How to Look After Your Mental Health as a Postgraduate
Exam season is upon us, and deadlines are fast approaching. If you’re a current postgraduate, life can get very busy this time of year. It can be hard to know whether to prioritise revision, coursework, or applications for jobs, work experience, and further study.
If you’re thinking about postgraduate study, you’re probably balancing your search for a Masters or PhD with other commitments.
All of this is important, but it's likely to suffer if you don’t take time to care for your personal wellbeing.
This Mental Health Awareness Week, we’ve put together some tips to help you combat stress, and take better care of your mental health. We’ve also spoken to a postgraduate student from Mental Health Matters, a group that promotes mental wellbeing and self-care while at university.
Don’t take on too much
Most campuses have a huge variety of activities and resources to offer, with something to appeal to everyone:
These could range from mainstream academic societies and sports teams, to more niche clubs such as quidditch, beekeeping, and wine appreciation.
Societies can be great places to learn new skills, meet people, exercise, be creative, and generally unwind after a day of studying.
Most postgraduates have a relatively limited time left at university. With so many activities available, it can be tempting to sign yourself up for more than is sensible.
But don't get carried away.
Committing to too many things can leave you feeling stressed and having to ration your time. It’s important to remember that your future applications aren’t going to be judged by the number of things you’ve done. Quality is just as important as quantity. You may be better off committing to fewer goals and fulfilling them to a higher standard.
If things do get stressful, you won’t go wrong by prioritising your postgraduate work. Then see how much time you have for extra-curricular activities that make a positive impact upon your overall happiness.
Find time for friends
When you’re busy with university work, friendships are often the first thing to suffer.
It’s all too easy to postpone that lunch date, or put off replying to those texts. But when you’re spending long hours at a computer screen or poring over revision notes, a bit of human contact could do you the world of good.
If it begins to feel like your stress is slowly taking over your life, it’s important to take steps to make sure that it doesn’t by reclaiming your friendships.
Friends will be able to help put your worries into perspective, and can bring you the invaluable stress relief of laughter. So don’t push them away. Try to make time for your friends every day, even if it just means squeezing in a quick phone call from the library.
Keep your work area tidy
It’s amazing how quickly a busy work area can get messy.
Having a clean, decluttered bedroom will help you to feel more organised and make it easier to find the things you need. It might seem like a small thing, but the phrase ‘tidy room, tidy mind’ didn’t just spring up out of nowhere.
A cluttered desk could also force you to work in impractical places (like on your bed). This can be a recipe for poor productivity (and unintended naps).
So keep your desk tidy and, no matter how busy the rest of your life is, you’ll always have somewhere to settle down to work.
Find a slice of peace
If you feel like things are getting on top of you, try setting aside a little time each day for peace and quiet.
Start by closing your laptop and turning off your phone. Breathe deeply, and think about the things you plan to do that day, as well as everything you have already achieved.
For the added benefit of fresh air, find a park or green space near your campus where you can go for a bit of quiet time if you feel you need it.
Lots of universities offer some form of yoga or meditation class, which is worth considering as a low-cost way of combatting stress while also meeting new people. If classes aren’t available, there are plenty of excellent tutorials online.
Adopt a healthier regime
These days, we all know the positive impact a healthy lifestyle has upon our physical wellbeing. However, little is said about the benefits exercise and a balanced diet have for our mental health.
When pressed for time, it can be easy to rely on microwaveable food, takeaways, and supermarket meal deals. But studies have shown that eating fresh vegetables and limiting sugar intake can promote good mental health.
Try cooking something at the start of the week that will provide a few meals, and taking packed lunches into university. Make sure you also get in a bit of exercise every day to increase your endorphin levels. This doesn’t have to detract from your postgraduate routine – a brisk walk to the lab or library can help (as can taking the stairs once you get there).
Getting a good night’s sleep is also a great way to make yourself feel healthier and happier throughout the day.
If you have trouble sleeping, try avoiding screens and bright lights for a couple of hours before bed. This will give you time to switch off from emails and social media, and will help your body to produce melatonin, hopefully making it easier to get to sleep.
Pay your parents a visit
If you’re feeling stressed, consider making a trip home.
After a long stint of studying, a change of scene could be just what the doctor ordered. Especially if it comes in the form of a nice warm house, complete with a fully stocked fridge.
If you’re worried about taking time out from studying, book a train ticket with a table seat and do some work on your journey.
It’s easy to feel guilty when taking a break from studying to do something enjoyable like watching TV, or even something necessary, like eating.
Yet many studies have shown that working for short periods of time with plenty of breaks is more beneficial for your work and mental health than studying for long stretches. Sometimes, worrying over the same piece of work for hours on end just isn’t the answer.
Instead, if you find you hit a figurative brick wall, take some time to treat yourself.
Watch a film, take a bath, bake a cake, read a trashy novel. Do whatever it is that makes you feel most relaxed, and when you return to your work the next day you’ll be able to tackle it with a fresh pair of eyes.
Looking for further advice?
We spoke to Megan Myer, a member of the University of Sheffield’s Mental Health Matters society, to find out how she takes care of her mental health as a postgraduate.
Megan is currently studying for an MA in English Literature, and is focusing on mental health and trauma in her research.
This is what she said:
As both an undergraduate and now postgraduate at the University of Sheffield, I have found university a place where my mental health is put under particular strain due to the intensity of work, deadlines, adjusting to new experiences and the anxiety and stress all of this brings.
What I’ve found has particularly helped me whilst at university is surrounding myself with the right people, who understand and support me.
As I’ve moved to postgraduate study I have felt my mental health be more tested, through large financial constraints and increased workloads, alongside a self-pressure to do well and make the year count, and working alongside this.
I think the challenge postgrads face for their mental health is particularly unique, in that they have such a balancing act to perform within their lives that is also enacted mentally.
My top tips for postgraduate students would be to:
#1 Make time to be you, and do the things you enjoy.
Be strict about it. Schedule ‘self-care’ time into your calendar. Have a reminder and set moments apart to sit in the park, have a bath before bed rather than working until one in the morning, whatever helps you. Give it time to work.
#2 Build a support network.
Whether that’s through joining societies at university like Mental Health Matters that will do activities to promote your wellbeing, or through going for coffee with people after a seminar. Even if it’s just spending 15 minutes with people, this’ll help combat isolation.
#3 Talk to people.
If things aren’t going right, leaving them be won’t help, and will steadily decrease your mental health. Get in touch with your department or personal tutor. And do research into the services provided by your university if you’re new there.
Most importantly, remember that your wellbeing is the most important thing. You shouldn’t sacrifice sleep or social connections to do well.
Editor's note: This blog was first published on 10/05/17. We've checked and updated it for current readers.
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