The Mystery of Post-Assignment Blues and How to Recover the Joy

You’ve got to the end of the semester or the academic year, and you’ve submitted your assignments, survived your exams… it’s all done, phew!

Wait what! Where’s the elation, the euphoria? This is very confusing!

During the stress and struggle of the days leading up to deadlines, we imagine how wonderful life will be after the work is done! The relief, the joy, the freedom!

Yet strangely sometimes we don’t feel as ecstatic as we had imagined. We expected to feel just great. What happened to all those good feelings, what a disappointment!?

Time and time again I hear students describe this as an anti-climax, a feeling of emptiness; sometimes even feelings of anxiety, as if you’re standing on the edge of a precipice.  

But since submitting my dissertation last month I’ve been in a weird limbo. My executive dysfunction has got quite bad because I have no urgent deadlines, so I can’t even bring myself to do the things I really want to do and instead just daydream about them all day. So trying to get myself unstuck has been a bit of a struggle.

Anonymous student

Please don’t beat yourself up about not feeling as you expected to. Let’s consider what might be going on, and what you might do about it:

The crash in mood is a comedown from all that adrenalin. This is a very real phenomenon; it happens all the time. If you’ve been in a heightened state of excitement and alert for a while, you’ve been pushing out that adrenaline (and dopamine), you’ve been using up your resources, the batteries can get pretty flat. The higher you were and the longer you stayed there, the more intense the comedown.

Solution: That flat feeling is your system recharging, and the neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine, are restocking. Don’t fight the feeling, accept it, rest up, pamper yourself, sleep. It will pass, and you will soon feel much better. I call this ‘cognitive override’, you might say to yourself:  I’ve been working my socks off, and achieved so much, I’ve made it through. This feeling won’t last – it’s just my nervous system recovering, I will feel better once I’ve recharged.

You’ve got used to having all your time structured around the work you had to get done, you’ve had a purpose, now you’ve got all this empty space and that feels weird. Life feels empty – you don’t know what to do with all this time on your hands, the days ahead feel like a vacuum.

Solution: You’ve got so used a particular state of alert and focus. When the situation changes your nervous system doesn’t know how to come out of that, just yet. You need a bit of time to get used to the new situation and become convinced that there really is nothing to do but chill for a while. And then when you’re ready, to begin to discover what you want to do next.

There’s a feeling of anxiety, you’re on a cliff edge, about to step into the unknown. This fear of the future is understandable – suddenly there’s more uncertainty than you’re used. You’ve been in a place where you always had the next goal in front of you, the next task. Now it all seems more uncertain.

Solution: Accept the feelings, as natural, give yourself space, time to think about the future, accept that uncertainty is a part of this major transition in your life. So maybe the uncertainty of not knowing is the feeling you get just before you discover something new.

So, what next? Once you’ve had a chance to recharge those batteries, give yourself permission, a bit of space, to be uncertain. Take a bit of time, to reconnect with yourself, and your surroundings; rest, take a walk, talk to friends, meditate. In this space of not knowing exactly what will happen next, let yourself rediscover the sense of freedom, the excitement of new possibilities…

Breathe

During the current lockdown there is a lot of good advice out there. Our contribution here is just a small practical thing that you can do to help reduce stress and increase wellbeing. There is strong evidence that stress levels can have a significant impact on our immune functioning.

This is a short guided meditation. The visual element is just to add flavour, it is OK to close your eyes during the practice, if you like. At just under 8 minutes you can pop this on anytime you have a bit of time to spare.

Mindfulness isn’t the same as relaxation, but is a very good way of building wellbeing if practiced for a time. A very common misunderstanding is to expect to have an ‘empty mind’ or feel more relaxed (which may or may not happen). So if there is agitation or lots going through the mind, then there is no need to suppress anything, just observe what’s there.

