Ten tips for looking after your mental health at Oxford

Everyone experiences university differently and our Student Welfare and Support Services are here to help you thrive. The University's Counselling Service has developed these ten tips to help you look after your mental health as an Oxford student. 

1. Find your fun

We often talk about the importance of work-life balance, but what is the ‘life’ bit supposed to look like? What are the best antidotes to all those exams, essays and problem sheets? Among a bewildering array of opportunities, it can be hard to know where to start. Sometimes, with pressures on your time, energy and wallet, the question of what really makes you happy is difficult to ask, let alone answer. The term ‘work-life balance’ is perhaps a bit of a misnomer here; after all, work is inevitably going to be a big part of life in Oxford! But you do need time off. Practice asking yourself: what sorts of activities do I enjoy? What do I feel drawn to and might I like to try? It’s okay if you’re not sure of the answers. University offers opportunities to experiment; but try not to feel pressured by narratives about what this time ‘should’ be like. Take some time to find your Oxford.

2. Remember you’re a person of many parts

Sometimes, at university, certain parts of you get spotlighted at different times. Most obviously, perhaps, your academic selves get a lot of attention. You might also have roles in other contexts – within clubs and societies, for example – which come with their own expectations and, sometimes, pressures. In friendships and relationships, we can find ourselves inhabiting certain versions of ourselves or ways of relating – the “party-goer” or the “responsible carer”, for example. These roles may be important to us, but when certain parts get prioritised, other parts may be neglected. It can be helpful to remember that our different roles don’t define us. We all have multiple (and sometimes conflicting) needs, wants and values. It’s okay to put some boundaries around one part (e.g. academic) in order to make room for another (e.g. self-care).

3. Befriend your anxious brain

Brains are remarkable organs, but they can also make our lives difficult. In particular, brains are very sensitive to threat – both physical danger and also threats linked to things that matter to us: our work, our relationships, our emotional needs. For all its wonderful opportunities, coming to university is a big step and there is often plenty to worry about. It can be helpful to develop a range of ways of understanding our anxious responses to situations, in particular the close relationship between excitement, motivation, focus and anxiety and how this can improve performance if we are able to get our butterflies flying in formation. Sometimes, of course, anxiety can become more of a persistent problem for which you might need support from a counsellor and/or doctor. Whatever form it takes for you, one thing that can be helpful to remember is that anxiety is the brain’s way of trying to protect you. You carry inside your head a system hardwired to make you feel afraid, and you’re up against exactly the kinds of situations that trigger it (change, uncertainty, ambiguity, assessment…). It’s hard! So do your best to be kind to yourself.

4. Take a purposeful pause

Sometimes, in life, we may find ourselves in situations when the fear-centre of the brain really takes over. We may feel panicked, overwhelmed or in a state of emotional collapse. When we’re in the grip of strong emotions, they exert a powerful pull on our thinking and behaviour. It can be difficult to think flexibly and productively at such times, so it’s often helpful to try and take a purposeful pause in order to turn down the emotional temperature a notch or two before deciding how to respond. What helps you feel safe and in control? It might be the support of a trusted friend, a walk through University Parks, a favourite song or TV show, or perhaps a soothing meditation. Your body needs to feel safe before your mind can feel free to plan what happens next.

5. Look after your body

Our mental health is inextricably tied to our physical wellbeing and looking after ourselves emotionally means attending to our bodies. Building on some of the more obvious examples of healthy habits (decent sleep, balanced diet, etc.), here are some questions to ask yourself: What ways of being active do I like and how can I make them enjoyable for myself? What are some tasty and affordable meals that I can plan for in the week? Am I someone who has particular sensory needs/preferences, and how can I go about meeting these? What sorts of physical environments help me focus on my work? How does my body let me know when I’m stressed or overwhelmed?

6. Embrace the imperfect routine

Let’s face it, there are never enough hours in the day. There is always going to be more work you could do. There are always going to be opportunities you’ve missed, things that get squeezed out. It can be liberating to remind yourself of this, and to stop hankering after the elusive perfect routine. Instead, try to think of yourself as embarking on a journey, one which will inevitably involve stumbles and backtracking, as well as new discoveries. Building structure and goals into your day can be helpful, but don’t let these become reason to berate yourself when things don’t go to plan.

7. Be curious about yourself

Humans have a remarkable capacity for self-reflection, but this can be a blessing and a curse. Not uncommonly, self-reflection tips into self-monitoring, self-censoring, and self-criticism. Even our struggles can become a source of shame or embarrassment as we berate ourselves for “not being able to cope”. Sometimes, this can leave us stuck in cycles of anxiety or low mood. Something that often helps (and is arguably a key part of counselling) is to cultivate a sense of curiosity about yourself. Remember this: there are reasons why you are the way you are. This doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to patterns of thinking and feeling that are a source of distress for you, but recognising that you’ve been shaped both by your biology and the world around you can make room for a gentler, more compassionate perspective on yourself. Noticing and reflecting kindly on your foibles, vulnerabilities and anxieties is a habit that can be nurtured; often, counselling can help.

8. Ask for help

There may be times in your university career when you need some support to look after your emotional wellbeing. Whatever the nature of your difficulties, there are people in Oxford who are here to help. Every college has its own welfare team, comprised of staff with dedicated responsibilities for supporting students’ wellbeing at university. College nurses and doctors are also a key port of call for mental as well as physical health and can make onward referrals if needed. Additionally, a network of Peer Supporters across the collegiate university are trained to offer emotional support and advice to any fellow student in need. Centrally, the University Counselling Service provides free counselling with experienced therapists, online and in-person, as well as a range of groups, workshops and self-help materials. The Disability Advice Service provides information and advice to students with a disability (including mental health disabilities), facilitating appropriate support and adjustments to enable access to study and university life. The Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service offers support and advice to anyone who has been impacted by sexual harassment or violence.

9. Talk to each other

It can be difficult to be open about our mental health struggles. Many of us get good at hiding how we’re feeling, worrying about how we might be perceived or about burdening others. Finding someone you feel comfortable talking honestly with about your mental health isn’t always easy (if you’re not sure who to speak to, you might like to consider contacting a college peer supporter). And whilst it’s important to approach such conversations at your own pace, and to check other people feel in a position to listen, it may be helpful to keep in mind that if your mental health isn’t in a great place, chances are someone not too far away is feeling similar. In the counselling service, we see about 12% of the student population every year. Frequently, students report that initial trepidation about sharing their difficulties with friends gives way to relief as they find that others are sympathetic, supportive and, often, have experienced something similar.

10. Be wary of top tips

Everyone experiences university differently, and its pressures and challenges will have different meanings and nuances for everyone. Who you are, and the circumstances you find yourself in, combine and interact in the utterly unique developmental process that is your own individual experience. No-one can decide what is right for you, so take these tips with a big pinch of salt. Practicing listening to yourself, and asking: what works for me?

For further support, please visit the welfare and wellbeing pages of the Oxford Students website, or contact your college welfare team. 

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