With term very much in full swing, deadlines mounting up and stress creeping in, Will, from the Mind and Soul Foundation, shares some advice on how to protect your mental health and how to thrive at university.
The student years are some of the most emotionally turbulent of our lives, largely because of the dramatic transition between life in a family home to independent living. Of course, individual circumstances differ, and some people are more naturally prepared for these changes than others. The key thing to remember is that there is no shame in finding the changes hard. Sometimes it is the students with the most stable home lives who find these changes really challenging, which can also mean that it is the first time they have encountered anxiety or panic.
In post-pandemic times, there are additional fears and anxieties in the mix which can exacerbate our experience of the traditional changes that student life ushers in. Our nervous system has two core components, the Sympathetic and Para-sympathetic systems, commonly known as ‘Fight or flight’ and ‘Rest and Digest’. These two systems work in partnership to help us encounter and recover from challenges. However, in times of great change or stress the ‘Fight or Flight’ system can get out of balance and inappropriately trigger its physiological and psychological alarm system.
This event is commonly known as a ‘Panic Attack’: 10% of the student population experience occasional panic attacks and an even larger number of adults in the UK will have experienced a panic attack at one time or another (NHS). It is also extremely common for the individual to head straight to the hospital during or following their first attack.
"Overcoming panic attacks in the student life can take time and practice. Try to embrace every attack as an opportunity to experiment on what stops them."
The thing about panic attacks is that there are a cocktail of psychological (mind) and physiological (bodily) responses. As we have said, the student environment is very stressful, especially when you add in Covid, and it is this stress that precipitates these attacks. Part of the cyclical power of panic is its unpredictability. However, when you understand them you can begin to pre-empt their arrival and they lose their power. With the right approaches, you can even stop or minimise them, as I have in my own life.
If you are struggling with anxiety or panic there are a few things you need to know: Firstly, you are not losing your mind, which is a relief. Secondly, whilst attacks are unpleasant, they are not actually detrimental to your health and are not causing any damage to your brain or heart. Thirdly, unwitting hyperventilation when you are stressed or fearful is a major contributor to panic attacks. If you can stop hyperventilating, then you can deactivate the attacks before they can happen (by stopping the over-oxygenation of the brain which causes the symptoms). The best antidote to panic is to aggressively relax.
"It has been ok, it is ok and it will be ok. God is with you, in every moment. "
Overcoming panic attacks in student life can take time and practice. Try to embrace every attack as an opportunity to experiment on what stops them. Try to laugh at your attacks while they are happening, make them smaller and less serious than they are now. I know this sounds hard, but it works! Life is a tough journey and for some people, panic attacks can be an additional hazard. Remember that you are a child of God, you are not the sum of your attacks, they do not represent any terrible weakness, or any sinful lack of faith. They are just there right now. It has been ok, it is ok and it will be ok. God is with you, in every moment.
9 Practical tips:
1) Do go to see your GP to discuss your attacks. Try and go armed with a log of how frequently they have occurred and explain their intensity and length.
2) Avoid reading tons of internet sites - some are just plain wrong. The ones on the Mind and Soul Foundation website are all great and sound, so use them.
3) Don't be ashamed of them. They are common and most people will know what you mean.
4) Pray about them, invite God to lead you away from them.
5) Create lots of relaxation space in your life and engage in meditating on the Lord and his peace.
6) Don’t stop doing anything you would normally do because of your attacks or begin to live defensively, instead fly in the face of them.
7) Try not to see attacks as 'setbacks' or 'failures'.
8) Remember that their frequency will decline as your system begins to regard them as insignificant. This will take time.
9) Your stress system is working correctly, just not appropriately.
If you'd like more support with your mental health or want to explore more about how mental health and Christianity are so linked, head to the Mind and Soul Foundation website.