At the time of writing this, I’ve been off campus for well over four weeks and I’m terribly depressed.
Not because my marks were bad, mind you, but because I’ve been so focussed on uni that its absence has become something of a niggling void, like poking your gum where a tooth used to be, or when hiccups disappear but you still expect one.
Rather than celebrating the end of uni, reading all those books I told myself I would, catching up on TV I missed and projects, hobbies and chores I neglected, I’ve become an unmotivated, morose lump. I’m without purpose.
Turns out I’m not the only one.
When you’re caught up in the savage guts of the uni year, the summer break seems like utopia. We long for it, plan for it and use its alluring glimmer to get us through. Then, when it arrives, we collapse and waste it.
I caught up with University of Newcastle counsellor Richard Thorpe and, his colleagues, Dr Emma Kerr and Dr Cate France, to discuss a few tactics on how students can give themselves some summer self-care.
So, why isn’t lying prone on the lounge, snacking on dry ramen and binge watching the entire Veronica Mars back catalogue an appropriate summer goal? Emma believes that the summer break is the perfect time to “develop healthy routines you would like to continue into the new year” while also maintaining the successful ones from last semester.
Richard goes further, suggesting that creating an “enriched environment” during your break will help shore up your mental health, making you more resilient to the pressure when uni goes back next year.
This could be the perfect opportunity to stop leaving yourself little notes to ‘get your shit together’ and actually get it together.
Maintain or Develop Routines
For Richard, the summer is a perfect opportunity to get our lives back in balance, something “we do need, but is not doable all the time. There are certain times, such as exam periods, where lifestyle balance just isn’t tenable.” It’s ok to ignore or de-prioritise the other things in your life for a short period in order to focus on university, “but it can’t become a chronic thing.”
So, take this time to re-balance yourself and start developing, or re-introducing healthy routines. Emma advises to “start with one small change” at a time which you try to maintain, before adding another, rather than do “a complete overhaul you can only maintain for a few days.” Cate suggests to “go gently and slowly and balance that with lots of exercise outside.”
Exercise and Diet
If you’ve been neglecting exercise for the exam period, the entire semester, or, in my case, the whole damn year, this period is a great time to re-introduce some good habits. Physical movement and exercise are directly linked to mental health. Richard suggests you “move your body for at least 20 minutes most days” with “outside being best as you also get a hit of Vitamin D.” Cate adds that “getting outdoors has many health benefits, including lowering stress levels and blood pressure.”
Now is also a good time to improve your diet after potentially living on a mean slurry of caffeinated garbage.
Eat more nutritious food and limit the junk. Richard is quick to point out that he is no dietician but “you can’t go wrong with more vegetables.”
Challenge and Novelty
Richard recommends that you use this time to challenge yourself and introduce novelty into your life, to “habitually nudge yourself out of your comfort zone.”
Perhaps you can use this time to volunteer, conquer a fear or introduce a new hobby. Richard advises that this is also a prime opportunity to travel. “You very rarely have this opportunity to have a three-month vacation” so, if you can travel, you should take advantage of this life building experience.
“It’s a quarter of a year! Don’t waste it playing Xbox.” Make sure you take some time to debrief, wind down, relax and reflect, but not the whole break.
Richard also emphasises the importance of “novelty”.
“Do something new. Enrich your brain by exposing it to new things daily.”
While university is definitely ‘something new’ for many of us, once you’re on break its very easy to fall into an old rut or bad habit. Doing something new, even if it’s taking a different route to work, or wearing your watch on the other wrist, can exercise and invigorate your brain. You can do anything from learning a new language, a new recipe, teach yourself a card trick, try knitting, or even build a Backwards Brain Bike, something that jilts you out of your cognitive rut.
Values and Inspiration
Emma recommends that you spend the time connecting to your values.
“Checking in with your values can help you make decisions about what to do based on what is most important to you. Values are the big picture, the things that really matter to us deep down, such as what kind of person we want to be and what gives our lives meaning and purpose.”
Richard reiterates that this is the perfect time to get inspired and concentrate on the ‘big picture’ after months of focussing on small chunks of assessment. Being in the rut of churning out assignments, looking at job prospects and the general rigmarole of student life can make you a bit myopic and lose sight of your wider goals.
“There’s so much you can do once you leave university,” says Richard, “Get back in touch with that idea or that person that inspired you, and reconnect with WHY you’re doing this degree.” University is just a step towards a broader goal, but we can lose sight of this, and get trapped in the uni life until it dominates everything. “People get themselves into a limited mindset and stop thinking big.” Revisit a book, a podcast or watch a TED talk by someone who is doing something amazing in your field and “get your mind back into the big picture.”
Laughter and Love
Richard is keen to promote the benefits of experiencing laughter and human love. The benefits of laughter are enormous, there is even Laughter Yoga, so “be playful and have fun every day,” and have a good giggle for your health.
Maintaining and nurturing your human connections is also important. “Reconnect with friends at home, and maintain connections with uni friends” suggests Richard. There are surely people you haven’t seen in a while if your nose has been in a book, “sometimes you need to reach out and reconnect.”
Don’t forget your family, either, including “brothers, sisters, aunties and uncles. Give them a bit of time, as well.”
Finally, Richard implores you not to forget to love yourself. If this is hard for you, you might want to “look up Kristin Neff and practise some self-acceptance and self-compassion.”
Choose Your Own Adventure
The best thing about all this is it can be a bit of a ‘choose your own adventure’, and you can combine different strategies.
Why not get your friends over, and play some board games? Go for a bush walk and listen to an inspiring podcast or two. Knit a scarf and give it to your auntie.
Emma is a practitioner of AcroYoga, Richard enjoys yoga, martial arts and tennis, while Cate is a sailor – you don’t have to go to the gym or do anything you don’t enjoy to crowbar some exercise in your life. Pick the strategies that work for you and do things that aren’t a chore, but you actually want to keep in your routine.
Emma recommends the app ‘Fabulous: Motivate me!’ “which walks you through setting small goals to create a healthy daily routine. It’s evidence based, interactive and fun to use.” You can find this on the AppStore and Google Play.
Personally, I’ve started walking in the morning, I’m revisiting the gym and started a small garden of succulents. I’ve been revisiting the writers and social justice movements that got me here in the first place. I also think I might dabble in a bit of yoga… but maybe next week. Baby steps after all.
Remember, if you’re feeling a bit low, unmotivated or just need a pep talk the University counselling service is super top-notch. Maybe contacting them could be you stepping outside your comfort zone and doing something new?