Monday, 28 November 2016

Tackling the Broadgate Tower Stair Climb

Katherine writes about why she chose to take on the Broadgate Tower stair climb and fundraise to support Student Minds' work.
 -  Katherine Hockley

Mental health is still a uniquely scary thing. When it’s not a physical affliction, when it’s an invisible illness, there’s always the worry that it won’t be taken seriously or that there is no definitive cure.

My legs hurt.

Preparing for this 877 step stair climb has certainly been a test of will. I leave for work at 8am and get home at 7pm, so it’s been pretty tricky fitting in the ol’ fitness training regime.

But I’ve certainly tried. My boyfriend looked on in dismay as I did 100 squats a day in his room, and cursed me for forcing him to do Shaun T’s notoriously gruelling Insanity workout every couple of days.

In fact, my legs really hurt. Who knew I had muscles in my inner thighs? Certainly not me. But I understand that the pain I’m currently feeling is nothing to that I used to feel when suffering from depression at university.

I was actually first diagnosed with depression at 17, but it came raging back at 19 during my first year within Higher Education. I’d moved away from home and have always suffered with chronic shyness, so I was understandably nervous about the social aspect of university. But I assumed it’d be fine, and I packed off happily to Sheffield for the next three years of my life. In reality, it was a major shock to the system and I did not deal with the tumultuous change very well.  

Without getting into too many details, I was drinking heavily and self-harming. At one point I got gastritis, which basically means I drank so much booze that my stomach lining became severely inflamed. If I had even a sip of alcohol I would be doubled up in pain, and it lasted a very long time. So not only was I depressed, I had to stop drinking, which was my one and only crutch in my battle against social anxiety and unhappiness. Midway through the first academic year, I was barely leaving my room and didn’t attend any lectures. This in turn meant I wasn’t making any friends on my course, which made me even more miserable. When I did attend the odd class, I sat alone and left immediately after, feeling deflated and angry with myself for being so different.  

Slipping through the cracks at university is painfully easy to do, especially if you’re quiet and have a very small support network. However, I was lucky enough to have an incredibly responsive and helpful mental health service provided by my university, and this is probably the only reason I didn’t drop out and end up in an even more dire situation.

So when Student Minds presented to us in our All Staff Meeting, I couldn’t help but choke up and quickly force myself to brush away a few tears. These kinds of charities and this type of work is so sorely needed that I made a note on the organisation and vowed to send an email signing up to the Stair Climb.

Being me, I immediately forgot and it wasn’t until a few weeks later that it struck me to send that email. Once I had, I spread the word on Facebook and the donations came rolling in.

Mental health is such an important issue that it demands everyone’s attention. Climbing up and training for an 877 stair climb is a holiday compared to going through the vast upheaval that university life can bring. Charities like this can fill the gap where student services are lacking, and I’m always glad to see these kinds of causes thriving. Mental health is still a uniquely scary thing. When it’s not a physical affliction, when it’s an invisible illness, there’s always the worry that it won’t be taken seriously or that there is no definitive cure.

By undertaking this challenge, by discussing my past and by writing this blog I hope that people understand that mental illness can affect anybody and everybody, regardless of age. It must not be taken lightly, and mental health is an uphill battle that doesn’t always have a finish line. I still struggle with anxiety, recently relapsing and being put back on anti-anxiety medication.  

But because it is such a difficult thing to tackle it needs extra care and attention. The happy-go-lucky, lazy stereotype that is often conjured up when we think of students needs to be re-addressed, by care professionals as well as their peers. Knowing that you’re going to be taken seriously is crucial in young people coming forward and getting the help they need, and organisations like Student Minds will make this a lot easier for those suffering now and in the future.

So instead of raising a glass to Student Minds, I raise a foot. And the other. 877 times, in quick succession…

Christ, my legs ache even writing about it.  Wish me luck.

We did it!!! 

Monday, 21 November 2016

Freshers' Week for a tee-totaler

Cecilia writes about how she dealt with university life when her tee-totalism was causing her to be singled out

I knew university wasn’t going to be like the way it’s portrayed in the films.

You know, the Pitch Perfect, Legally Blonde situation where you get accepted for who you are, somehow get on Dean’s List without doing any work and end up kissing someone amazingly hot during the closing song. That’s not the way life works, I get that.

