The Weight of Expectations Talk #1 (Athena Swan – School of Life Sciences)
I was invited to give my very first talk on Thursday 5th July last week at university. The event was named "Work Life Balance, Mental Health and Wellbeing" and was hosted by The Athena Swan Committee at the School of Life Sciences. I was invited a few months ago after one of the organisers of the event saw my vlog on mental health at university if I could speak about my own experiences with stress and mental health as a student. I wanted to give some advice I wish someone had given me before coming to university.
It truly was such an inspirational day and every single guest speaker was varied and amazing. I learnt so much and it was especially interesting to hear about how the wellbeing and mental health of academics are also affected – the other side from us students. I’d never really thought of fully before on the pressure and expectations they have to meet as well.
After my talk, I was asked by someone in the audience if I could post the talk on my blog so here it is! I had to break it up into 2 blog posts as it’s quite long. Hopefully it’ll be interesting for others as well 🙂
To introduce myself, my name is Rana and I’m an undergraduate Law student going into my third and final year and I’m an overseas student from Egypt. I grew up in Cairo, somewhere where mental health was never really a topic for discussion, not in school and not really at home either. There is a massive stigma around the whole subject and people who have mental health disorders are associated with the word“magnoon” for a male or “magnoona” for a female which directly translates into “crazy” or “mental” in English. And in Arabic, there’s a much stronger negative connotation with those terms compared to English. And that was the term and stigma I essentially grew up with, so I associated mental health issues with being crazy, something very negative.
I know that there’s still a stigma around mental health in a country such as the UK as well but coming here has really transformed my whole understanding on what mental health is. Wrongfully, I used to think that mental health issues such as depression or anxiety or even being suicidal – I honestly believed that was all a choice. Egyptian society, my friends and my wider family genuinely believed anyone who was found to have a mental health issue was weak and such a person would be looked down upon by everyone. My parents were the only ones I knew who had a different opinion to others. It might be important to note that my dad is a doctor and my mum is a nurse and both have worked abroad for a significant period of time so that could have played a role. I even have a friend who is also Egyptian who told me that when she was diagnosed, her parents had said she was "medal3a" – which translates into being spoilt or seeking attention. So I am very aware of how lucky I am to have such supportive parents. But the conversation was never really opened up at home and with me particularly until I moved to university, when I, myself was eventually diagnosed with a mental health issue.
The way I had been feeling did not start in university – it started in Sixth Form when I was doing IB, the International Baccalaureate. It was a huge jump from GCSE and I was having to balance about 7 subjects as well as an additional short dissertation project and compulsory volunteering. But back then I didn’t understand what was happening and I thought it was completely normal to feel the way I did. Everyone around me was also feeling very stressed, feeling the weight of different expectations: to get good grades, to be sporty, to be creative, to volunteer, to generally become a well-rounded student in order to receive acceptances from good international universities. We were all going through the same thing, but the stress was unlike anything I’d experienced before, and I was completely unprepared for it.
And when I came to university, I was constantly told that it would be the best years of my life. I was told oh you’ll have an amazing time, you’ll meet amazing people and your life will change. There’s the perception that you’re going to love your course, your flatmates will become your best friends and you’ll have the happiest three or four years of your life. Now, yeah, I love university, and I definitely like it a lot better than school and I’ve definitely had amazing experiences here. I did eventually make good friends and settled well into my course – but it didn’t happen instantly, it took a good while and it was a lot tougher than I thought.
I was only ever told about the amazing highs before coming here, but I think someone forgot to tell me about the extreme lows I might end up encountering as well, which I did encounter, a lot of them. A lot of stress being the forefront. I remember in first year, in Term 2 especially, there were many nights where I’d just sit in my room and feel completely overwhelmed by everything. I felt completely out of my depth. And while I was doing that, my flatmates were pre-drinking in the kitchen and seemingly having an awesome time and I just kept thinking why am I sitting in here and not in there with them? I thought there was something very, very wrong with me.
Sixth Form stress was one thing but the stress and the pressure you experience at university is on a completely different level. It’s not only just the independence in the academic side of things, yeah that’s quite hard as well but it’s the fact that you’re having to move to a completely new and unfamiliar place, for some of us a completely different country, where most of us don’t know anyone.
You come and the first thing you experience is Fresher’s week which is very overwhelming. There’s a lot of pressure to go out and socialise to be able to make friends, and on top of that we had to get started on our degree straight away. Which is why I’m quite glad that Warwick has introduced Week 0 for the next year because having lectures in the first few days, and for some of us exams even, just right after you’ve moved in and don’t know anyone, is a lot of pressure to put on someone.
After that, you think that the manic first week of Fresher’s is over and you can finally settle and relax. But then, ugh you have to cook, and learn how to use those annoying Circuit laundry machines, and how to make sure you’re not broke at the end of every month and you want to study but you want to go out to make sure you make good friends and it’s a whole load of responsibilities that you have to take on. So, it might actually get a lot harder to learn how to balance everything. And maybe you’ll start to feel homesick. Maybe you’ll start to realise that your flatmates are not really people you can be friends with.
