The University Lessons in Getting Better

People go to university for a number of different reasons. Some go to get a qualification that will help them get the job they want. Some go because they don’t know what else to do for the time being, and university seems like a convenient way to decide what to do over the course of three years. Some forget about the qualification all together and just go to party and get ‘life experiences’.

For me, there was a number of motivations that brought me onto the path of studying at university. The topic I chose rose from my life experiences outside of education – my real life struggles and what I learned about the world changed my values, which ultimately changed my life goals too. I also see going to university as a recovery and rehabilitation project for me. As someone recovering from a complete disruption in my life due to mental health, going to university is teaching me more than the lecture content.

I am learning to be busy again. I have had to adjust to actually doing things, and there being consequences if I don’t do them. This is a valuable life lesson because when you are off work due to mental health, and there is no expectation of yourself – it is easy to not commit to anything. Sometimes, we need to step back and sometimes this was necessary, however, after a while however, it became increasingly difficult to commit or get going again.

I am learning to regain structure in my life, and to use this structure to help myself regain and re-build my life. Whereas a year ago, the thought of this was overwhelming for me.

I am learning to go outside of my comfort zone quite literally. I regularly leave my home borough now, compared to years ago when I wouldn’t go much further than an hour walking radius. I regularly get the train to Central London, out to Surrey and out and across to my university campus. I have learned and gained confidence in myself to travel to new places. Sometimes, I would even go as far as to day that I can quit enjoy going to new places.

I am learning how to problem solve around my mental health difficulties and anxieties. With the help of support, I am learning how to overcome the hurdles that I would have previously been barriers. Attending lectures in the big lecture hall at the start of the year was a really awful experience for me – now though, with exposure and support, and being told about a nifty side door that means I can avoid the crowds has really helped.

As a part-time student I have the luxury of time to utilize my university experience to help me continue growing as a person and rehabilitating myself ready for a life beyond being unwell with my mental health.

I spent my first year learning to go to uni, gain a routine, use a routine, and re-learn how to focus my mind. It hasn’t been plain sailing by any stretch of the imagination – and a medication adjustment alongside my mental health treatment has really helped as well. It is important that I don’t downplay the role these factors have played in my progression throughout the year because it is not a matter of will-power. It is not a matter of ‘just overcoming’ barrier and hurdles. It is not a matter of going to uni part-time is the solution.

It is a combination of factors and learning opportunities. It is the start of a journey – and judging by how much I have learned in this last year, and how much I have changed I have a feeling that this path is going to lead to good places in the long run. I feel as if I am on a path moving forward with my life, and learning to live in partnership with my mental health rather than being ruled by it. Here’s to starting to see the beginnings of rehabilitation within myself.

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The Panic Proliferation Situation

When anxiety gets a grip on you it becomes very difficult to reason with the impending doom that feels like you have no choice to think about and feel in response to it. Lately I have been experiencing perhaps one of the worst bouts of anxiety I have had in a very long time. So much so that I am not always containing my anxious thoughts and feelings – and find myself acting on them in retrospectively and admittedly, extreme ways.

Last week my partner didn’t answer the phone. She stopped texting me and through a certain method of steps I took to analyse the situation I became convinced she was dead. So convinced was I that I managed to convince the ambulance service to dispatch an ambulance to her address because it was too late and I lived too far away to get there in time, you know, just incase she was on the brink of death rather than dead. She finally responded, all of 2 hours later to tell me she had fallen asleep. Of course, that makes complete sense. I cancelled the ambulance. Unfortunately, they didn’t receive the message to the vehicle and wound up arriving at her house. The guilt of having used and called an ambulance, perhaps away from another emergency ate me up for days of guilt.

At the time though, there was no reasoning. I was convinced. For the following days I kept getting the thought that she was dead or dying, and needed me – but I was unable to contact her. After a few days of “I’m fine” texts, I have realised this is an irrational anxiety thought so have stopped responding to it. Which means it has gone where? I’m not certain. I think a lot of it I am suppressing, whilst trying to ride out the smallest of the waves of emotion that are coming up for me lately as, I presume, a side effect of the stress I am currently experiencing.

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The anxiety has returned to focus on myself since then. I keep getting extremely anxious that people around me are talking about me, laughing at me and judging me to be a walking disgrace. I pretty much scarpered out of uni today as soon as I could in order to escape the lecture room full of people talking about and laughing at me. I thought it was just uni maybe. Maybe I had done something weird and not realised. However, it followed me all the way home to my room where I tried to relax and calm down from the ordeal of having to go out in public when I felt this way.

Cue the weekly fire drill. Normally I am able to ignore the alarm as it sirens throughout the building and my room. It goes off frequently, due to drills and I assume, the bad cooking of my neighbours. Normally I sit through it and it passes. Today though, the siren was piercing and I snapped. I entered into a panic attack of tears running through the building begging them to turn it off. The whole day I had been avoiding using medication to calm myself, but at that point I succumbed to the ease of popping a pill to calm myself down.

I know that lately my baseline is significantly raised due to stress. However, for as many DBT skills that I use I just can’t seem to get it under control. I have the insight. I know what is happening. Some mental health professionals equate this insight into the ability to control it. No, not at all, and to be honest, I am out of answers for dealing with this right now.

