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Self-care: A student's guide to managing your mental health

By AliceRLA 02 Feb 2021

Mental health is just like physical health: everyone has it, everyone needs to look after it, and it is normal to have ‘sick’ days. Unlike physical health, taking care of your mental health is hardly talked about and rarely taught in schools. In this blog series, I will try to gather some tips and tricks that have helped me through my years at University, I am by no means a medical professional, just a student who has struggled with her mental health and wants to help you!

This article aims to focus on what I see as the basics of self-care: water, food, sleep, hygiene and shelter. I think social media has created this false impression that self-care is about achieving inner peace, meditating all the time and eating only the finest healthiest foods, among other unrealistic expectations that just aren’t attainable, especially when you’re struggling. This is a gentle reminder to you that baby steps are still steps, small progress is still progress and above all, you are worthy, you are important, and you are cared about.

puzzle pieces on a table

Water

Our bodies are 70% water, so we really need to be drinking enough of it, there are so many health benefits to drinking enough including clearer skin, better focus, and energy levels.

For me, living on the top floor of my house means I don’t usually drink enough water because I don’t have the energy to keep walking up and downstairs to refill a cup.

A hack that is helping me currently is to have two large water bottles and fill them up every morning, this means that I don’t have to keep leaving my room, and I always have enough water on hand. Adding sugar-free squash or fresh fruit to my water also makes it that little bit tastier, motivating me to drink. 

a close up of a bottle

Food

This can be such an anxiety-inducing area for many people for a whole variety of reasons, from diet culture affecting our body image to concerns around obesity and its link to mental health. I would like to use this space to remind you that whatever you are struggling with, you are worthy of nourishment, you deserve to enjoy food, and your body is a beautiful vessel of life no matter what size or shape it takes its form.

I like to think of our bodies as cars: we're all different shapes and sizes, some of us have a lot of dents and scratches, and some of us love to have lots of modifications, but we are all on a journey, one with amazing views and experiences, so we need to fuel that with what is right for our car (I hope that makes sense). I've always had an unhealthy relationship with food but I have discovered some handy tricks along the way to help me out!

  • Planning in set meal times: this makes sure that there is always time in my day to cook, eat and enjoy my food and I can't make any excuses about being too busy to eat.
  • TikTok: now this may sound very cringy, but there is a lovely trend at the moment where influencers sit down and record themselves eating their meals so that you can sit and eat your meal with them. It might not work for you but I think it's a really lovely way to encourage regular eating. @saratonin.com and @edenharvz are my favourite influencers on this trend, check them out!
  • 'There is no such thing as an unhealthy food, only unhealthy diets' despite what diet culture may tell you, no foods are objectively 'bad', food does not hold moral value, and eating delicious food isn't going to ruin your life. Everything in moderation is the buzz phrase used all the time but it holds a lot of truth, you can eat "unhealthy foods" and still be perfectly healthy, happy and awesome!
  • If you are struggling with eating, it would be worth reaching out to your GP to discuss support options and advice going forwards if this feels like too much, you can always reach out to the Residence Life Team and the various university support avenues I have linked at the bottom of this blog! A useful website that may be able to provide you with information, advice and support is https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/ 
  • A gentle reminder (that can be used as a mantra): you are worthy of nourishment, you deserve to enjoy food, and your body is a beautiful vessel of life
food on a table

Sleep

Sleep is so incredibly important for your mental and physical wellbeing but we as students have a reputation for not getting anywhere near enough sleep, and when we do it's usually not good quality. The Sleep Foundation suggests that healthy adults need between 7 and 9 hours sleep per night but this varies from person to person so try to find out what works for you!!

Sleep has always been a big problem for me with an overactive mind, nightmares, loud neighbours, the works but I have a few tips and tricks that have helped me over the years!

