The Weight of Expectations Talk #2 (Athena Swan School of Life Sciences)
The rest of the talk is below from the last blog post:
My second piece of advice for when you’re feeling stressed is another very simple one but one that I think needs to be said to remind others andthat is to talk to someone else about how you’re feeling. Now this is something I’m personally really bad at it, I’m personally not good at talking about feelings but I’m trying to get better. The type of environment you have at university makes you think that you shouldn’t show yourself to be struggling – you want to show people how successful and well-rounded you are, and how you’re able to juggle all these different responsibilities, being on a society exec and a sports captain as well as going out and also achieving good grades. But talking to someone can make you feel a lot better, and less alone.
I felt really alone in first year because I thought I was the only one struggling and I didn’t tell anyone about it. It was only in second year when I opened up a bit more to people that I found that most people felt the same way, that almost everyone was struggling in some way, but it seemed we were all trying to hide it from each other. I do think more people are becoming more open about their struggles now and the issues they’ve been experiencing, and I think that’s really good and we should continue to give spaces for people to be able to do that.
Another thing that was found in the research that I mentioned before about stress only being bad if you believe it to be, is that when you’re feeling stressed, one way in which your body responds is by releasing a hormone called oxytocin, which is the same hormone released when women have a baby. It’s sometimes referred to as the “cuddle” hormone and that’s because our body is literally telling us we need to connect with others, we need to talk about how we’re feeling. This just shows how important it is that we should encourage young people and university students to not be ashamed if they’re struggling and to enforce the idea that if they talk more about their stress, with anyone; their friends, family, flatmates, a stranger online, a charity, talking means that they will be more likely to be able to manage their stress in a more positive way.
My third tip is to make sure you are surrounding yourself with the right people. This is a lot easier said than done, because obviously, you have to find those people that you’re comfortable with and that can take time. But I was surrounded by a few people in first year who, for me, were not the best to be around with, especially when I was feeling stressed as they only stressed me out more. I didn’t really feel listened to and it took me a while to realise I needed to find people who really supported me. I once went to my friend telling her I was worried about an exam I had, and we were on the same course, and I really don’t think she meant it, but she just brushed me off because I’d been getting higher grades than her so far and she felt that my concerns were misplaced, and she literally told me I was being stupid. I don’t think she had any malicious intent with her words but at a time when I just needed to be listened to, that was not really what I wanted to hear.
And it’s quite scary to admit that the people you are more familiar with are maybe not the most supportive or understanding friends that you might need at a time when you’re really stressed out. And maybe you need to find other people who will make you feel more comfortable. And that’s hard because you know, it feels kind of mean to do that and making more friends isn’t that easy for a lot of people. And I’m not saying to completely drop people from your life, you will realise when you need to do that, but know when to spend time with people who you know may not be the most supportive compared to those who will listen to you and help you through your low-points without judgment. There’s nothing wrong with looking out for yourself, and it’s actually going to be a good thing in the long run to surround yourself with people who are more positive and supportive and who will actually listen to you. Which is why I would say make sure that you do not only stick to your flatmates in first year, and that you branch out a bit more and make sure you have other friendships you can fall back on if that doesn’t work out. Even if it’s friendships from home.
Surrounding yourself with people who will understand and support you when you need it the most will really help you manage the stress a lot better. It might take time finding those people. For me, I only really found my close group of friends at university at the very end of first year but once you do find those people, it can really help to have them be there when you’re not feeling your best. If you find you don’t have people who you feel like you can talk to, there are a bunch of helpful services on and off campus, like Nightline, which is an on-campus student-run listening service which I know to be amazing for this kind of stuff.
And likewise, be there for those around you as well. Be supportive and helpful to others. Some people think that if you’re stressed yourself, you’re not in the right place to help someone else who is stressed as well because it will only just stress you out more. And sometimes that can be true. But this again relates to that cuddle hormone I talked about before, oxytocin. Those who help others, even if they experience stress associated with that, show fewer negative health outcomes as a result. So, it’s again all about connecting with others, which is why finding one or two people to study with or volunteering, can help you feel more at ease and more prepared during stressful points. And it may even give you a comfortable space to discuss any issues or things you’ve been struggling with.
