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My Personal Tips For Better Mental Health at University

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By Ryan (Postgraduate Content Creator, Psychology MSc)

I want to tell you a bit about my own journey with mental illness and disability. I have been diagnosed with Autism, ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Bipolar 2, PTSD, OCD, Functional Neurological Disorder, and other specified feeding and eating disorder. Daily, the main struggles I face are intrusive thoughts, impulsivity, severe mood swings, obsessive daydreaming, and even dissociative seizures. The majority of the disorders I have been diagnosed with are caused by traumatic experiences in my childhood and teenage years which I did not receive support for.

Due to my neurological developmental disorders, I found it harder to overcome my own trauma than someone neurotypical. I learnt to cope in self-destructive ways, which caused me to spend a lot of time in hospital. Since I was 14 years old, I taught myself to cope using alcohol and recreational substance abuse which quickly led to addiction in my adulthood. Now that I am sober and have been told that my BPD is in remission, I wanted to share some things that help me keep my mind healthy, in case it helps anyone out there that may be struggling with their own mental health.

After my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting

A picture of Ryan after her first Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Milton Keynes over Christmas break.

There are many reasons for mental health to be poor among students. We struggle with financial difficulties, academic stress, family-related problems, and we may struggle to find work after graduating. If you have started university with an already diagnosed or suspected condition, then this can make university life even harder. University gives us added responsibility, sudden changes, unexpected challenges, and life, in general, will supply us with traumatic events whilst we study. Everyone who struggles with mental health is valid for how they feel; this article has been made to help you on your journey to mental wellbeing using my top four coping skills which have all been derived from a psychological approach I’m interested in called Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT).

1. Bullet Journaling

Something I’ve found helpful, and would therefore make my first tip for mental wellbeing would be to start your own bullet journal. A bullet journal (BUJO) ‘turns the chaos of coordinating your life into a streamlined system that helps you be more productive and reach your personal and professional goals’. I’ve found using a diary is a creative way to get out your emotions and organise your life to avoid stress in the future. Keeping a routine has been proven to affect your mental sharpness, performance, emotional wellbeing and energy level. So why not creatively save a routine?

My January goals in my 2022 bullet journal

A picture of Ryan's bullet journal with her goals for January 2022.


2. Distress Tolerance Skills

The second thing I have found helpful is practicing some basic distress tolerance skills. These skills are designed to help you cope with emotional pain to feel overwhelming. Some examples of this could include radical acceptance or distraction from the situation you are in. When you feel an overwhelming emotion, you need to remember that the present moment is how it needs to be, as it results from every other decision made leading up to that point. Once you can accept that, you can distract yourself from your emotions. This may be by going for a long walk, sleeping, watching a movie, visiting friends, learning a new hobby, or doing chores. If you feel uncomfortable focusing on yourself, try focusing on friends or family by helping them run their errands. My personal favourite distress tolerance technique is to self-soothe. This creates a plan to surround yourself with pleasurable triggers that will encourage your sense of smell, visual stimuli, hearing, taste, and touch. A great example of this would be to take a hot bath whilst listening to your favourite music and eating chocolates.

3. Mindfulness Skills

My third tip would be to practice basic mindfulness skills, otherwise known as meditation. This can be as simple as following a guided meditation online, or you can create your own sense of reflection, such as focusing on a single minute. This will ground you and help you to feel more centred.

4. Emotional Regulation Skills

My fourth tip would be to practice basic emotional regulation skills. These skills focus on learning what your emotions are and identifying your triggers. Once you explain what you are feeling, you can avoid negative triggers and surround yourself with positive ones. For example, I understand that forgetting to eat breakfast triggers me to feel undeserving of food for the rest of the day. But food is an essential part of living, so I ensure that I eat breakfast daily to avoid this trigger. A positive trigger for me could be when I see my friends, they give me an instant serotonin boost that makes me feel good. You cannot always avoid negative triggers, though. Another negative trigger for me is hot weather because something traumatic happened to me in summer 2017. This cannot be avoided, so we have to learn to determine what behaviours are effective in the situation. It is easy to think that self-destructing is an effective behaviour to associate with negative emotion, but this only repeats a self-damaging cycle. Instead, you must recognise your self-destructive behaviours and replace them with pleasurable activities. If something terrible happens, why should we believe that we are worthy of feeling pain? You are still a good person even if bad things happen to you; believe in yourself and give yourself the happiness you deserve.

Spending time with Styles, my sister's cat.

A picture of Ryan cuddling with her sister's cat, Styles.

Northumbria University offers many different options for supporting you whilst you study here; including, a personalised wellbeing plan, self-support, counselling services, online counselling via Kooththerapeutic workshops, and referrals to other support in the University and to support services in the community. If you require support for your disability, please contact the Disability and Dyslexia Support Team.

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