Even though we’re constantly surrounded by people and live in halls or student houses with others, university can be a very lonely and isolating place for students. And the type of stress you experience at university is hard because a lot of us weren’t taught how to manage it. Even going into second and third year, it can still be tough as well. For a lot of people, that’s when their grade starts to count towards their degree and people start applying for jobs, as there is a bit of an expectation to graduate with a job lined up. We are expected to balance studying, with a bunch of extra-curricular activities, become presidents of societies as well as securing internships and grad schemes, and on top of that, still be able to socialise, eat well, clean and exercise regularly. Many of us have never had to juggle even half of these things before and it’s a lot to take on all of a sudden. For me, before university and even being here, people always thought I was the type of person who was organised and on top of things, but I definitely wasn’t ready for a lot of things when I came here. And I have friends who have felt the same. I have one Egyptian friend who recently told me she never really properly experienced failure before university and it came as a bit of a shock to her. She didn’t know how to deal with it.
From my experience, I’ve learnt what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to managing stress. I’m going to focus on stress today because while a lot of university students do struggle with mental health, I think what’s common for every single student at university, even those without mental health issues, is having to learn how to cope with the stress.
We all experience stress at some point, it’s normaL. And we all have different ways to manage stress, and I’m here to share some things that I think could be really useful to other students. I just want to emphasise that these tips are only going to be really effective, if you’re only struggling with stress. So, what I mean, is that if there is another issue at hand, such as a mental health problem, these tips will only be effective to a certain point, as usually you’ll need other methods of professional support as well.
Now, I’m only a student, so I’m only sharing advice from my own personal experience and what has worked for me and for people I know who have had similar experiences and successes with these tips. I don’t really want to stand here and tell you that to manage your stress, you need to have a healthy routine, you know eat well, sleep more, exercise more etc., because I think that most people know that’s what you’re supposed to do, it’s kind of obvious that a healthy routine is good for your physical and mental health but that is so hard to implement, especially when you’re stressed which is when your healthy routine which you might have been keeping up for months is more likely to fall apart. I personally believe that if you change your mind-set and how you approach and think about stress, that the healthy routine will come to you more naturally.
And that’s my first piece of advice that I want to give is change the way you think about stress. I was always taught to believe that stress is a bad thing, it’s like your enemy of progress. People always told me you want to avoid stress at all times, you want to remain calm, because it has been proven that stress can be bad for your mental and physical health. Whenever I’d tell someone I’m stressed about an exam or a deadline or my grades, people’s usual response is, “Oh, don’t worry, don’t be stressed, just get more sleep”. I know I need more sleep, I know that. In my experience, people’s responses to stress reinforces the idea that stress is a bad thing for you and you shouldn’t be stressed at all.
But the thing is, stress doesn’t have to be bad because not all stress is bad for you. Stress can be a great motivator – to get organised, to try new things and push ourselves to do more. And there’s new research that suggests that stress may only be bad for you – if you believe that stress is bad for you.Professor Kelly McGonigal who is a psychologist and lecturer at Stanford says that research shows that people who reported they were feeling stressed and believed the stress was toxic were 43% more likely to die prematurely. Scary. But here’s what I found more interesting – for those who didn’t think stress was bad for their health, experiencing a lot of stress did not have negative health outcomes for them. Amazing right? So if you see stress as a positive thing, it doesn’t mean it’ll have negative implications – in contrast, it can be really good for you.
I’ve tried to implement this new piece of information by changing the way I think about stress. What I used to do before, was practice more of a negative sort of mindset and I didn’t realise I was doing that and that’s how I used to approach stressful situations or tasks. I would focus on things I was bad at, because that was what I needed to improve on – which is what you’re supposed to do except I also completely ignored the things I was good at, I seemed to forget that I was good at some things. I would also put a lot of blame on myself a lot of the time when I failed or made mistakes. I always anticipated the worst because I wanted to be ready for whatever could happen until anticipating the worst was the only thing I ever did. And I only ever saw my achievements as either good or bad, and I had no middle ground.
What I’ve been trying to do is transform the way I think. It’s hard and I’m still trying to get used to it but instead of focusing on the bad, I take notice of the good and identify areas where I want to improve and ask myself okay how can you change this? So, I see it as an opportunity for change and I don’t blame myself for being bad or failing at something. And when I do fail at something, I tell myself to give it another try. I’ll give an example, instead of telling myself that I don’t have time to do something or I feel too lazy or tired, I try to re-examine my priorities – I think about how I can move things around so that I can make time for it. Also, I was never really into journaling daily before or meditation but now I do it more regularly to check myself and reflect more often to make sure I’m practising more positive thinking.
And that way, everything seems to be more manageable. It sounds simple but if you’re used to practicing negative thinking all the time, and you think stress is a bad thing and you want to avoid it, it will take a while to change the way your mind works and your approaches to stress. I think what could help students is to teach them to focus on the root of the stress, such as preparing for a test or finishing an essay. One method I was recently taught is compartmentalising which is breaking up a big stressful event into smaller manageable goals/tasks. It sounds simple but it takes a lot of practice to get your mind used to thinking about things that way. And also, to teach students to stop beating themselves up on why they are stressed where they might start to think of reasons such as not being good enough or smart enough to do well. That’s what we need to do for young people, reinforce the idea more that stress doesn’t have to be a bad thing and to teach them how to manage their stress in more positive ways…
(to be continued)