Advice and tips

Looking after your mental well-being whilst studying online

The pandemic we are all currently facing has changed every aspect of our daily lives in one way or another. For many students, this means a lot of online learning. For some, the idea of being able to learn and gain qualifications whilst dressed in their pyjamas and without needing to venture outdoors is a win-win situation. Previous research has highlighted the positives of online learning; it allows individuals to learn at a time, place and pace at which they find comfortable (further research can be found here and here).

Online learning environments offer a great opportunity for students to continue learning throughout the pandemic. But these learning environments aren’t beneficial for every student, especially when considering their general mental well-being and there are a number of reasons suggested for this: 

  • Fear of the unknown – For some students, the level of unfamiliarity with these new methods of learning can be overwhelming. They have to relearn how to learn and this can lead to feelings of anxiety, stress and worry. 
  • Lack of enjoyment – Other students may not enjoy learning online, having difficulties with the quality or usability of the meaning material that has been provided for them (link to research here).
  • Loss of structure – Online learning allows students to learn at a time which is most convenient for them, but this lack of structure can also leave students feeling like they can’t turn off and that they are constantly in ‘student mode’, which can increase levels of stress.
  • Isolation – One of the biggest negative aspects of online learning is the lack of in-person relationships and face-to-face interactions (link to research here). This can make students feel lonely, isolated and unsupported by their peers as they would be in a physical university environment.

Considering the reasons mentioned above, it’s no wonder that some students may be struggling with their mental well-being. I thought for this post I could conduct a bit of research to try and find methods for supporting mental well-being whilst learning online. I found a number of tips, which I’ve outlined below.

1. Take a break

Research has shown the benefits of taking regular breaks from learning and instructions. Just as you would in a physical setting, try to ensure that you take a 5 minute break every hour away from the screen. Maybe go and get a snack or sit outside with a beverage of your choice if you are able to. Sitting at a screen endlessly for multiple hours a day is definitely not going to benefit your well-being.

2. Create a routine

Just as you would within a physical learning environment, try to create strict boundaries between work and play. Online learning can make it difficult to turn off from learning, which can make it difficult to relax. Try to plan the specific time each day you will dedicate to learning material online and stick to this. But also try to schedule other ‘online learning free’ activities into the day, such as exercise, eating or maybe even a power nap. 

3. Keep in touch

Although your friends, fellow students and teachers aren’t there in the room with you while you learn, they are still available for you to talk to. If you are struggling with the material you could drop an email to your teacher who I’m sure would be more than happy to help. You could also call up a friend for a general chit chat and find out how their day is going. But don’t feel like a burden, by reaching out to others you may actually be improving their mental well-being as they may be in the same boat and would like someone to talk to. 

4. Celebrate small achievements

When our mental well-being is low, even doing the smallest things like getting out of bed can seem impossible. At the beginning of each day, try to set yourself a set of small but realistic and obtainable daily goals. As you achieve these, reward yourself (maybe by watching an episode of your favourite tv show). But if you don’t achieve your goals, don’t worry. Just focus on what you have achieved and celebrate this!

5. Take up a new hobby

Developing a new interest or hobby can be a welcome pastime for a stressed or anxious mind. Try to do things that are away from the screen or that take place outside. For example, meditation, yoga or knitting are all great ways to wind down and spend time away from the stresses and strains of online learning.

6. If you feel like you are struggling, seek help

These are difficult times for all of us and online learning definitely isn’t suited to everyone. Don’t feel ashamed to ask for help if your mental well-being isn’t feeling great. It’s so much better to ask for help at an early stage than to let your mental well-being deteriorate to the point where it’s affecting your daily life (which isn’t fair on you either!). If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to a family member or a friend, there are a number of resources you can reach out for help which I shall link at the end of this blog post.

Although I’m no expert and the tips above aren’t extensive, I hope this post has been helpful for some of you. These are challenging times for all students but hopefully we will all be allowed back into the classroom very soon! Until then I hope you are all staying safe but also looking after your mental well-being as best you can.