Meditation is not first aid for anxiety. It can be very helpful in managing anxiety (and other difficult emotions) yet this skill takes time to build. I think when you’re feeling anxious or unsettled, there are lots of other helpful things you can to do, for example here is a calming exercise which I have used with many people (link opens in dropbox where you can directly play the file or download it for offline use).

Managing Exam Stress

Image by kmicican from Pixabay

Needless to say, one of the key things in managing exam stress is the actual study you do. So of course, starting early and preparing well is going to be very helpful. Once you’re at or near the actual exam the challenge is more about optimising things as much as you can, with whatever your level of preparation.

Another important area is specific study, revision and exam skills. You will be developing these throughout your time of study, together with your academic confidence generally. At the time of the exam there are a number of recommended strategies around the specifics of dealing with the exam paper: for example, read the exam questions carefully, make sure you understand the question. Make a few rough notes or brainstorm just to get some initial ideas and to get that inner process started. Start with a question you feel the most confident in, to get as many marks in the bag as you can, and get things going. Here are some tips on managing the exam preparation and revision.

Here, let’s focus on what you can to do to manage your emotional state (anxiety, wellbeing): Getting your state right will optimise everything else. Being in a good state has longer term and short term factors. There are things you can do in the time leading up to your exam, and on the day.

General self-care: Looking after yourself, investing in your wellbeing will pay off and be a more sustainable strategy. There’s lots of good advice on improving well being on this blog and elsewhere. Here’s a brief reminder of some of the practicalities for getting the best out of yourself:

Regular exercise: in any shape will help. Little and often, doing something you like doing. There is lots of evidence to suggest a strong positive impact on mood and cognitive functioning.

Eating & Nutrition: This includes the usual advice, eating plenty of vegetables and fruit. Avoid high sugar and highly processed foods, complex carbohydrate (Low GI, sustained release is better). Avoid excessive caffeine. Alcohol in moderation, avoid drugs. Drink plenty of water.

Some kind of meditative activity: this can include things like mindfulness or yoga. Mindfulness is a great way to build resilience and develop emotion management skills as well as enhance cognitive processes. It tends to work cumulatively, rather than as first aid in an anxiety situation.

Sleep hygiene & Routines: sensible use of screen time (avoid excessive use, avoid at bedtime and definitely not in bed!), avoid caffeine in the evenings. Read, listen to music, relaxing sounds, or an audiobook at bedtime.

The night before: Staying up late (or all night!) can sometimes work as a short term solution when you have to hit an assignment deadline (most of us have done this at some point, hopefully got away with it, and vowed not to leave things to the last minute again!). But is not a sustainable strategy for studying. And for exams it will not be helpful, even if you manage to cram lots of knowledge into your head, you probably won’t be in a fit state to deploy that to effectively. So be kind to yourself, and get some rest the night before.

Let’s talk about managing anxiety: The days before and during the exam can be challenging for most of us. On a very practical note: Get organised and show up early, get things ready the night before, and get up early so no there’s no need to rush around getting more wound up.

Anxiety is a normal response to stressful situations. In fight or flight mode our adrenalin system kicks in and is there to provide additional resources when there is a perceived danger situation. This works really well where we need to deal with situations of physical threat, but is less effective when we have complex tasks to deal with (studying, thinking, writing assignments, exams, job interviews, first date etc.).

A small amount of adrenalin can be helpful in giving us a bit of alerting energy. However, too much of it will cause a drop in productivity. There is an optimum range for this. So as adrenalin levels go up, initially performance increases, however it soon tapers off and begins to drop as adrenalin increases.

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Yerkes and Dodson, Hebbian [CC0] *Derived from the Yerkes–Dodson law)

Here are some tips to manage your state during the period leading up to and especially on the day. With performance anxiety there is usually a cycle: feeling anxious – negative thinking – more anxiety – more negative thinking. Interrupting this at both points (thoughts and feelings) is a good strategy to manage anxiety, stop it spiralling further, and even begin to turn it into a positive cycle (feeling calm – increasing confidence).