But if you had told me that university was going to be bleak and nasty as it was, I probably would have begged my parents not to make me go, and I would have joined a convent….in Tibet.

I knew that university was going to be particularly hard for me. I’ve always been slightly out of step, bullying being a constant chorus in the musical that is “The Life of Cecilia”. But I thought at university, at least that would stop - we’re all adults now, right? We might not like each other, but we wouldn’t treat each other badly…would we?

My main issue was the fact that, at 18 years old, I was a tee-total. I know, odd. But I had my reasons, personal ones that I don’t have to share with anyone. I had never drunk so much as a unit of alcohol before moving to university. I knew the five girls I was going to be moving in with would think that was very strange and might have some questions, but that would be it. Sure, we might not become BFFs, but I was fine with that. We just had to get along.

I hoped to hide in my boringness, my anonymity. I was the court jester of our flat, ridiculed and insulted. I was ostracised, treated like a second class citizen and made to feel like a prisoner who had committed some terrible offence. It wasn’t like the school bullying, I didn’t get to go home at the end of the day, curl up on my bed and watch ‘Friends’. I had to live with them as they whispered whenever I left a room. Eat with them while they side-eyed each other whenever I said anything. Go to lectures with them while they texted each other about me. All because of the type of liquid I chose not to put into my body, something that didn’t even affect them. Please understand, I had no problem with other people drinking, I wasn’t preaching in the slightest, it just wasn’t for me - the same way some people don’t eat meat or don’t smoke. So why was it such a bit deal? My only possible explanation was that humans hate what is different.

At university I was meant to be free, but I was trapped. I was meant to be living my life to the full, but I was just existing by this point.

The saddest part of it all wasn’t losing my friends. It was losing me. I started to believe all the things they thought about me, began to question all my basic beliefs and values. Began to hate the very person I was. That self-hatred led to a deep, dark pit depression and regret, something I told no one about. Even now, three years later, it’s really hard to admit, which I know it shouldn’t be.

So I moved out. I begged a room out of the university and with the help of a couple of amazing friends, slammed the door on that part of my life for good. It took a good while, years really, but I began to feel again. I eventually got help and went on anti-depressants and went to mental health classes. I surrounded myself with the people who I loved and loved me back, and things got easier.

Thing is, I know I started this by saying I knew life isn’t like films. But I have been accepted for who I am, I just had to find the right people. I have been on Dean’s List every year, I just had to do the work. Ending up with the perfect guy? A few mis-steps later, I’m still working on that, but that’s okay. Because I’m so happy now.

So my advice to lonely Fresher’s? Hang on in there. Stay strong. First it hurts, then it gets better, then it feels like freedom. Talk to someone, even an anonymous voice on the end of a helpline. Get fresh air. Eat. Go to your lectures. Find good people, don’t settle. Accept yourself. I got through, you can.

For more information on starting university, click here.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

I Am More Than My Mental Health

For many students, University is a time to "find yourself". For Caitlin, this meant finding an identity beyond her mental illness...
- Caitlin Bracken

I used to only see myself in terms of my mental health. Honestly, I saw myself as a failure; someone who couldn’t cope with what everyone else seemed to find so simple.

I was the girl who fell apart in French lessons, couldn’t stammer out an answer in History and, for some unknown reason, found a way to flourish in Sociology – but even then, on the dark days, my word-tap would switch off. (The word-tap being the best analogy I can think of to describe how anxiety can just turn you silent at the drop of a hat: like the turning off of a tap.) I saw myself as that girl; the girl who couldn’t cope.

It’s taken a long time for me to realise that I am not defined by my mental health, but I’m getting there. I have come to terms with the fact that my anxiety will rear its ugly head from time to time. It means that, afterwards, I can accept that it happened and move on; not that this makes the panic attack any easier at the time!

If I forget my planned response and stammer over a few words, I am better at realising it’s not the end of the world. I know that I have the power to keep going, or to just stop if that’s the choice I want to make.

It’s okay for me to decline every invitation to join in student nightlife; although this is partially linked to my fear of losing control, when I’m not in a familiar place, clubbing simply isn’t my cup of tea. That’s okay.

I’m so much more than the girl who wrung her hands to infinity and beyond. Nowadays, if I feel the need to fall back on that, I’ll pull a tube of hand cream from my bag and use this once-destructive action to do something productive. Sometimes, in school, I’ll lean on the old favourite, “hands in a basket.” Although making me look like I’m trying to be prim and proper, it doesn’t give away any clues.

