The Weight of Expectations Talk (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! 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.
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 and that 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 and it’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.