I spoke to my care coordinator about it on Friday, but her advice was to accept the emotion is happening and let it run it’s course. I thought I had been doing this already – but I suppose not because my response behaviours are still getting the better of me. I wonder if anyone has mastered their anxiety better than I have mine, what they would say to me about managing it?

How can I not let it get the better of me? How can I realise my response behaviour is not fitting to the situation? How do I reality check without reality checking with my anxious thoughts as a reality? How do I avoid a panic attack without having to take a benzo – because we all know relying on benzos isn’t the answer. Additionally, it is very easy when in a real state of anxiety/panic/upset to take too many because they take a while to kick in and wind up overmedicating.

I don’t know the answers. If you don’t know the answers, but still have suggestions that would be helpful too.

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Food Rule #10: Work Within Guidelines of Variation and Inclusion, Rather Than Exclusion

There is a difference in the mentality around ‘rules’ and ‘guidelines’ that differentiate the mindset involved with abiding by one to the mindset of incorporating the other. Rules are rigid. By eating in accordance with rules we limit our scope to enjoy life or live with a relative flexibility that is required in order to not be at constant battle with your will and that of the universe.

However, does this mean that we should eat what we want and consume at wild abandon? I wouldn’t say so. By being mindless of our relationship with food, and what we are eating we lose insight into whether we are full or hungry, whether we REALLY want that piece of cake or if we’re eating it out of an unintended routine, or boredom.

Guidelines however, are much more flexible. Guidelines are more about doing something than not doing something. Adding behaviour or replacing behaviour is much easier than not doing a behaviour. Therefore it makes sense that ‘drink more water’ is likely to be more successful than ‘stop drinking fizzy drinks’.  The stop goal doesn’t replace the behaviour with an alternative to help create a behaviour change. Guidelines can have hairier edges of accomplishment than rules. With rules you either follow it or break it. With guidelines, you may hit eating 5+ portions of fruit and veg in the day, but there is no such thing as failure: only achieved or try again tomorrow. Rules tend to be very specific.

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For example, a diet plan may include g targets of protein, carbohydrate, fat and maybe even a further breakdown of the macro-nutrients. This is so difficult to meet or even be aware of without a micro-focus on food, which for some may be necessary – athletes for example – but for those of us just living average active lives, this may not be necessary or even conducive to feeling better or achieving an overall healthier life.

 

 

Food Rule #9: Health is a State of Being, Not a Number 

In order to be healthy and by healthy I mean truly healthy: good vital signs, good level of fitness and a healthy mind, you don’t need to have a 6-pack. There is no definitive quantitative score that defines health despite the amount and in-depth analysis of numerical recordings we can gather to indicate health or a lack of. Overall, I think when you are healthy you feel it within yourself. Just like when something just doesn’t seem right, we feel it within ourselves. A niggle, a fatigue or a pain and we notice. What we frequently don’t notice however, is the signs of good health that our body sends to us. Perhaps because they are less attention demanding than aches and pains – designed to grab our attention. If we focus deep within ourselves and pay attention we can see and feel signs of good health for us.

Maybe it is clear skin, a glowing complexion, or a general sustained energy level throughout the majority of your days. Perhaps it could be a regularity in bodily functions, such as sleeping and waking, or going to the toilet. I think also though, how we genuinely feel within ourselves is a good indicator: are we satisfied, fulfilled, content?

There is no dress size or waist measurement that fits everyone who is healthy. There is no sport that defines one person as more healthy than another, no calorie limit or excess to fit everyone exactly. Sometimes we are healthier than other times but the point is, to aim to be the healthiest and best version of yourself is a personal journey – that includes a bit of indulgence here and there.

My healthy is going to be very different from your healthy because our bodies are individual. There is general advice recommended for example, by public health bodies, but getting hooked up on a body fat percentage, or a 10k time or a “goal weight” or clothes size isn’t the way to go.

I don’t think there is a particular end goal to be attained in order to be healthy. It is a state of being, and you can be healthier or unhealthier than others or your previous self but there remains no destination at which you reach and stop. There is no finish line with healthy living, even if you reach your own peak health and performance, if you don’t maintain activity and healthy practices then you will lose strength, cardio ability and general fitness levels – which you will feel within yourself.

So forget measuring how healthy you are by a dress size or a “goal weight”. Forget comparisons to other people’s’ performances as a yard stick for health – some people who appear very toned and muscular may not be as healthy as you perceive them to be. Similarly, just because someone is considered ‘skinny’ or ‘slim’ by societal standards does not equate them to greater holistic health.

Health is about enabling you to live your life fully, not about fitting into a numerical category of health of scales and measurements. So I urge you to try to release yourself from being hooked on quantifying your health, and to focus on the natural method of how you feel. I don’t always manage this myself – I am a sucker for statistics for every aspect of my life, perhaps to the point of bordering obsession and need to feel in control by numbers in all areas of my life. I am trying to release myself though by weighing less frequently, removing my FitBit from time to time, and stopped insisting on seeing my vital sign results in the doctor’s office because health is a state of being, not a number.