I also work hard to fill my head with other things, like sock animals. They’ve become my speciality, and I’m proud that something so quirky and beautiful could have come from my need to occupy my time. I know where busy stops and manic starts, so distractions are key.

I’m more than my silence. After reading Susan Cain’s incredible account of introversion “Quiet: Growing up as introvert in a world that can’t stop talking”, I’ve learned to celebrate my introversion. I like being quiet. I enjoy social gatherings that aren’t overcrowded and intimidating. I would never have dreamed of being a writer, if I hadn’t learned to use my own company to my advantage.

Ploughing through books isn’t so easy in a mass of people either. I don’t have the extrovert buzz of being around others, but I’m realising how this can be an advantage. My introversion and anxiety have a strange, complex relationship, but for the most part (not always) they seem to work well together. This was not always the case, but right now it’s working out well.

There’s enough information out there about university being the place to find yourself, so I’m not going to turn this into a deep (yet obviously one-sided) conversation about discovering myself. It seems obvious now that I’m more than my mental health, and yet it’s something that is so difficult to remind myself of on difficult days.

When I look in the mirror, there is no stamp on my forehead that says “ANXIOUS ABOUT EVERYTHING,” because this isn’t the case all the time. Yet even if it was - and it certainly used to be - there still wouldn’t be visible clues as to the world inside my head.

I am Caitlin. I happen to have issues with my mental health, but I am not my mental health.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Freshers’ Week, for the anxious introvert

Caitlin shares her experience as a fresher at university, and offers some advice to anyone feeling the same way.

-Caitlin Bracken

If I’m honest, with the struggle I was having at the end of my A-levels, for me to get to uni – my first-choice, and with flying colours too – was nothing short of a miracle. I’m now studying for the course I’ve always wanted to do, among people who are like me (although not exactly like me, for reasons you’ll soon be reading) for the first time. We’re all heading in the same direction, and it’s great. Things are going so well, now that my course has started, and the hell of Freshers’ is over (sorry, to those of you who found it exhilarating; a sacred time to forge new relationships!).

Before I moved in, I thought (perhaps naively) that during Freshers’ week it would be easy to find my fellow non-partygoers. Evidently, I didn’t think this through, because I conveniently forgot to factor in some pretty important factors:
  • All the non-partygoers are probably a little like me, in that they’d rather go to bed early (by uni standards at least) than spend all hours of the night and early morning in a club. Meaning that when the party crowd went out, we were never going to find each other!
  • Having anxiety made me 102% unwilling to go out of my room when things were getting extremely rowdy and alcohol-fuelled, out on the corridor. And even less willing to try and find any new friends once things had finally quietened down. 

I also didn’t bank on not-drinking being the cardinal sin of starting university. I didn’t expect there to be so much social expectation to drink. I suppose I was being na├»ve when I imagined it would be a simple task to find the people who weren’t drinking. It was nigh on impossible – in fact I didn’t find another person like me in this sense until my course started, a full nine days after I moved into Halls.  Student drinking culture wasn’t something that I thought I would find so intimidating! 

Surprisingly, it wasn’t the first night but the second that I found the hardest. I felt like the only person on campus, which I know was only the musing of an anxious mind, but that didn’t make the thought any less real at the time. It was the first time I’d felt truly lonely. I remember pacing the length of my long corridor from one end to the other, feeling like my chest was on fire. I’d have done anything to keep on walking til I was home. But as usual, the rational part of my brain took over and led me back to my room behind the safety of a locked door, with a cup of tea and a hot water bottle. 

I made it through Freshers’ quite independently, as is too often the case with mattes of mental health, my own especially. I did a lot of reading, I continued making sock monkeys (because it’s what I do best and is my favourite therapeutic activity), and I enjoyed the peace of early morning, when my flatmates were mostly still asleep.

I don’t want it to be a negative post, a moan about how much I’ve struggled at university to juggle my mental health with transitioning to a new life. Nor do I want to condemn the people who live Freshers’ Week to the fullest and take every event as a new socialising experience. If I was a drinker, I probably wouldn’t say no to £1 shots either. I don’t know if I did Freshers’ wrong, or just differently to the vast, vast majority. But there have been some excellent perks too, such as assembling an Ikea flat pack at half past ten in the evening, with a new friend and very limited instructions (possibly the best “icebreaker” I did all week), meeting my course tutors who reminded me of some of my most supportive sixth form teachers and were even more inspiring, if that’s possible, and discovering the education stack in the campus library.