As promised, I leave you with a list of further resources which may be helpful:

Student Minds – a great charity that works with students through peer support programs and workshops.

Student Space – a dedicated service providing help, support and guidance for students throughout the current pandemic situation.

Turn2Me – a community of mental health professions provide free support online in a confidential environment.

Nightline – an anonymous support service run by students for students. Individuals can talk through phone, skype, email or live chat in complete confidence.

research

A Puppy a Day Keeps the Doctor Away? – The Influence of Cute Animals on our Overall Well-being

This week I read some research which was just too delightful not to share. I have often found myself scrolling endlessly through videos on instagram of cute baby animals until the early hours of the morning, I’m sure many of you can relate right? Cute animal videos evoke those ‘warm fuzzies’ we get where we feel happy, positive and all joyous inside. But alongside the instant feelings we get by looking at cute animals, they are beneficial to our general mental wellbeing in the long haul… who knew? 

A study published last year by the University of Leeds examined how watching images and videos of cute animals affected individuals blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety. During the study, participants watched a 30 minute slideshow containing a variety of different cute animals (puppies, kittens, baby gorillas ect.). Participants’ blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety levels were compared before and 30 minutes after watching the slide show. Significant reductions in the participant groups blood pressure and heart rate were found. There was also on average a 35% reduction in the levels of anxiety that the group felt overall (for some, their anxiety was reduced as much as 50%).

Another recent study has supported further the benefit of looking at cute animals (specifically dogs) on individuals overall well-being. In this between-groups study there were three groups of participants who spent five minutes either looking at (a) popular funny posts on Twitter, (b) cute pictures of dogs or (c) Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. Overall well-being was measured on an established scale both before and after the five minutes. The changes in well-being were then compared between the three groups. The biggest and most significant benefit to overall well-being was found in Group B who had looked at pictures of dogs for five minutes*. 

But what is it about baby animals that we are so drawn to? Apparently it’s all down to a phenomenon called ‘baby schema’. As human beings we are automatically drawn to creatures with big heads, chubby cheeks or large eyes near the centre of the face. The warm fuzzies I described earlier come about as a result of wanting to nurture the cute creature and keep it safe from harm (I guess that would explain my sudden need to internally combust whenever I see a puppy in the street).

If you are having a tough day/ week so far, take five minutes to ingest some of my favourite cute animal pictures below:

Hope that helped some of you, it certainly made me feel a bit calmer 🙂

Stay Safe!

*Just for those who wonder, participants in Group C actually experienced reductions in their perceived levels of well-being pre and post viewing Trumps twitter.

60 seconds

60 seconds on… Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

In today’s post we are exploring a mental health condition called obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD for short). This condition appears to have become more known in recent years, with a number of celebrities (such as Leonardo Dicaprio and Justin Timberlake) talking openly about their own experiences of living with the condition. Also, there has been recent news suggesting the number of people in the UK seeking help for OCD has risen sharply since the outbreak of coronavirus, with 72% of those with OCD feeling like their symptoms have worsened (full article can be found here).

Obsessive compulsive disorder is a type of anxiety disorder, involving a vicious cycle of obsessive thoughts, anxiety, compulsive behaviours and temporary relief.

Obsessions are reoccurring thoughts or images. These are often distressing for the individual and make them feel uncomfortable or like they can’t control them. An example of this could be obsessive thoughts that a fire is going to start in the kitchen. These obsessive thoughts can cause levels of anxiety to rise in the individual, alongside feelings of intense fear or doubt. 

Other obsessive thoughts can include:

  • A fear of contamination from body fluids, germs, dirt or pollution in the environment.
  • A fear of losing control of themselves, which could lead them to carrying out behaviours such as harming themselves or others. 
  • A fear about lack of perfectionism. They may feel that things need to be an exact way.
  • A fear of forgetting or losing important things or information.

