Image description: a wall of green leaves with the words “and breath” on a neon pink sign.
Lockdown has returned—once more unto the breach, I suppose. Add to that post-fifth-week blues and feeling blue in general, and it’s shaping up to be a tough month. For many, the previous lockdown was extremely challenging, and going back into another one will be very difficult. Lockdown precludes us from many of our typical activities, slows down our exercise, and disconnects us from our friends and family. So it’s vital we prioritise our wellbeing during this time while looking out for our ourselves and our friends.
There are many things I have found useful at uni to help with my mental and physical health, but ultimately I always find starting with the basics to be key: eating healthily, sleeping well, and getting some exercise. Of course, this sounds patronising and also pretty obvious, but the research is clear: making sure we do these three things—which we often tend to skip during our busy Oxford terms—is vital.
I’m a particular fan of running, which is one of the few methods of exercise left for us during November, and which was enthusiastically taken up across the country last lockdown. Not only does it provide exercise (and post-run endorphins), but it allows me to get outside, breathe some fresh air, and reconnect with nature.
For those in Oxford, I’d recommend having a run around uni parks or Christ Church meadows—or, if you’re feeling more ambitious, Port Meadow offers a lovely 10k route (although beware its propensity to flooding!) There are also plenty of beautiful runs down the canals and rivers of Oxford, especially the Thames (all the way down to Donnington Bridge and beyond is a particular favourite). If you’re near Cowley, Lye Valley Nature Reserve, South Parks, and Shotover woods are all marvellous running options.
For me, committing to going on regular runs is a commitment to take some time for myself, which is a vital part of warding off 5th week blues and finding contentment in a busy term – as we all tend to learn the hard way. But you can do this in many, many ways, even if running just isn’t for you.
For example, one thing I’ve found particularly useful is mindfulness meditation. I’m sure for many this comes across weird and very unfamiliar. But it’s actually pretty simple: it’s all about checking in with your mind and body and seeing how you’re doing.
Nevertheless, I know many will still think this ridiculous and may well roll their eyes. So here’s a neat analogy: I’m diabetic, and one of the key things I need to do to look after my health is to check my blood sugars regularly. When I do this, I’m checking in with my body, and seeing whether the sugar levels are too high, too low, or just right.
Mindfulness is exactly the same: we use mindfulness techniques to figure out what’s going on in our bodies and minds. What’s particularly useful about both my blood sugar monitor and mindfulness techniques is that by checking regularly, I can tell I’m headed in the wrong direction before it happens. When my blood sugars are headed high or low, I can predict this in advance and counter it by injecting insulin. And when I’m getting stressed, frantic, sad, lonely, or angry, I can stop this from coming to fruition by engaging in the right sort of activity: sleeping, eating, exercising, seeing friends, taking some time to myself, phoning my family…
Mindfulness has been validated by very strong scientific evidence in recent years; I’d definitely recommend giving it a go if you never have. If you’re interested, I’ve written more about the Oxford Mindfulness Centre’s brilliant (and, for Oxford students, very reasonably priced) Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy course here. This was what introduced me to CBT, mindfulness, and meditation, the latter two have been key to my wellbeing over the last year.
For me, running also acts as a source of mindfulness, giving my mind a chance to have a break and unplug from everything else. Similarly, I’ve really enjoyed doing yoga in my room—and, sometimes, on the grass—to help with my mindfulness. It’s a really great way to de-stress and take some time off for oneself. Yoga is also intricately linked with meditation—you can read a brilliant article about this here. It also happens to be a great form of holistic exercise which not only stretches you, prevents you from injury, and improves your balance, but which strengthens you greatly.
While mindfulness and yoga can be really helpful, I’m someone who needs to have my problems listened to. When I’m feeling low, I try to talk openly and immediately about it to my friends. Often it may feel weak to be vulnerable, but this couldn’t be more wrong: being open and vulnerable takes bravery and courage. Brené Brown’s brilliant TED talk beautifully explains why vulnerability is so important.