Coming to uni was without doubt the best thing I’ve ever done – my confidence has skyrocketed and my anxiety, for the most part, has been under strict control. I just wish that my Freshers’ experience hadn’t been so… introverted. Am I wishing I was different? I’m not sure. I don’t think I’d like to swap places with people who partied until dawn and got on the wrong side of their tutors from day one for missing important induction lectures! Maybe what I’m wishing for is that I hadn’t been so afraid to open up and come clean about myself, and perhaps find like-minded people across the campus much sooner. 

The rational part of my brain is back, the one which reminded me to go back to bed on that difficult, anxious night when I needed to cope by myself; and I did cope, so that’s okay. It wasn’t the total disaster of a night I first saw it as. 

In a piece like this, I feel like I should be giving some kind of advice. I’m not built for this, forgive me if I’m too wordy or too boring. I think for first years like me, the best advice I could give would be to step out of your comfort zone earlier. Despite how intimidating it may feel, open up and find the people who don’t want to drink and dance until morning. Perhaps find the #BestNightIn posts a little earlier than I did, and reassure yourself that even in your little room, in an apparently empty Hall of Residence when it seems like the world is partying without you, you are not alone. 

(And definitely complain if the heating isn’t on and your building is cold!). 

Friday, 14 October 2016

My Journey with Depression

Lottie discusses her personal mental health journey, and how depression affected her time as a student.

-Lottie Thomas

To understand a person’s experience with depression you need to understand their circumstances. Everyone’s struggle is different and they find different ways to deal with it.

My journey began with my transition to uni (which was always going to be a hard one as home is such a great place for me). First year was a struggle for me but I was so happy to have completed it and was excited for my second year to begin. My depression crept up on me without me realising it, I got homesick a lot in first year so when I experienced the same feelings again I just thought I would get over it. I spent a lot of time crying on the phone to my mum telling her how much I hated my room and how noisy our neighbours were. I felt like I had nowhere I could relax and I was always on alert for something to happen. I didn’t want to tell anyone how I was feeling; I thought ‘other people have it worse than I do so I should just suck it up and get on with it’. 

Simultaneously to this, my twin sister had just started first year at university after a gap year and was really struggling. When I wasn't on the phone to my mum I was texting or answering phone calls from her and I felt like I was being pulled in all sorts of directions. Eventually I got the phone call to say that my sister had decided to leave uni and this was the first chink to my armour. Knowing my sister was at home and I was struggling on, 4 hours away, made everything so much harder.

When I was home for Christmas I was so happy, but soon I started revision for my exams in January and I started to feel the pressure again. Second year exams contributed towards our final degree mark so I felt extra pressure to get it right.

I was worried about going back to uni, and didn't think I would be able to cope with exams but I kept these feelings to myself. The turning point for me came on Christmas day when I woke up with this deep misery inside me. I couldn't stop being angry with myself for being so selfish during such a happy time of year and I couldn't understand why I couldn't snap out of it and be grateful for what I had. Before we even finished unwrapping presents I made my excuses and escaped upstairs, lay on my bed and burst into tears. My sister and mum found me and I finally told them how I was feeling. My mum reassured me that this was something we could deal with and that she would book an appointment at the doctors, however, because we were going on holiday the next day it wouldn't be for a while. 

The next two weeks were the toughest I have ever lived through. I cried every day and continued to worry about my exams and returning to uni. I started looking into dropping out of uni and my thoughts got darker and darker. I spent most days in bed and when I did get up it felt like I was dragging around this heaviness that I couldn't shift. Feelings of worthlessness began to creep into my subconscious and I became increasingly withdrawn from everything and everyone around me and suicidal thoughts began to rear their ugly head.

What happened after the holiday is a bit hazy. I got in contact with my university and they granted me mitigating circumstances so I missed my exams and took weeks after that to recuperate at home. Following an initial doctor’s appointment, which I pretty much cried my way through, I was sent to see a psychiatrist who eventually diagnosed me with having depression and anxiety. I was placed on anti-depressants and had several sessions of cognitive-behavioural therapy.  It took me 10 weeks to get back to uni and after a hard internal struggle I managed to complete second year.

