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How to cope with student life

Explains how having a mental health problem can impact upon being a student, and suggests ways of coping and where to go for support.

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Coping with academic work and exams

How can I manage the demands of my course?

Studying can be demanding. It is natural to feel anxious about this at first. But while it may appear daunting, most people do quickly adapt to new forms of studying and find it rewarding. It is useful to get as much information as possible about what is expected of you, and what is available to help you with the course, as soon as possible. If it does seem too difficult or stressful, it helps if you have  considered where you will be able to go for support.

Find out what is expected of you

Knowing what to expect can help you feel more in control. Some  things to think about are:

  • How and when will my work be assessed? (see How do I deal with exams and assessments? below)
  • How many lectures, seminars, lab sessions or other appointments will I be expected to attend?
  • How many written tasks will I be expected to complete?
  • Will I have to give presentations or explain my work?
  • When are the key deadlines for important work?

Your college or university should provide all of this information before you start. It may also be on an internal website. If not, ask to speak to the course tutor or administrator about anything you are not sure about. Remember they are there to help you with these questions, and other potential students are likely to be wondering about the same things you are.

Plan ahead

Practical arrangements
Make yourself as familiar as you can with the buildings you are studying in. Find out how and where you can access any services you need. Making time to do this early on may avoid stress later.

  • Find places you will need to study, such as the library, laboratories or venues for your lectures and classes.
  • Find the students’ union or welfare office. Make a note of the location or phone number.
  • Understand the system for getting important books or other equipment that many people on your course are likely to need at the same time.
  • Learn how to access shared computers. Or, if you use your own, is there a student network or intranet that you should log in to?

Scheduling your work
Once you have found out when deadlines and exams are, you may be able to predict when busier times will be on the course and times  when you will want to have a lower workload. You may find a written planner useful so you can keep track of your commitments. This can help you plan ahead for other responsibilities you have, e.g. Christmas, children’s birthdays, work commitments, planned holidays, medical appointments or therapy sessions. You may also  already be able to predict times when your mental health will be less good; for example, anxiety around an anniversary or other regular event. And you may need reflection or recovery time after therapy sessions or other appointments.

A plan can also help to inform your tutors or academic supervisor of likely times when you will not be able to complete as much work. They are likely to be able to be more flexible when informed in advance.

Be careful to allow enough time for yourself. While both academic work and social occasions are an important part of the studying experience, many people find it useful to plan for breaks to take stock.

Get support

Academic support
If you have a mental health problem, it is your choice to decide whether or not you want to tell someone. Speaking to an academic supervisor or course tutor about your mental health may be scary at first. However, if you are willing to tell an appropriate person that you have a mental health problem, it is usually easier to access the academic support that you need.

Additional support for someone with a mental health problem will depend upon the nature of that problem and the demands of your course.

Some common forms of support are:

  • more regular meetings with your supervisor or course tutor
  • being given more flexibility around absence e.g. for medical appointments
  • adjustments to your timetable so that you can avoid early seminars and lectures
  • flexibility with some deadlines.

Think about what kind of support you would find useful. You might want to talk about this with a trusted friend or counsellor before starting a course.

Welfare support
There are many welfare support options available to you – some based at your college or university, some in the wider community.

  • College or university welfare support – a student counsellor, student liaison officer or other welfare service provided directly by your college or university. They will often have services available or be able to offer advice about your circumstances independently of your academic tutors or your GP.
  • The students’ union (SU) will usually have at least one welfare officer who can provide independent advice or support. This can be either an elected student representative, who will have received additional training, or a staff member. They are independent of the university or college, although usually based in the same buildings. They can also refer you to external support and often have money available to help you access this if appropriate.
  • Student Nightline service – many universities also have a telephone service that is open when other welfare services at the university are closed. A nightline volunteer will listen to you and provide emotional support. It is a confidential service and volunteers will not ask you for your name or other details.
  • Other voluntary organisations also provide support to students as well as members of the public. Citizens Advice Bureau and other specialist organisations can give support on practical issues that may affect, or be affected by, any mental health problems, e.g. housing issues, debt. If you are feeling down, experiencing distress or struggling to cope, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day, by telephone or email. You may also want to contact your local Mind for help with mental health problems.

How do I deal with exams and assessments?