Compulsions are repetitive behaviours that individuals carry out in order to rid themselves of their obsessions and lower their anxieties. These compulsions often only offer a temporary relief from an individual’s obsessions, meaning they return and the cycle starts again. Relating to the example above, an individual may flick plug switches in the kitchen on and off multiple times in a specific way to try and reduce their fears of a fire starting.

Other compulsions can include:

  • Excessive washing of the body and hands.
  • Excessive cleaning of the environment around them (e.g. household objects)
  • Repetitive checking that their actions haven’t had a negative effect on or harmed anyone.
  • Checking that they haven’t harmed themselves – including checking the physical condition of their body.
  • Avoidance of situations which may trigger obsessive thoughts.

Individuals with OCD experience constant feelings of fear that something bad is going to happen. Although these fears can appear irrational to others, they can be intense or overpowering for people with OCD. Their thoughts replay over and over again in their minds and they can become stuck on these distressing thoughts. They may feel like they aren’t in control of their own mind, they feel like their thoughts are taking over them and putting constant pressure on them. The cycle of thoughts and behaviours that OCD creates can have a negative effect on an individual in a number of ways:

  • An individual may sustain damage to their physical health as a result of their compulsions – for example they may make the skin on their hands bleed from scrubbing too much. 
  • Some individuals may turn to self-medication in order to feel that they can cope with the condition. This can lead to them abusing substances such as alcohol and drugs which can cause further damage to their physical health.
  • Individuals may not feel in control of their own lives and may feel enslaved by their condition. Having OCD can make an individual feel ashamed of themselves and how they behave. They may worry that they are going to think like this forever and they can’t be treated. 
  • They may get anxious about being around others due to their condition which can cause them to become withdrawn from the world around them. This can lead to them feeling isolated and lonely.

OCD can also have an effect on an individuals daily life:

  • It get in the way of them carrying out tasks which could have an impact on their education, where they find themselves able to complete tasks in the set time due to their compulsive behaviours. 
  • Compulsive behaviours may also make it difficult to obtain, sustain and progress in a job. Individuals with OCD may avoid certain situations which can make it difficult to carry out their job properly.
  • An individual’s relationships with others can become strained. If they are with a partner who doesn’t understand the condition, this could cause disputes as they don’t understand the reasons for the individuals behaviours. 
  • Their friends and family may stay away from them when they find out about their condition due to the stigma around mental illness. This can reduce their quality of life due to lack of social interactions.
  • An individual’s obsessions and compulsions can make it difficult for them to look after others such as their children. This could lead to accidents occurring which could have a damaging effect on the parent-child relationship.

I hope that the information above is insightful. I certainly found out a lot more about the condition and just how much of an effect it can have on an individuals life.

research

How much do we actually know about mental health disorders? – Survey results

It was recently mental health awareness week, where organisations and influential individuals highlight the importance of looking after your own mental wellbeing and considering the effects of mental illness on an individual. This got me thinking about the term mental health awareness itself, and what it means to possess it.

We are increasingly seeing more people speaking out about their own experiences with mental illness, with big celebrities such as Adele recently discussing aspects of living with post-natal depression. I believe that as a nation we are becoming more aware of conditions such as stress, depression and anxiety, whilst considering the effect these can have on an individuals day-to-day life. This is only a good move in my opinion and a increase in awareness will hopefully help to beat the current stigma that individuals with a mental illness face on a daily basis.

But carrying on from this, I wonder how much the public know about other mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia? Personally I don’t see much information being disseminated about other mental illnesses that aren’t depression or anxiety. But it’s just as important that individuals are informed about all mental illness to challenge all forms of stigma.

I wanted to find out how much individuals felt they knew about a range of different mental health disorders. In order to do this I designed a little survey and posted this online. It asked participants to indicate on a scale (ranging from ‘nothing’ to ‘a lot’) how much they felt they knew about a number of mental health disorders, from depression to obsessive compulsive disorder. It then followed this up with two questions asking them if they would like to know more about the mental disorders mentioned and if they thought it would be beneficial for them. The results of this survey are outlined below:

Eighty one people took part in this survey. With regards to their perceived knowledge on a range of mental health disorders, the results are outlined below. The figure shows the average knowledge score and where this is placed upon the scale. The mental disorders mentioned have been sorted from most known about to least known about.