Food Rule #8: Can’t Pronounce It? It’s Not The End Of The World.

This is a well cited rule. If when you read the ingredients list of a food product and you can’t pronounce it, put it back on the shelf and don’t eat it. There are many, many faults with this rule as what someone can read and pronounce from the ingredients lists is really going to vary from person to person.

We live in a global economy now, which allows for a much wider variety of foods from around the world to be available in our local super markets, markets and specialist food shops. Many foods may be mispronounced in a dialect here said food has become popular – but does that mean all those mispronouncing people should not eat that food? No.

I get that this isn’t the “point” of this rule, but I am just highlighting how ridiculous this rule is as a generic guideline. The pronunciation of some foods can take on a whole life of their own that there are debates about what the correct pronunciation is. Quinoa for example is now widely accepted as ‘keen-wa’ however, I and swarms of people are guilty of calling it ‘kwin-o-a’ for a good allotment of time.

So according to this pronunciation rule, I shouldn’t have been eating quinoa in my diet because silly old me couldn’t pronounce it.

This rule is generally aimed at additives and chemicals such as monosodium glutamate, which is frequently shortened to MSG. I don’t know about you but for me pronouncing that correctly first time was much easier than pronouncing quinoa, or figuring out the pronunciation of quinoa. Often there are a lot of preservatives and chemicals used within our food that we might not want to be putting into our body. However, without the knowledge of which chemical-sounding ingredients we want or don’t want in our body can be difficult. For example, ascorbic acid is frequently added to food for its preservative properties. Does this sound like a nasty chemical? I suppose it does to some degree. You might think, ‘I don’t want acid in my food” – ascorbic acid however is Vitamin C. Vitamin C is often added to food for its preservative properties.

Therefore, if you’re unsure on an ingredient and you feel so passionately about knowing what is in your food some reading might be more productive. If you don’t have the time or energy for this though, then generally speaking, if there are more ingredients in your food item that you know of that is likely to be a good sign – but don’t limit yourself. Usually we can gather from the packaging and the food product whether or not it is heavily processed or not. This, I think, is a better indicator as to whether the food contains ingredients you’re not so sure on. E numbers, sweets, unnaturally coloured foods kind of speak for themselves when compared against naturally forming foods.

On the flip side, we all know about sugar. We can all pronounce and talk about that white granulated substance that we add to our hot drinks, pastries, deserts, and that food manufacturers pump into our products – does that mean it is good for us?

As for quinoa at least we finally know the answer to that old debate. It is ‘keen-wa’ and whether you’ve been pronouncing it wrong or not, it is still a healthy food worth your while.

Food Rule #7: Let Yourself Relax with Food

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to ‘succeed’. Part of succeeding in the modern-day is to have a good job, be intelligent, funny and slim – as well as eating healthily. According to this image of success I am very much unsuccessful and I accept that I do not fit the modern day mould that we pressurise ourselves to fit into.

Sometimes we get ill, or run down or tired. It happens that we can’t be bothered to cook every day, or we are stuck out and about, or over-indulge at a party. For myself, and many others living their day-to-day lives, having a mental health illness kind of misshapes you from fitting into the typical “success” mould quite quickly. That’s fine. When I am unwell, and being rather unsuccessful at living my life I reduce all expectations of myself, including that of eating healthily. Sometimes I want to eat everything chocolate related, and I do. I let myself relax with food, and let myself off the hook in terms of my expectations of myself.

Often when unwell it can occur that you have no appetite what-so-ever. In this instance, if you can eat one thing that day only as a result, it can be anything that you can manage. Something is better than nothing and that’s OK. Usually when I am on the mend from an episode I start re-instilling my ‘normal’ which includes prioritising healthy and balanced choices around food.

By not overwhelming yourself with ‘healthy eating’ expectations failure is not an option. There is no failing in healthy eating, only doing what you can and being honest with yourself when you’re not. Health is not about success or failure – there is no passing or failing, only doing and not doing – and what is ‘healthy’ for you one year may be different a few years from now.

Food Rule #6: Tasting Good is Important

Often there is an association that because a food is unhealthy it tastes really good, and if a food is healthy it tastes really bad. This really needn’t be the case. Sometimes eating healthier foods can mean exploring new foods, textures and tastes: this can be really fun, and sometimes you’ll find a food that you really don’t enjoy. That’s fine. There are a ton of unhealthy foods I don’t enjoy as well as healthy foods I don’t enjoy. On the other side of the coin however, there are a ton of healthy foods that I do enjoy.

Taste is important because this is one of the ways in which we get pleasure from eating. So just because something is on ‘health trend’ or, deemed as ‘super’ healthy for you, doesn’t mean you have to eat it in order to be getting a well-balanced and nutritious diet. You can live well for example without a kale smoothie ever touching your lips.

The fun thing about changing up your diet is discovering new foods again and breaking our of the routine rut of eating the same food combinations again, and again, and again. Play with food. Food is supposed to be fun – try everything and if you genuinely don’t like it, try something else. Eventually, you will discover the foods you enjoy that also happen to be healthy for you.