Almost all courses will have formal examinations and assessed work as a way of monitoring student progress and grading qualifications. Most people feel some anxiety about what mark they will receive, and almost everyone feels significant pressure before exams.

Most people find exams stressful because of what's at stake. You may be feeling under pressure to succeed. You may worry you're not good enough, or haven't done enough work. It can be particularly worrying if something important to you depends on the results.

Remember, particularly if you have previously experienced anxiety or become unwell in stressful situations, that it is quite common for tests and similar situations to cause this to reoccur. This is natural, but you may want to prepare. Below are some ways to help yourself. Also see How to manage stress for more information.

Get organised

It is best to have all the information about the exams you will be taking as soon as possible, so you can make a plan for coping with them. This will go a long way to putting your mind it ease. You will probably want to:

  • Confirm how you will be examined – find out what kind of assessments will there be and when they will be.
  • Make sure you know which parts of your course will have formal exams and what will be assessed by coursework.
  • Get a copy of the syllabus or a guide to what content you are expected to know.
  • Make sure you have caught up if you have been absent for an significant topics.
  • Keep your notes in an organised format that works for you so you can look back at them.
  • Collect suitable revision guides where appropriate – the BBC has a range of revision tools for school pupils that contain advice that is useful to anyone. The Open University has advice for older students.
  • Remind friends and housemates that you have exams and they may need to be patient with you. Where necessary, you may want to ask that a quiet space, for example your bedroom, is particularly respected for a time.

Plan a revision timetable

Try to start your revision in plenty of time. Take time to plan a revision timetable that:

  • is linked to your exam timetable, so you revise subjects in the right order
  • is realistic and flexible, in case of any unexpected events
  • shows your priorities clearly
  • balances your revision with other demands on your time, e.g. meals, sleep, chores or other commitments, as well as time for relaxing
  • takes into account your best time of day for studying. This is particularly important if you are taking medication that affects when you can concentrate.

Everyone needs time off, and it's a bad idea to abandon your social life and sporting activities, but for a period near the examinations, you may need to cut down. It is important to keep in mind that some sacrifices may be valuable in achieving what you want to get from the course.

How can I de-stress?

Learning how to de-stress is crucial. Straightforward, effective, self-help techniques are going to be very helpful when you have a heavy workload, in the run-up to the exams, and even when you’re sitting in the exam room.

Try a relaxation routine

  • Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply. Breathe out more slowly than you breathe in.
  • Locate any areas of tension and try to relax those muscles –
    imagine the tension disappearing.
  • Relax each part of the body in turn – from your feet to the top
    of your head.
  • As you focus on each part of your body, think of warmth,
    heaviness and relaxation.
  • After 20 minutes, take some deep breaths and stretch.

Also see Mind's tips on relaxation.

Do some physical activity

As little as 10 or 20 minutes a day spent doing moderate physical  activity can have a positive impact on your mental health. Exercise releases ‘feel good’ hormones, which can help overcome a low mood. It can also distract you from unwanted thoughts or worries, and is an excellent way of coping with stress – especially if it’s enjoyable.

You may want to do something on your own, or try out the opportunities for sports or social exercise that colleges and universities usually offer.

You may prefer to work it into useful tasks, such as housework or gardening. Think about what appeals to you – you are more likely to stick with it.

But remember, while activity is good for you, doing too much can be stressful. See Mind's tips on physical activity for more information.

Consider complementary therapies

Yoga, meditation and massage all have proven benefits in reducing  stress and promoting relaxation. Ask at college about what's available, find out about local classes from your library, or contact the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) for further information. (See Useful contacts).

Get enough sleep

If you're tired, your worries can get blown out of proportion. If you've been finding it difficult to get to sleep, try cutting down on stimulants (e.g. tea, coffee and alcohol) and make sure you have time to unwind before bed. Some people feel very stressed about not getting enough sleep. Remember that it is normal to struggle to sleep before something you are worried about, e.g. exams. (See How to cope with sleep problems.)

Get extra support

If you have a mental health problem, you may be entitled to extra time or other useful support in exams such as a smaller, quieter room. Talk to your tutor or supervisor about what options may be available. If you are worried about ongoing symptoms of stress you might consider contacting a specialist stress counsellor. The International Stress Management Association (ISMA) maintains a list of practitioners.

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