Big White Wall comes to the University of Cumbria

The University of Cumbria’s students and staff going through a tough time can now access free online support with Big White Wall. Whether you’re struggling to sleep, feeling low, stressed, anxious, or unable to cope, Big White Wall can help you get support, take control and feel better.

You will have access to a 24/7 online global community and professional support from trained professionals. Big White Wall provides a safe space online to get things off your chest, explore your feelings, get creative and learn how to self-manage your mental health and wellbeing.

On Big White Wall, you are totally anonymous to other members in the community, and your personal information is kept secure while you are on the site (see Big White Wall’s privacy statement here). The University will not be informed if you’ve signed up to Big White Wall or know of your activity on the service unless they are seriously concerned about your safety.

Most members report feeling better and more able to cope with their workloads as a result of using the service and nearly 90% use Big White Wall outside of 9-5pm.

To join us, simply go to www.bigwhitewall.com from the 27th January 2020, and sign up under ‘organisation’ with your University of Cumbria email address (this is only used to confirm that you are a student or a member of staff at the University).

To find out more about Big White Wall, you can watch this short (2 minutes) video clip.

An introduction to Big White Wall

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.

Take Notice – 1 of your “5 Ways to Wellbeing”

Life can easily rush by, and we can miss moments that can make us happy or happier. Taking time to focus on the here and now, can aid with your 5 Ways to Wellbeing.

When we feel low, we often get into a spiral thinking pattern known as rumination, where we often focus on the past. Thoughts that often start with, “If only…“, and focus on lots of regret and disappointment, they include “I should have…“, “I could have…“. Conversely, when we ruminate when we are feeling stressed or anxious, we often fear about future events that haven’t even taken place, thoughts often start with “What if…“. The more we ruminate, the more it impacts on our ability to think straight.

  1. Think of a real problem
  2. Think of a solution
  3. Act upon the solution
  4. Problem fixed

When we ruminate, we repeat and don’t get to an end point

  • Think of a problem
  • Worry about the problem
  • Think about the problem some more
  • Worry about the problem some more
  • Repeat on and on and on and on and on and…. you get the idea.

The more we ruminate, the more habitual it becomes. When negative rumination gets a grip, it can lead to unhelpful behaviours such as self-isolation, heavy drinking, self-harm, comfort eating, etc.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What can be done about rumination?

  • Try to be more aware of your thoughts processes
    • “I don’t need to go over these thoughts right over and over again right now, I can think about my options when I am in a more positive mood”
    • “I can’t stop my thoughts but I can choose not have ruminations right now”
  • Do something that will take your attention away from your thoughts
    • “What can I do now that will make me feel better?”
    • “Is there someone I can talk to to help me problem solve?”
    • “Instead of focusing on the negatives, is there something else that I can take notice of?”

Taking notice can be in many forms. It can include meditation, mindfulness, and there are plenty of apps that can help you with that. ORCHA is an organisation that reviews health based apps including ones for mindfulness, on the basis of how effective they are. To see some of the apps they recommend, click here. If you are a campus based student at the University of Cumbria, there are mindfulness sessions available at various times of the year, some of which are free to attend.

Of course, at this time of year, there are so many little, but beautiful moments to cherish and take note of. The UK being a temperate climate, makes Autumn a particular good time to take notice. Take a look around outside, and focus on the changes.

This heightened awareness of what is going on around us, can enhance your self-understanding. Taking more notice in our lives doesn’t make our problems go away, but helps us to tune into what is important in our lives, or to give a break from rumination.

Read more about how you can “Take Notice” here

What to expect when you refer to the University of Cumbria’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Team

Sometimes we need some sunshine that clears the mist and helps us to see our way ahead more clearly

If you find yourself struggling to cope then there are a range of support services at the UoC. Of course reaching out to family and friends is usually a good idea as well. Even though you might not want to worry them, just think how you would want to help them if they faced a similar situation.