Ultimately, when we let our problems sit in our mind, they ricochet around and often lead to rumination (constantly thinking about an issue) and catastrophising (imagining rather unlikely pessimistic outcomes), both of which are significant causes of anxiety and depression, alongside other neurodivergencies. I find it helpful to get these problems out of my mind and into the world—just feeling as though one has been listened to can be a great source of help, but having others listen can also challenge the overly-critical and uncompassionate thoughts many of us direct at ourselves.
Sometimes you don’t want to talk to a friend, and that’s fine. You can speak to Oxford’s diverse team of Peer Supporters across Colleges and Departments—your JCR/MCR will undoubtedly have some. I know from experience just how useful they can be, partly because I am one. And, since the peer support training is experiential (read: we had to tell one another our problems), I essentially was gifted with free peer support/therapy for 2.5 hours a week during Hilary Term last year. It was fantastic for me. As our instructor (and a trained psychotherapist at the University Counselling Services) told us, we should all be getting therapy, whether or not we’re suffering from a mental health disorder. So I’d certainly recommend peer supporters in the first instance.
Many people I know feel that going to friends or peer supporters for help or to discuss things that are getting them down will be a burden. And while I’m sure there are some people who are less good at listening, I can say from experience that most friends want to help if they can. And peer supporters underwent 24 hours of training specifically for this. But even if I know this, I still tend, in my low moments, to imagine that no one is there to help. When this happens, I always remind myself to think how I would feel if a friend came to me for help: I’d want to be there for them, and I’d be glad they asked me.
This leads to a general point I think it’s worth stressing. When we’re not doing so well, we’re much worse at getting help and doing things to help ourselves feel better: when I’m stressed with work or in a slump, I don’t go for runs, I eat poorly, and I sacrifice sleep (or oversleep). So I, like all people, need to have a plan for when things go wrong. Or, to use an analogy I read, you should weave your parachute before you jump out of the plane.
Oxford’s relentless environment is great when it all goes right; however, when something begins to go wrong, it’s often too difficult to catch up because you just don’t have time to weave your safety net during the term. Once we’re falling, we can’t weave our parachutes; once thrust into Oxford life, it’s often too difficult to create good habits, challenge bad ones, and adapt our schedules to allow for the change we need. So it’s vitally important that we weave our safety nets before lockdown and Oxford catch up with us.
And in that regard, there are plenty of welfare resources available for us. Oxford has subscriptions to both the Big White Wall and TogetherAll, which are apps made by mental health professionals and psychotherapists to help us out. We also have the University Counselling Service, which offers free counselling to all students as well as great workshops and talks—the psychology department also put on regular useful talks about mental health.
Many Colleges also have their own counsellors and/or welfare officers, as well as a Chaplain and a welfare lead. JCRs and MCRs will also have Welfare Officers and peer supporters, which are really useful. And the University has just launched its Mental Health Task force, which means that there will be plenty more support coming in the next couple years.
But that’s not all. There are plenty of brilliant support lines out there, including Oxford Nightline, the Samaritans (call 116 124), and Shout Crisis Text Line (text ‘shout’ to 85258), amongst many others. You can call Oxford nightline at night time if you want someone to chat to or don’t feel safe coming home. Similarly, you can call Samaritans 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for “confidential support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair”.
Fifth week is over, but the coming month and the end of term will be challenging, and it may be a difficult festive period too. During this time, we must remember that every single one of us is an important and valued member of the Oxford community, and we all matter. So please, take care of your mates, and, more than anything, take care of yourselves.
A full list of mental health resources can be found here:
Samaritans: 116 123 (24hrs a day, 7 days a week—”confidential support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair”)
Oxford Nightline: Chat via instant messenger: http://oxfordnightline.org/open-im (open 8pm to midnight)
Shout Crisis Text Line: Text ‘Shout’ to 85258 (24hrs a day, 7 days a week—”for anyone in a crisis anytime, anywhere”)
Mind: 0300 123 3393 (open 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday)
Mental Health during coronavirus: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/coronavirus/coronavirus-and-your-wellbeing/
Online Mental Health Tools (Mind): https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/online-mental-health/online-mental-health-tools/
LGBT Foundation: https://lgbt.foundation/
Mental Health Awareness Week: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week
Image credit: Max van den Oetelaar