The fourth area I want to talk about is a big one, that high stressful point in third term when everyone is waking up at 8am to get that seat in the library, and that is exam time. This is the time when you can feel at your worst and the stress can be insane. And this is when the environment and the people around you can be very toxic and very bad for you. During exam time, there seems to be this competition between most students on who got the least number of hours of sleep, who has pulled more all-nighters, and who is pulling more than 15-hour study days in the library.
And this is exactly what I mean when you should choose who you talk to and surround yourself with, especially during exam time when everyone’s stress is at their peak. And comparing how many hours you studied or how many hours you’ve slept each day to try and show each other that you’re doing more than the other person, is so unhealthy. It can have a massively negative impact on your mental health during this time, and you could also be negatively impacting someone else’s mental health because comparing yourself to others, at any point, not just at exam time, is only going to make you feel like you’re not doing enough, and you should be doing more, and you might push yourself way too much. And that can be very demotivating talking to people like that and you’ll probably burn yourself out.
My advice for exam period, other than studying with others, and make sure the people you are studying with won’t tell you that they are on no sleep or they’re running on 5 cups of coffee, try and avoid them but my first piece of advice is to continue to have a life outside of exams. I know this is supposed to be heavy cram time, and you’ll be spending most of your time studying but we do need a break at some point. What me and my friends used to do is study together throughout the day in the library, then take food or water breaks together every 2-3 hours, and in those breaks, we were not allowed to talk about exams at all. We would talk about anything else, so our brains could really take a break from the studying. We also used to go out for a dinner once a week, where we could relax just a few hours one evening and again, exams and studying were discussion topics that were completely off the table. Seeing people or friends and continuing to socialise and connect with others will put you in a much better headspace, and you’ll really be allowing your brain to relax.
And other than seeing your friends, don’t stop hobbies or things you like to do. Just because you have exams, it doesn’t mean you stop your life. Continue to read, play music or play sport or whatever you like to do, because that is a good way for your mind to relax and enjoy doing something else. I know so many people who seem to give themselves up when it’s exams, and I have to say I’m guilty of this myself. But I really tried this year to unwind every night for 2 hours before I went to sleep. I would put on a mask and watch some Netflix or read my book so my mind was at ease when I went to sleep, because I noticed that when I moved straight from my desk to my bed, my mind would still be racing with all those legal cases and statutes and facts and it would make sleeping a little bit more impossible. You’re not wasting your time by watching shows, or reading, you’re unwinding. And that’s really important. Give your brain a break, it needs it. I would also highly recommend watching comedy shows during high stress points because laughing is a great stress relief.
So, my advice to students is to take some me time, take a break, surround yourself with people who will support you and give you positive affirmations during exam time. I have this one friend where anytime he or myself did something, anything, whether it was studying a topic or even taking a 3-hour nap, he would tell me, or I would tell him, “I’m really proud of you, you’re amazing, you needed that nap, you’re taking care of yourself that’s great”. So, talking to him and any of my other friends where I started to do the same thing, became easy and it was soothing to talk to them because I wanted to support them, and I know they wanted to support me.
And just a reminder, it really does not matter how many hours you study a day. We’re all different. I personally cannot study for more than 7-8 hours a day, that’s my maximum. And that doesn’t mean I’m doing any less work than someone who is doing 15 hours or more. It’s a well-known saying but it’s true – quality over quantity. If you work smarter and work harder, you may not need to study for so many hours.