To be honest, I was not that surprised with the results. As I thought, individuals felt that they knew more about disorders such as depression and anxiety. I don’t know exactly why this is the case, but I could speculate that this is because these are more widely spoken about as opposed to illnesses such as dementia and schizophrenia. The next figures show the percentage responses to the two questions posed at the end of the survey:

The results above seem to be positive, with only 12% of participants indicating that they would not like to learn more about the mental disorders mentioned. On reflection I wondered if these people already felt that they knew a lot about all the disorders mentioned so they don’t see the purpose of learning more? Something to think about…

Further to this, 70% indicated that they see the benefit of learning more about the range of mental health disorders mentioned. I think this is great news and really encouraging going forward. I hope that in the future, more information is provided about all mental health disorders, not just depression and anxiety.

I realise on reflection that my previous posts on this blog have focused heavily on anxiety and depression. I aim to provide more information on a wider range of mental health disorders in my blog posts going forward. I hope you found these results as interesting and promising as I did.

Stay safe x

Advice and tips, Understanding

Are you struggling with stress? – The signs you should look out for

Stress refers to an individuals reaction to being put under pressure. For us human beings, it is totally normal to encounter stress on a daily basis. Only the other day I was stressed rushing about the house trying to find something. I then proceeded to step on a plug which definitely didn’t help the situation, leading to a string of expletives rolling out my mouth (sorry mum!).

Although in some situations, stress can be useful as it can motivate action (like a flight or fright response), the charity Rethink Mental illness suggests that too much of it can also make us ill.  But when is the amount of stress an issue? Obviously, different people can handle varying amounts of stress, but below is a list of indicators and symptoms of stress to look out for. 

  • Sleep issues – Some individuals may feel tired all the time, while others may have difficulties with being able to sleep.
  • Headaches – Constant stress can also cause some individuals to have headaches or migraines.
  • Changes in thought patterns – Those experiencing extreme or long periods of stress may start to feel depressed or even experience suicidal thoughts. 
  • Changes in behaviour – The feelings of stress can feel overwhelming and lead to an otherwise calm individual becoming irritable or aggressive towards themselves or others. The sense of dread that stress can create can also lead to an individual losing their sense of humour, as they struggle to cope with the burden. 
  • Feelings of anxiety – Stress is often associated with nervous feelings and anxiety. For example, the stress of preparing for an exam can make an individual feel nervous to complete it.
  • Loss of interest – Stress can also make individuals feel a loss of interest in their relationships and hobbies. 
  • Restlessness – Struggling with stress can lead an individual to constantly worry, which can result in restlessness or fidgeting (such as nail biting).
  • Indecisiveness – Some may find it difficult to make decisions due to the constant worry that they feel.
  • Lifestyle changes – Some may cope with stress by engaging in unhealthy behaviours, such as drinking too much or taking drugs.

Stress can have the ability to interfere with and influence an individuals physical and mental well-being. Exposure to prolonged amounts of stress can contribute to a number of health issues. These issues can include, the development of mental illness, weakening of the immune system or the worsening of current health conditions such as asthma.

If you find yourself able to relate to the points explained above, you may need help and support for your stress. Luckily there’s a lot of information and support online, which I think would be a great first port of call. Here’s a list of resources on stress and forms of self-help which I hope are useful:

Mood juice – This is a great in depth self-help book. You can print it out and complete the exercises that aim to identify and challenge the sources of your stress.

What is stress? – Another detailed guide on stress and its causes by the UK charity Mind.

Stressbusting– This website has an extensive list of treatments for stress and how they work, from yoga to mindfulness

Stress management society – This website has a stress test, to indicate your current levels of stress and whether they are dangerously high. They have so many resources here to help manage your stress, including free guides and printable colouring books. 

