to improve your ability to cope.
1. Create a routine
Although everything will be new to you in the beginning, try to get your bearings and get into a good routine as early on as you can. With more freedom and maybe a course with light classwork, it can be tempting to stay up late partying or talking with new friends and sleeping-in late, but this sort of disruptive schedule can take its toll over long periods.
Instead try to create a routine with a good balance of social activity, exercise, study time and rest. Get up early and get some exercise; make time each week to shop for and cook fresh food (not just frozen pizzas and noodles!); schedule time at the library to focus on studies with regular fresh air breaks; and of course make time to catch up with friends too! Maintaining a good routine helps to keep you positive, organised and focused – all very important things for juggling social and academic commitments.
2. Keep an eye on your physical health
Eating well, making sure to get plenty of Vitamin C and getting enough exercise and sleep will make a big difference to your mental health. Many university campuses have gyms with subsidised membership fees, so consider joining a gym or a sports team to get some aerobic exercise at least once a week (also a great way to make new friends!).
Even taking a walk each morning as part of your routine will give you great benefits as exercise has a powerful effect on your mental health, reducing anxiety and elevating your mood. Yoga and meditation – even 12 minutes a day – can also help support you to keep worries in perspective and release the effects of stress from your body.
3. Start building social networks
Although your parents and teachers will no doubt place a big emphasis on keeping up with your studies at uni, and don’t get us wrong that is of course important, but so is the social aspect of starting a new chapter of your life. Isolation is known to increase stress and depression, so when moving away from family and school friends it is really important to get yourself out there to make new friends and create that new support system for yourself.
It can be intimidating at first because you are away from your familiar environment, particularly for those with social anxiety, but keep in mind that almost everyone else in the room is in the same boat! Don’t be afraid to take that first step and attend social events when you can, so you can begin to build social networks that support you in your new life at uni. If social situations make you nervous, practice some deep breathing or a few minutes of meditation before you go out, and visualise yourself feeling calm and interacting well with people.
Find clubs or societies that interest you or allow you to explore a new hobby with others. There are many of these opportunities available at uni and they are a great way to meet like-minded people.
4. Watch your alcohol intake
There’s no escaping the fact that alcohol plays a big role in uni life. You have more freedom to do what you want, going to dorm parties and college bars, with alcohol being a common ‘social lubricant’ used to ease the stress associated with socialising with new people out of your comfort zone.
However, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK, alcohol actually has a negative effect on your ability to cope with stress. It affects the chemistry of the brain in a way that increases the risk of depression. In excessive amounts it also has the ability to cause more problems in your life that increase stress and depression, such as arguments with others, and waking up the next morning feeling anxious and jittery.
While telling university students not to drink alcohol will almost always fall on deaf ears, at least drink in moderation and know your limits. Make sure to keep some alcohol-free events as part of your social calendar and when you do drink, alternate alcoholic drinks with soft drinks or water to pace yourself. Seek help if you feel that your drinking has got out of control.
5. Talk to someone
A study by MacGeorge, Samter, & Gillihan in 2005 found that supportive communication made a difference to the levels of academic stress experienced by students. Supportive communication includes emotional support (sympathy and affection) and advice and information that is helpful to your situation. Don’t battle on alone if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Talk to a friend – be that a new friend going through the same thing or call an old friend on the phone; or even talk to a tutor, family member or uni counsellor. Everyone goes through a period of transition when making a big change in their life so you’re sure to find someone who will understand and talk through those emotions with you.
But if you find your anxiety or depression is getting too much to handle you can always talk to a professional. Our team of Clinical Psychologists are highly experienced in helping people like you through new emotions and difficult times. We are on hand Monday to Saturday at our clinics in Dianella and Warwick – just get in touch to make a booking.