Going to university can be an anxious time for many young people. This year, alongside the usual worries, there will be additional concerns around social distancing and lockdowns. We spoke to GP and author Dominique Thompson, who has had almost 80,000 consultations with students in her time as a university doctor, for her tips on leaving home.
Get a good night’s sleep
Everyone focuses on diet, exercise and getting outside, but we underestimate the importance of sleep. It matters for mood, memory and your metabolism, and helps maintain your mental health. Lack of sleep is a very common issue students see their GP for, and pulling an all-nighter in a heroic manner might do you more harm than good.
Ask for help
Anxiety is one of the most common problems students seek help for. If you are feeling worried or anxious avoid turning to unhealthy coping strategies whether that’s food, alcohol, drugs, gaming or gambling. Don’t just focus on the physical signs, such as your heart racing, losing your appetite and feeling like you can’t think straight. If you can, pinpoint a reason for your anxiety – for example, it might be getting behind with work, feeling homesick or worrying about a relationship – and address the cause. If you still feel anxious you may need to speak to someone from the counselling team or your GP.
The number one thing for keeping well in a new place is building connections. This can be done through accommodation, your course, the library, volunteering, societies or the students’ union. Although ideally you’d get involved in person, the majority of activities can be done online and lots of people meet through social media. Volunteering, in particular, is a win-win because you meet other people, you have something to put on your CV and you get new skills.
Feeling uncertain is a completely normal reaction. The key is to take a step back, stay calm and be logical. Remember that it takes time to find your purpose in life but you can find meaning in the everyday, whether that’s meeting a new friend or reading something new. Try not to be overwhelmed by the big situation. If everything feels out of control, plan what you can. Make a list of the things you’re going to do that day, or decide where to spend Christmas or reading week. Be the boss of the bits you can control when the bigger picture gets too much.
It can be common for people to start working hard immediately. While it’s good to do well, imposter syndrome and being a perfectionist can backfire and encourage low moods. You don’t want to get the mid-term blues where you’ve exhausted yourself halfway through the first semester. When winter starts to hit, people start to miss things at home more if they’ve been working flat out and not doing things to keep themselves well.
Be a diplomatic housemate
It’s important to remember to be a good flatmate: a lot of the conflict that I would see arise in my consulting room was caused by house issues. You’re going to be living with strangers so be thoughtful, be aware of others and don’t be overbearing. Being a kind flatmate will make you feel good, as people will like you and you are also protecting the mental health of others. For commuter students it helps to feel connected to things on campus and be there as much as possible, but don’t put yourself in danger by getting trains late at night just to feel part of your community.
Plan your communication
Some people will miss home more than others. Agree in advance how you will communicate with family and friends and how often, but don’t spend too much time in your room alone contacting home friends if there is an opportunity to be meeting new ones on site. Talk to other new students about it as you won’t be the only one. If you are missing a relationship from home take time to stay in touch regularly, but be realistic. Plan ahead when you will speak or meet, but be wary about new commitments.
Take relationships steadily
Don’t rush into being intimate too early. You have time, and a large population of fascinating and attractive people to choose from. Use condoms, because while unplanned pregnancies have decreased over the past few years, chlamydia rates have risen. Contraception has evolved significantly, and there may be options you have never considered which are safe and don’t require a good memory. See the NHS website for more information, and talk to your local nurse or sexual health clinic team about what would work best for you.