  • I would usually suggest having a separate sleep and study area to separate relaxation time from work but in the current climate, most of us are working from our bedrooms :/ what I would suggest though is not working from your bed, not only is it bad for your back, it can also prevent sleep because you're associating your bed with work.
  • I also like to have lavender-scented things in my room because they promote relaxation and sleep, you can get these in diffuser form or a pillow spray to really help you sleep.
  • Having a night-time routine has really helped me to get my sleeping habits together, I'm going to go more into detail of my self-care routines in my next article but the basics include a set bedtime and at least half an hour before bed just chilling to wind down ready for sleep.
  • Having calming music, sleep meditations or relaxing podcasts playing while you're trying to drift off can help to counteract an overactive mind, this is one I've found particularly good over the years: http://www.sleepwithmepodcast.com/
a dog sleeping in a bed

Hygiene

I would love to be the person who has an immaculate skincare routine and always smells like roses, but a lot of the time it’s too difficult to get out of bed let alone get into fancy hygiene routines.

For those days where showering seems like the most impossible task, keeping baby wipes in your room can help you to feel fresh with minimal effort, couple that with some deodorant and a little dry shampoo if you can, and you might notice that you start to feel the tiniest bit better just from being fresh.

On days where you have a little more mental and physical energy, you could try just sitting in the shower and feeling the water on your skin, a good way to keep in touch with your body while requiring little effort.

If you feel you can go a little further, a nicely-scented face mask can be a lovely way to take some time out for yourself, get back in touch with your body and treat your skin.

a close up of rubber ducks in a bubble bath

Shelter

So you're living away from home now, probably for the first time, and although your room in residences will provide necessary shelter and protect you from the elements, they're not all that homely! Making your accommodation feel slightly more like a home is so important to your wellbeing, especially now that most of our uni work is done from home too!

These are some things that I have done to make my accommodation feel that little bit more like home:

  • Lots of blankets: for comfort, warmth and those times when you just need to make a fort (you can usually get them pretty cheap in Home Bargains!).
  • Tonnes of photos: we're not allowed to stick things on our walls but you can pin photos up on your corkboard or stick them to your wardrobe doors with blu-tack, I've found that having pictures of friends, family and happy memories all around my room helps me get through the hardest days.
  • Air freshener or a reed diffuser: if like me, you don't get out much, your room can get quite stuffy and unpleasant, a cheap air freshener or reed diffuser with a smell that you love can do wonders to lift your mood and help you feel fresh.
  • A little plant: something that you can look after to remind you to look after yourself, succulents are adorable and only require minimal upkeep!
a hot coffee mug on a blanket

Communication

Reaching out when you're struggling is one of the hardest things to do, but it is the strongest, bravest and most rewarding decision you will make. I'm including below the details of services that are there to support people with their mental and emotional health, remember the people manning these services want to help you!

  • 999 - for emergency intervention
  • NHS 111- for emergency intervention/signposting to appropriate services
  • Your GP - for mental health support during working hours and access to out of hours support
  • Samaritansfor a 24/7 confidential listening service, phone number: 116 123, email address: jo@samaritans.org 
  • C.A.L.L - for mental health advice and listening service, phone number: 0800 132 737
  • Shout - confidential text support service, text SHOUT to 85258
  • Your Residence Life Team - if you have concerns about your wellbeing, join us at one of our events and we can help to signpost you to the most appropriate support within the University.
  • Concerned about a student team - if you are concerned about another student, you can email the following address with brief details of the situation and they will make contact: concernedaboutastudent@cardiff.ac.uk
  • Disclosure Response Team - for any students suffering from violence, abuse, or other forms of harassment/bullying, search 'Violence and Abuse' on the student intranet where you can make a disclosure to receive specialist support from the team.
  • Disability and Dyslexia service - if you are suffering from a mental health condition, you may be entitled to specialist support from the university and your student funding body, find out more on the intranet.
  • Counselling and wellbeing service - for professional one-to-one support, you can find out more on the intranet and fill out their referral form.
  • Self-help resources are available on the intranet.
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