This blog has lots of information and tips on looking after yourself and improving your wellbeing, just take a look at the tags for the various topics. And we have also produced a list of self-help resources. If you’ve got to a point where you think you need professional advice and support then you need to know that UoC has a Mental Health and Wellbeing Team.

The Mental Health and Wellbeing Team had 600+ students make contact with us in the 2018-19; wanting help for a whole range of difficulties. These included low mood and depression, anxiety, panic and stress, relationship difficulties (with family, friends, colleagues, housemates, partners, etc.), current or historical abuse (sexual, physical, emotional), bereavement, homesickness, self-harm, drinking too much alcohol, eating problems, sleep problems, and a range of other emotional difficulties.

The team has practitioners from a range of professional backgrounds, with a wide range of therapeutic training, interests and experience. This includes Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Person Centred Counselling, Integrative Counselling, Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Mindfulness Based Counselling, Solution Focused Therapy, Advocacy and Motivational Interviewing. 94% of students who have used our service would recommend it to a friend

You can access our service if you are registered with a programme of study at the University of Cumbria by completing this self-referral form, which should only take you about 10 minutes. (If you are studying on a programme at a partner organisation of the University of Cumbria, you will need to access the support services at that organisation). Filling in the form with as much information about you and your present situation as you can, will give the team a good starting point to help you work through your difficulties. The details you put on the form will only be available to the Mental Health and Wellbeing Team (unless you ask us to share it with others, for example your GP, or it is required by law – please speak to us if you have any concerns about this).

We will then get in touch to arrange a therapeutic consultation with one of our practitioners. Your appointment will come via the email address that you provide in the online form, so do check this regularly. To ensure the message gets to you rather than getting filtered as spam, please remember to check your spam/junk mail folder as well.

Please respond to the message by accepting the appointment date and time (or requesting to reschedule, if you can’t make the one offered). Please note that we will usually close a file if the student does not respond or not show up for their appointment, and in that case you will need to re-refer yourself.

At our first (therapeutic consultation) meeting we will try to make you feel as comfortable as possible, so that you can let us know the situation you’re struggling with. We will advise you on the limitations of the service, including the limitations of confidentiality. It will be an opportunity for you to ask any questions you may have of the services we provide. We will then suggest things that you could do to help, provide information about resources and other services that might be appropriate, and decide what else might be needed from our service.

It might be that a single session is all that is needed for you to begin to resolve your situation. Or one of our wellbeing courses might be the most appropriate thing to do. Or referred to other services within the University, or referred to specialist services external to the University. Or it might be that further 1 to 1 work is needed.

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.

My story with mental health whilst studying at university.

Below is the first of our guest bloggers. It’s been written by a recent graduate of the University of Cumbria. It is an honest account of dealing with a range of mental and physical wellbeing issues. Due to the honesty of suicidal thoughts and psychosis, it might be a difficult read for some people. It might be a blog to bookmark and come back to at a later date when you feel more robust.

“Studying at university is a challenge, but doing this whilst battling mental health issues can really take its toll. I’ve struggled with my mental health since I was young but during uni I really did struggle at times. At university I experienced anxieties, insomnia, depression, suicidal thoughts and psychosis. Now this wasn’t anything new for me, but at uni I definitely had moments which weren’t good. But onto those later on.

So first year… I really enjoyed it to put it simply. I had moved around a lot prior to going to uni so I was used to meeting different people which I guess made settling in easier for me. Something I was personally worried about was staying in the same place every night which I had not done for some time prior to university. During the first few weeks I was really fortunate to make friends on my course and on others. With the University of Cumbria being such a small uni I got to know people in all years very quickly. I studied Sports Science in my first year. Some modules I enjoyed, others not so much. Revision was usually met with going over a PowerPoint and then watching an episode of The Simpsons or watching Leicester win the Premier League. Not the best revision techniques anyway. I managed to pass my modules but decided to switch onto the Sports Coaching and Development course as my skill set suited that course more. At the end of first year I landed a job with Camp America at a camp in Illinois near Chicago as a Tennis Coach and Camp Counsellor. It was a great experience but when I got back my insomnia was awful. A combination of jet lag and a sudden bout of just feeling low rolled into one. In lectures I could not concentrate at all. My mind was always somewhere else. I had to resit my psychology exam in January of my second year which I scraped through at the skin of my teeth (0.2%). This anticipation phase building up to the resit I really did struggle with, especially with uni on the line for it. The rest of second year and going into third year was a good phase for me throughout university. Grades were improving and I was just in a much better place. I think the relief of passing that resit was almost overwhelming. Over the summer at the end of second year I started writing my dissertation so I was super organised and ahead of everyone for the beginning of my final year. I wanted to keep the momentum going as towards the end of second year were the best grades I had got to date.