Living with depression is in no way easy, but learning to deal with it can change everything. This is my journey with depression, and everyone's is different but all I can say to those going through anything be it depression, anxiety or any other mental health issue, do not live through it silently. Plucking up the courage to admit what you may be feeling is so hard but it is a huge first step and the most important. Just know you are not alone and will not be judged for how you feel. 

Thursday, 13 October 2016

9 Ways of Managing Anxiety at University

Gwennan (@20sMeltdown) offers some very useful tips for anyone starting out at university that may find themselves struggling with their anxiety. The full piece can be found on Gwennan's blog

-Gwennan Rees 

Going to university can be a stressful time for everybody, whether you're moving away from home or not, simply starting something new can be scary. But for people with anxiety this kind of change can be even more difficult. 

Here's a few tips and tricks I picked up during my three years four hours away from home. 

Everyone is new
One of the most difficult things for any person to do is to strike up a conversation with someone they don't know and in Freshers, that's what you'll spend most of your time doing. The one thing that I kept saying to myself when I got a sudden wave of panic in the lead up to moving was that everyone was in the same boat. Sure there are a few people who might've moved with friends or are local but the majority of people won't know anyone else and won't know the people they are living with. If you think you're all new and all nervous it makes you all kindred spirits before you've even summoned up the nerve to say hey. 

If someone invites you to an event or to come sit in the communal lounge, remember they're extending a hand of friendship and they want new pals too. However, know your limits and don't be afraid to turn something down if you know it won't do you any good. Been invited on a pub crawl when you don't drink and hate clubbing? It's alright to make the excuses of having to unpack and not go. All in moderation. 

You might need to work up to it and approaching people to ask 'where is so and so' is something no Brit likes to do. If you need to know where student support is or the doctors, 99% of universities have a 'Freshers' page on Facebook where you can post and ask the question and have 723578357 experienced first and second years help you in minutes. 

Know your triggers
Chances are, you will have been dealing with anxiety for years before you even get to uni, even if you hadn't realised that's what it was (I hadn't!). Knowing your triggers is vital to dealing with university life and the changes you are making. It is so important to be in tune with your mental health and know what is too much for you and how to manage things like medication when you are finding it too much. Knowing what works to bring you back down is also hugely important. Ringing my mum as I walked back from uni to digest the day was one habit I got into which helped me. 

Be prepared
If you do take medication for anxiety make sure you go to university prepared. Make sure you have in place what you need, have repeat prescriptions on order and register with your university doctor or a local GP. Don't leave anything to chance or leave it to the last minute, your stress levels will only spike if you haven't prepared what you need. 

Know how to get home
To deal with Freshers I actually went home just 3 days after moving in to halls. I went home in the induction week, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I managed to spend 3 days having the time of my life meeting new people and exploring my new town whilst knowing if I didn't like it I only had '2 more sleeps' till I was home. Then the few days I had at home I had all the FOMO seeing the fun my new friends were posting all over Facebook it made me actively excited to get back up there when the time came. Moral of the story; if home is your safe place make sure you know you can get there. And if money is tight and the train is 50 quid go and speak to the welfare office, people will not let you struggle. 

Push yourself...But don't force it!
There are so many different opportunities available to you when you go to university and it is easy to miss out on them all. Whilst I spent my three years away I had a load of chances and opportunities that triggered my anxiety, but the ones I pushed myself to do (or couldn't come up with a valid excuse not to do!) always turned out to be the best memories I have looking back. On the flip side, know when enough is enough. There is no point pushing yourself into something that will not help your mental health. Find a balance.  

Stay organised
University work itself is hard enough. Staying on top of it is vital and being organised is key to that. Write everything important down so you don't forget a deadline, manage your files, use your calendars, print off your timetable, prioritise what needs doing first and don't let the things further down the list fall to the wayside. Staying on top of your workload is probably the most important thing on the list in my opinion because staying ahead with your academia means the social living side to university and your mental wellbeing will benefit. 

Tell someone
Finally, if you ARE struggling, tell someone. Sitting in silence and not being able to break the cycle can only end badly and your mental (and probably physical) health will suffer. If you don't feel comfortable in speaking to your peers, your flatmates or your classmates, speak to someone professional. Universities have student support and welfare teams whose only job is to speak to the students and help them when they need it, in any capacity. Remember you are not the first and you won't be the last student who needs that extra help and your tutors will have seen it all and will know how to aid you. 