As it’s mental health awareness week, I think there’s no better time to raise awareness of stress and the effect too much of it can have on our wellbeing. It’s important to keep checking in with yourself and how you are feeling each day. If you are feeling overwhelmed it may be time to take a step back, identify the sources of your stress and reach out for support (whether this be from yourself or others).

Advice and tips, My Experiences

Your mental wellbeing – When should you seek help?

First of all, I hope you are all keeping well in these weird times. I rarely read and watch the news these days but whenever I do catch it I never see them addressing or talking about the mental health aspects of the coronavirus situation (although do feel free to correct me on this if I’m wrong). Mental wellbeing is something that needs to be talked about more, especially at this current time. It’s totally understandable to feel like you’re struggling with your wellbeing given the current situation.

Something that I have personally found difficult in the past is understanding when to seek help with your mental wellbeing. And sadly I can’t provide you with any concrete guidelines of when to do so in this post. Everybody is different; different environments, different minds and different characteristics. Your mental wellbeing is personal to you and knowing when you should seek help is something that is also a personal decision you have to make, based on your own views and beliefs. When I was younger and struggling with my own mental well-being, I thought I wasn’t suffering enough to warrant seeking help and support. I thought only those people who were acting strange or being manic should get help, how naïve was I.

I thought for those who need it, I would provide a list of factors I feel could be indicators that you may need a bit of support for your mental wellbeing. I am be no means a professional; the indicators below are purely based on my own previous experiences.

  1. You notice changes in your own behaviour – these changes may not always be ones you find good or healthy. You may be more snappy towards others or lethargic and finding it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. You may also become dependant on something such as alcohol to get through the day.
  2. A person you trust has expressed concern – An example may be a friend or family member asking you if you’re okay because you seem a bit down. Notice I use the word ‘trust’ here. A lot of people can fling around insults like ‘you’re crazy’ without thinking about the consequences.
  3. You avoid doing things you normally would do – for me, I started to avoid going out to see friends or going to busy places because I knew this would trigger my anxiety. Although avoidance feels good in the short term, it may not be the best solution long term.
  4. Basic functioning becomes difficult – For example, you may find eating a meal or going to sleep challenging.
  5. You can’t see a way out – When you are struggling, it can be difficult or impossible to see that light at the end of the tunnel.

I think that ultimately, I just got ‘a feeling’ in my gut that I was struggling and that prompted me to seek support for my own mental wellbeing. If you find yourself struggling I would always recommend seeking help from a professional as a first port of call. But counselling may not be feasible for everyone for a variety of reasons so here’s a few other techniques I’ve used to help support my own mental wellbeing over the past few years:

  1. If you feel comfortable in doing so, try talking with a person you trust (maybe a friend or family member). Sometimes talking can help ease your worries and you will have an extra person to help you tackle the issues and discuss your options with.
  2. Try Mindfullness. I know this may not be for everyone, even I was a bit skeptical at first. But I have practised guided meditations on a free mobile app called Headspace and I have found them to be beneficial for me.
  3. Be active and try to exercise every day, no matter how little (just do what you feel up to). If you don’t feel able to leave your home there are loads of workouts on youtube that you can take part in without going outside. There is also an app I’ve used previously called down dog which is offering free home yoga classes for beginners until the beginning of June.
  4. Listen to a podcasts, there are some great mental health ones out there. I find it can help to hear others talking about their struggles and discussing how they have overcome them.
  5. Check out cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This therapy can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave about certain situations. Although it’s typically done in a talking environment with a counsellor, I have recently started working through this book and I have found it interesting challenging myself and my own beliefs. Hopefully it will be beneficial to me in the longterm!

I hope that some of the things I’ve discussed in this post are helpful to you or someone you know. I regard mental wellbeing as something that needs continuous support and work, like working your muscles at the gym. I was surprised by just how beneficial indulging in a little ‘mind-time’ each day was for my mental wellbeing.

What techniques do you use to support your mental wellbeing? I’d love to know below 🙂

Stay safe x