Photo by Nguyen Nguyen on Pexels.com

My final year of uni began and I was nervous but certainly motivated to do as well as I could. November came and this was when things were to take a turn for the worse. I noticed I was starting to have a sore stomach. Now I just thought this was stress/tiredness as my sleeping was pretty poor even by my standards.

Fast forward to January/February and this was when the vomiting with blood started. In the build up to this I had been drinking quite a lot on just not making sensible decisions. I remember one night saying to one of my mates ‘I’m sorry but I’d rather be getting high than either watching myself or my family die’. Anything to distance what I was feeling would be great at this point. I’d be getting inebriated to numb it all, all those nights I started thinking of suicide. Being physically and mentally unwell really exhausted me. Once vomiting with blood began, this was when I remember genuinely thinking ‘Something is wrong here’.

I went the Doctors the next day and they weren’t too sure what it was. So I had a lot of blood tests but again, no definitive diagnosis. After about 6 weeks of being sick most days, I eventually ended up in A&E on multiple occasions. Obviously with being sick this much my housemates knew about it, and my closest friends as well. Everyone else I was just hiding away so people didn’t see what state I was in. On an A&E visit, I had been in a lecture that morning and left halfway through as the pain I was in was just horrid. Within an hour I was being sick again and having a panic attack. I shouted my housemate and said I needed to go to hospital. He rang my mate for me and he came along with my other housemate. All 3 of them were amazing during this period! After having some bloods taken they again didn’t know what was up with me and deemed me not unwell enough to stay in hospital so I was discharged. They gave me some codeine pills to help with the pain. Little did I know at this point these pills were about to change my life for the next 4 months or so. I went into the doctors for an emergency appointment after hospital and then the Doctor thought he knew what was wrong with me. He said about something called ‘Gilberts Syndrome’. I had no idea what this was and when I heard the word Syndrome I panicked immediately. He reassured me very quickly though. This is an illness basically when your Bilirubin levels in your blood are very high which affects your liver. I had this since I was born as well, it’s just something that became more visible during this period. Now I had been abusing alcohol and cigarettes, so I told the doctor this and he wanted me to have an ultrasound on my liver. I had this a few weeks after and the results were that half of it was absolutely knackered, unsurprisingly really.

I started taking the codeine as they just really helped the physical and mental pain I was in during this time. Before I knew it they helped with sleep, removed nightmares or at least made them not as vivid. I had been used to having loads of nightmares which burnt within me like a forest fire. I started taking multiple pills a day just for the sake of it. Before I knew it I was getting high again off them and not really feeling with it with almost anything. I’d never had a good relationship with sleep but these pills improved that. However my aunt passed away in April, I went back to Stoke for the funeral and came off the pills so I would be all there mentally for the time I was seeing family again as they had no idea what was really going on apart from mentioning I had been having a sore stomach to a couple of them. I really struggled with this visit, to a point when I was in my brother’s bedroom and actually counted out how much codeine I had and whether it was worth ending it all. Now I have had suicidal thoughts since I was 16 but only thought about planning it once before which was when I was 17. But this time felt different. Really raw and heavy. I felt like depression was in control and I was just along for the ride trying to hang on whilst getting absolutely battered. I don’t know what made me not take them, maybe graduation in a few months? I don’t really remember to be honest. Anyway, I survived these days and went back to uni feeling quite scared. I could tell people on my course who saw me knew I was in a bad way, they looked and treated me differently. But I just played it off as they didn’t even know why I went back to Stoke. I was having suicidal thoughts every hour of every day for months which is exhausting on its own, on top of being physically unwell this made things unbearable. For my dissertation poster presentation I actually took them again so I was high during this as I was in ridiculous pain during the morning. I had got a reputation for falling asleep during conversations with people due to these pills, they were a nightmare but amazing at the same time. The pills almost became like my dark twisted fantasy. Giving them up was difficult though because they really did rid me of the blues, they opiated the hazy head I had. I’d find myself thinking ‘I’d love for you to stay. But that’s simply insane’ in reference to the codeine. †