Dealing with anxiety is a very personal preference as each person manages it differently, just as everyone's triggers are different. Having an in depth knowledge of your mental wellbeing is key to managing your time at university but above all - enjoy yourself, it really is the most selfish, most exciting time of your life! 

Top tips for supporting a friend with an eating disorder

Chloe provides some top tips on how to be a supportive friend to someone going through the difficulties of an eating disorder.
Chloe Murray

I have never had a friend going through an eating disorder. However, I have been that friend and I know what it’s like to have people worrying about you and trying to help. Here are some top tips for those of you with friends who are experiencing the difficulties of an eating disorder.

1. Make sure your friend knows that you're always there for them, no matter what.
They might not want to talk about their feelings but just knowing that you're supporting them is the best help there is!

2. Your friend might say things they don't mean.
They might distance themselves from you and not make an effort. In the depths of an eating disorder, nothing else matters other than getting thinner. Please be patient with them, it’s hard for them to be rational and to distinguish between their own thoughts and the thoughts of their eating disorder. 

3. Your friend might lie about what they have or haven't eaten which can be frustrating.
They are only following the strict rules of their eating disorder and at times, for them, it can seem like lying is the easiest option. You have to understand that this isn't your friend talking, this is their eating disorder, which makes them do or say things they don't want to.

4. Try not to threaten them into eating.
My friends always used to threaten to "tell the teachers" if I ever skipped lunch at school in an attempt to make me eat. This just pushed me further away from them, leaving me feeling alone and unloved. At the end of the day it is down the sufferer to get better and the first step for them is wanting recovery.

5. Keep persevering. Please keep inviting them out. It can be frustrating if an invitation always gets declined. Your friend may find social activities difficult, especially if they involve food. It can be hard for them to escape their "comfort zone" and venture out from a routine in which they feel safe in. Don't give up! Your friend will probably feel guilty and left out for missing out on any social events and will hope to be included in future. 

6. Don't treat them differently.
Your friend is not defined by their eating disorder. Although it may try to mask his/her former personality, they are still the same person they used to be. Recovering from an eating disorder is all about finding other things, other than losing weight that make you happy. You can help your friend realise all the other wonderful things in life that are worth fighting for!

7. Set a good example.
Try not to talk about weight/calories/food or exercise. It is easy for someone with an eating disorder to feel guilty. They often compare themselves to others and if they feel that eating more/exercising less than others that will cause excessive guilt and perhaps become jealous of you.

I'm sure it can be so hard to support a friend going through an eating disorder and I can assure you that it is so extremely difficult for them too. I was lucky enough to have a huge support network cheering me on in my recovery and it helps a great deal! I can honestly say, without my friends and family encouraging me and inspiring me daily, putting up with my tantrums and being patient with me, I'd still be consumed by anorexia. Recovery is possible, but it takes more than just the sufferer to fight!

For more information on how to find support, click here.
For more information on how to support a friend going through a metal health issue, click here.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

7 Tips and Tricks for dealing with Anxiety

Catriona offers lots of tips to any students finding it hard to deal with their anxiety while at university.

-Catriona Lamb

I still remember my first panic attack at University like it was yesterday. My hands began to sweat as I rubbed them nervously together, exploring the contour and roughness under each touch, trying to distract my brain from what was inevitably going to happen. I gazed down at the excerpt of ‘The Wasteland’ and sucked a cold breath in, trying to regain control. 

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not  
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither  
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,  
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

As my vision began to blur I breathlessly asked my tutor if I could go outside for some air. There I was, sitting on the steps of Kennedy Hall in the middle of the worst panic attack I have ever had to date. The visceral feeling of drowning felt so terrifyingly real that I found myself gulping for air through each shattering heave that my torso would take.  I had no real friends at University, my weekend job was taking over my life, my grades had taken a real hit from the straight A’s I achieved in high school. Nothing seemed to be going to plan at all. 

There were so many times in my first year where I contemplated, perhaps even dreamed, of dropping out. Of leaving and starting in Glasgow (a place that had become a symbol of hope and freedom in my confused mind.) But I forced my way through the next two years and slowly began to feel myself again. 