Manage unhelpful thought patterns. Watch out for catastrophising thoughts. Remember: thoughts are not facts. Thoughts with a negative bias amplify stressful feelings. Instead, try saying something like: “I’ll do my best, staying calm and focusing on the task will help me to get the best out of myself”. If you think you should have done more, earlier on then there is not point in beating yourself up. Better to approach this with self compassion: “OK I could have done better, I can learn from this, and improve things in future”.

Learn to use calming strategies. There are a range of good ways to settle anxious feelings, using the breath is a powerful way to calm things. Here is a breathing technique that you could try. This audio file is a breathing exercise which lasts 6 minutes, the link opens in Dropbox where you can directly play the file or download it for offline use. We are very interested in getting feedback so please feel free to let me know how you get on with it.

Learning to Breathe

Selye, H. The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956 (2nd Revised edition 1978)

Yerkes, R. M. & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relationship of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459–482.

*The Yerkes–Dodson law suggests that there is a relationship between arousal and performance. originally developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point.
This law states that a relationship between arousal and behavioural task performance exists, such that there is an optimal level of arousal for an optimal performance. Over – or under-arousal reduces task performance.
This graph shows a version of the Yerkes–Dodson law, it leaves out that hyperarousal does not seem to adversely impact simple tasks.

Homesickness

Exciting times ahead (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

For many, coming to University is an exciting time, moving away from home, making new friends, starting a new adventure. However, for some, coming to University can be daunting, leaving behind friends, family, and all the support networks that have got you this far in life.

Being in a new environment, can be stressful. It can lead to anxiety brought on by leaving behind people and places you know and love. All this can lead to homesickness. It can potentially affect any student, whether you have moved just a few miles down the road, or if you have moved from the other side of the planet.

What is homesickness?

There are generally two peak points in the academic year when homesickness strikes. At the start of the academic year (late September and through October), and just after the Christmas break (in January and and early February). It normally affects 1st year students (or one year students such as PGCE students), but can affect 2nd and 3rd year students too. For those who do feel homesick, it is usually short-term, lasting a few weeks at most.

What ever you do, don’t hide your feelings! (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Homesickness manifests in different ways. For some the following thoughts, feelings, and behaviours might be noticeable:

  • Sleep becomes disturbed, or you struggle to get to sleep
  • Feeling sad, anxious, or nervous, without a clear reason
  • Feeling lonely or isolated
  • Sometimes overeating or sometimes struggling with appetite
  • Poor concentration (not great when you are in lectures)
  • Headaches (which can be a secondary cause from the stress and poor sleep)

Remember, it is very normal to feel or experience some of the above issues, and it isn’t something to be embarrassed about. Around 65% of students will experiencing some level of homesickness.

How to overcome homesickness

The best way to combat homesickness is to get involved in university life as much as possible. The worse thing you can do it to lock yourself in your room and hope the problems will go away. With that in mind, try and get out as much as you can. If you want to study, go to the library; if you want a coffee, have a drink at one of the campus’s refectories. Sitting in your room all day or all evening lets your negative thoughts get the better of you.

Try and make new friends by joining clubs and societies. Look at the University of Cumbria’s Student Union group pages to see if there are any that you like the look of. If not, give a thought to setting one up. Look out for activities throughout Freshers Week to see what you can get involved in. Of course, there is nothing wrong with keeping in contact with your old friends and family back home, but it’s good to socialise in person, which easier to achieve on campus.

Reduce isolation, and improve socialisation to combat homesickness. (Photo by kat wilcox on Pexels.com)

Don’t be disheartened if you are not rapidly falling in love with your course or campus, it can take time to adjust to these new experiences. Depending on the course you are studying, you could be here for 2, 3 or 4 years, don’t let a few days or weeks put a stop to your hopes and dreams. If symptoms of homesickness persist, consider speaking to your personal tutor, or speak to Student Support Services, such as the Mental Health and Wellbeing Team. They could help identify specifics about why and how you are having the thoughts and feelings that you are experiencing, and help you overcome them.