I read a book last summer that has completely changed my work ethic and my ability to focus andit’s called Deep Work by Cal Newport. And it’s all about how we now live in a world full of distractions, you know with your phone and social media, and how most people do not have the ability to sit and focus on their work for hours, and he gives some tips on how you can overcome that. With instantaneous communication, we feel the need to answer a text or email as soon as our phone dings with a notification and our screen lights up. His biggest piece of advice is to become harder to reach – stop replying to things instantly. He ultimately says give up social media but as a university student, that’s quite hard when most university events and news goes through social media. So what I did at the start of my second year instead is turn off all notifications that come up on my lock screen so my phone never vibrates or lights up unless it’s my alarm waking me up in the morning or someone is calling me. And you’d think with the amount of messages I usually get from friends, that I’d have got a lot of calls from people, but rarely anyone ever called me. So ultimately I learned that most of the messages I got I didn’t need to see immediately and they could wait until later. What that meant was that by exam time, I was able to put my phone aside and not feel the need to pick it up.
So that way you gain a bit more power on when you use your phone. So, you’re able to work for longer periods of time without distraction, and your ability to focus and do more work in less time is significantly improved. And while most of my friends didn’t want to go to the same extent as me, what they did is they deleted some social media apps during exam time. Some deleted them for weeks until exams were over and some people I knew would delete them in the morning then re-downloaded them at the end of the day when they were done studying and they said that helped them a lot. This book isn’t only for students as the book is essentially for anyone who wants to practice deeper, more meaningful work in their careers or lives in general.
So, don’t compare yourself to others. I have friends who do 4-5 hour days of studying and they get Firsts. Doing 12-5 hours a day doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to do better, it can for some people who work better that way but for me at least, I know I would burn out very quickly. So, don’t feel the need to tell others what you’re doing when you’re studying, telling others what you’re doing doesn’t validate what you’re doing, you don’t have to do that. Just do what feels right for you, and please, for God’s sake, sleep. I don’t know why all-nighters and 1-2 hours sleep a night has become this cool thing but it’s really not good for you. I’d rather have my 8 hours and be well-rested so that I’m able to work more the next day, and I personally think being well-rested is a lot cooler.
And my final bit of advice, is it might not just be stress, there might be a much bigger thing at hand. And that is okay. But again, I will emphasise the advice and tips I’ve given so far will only be effective to a certain point, if you do not seek other methods of professional help, trust me. This advice will only really help you if stress is the only problem at hand, and not a further mental health issue. So, talk to people. For me, that’s what changed things for the better, because I talked to people I knew would listen and who supported me. I thought what I was experiencing was just stress and they were the ones who helped me realise that it might be something else. What my friend told me to convince me to see someone is that it won’t hurt to go and talk to a professional and to make sure you’re okay, because in the end, you’re doing the best thing for yourself. He said treat it as if you had a really bad case of the flu, and you just weren’t getting any better. You would eventually go to your doctor, right? It’s the same thing. You’re only trying to feel better, and you need some help and that’s normal.
And even if it’s just stress, that’s fine, you’re not alone, I’m with you at least. And most other university students. Just try to believe that stress can be a good thing for you as it can really help you to manage it.
The last 2 years of my life have definitely been transformative, and I just want to emphasise that there are obviously a lot of positives from my experience as well.I’ve had amazing opportunities and met people I know I will be friends with even after I leave this place, and I’m incredibly grateful for that experience. Being at university has pushed and challenged me to become a better and more well-rounded person and it’s a place where I can thrive and better myself. But university can also be an environment which can be quite toxic at times. And that’s because when you’re trying to better yourself and do more, if you’re not careful, you can start to constantly feel like you’re not doing enough, and you should be doing even more. And that can slowly start to make you feel like you’re not good enough and will never be good enough.
I’ve learnt a lot on how to manage stress at university – and I’m still learning more. The most important thing I’ve learned is not to compare myself to others, big lesson. But all I wish someone had done for me when I first came was not only tell me how great university is, but how it can really suck sometimes as well. I think if I’d known that before, I’d have at least reached out to someone quicker when I hit my first low point at university, instead of bottling it up so that I can look like I’m having a good time like everyone else.
I’m so grateful for this opportunity and to have been asked to speak on the things I’ve experienced while I’ve been at university and give some advice I wish someone had told me before moving here 2 years ago.