Now I can happily say that I am settled and glad to be completing my final year. However, through opening up to more and more people about my experience with anxiety, and despite how I felt in my first year, I’ve realised that contrary to being alone, anxiety is such a common experience for many students. 

So what can you do when you start to feel you are struggling to keep your head above water? Here are some of the tips and tricks that I have discovered throughout my four years of dealing with anxiety. 

Count five sounds
When you start to feel anxious and your brain is working overtime, stop and count five sounds that you can hear. It sounds so simple, possibly a little patronising, but it is my way of distracting my brain so that I can get my breathing under control. A way of saying ‘listen up, brain, I am still in control of you and we’re not going to think about our impending doom, instead listen to that goddamn bird chirping in the tree.’ Works like a charm! 

Don’t go running home
As tempting as it is, I would advise you not to run off home every time you feel anxious. I went home to Edinburgh pretty much every weekend for my first semester of Uni and honestly, it really just aggravated the situation. All my school friends had moved away and I would feel even lonelier sitting in my parents house. I also missed out on a lot of weekend social activities inhibiting my settling in.
This is a GODSEND. Whenever I need to just mind-numbingly do nothing (but without all the anxious thoughts creeping in) I go on This is sand. It is just wonderfully relaxing and distracting and you can create such beautiful patterns so it doesn’t feel unproductive! 

Give up (binge) drinking
It isn’t so much the actual drunk part; it is the hangover the next day. Alcohol is a depressant, and I found my anxiety was so much worse when I was fighting through the hangover and the dehydration. 

I cannot recommend this enough. I found the colouring book craze didn’t work for me as I would get frustrated at my inability to stay in the lines. But Zentangling, I love love love. I bought some black paper and a white gel pen from Rymans and honestly, it just instantly relaxes me. There is a myriad of tutorials available online, go check it out!

Help the people around you
Someone who you’ve just met at a house party breaks down and starts crying about feeling overwhelmed. Instead of excusing yourself to the bathroom, sit with them and tell them honestly that you feel the same. It is so comforting to people to hear they are not alone, but it is also so comforting to be someone who can help another person through your life experience. Don’t be afraid to talk about your experience to help and support others as it can be hugely rewarding. 

Invite all your friends around for dinner
Throughout university, you are going to learn that there are certain people who prompt your anxiety and then others who relieve you of it. One of my favourite ways to cope with anxiety is to invite all those saintly people around, and make a big old pot of chilli or curry and listen to them babble to each other, and I just allow myself to sit and marvel at these wonderful people who have lifted me up and supported me. Plus, by cooking for them, it feels like my way of thanking them all for being there for me. This is absolutely my tonic. 

So, there you have it. My list of top tips to manage your anxiety! Whilst I hope these tips make life more manageable, please seek medical advice if you feel you need some more support. I wish you all a happy time here and remember, if you need additional help there are many supportive organisations. 

Monday, 10 October 2016

Top Tips to Support a Friend with Anxiety

It's not always easy to support a friend who's going through anxiety at university. Claire shares her top tips for how a friend can be there to help with someone's anxiety.
- Claire Eastham

Starting university is a huge change and it can often be a shock to the system, particularly if you’re living away from home. I mean, one minute you’re in your own world minding your own business... and the next BANG there are hundreds of strangers weaving around and carrying boxes.

If you suffer from anxiety, this change can trigger it. Therefore having a friend that both understands and supports you is invaluable. It’s not always easy to help someone who has anxiety. I mean there’s not exactly a certified guidebook! From experience, here are my top tips:

1. Be patient. 
Don’t try and force the person to ‘calm down’ or ‘snap out of it’. Instead encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling. The simple act of discussing what is going on inside their head can be very liberating. Don’t worry about offering therapy style advice, just allow them to talk and assure them that although you might not understand what they’re going through, you’re happy to listen.

2. Medical shizzle. 
If they haven’t already done so, advise that they make an appointment to see their local GP. This is especially important if they’ve moved away from home and no longer have easy access to medical advice. It’s standard, but vital. Offer to go with them for morale support if needed.

3. Code word. 
Saying the words ‘anxious’ and ‘anxiety’ can feel exposing. For example, before I accepted my diagnosis and felt more comfortable, I was paranoid of saying the words out loud. Therefore I devised my own secret language! My best friend and I had a special ‘code word’ that we used when I was really struggling. For example I’d text the word ‘wobble’ and she’d reply with affirmations such as; “You’ve dealt with this before and you can do it again.” “I know this is horrible, but you’re so strong.” “It will pass.” This code word can also be used in public. It’s a way to alert a friend, without attracting attention. 