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

At this time was when I envied almost all things. Anytime I saw an animal, I envied it. Seeing a bird singing at that time almost brought me to tears, because it seemed happy and I felt like pure darkness. Anything from a horse, to a dog, I felt jealous. In the end I started therapy and have since been put on anti-depressants (Sertraline) and I am now in a much better place.

When I look back on uni despite all this, it was the best decision of my life. The people I met and were there for me. The lecturers were so supportive with me. Educationally and personally as well. I looked at them as mentors. The memories made I will treasure and look back on really fondly. I still keep in contact with the closest friends I made at university. The degree helped me get a job where I work now as a Graduate Intern for a company called ‘Hello Future’. I was not academic and despite being ill I achieved a 2:1. I went up two grade boundaries in 12 months which now I can’t believe still. But when I wasn’t being sick I was studying. That summer between 2nd and 3rd year was crucial to me getting a degree and I would encourage any student in this period to get ahead of their final year. It makes such a difference!

So I wanted to write a paragraph on coping strategies, interventions and everything in regards to this theme. What worked for me? What helped me get through things on a day to day basis? Setting a structure and sticking to it was really important. Making sure I get out of bed, shower, and brush my teeth and stay hydrated/eat properly. Sleep was always very alien to me so this was a time of day I struggled with. Listening to calm music always helped just calm me down. From this, when I was physically able to, running and walking helped so much. Every day I would run several miles, easily too. Now I had a perception that pills and alcohol improved things but they really didn’t. It bottled it up, didn’t deal with how I was really feeling and resulted in things being worse. I have had counselling twice. Once which didn’t last long enough and another which took place over about 8-10 weeks. The issue with this occasion was that at this stage I was out of my bout of depression, so it didn’t really work as affectively as it possible could have. Both times I have had therapy I really got on with the therapist. They are trained individuals and you can have really positive conversations with these people. Everything is kept private which I really utilised. Having someone to talk to really helped me, whether it was talking about mental health or just talking in general.

Final message – The key advice I would have to anyone struggling is to talk. Now I know this is cliché but it really does work. Take a few deep breaths, and enjoy life. Remove yourself from situations that have a negative impact on you. Take it a day at a time and don’t worry about what’s ahead. You have to live life in the now otherwise you won’t live at all. Obviously you need to plan some things, but don’t get caught up in it.

Remember to talk, whether its mental health related or just spending time with friends or family. It is good to have some alone time no doubt, but when you’re struggling, being by yourself can cause risks. I still struggle every day, but I have started to build my tool box of coping strategies. There’s a long way to go, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you can too if you look hard enough.

Remember to laugh, lots of laughter is great, the type of laughing when your stomach hurts, happy tears rolling down your eyes. Laughter is a sign of happiness, and happiness is amazing. It’s so amazing it doesn’t even have to be yours. Seeing people you love and care for being happy and laughing can genuinely make you feel better. Surround yourself around those who make you feel happiness and it’ll help you make it through a day at a time. Love yourself like someone you love.”

Remember if you are struggling with your mental health whilst studying at the University of Cumbria, you can always refer yourself to the Mental Health and Wellbeing Team. Click on this link to find out more. Or for alternative places of support, look at our main menu for “Urgent Support“.