Dear Undergraduates: Some Wellbeing Advice from Postgraduates

By Jennie Riley, Second Year PhD Student in Theology and Religion; MCR VP/Welfare Officer 2018-19; John’s Pastoral Tutor.

Photo credit for all images used in this post: Michael Baker.

As MCR VP/Welfare, I’ve been working on a Postgraduate Wellbeing Handbook. The idea was to have PG students submit their tips and tricks for caring for their wellbeing, and to use these to compile a resource by students, for students. Postgraduate students are 6 times likelier to experience depression and anxiety than the general population, and I hope that resources like this might be a small step towards doing something about that.

Some postgraduate wellbeing struggles are unique to us, and so are their solutions. But a lot of the advice that was submitted to the wellbeing handbook applies to postgraduates and undergraduates alike. The advice falls into six categories, which I’ve summarised into this bite-sized blog post.

Sort Out the Basics

Humans have basic bodily needs. A lot of the postgrads who wrote in talked about the importance of meeting those needs, in order to work at and feel their best. The big three? Sleep, food and exercise.

SLEEP – my personal favourite – is hugely important. Sleeping at regular times, for long enough, is fundamental to helping our brains and bodies function at their best. Most people of university age need somewhere between 7-9 hours a night.

FOOD – aiming towards a balanced diet with plenty of fruit, veg, and water, can really bolster our mood and our minds. Try not to drink too much alcohol, or eat a big meal too close to going to sleep (both can make it harder to get good rest – plus no one works at their best with a hangover…).

EXERCISE – keeps us fit, but also produces endorphins which elevate our mood. I’m feeling really hypocritical writing this, because I do not enjoy exercise at all. But remember, it doesn’t have to be a lot – just getting outside and walking is better than doing nothing.

Why not use the college gym?

All About the Schedule

I wasn’t surprised when lots of postgraduates wrote about the value of having a schedule and a rhythm. We don’t have as many contact hours as undergraduates (and if you’re doing a research degree, you might not have any). Knowing how you to fill your time productively while working in proper down-time is really important for stopping work from feeling overwhelming.

Lots of postgrads try to echo the working day (for me that’s 9 – 5:30 or so) and then take at least one day off per week. It means we can have guilt-free down-time, which is incredibly important. There is a reason the average working day is only 8 hours, and shorter in some of the world’s most productive and happy countries!

Finding it hard to take guilt-free time off? Find a hobby that completely takes your mind off work, and try to mix time spent alone with time spent socialising. For me, that’s either cooking or sewing: I’m a full-on 20-something grandma, but it works!

Meditation and Mindfulness

Mindfulness has exploded in recent years, and the uptake of meditation apps and mindfulness colouring books suggests there’s probably something to it. A lot of the postgraduates who wrote in agreed. If you’re looking for some inspiration, try the counselling service’s website, or the ‘Headspace’ App.

The important thing about mindfulness and meditation is that they don’t have to be time-consuming, and they can usually be done anywhere. Some people enjoy long yoga sessions, but other people value short breathing exercises you can do in the library.

Finding Support

When wellbeing slips and we get concerned about our mental health, it’s important to find formal support. For Johns students, there are three main sources: the senior tutors in college; the counselling service (at the Palatine Centre); and your GP. We’re also blessed with an amazing student support team in John’s! In a college as small as ours, I genuinely think it would be difficult to drop under the radar.

If you have a diagnosed mental health condition, it may qualify as a disability. Contact the disability service, and they can advise you about having reasonable adjustments made during your time at Durham.

Time to Talk

It’s been said a hundred times – but maybe that’s because it’s true?! A problem shared is a problem halved. If people know how you’re doing, they’ll know how to look after you. The more I talk about wellbeing and mental health, the more I realise that people have a lot of the same worries and concerns. I’ve learned a lot from how other people care for themselves: in fact, that’s what gave me the idea for a Wellbeing Handbook! Plus, the more we talk about wellbeing and mental health, the more we normalize the discourse, and help to reduce stigma.

It’s just as important to be a listener: keep an eye on your friends, and ask them how they’re doing. For me, that means keeping tabs on my fellow postgraduates, and dropping them a message if I’ve not seen them for a while. They’re probably fine, but one day I might be the person who asked the right question at the right time and helped a friend in need.

A Sense of Perspective

Whether you’re a postgraduate or an undergraduate, it’s important to remember that what you’re working on is meant to be a challenge, so it’s completely normal and OK for it to feel tough! But sometimes it helps to get a sense of perspective. Try and stay in touch with non-students, and do what you can to take some time away from Durham (it can be far too small at times!). When my mental health was poor during my Master’s degree, taking day trips away from uni was terrifying – surely I was wasting time I could be spending working? But I’ve never regretted those trips. They gave me the distance, headspace and time I needed to get a handle on my work, look at it anew, and come back at it fresh.

I hope that this has been informative for you! You can read the whole wellbeing handbook here and see the presentation I put together here if you like.

I’m Jennie, and I first came to John’s as an undergrad in 2013. Six years later I’m still kicking around, researching a PhD on the relationship between religion and medicine. I love being part of John’s, and really enjoy being on the MCR exec, being on the Pastoral Tutor team, and the free coffee.

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