4. Distract away. 
Distraction techniques are very effective and temporarily offer relief by diverting the brain away from anxious thoughts and feelings. Fyi, I’m not suggesting that you wave a baby’s rattle in their face, “look at the birdy!” Instead, maybe suggest that you go for a walk, watch a film or play a game? Phone apps are really good, but even something as simple as the alphabet game can work wonders. E.g. “Name as many girl’s names beginning with A as you can.’

5. Swat up! 
A variety of mental health organisations offer advice for caregivers on their websites. So read up when you have a spare five minutes, as this will further help you to understand what your friend is dealing with. Knowledge is power! They also have detailed explanations of the symptoms a sufferer might experience and how to deal with them.

Remember, you don’t have to be a doctor or a councillor to help someone who is suffering with anxiety. A simple ‘how are you feeling?’ or ‘would you like to talk about it?’ Can mean the world.

In the words of Randy Newman (the theme song guy from Toy Story)!
“You've got a friend in me. You've got a friend in me. When the road looks rough ahead and you're miles and miles from your nice warm bed, you just remember what your old pal said. Boy, you've got a friend in me. Yeah, you've got a friend in me”

For more tips to support a friend with their mental health, visit our Look After Your Mate guide.

Claire Eastham wrote this blog for World Mental Health Day 2016. Claire writes the Mind nominated blog WE’RE ALL MAD HERE and her upcoming book with Jessica Kingsley Publishers is available from 21st November.

Depression, Anxiety and Second Chances

Jess writes about how dealing with her own mental illness, alongside her mother's battle with cancer affected her life and her studies at university.

-Jess Said

My life changed dramatically when my mum told me she had cancer. At the start of 2016, after a lot of hospital appointments and tests, my mum was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML).

I heard the words leave her mouth but they didn’t ring true until months later, when she’d finished her treatment and was in remission. From the age of 14 up to me being 18 I had suffered terribly with anxiety and depression. It had been a long haul trying to recover and trying to get back to my old self.

I’d just turned 20 when we got the news about my mum, the dark times well behind me. I’d just started university, I had a part time job and I was in a happy relationship. There were many times during the six months of my mum’s treatment that I came close to breaking down. I would go to work, head off to university and visit my mum every day in the evening at the hospital. The days were long and the time spent without my mum were unbearable. I’d only just reached adulthood and I was terrified that I would lose my mum. I couldn’t imagine spending the next 50 years of my life without her. 

Some days I would have panic attacks in the lifts going up to my mum’s ward, terrified that something bad would’ve happened to my mum by the time I got there. My heart would pound as I rushed down the wards, desperate to be with my mum. My heart would break every time the clock struck 8pm, signalling the end of visiting hours and my time to leave.

Heading home made my heart ache. Home didn’t feel like home; it felt cold, empty, lifeless. I avoided my mum’s bedroom, avoided getting my mug out of the cupboard so I didn’t have to see my mum’s mug sitting lonely on the shelf. As soon as I got home I would call my mum, not wanting to say goodnight, terrified if she didn’t pick up the phone that something had happened to her.

I ran myself into the ground trying to keep on top of everything. The end of exams at university were a sweet relief. My mum came home soon after exams finished with the great news that the chemotherapy had worked and she was now in remission.

Spending most of my teenage years having anxiety and depression had turned me into quite a heartless person; even now I am fully recovered I still find it hard to experience emotions and I care deeply about very few people. My mum’s illness has made me tender, vulnerable and above all thankful. 

I now spend every day so grateful that I wake up in the morning surrounded with the people I love the most. The mood swings that were a permanent side effect of depression have vanished into thin air because of the realisation that life is too precious to waste by being angry at things that won’t matter tomorrow.

There is no secret way of recovering from a mental illness, nor is it an easy ride. I never thought I would be lucky enough to recover and have a happy life. I will spend my life finding happiness in the small things in life, grateful that I am here to see another day. I will love those close to me and make up for all the years I pushed them away when I was a shell of myself. 

I will love my mum unconditionally, beyond grateful that I’ve been given a second chance with her.