This post has been written for my students at University College, Oxford, but the books mentioned will be of use to any undergraduate and graduate students. The post is not intended to replace welfare services: it is an introduction to the welfare guides in the college library. Univ students should always talk to the welfare team or their tutors if they have concerns about their mental health or welfare. At the foot of the page are links to the University’s welfare webpages (which include links to the counselling service and Disability Advisory Service).
It can be a stressful time being a student, at Oxford or any university, and the college library has a number of useful welfare guides that can help you to manage stress, stay positive, and keep calm during a busy term. Here are a selection that I have found useful but do explore the resources for yourself!
Know your Mind: Everyday Emotional Problems and How to Overcome Them by Jason and Daniel Freeman (shelfmark UX/FRE in the Univ library)
Know your Mind uses Mindfulness techniques to manage a range of everyday emotional difficulties. It discusses how to deal with negative thoughts, such as ‘I can’t do it’ or ‘I’m not good enough’. In response to such thoughts, the book suggests that you ask yourself how accurate such thoughts are: ‘what’s the evidence for and against them? What would you tell a friend who had these thoughts?’ (p.358) We are often very quick to criticise ourselves but would we speak to a friend in the same way? Probably not!
The book contains lots of exercises that you can use if you are feeling anxious or down. Taking a walk, spending five minutes tidying up and decluttering your workspace, reading a book for pleasure. There are visualization techniques such as sitting quietly and imagining that you are in your favourite, most relaxing place (such as a holiday destination). Imagine the sights, colours, sounds, and smells.
If you are worried, you could keep a diary or designate a ‘worry period’ when you take five minutes to write down the things that are worrying you. Writing down your worries gives you space to recognise them but also helps you to get them off your mind and start to think more clearly about how to deal with them.
To encourage positive thinking on a regular basis, books such as You Can Be Happy and How to Keep Calm and Carry On recommend gratitude and happiness exercises. These are simple ways of recognising that however stressful or difficult things might be at the moment, there’s always something that can make us smile.
(Both available at the shelfmark UX/FRE)
The gratitude exercise: get into the habit of writing down three things that you are grateful for everyday. These should be simple things such as a nice walk to the library in the sunshine, enjoying a coffee with a friend, listening to your favourite music.
The happiness exercise: when something happens that makes you feel happy and uplifted, write it down on a slip of paper and put the paper in a jar or box. This could be speaking to an old friend on the phone, an unexpected compliment, enjoying a night out at the theatre, a visit home for a family occasion, making progress on a difficult essay… When you’re feeling down and you need a lift, reread one of your notes!
You can be happy by Freeman and Freeman also includes other tips for reducing anxiety including breathing meditations that you can do at your desk and how to improve your sleep by developing a relaxing evening routine. This can be as basic as not working on your bed and making sure that you relax directly before going to sleep- by reading a novel for pleasure or looking at a magazine, for example, rather than checking your emails or mindlessly browsing the web!
If you’re busy and stressed, it can be easy to forget about the importance of exercise. Quick and Easy Stressbusters has five minute exercises that you can easily do in your room to relieve the tension in your neck or back, this is especially important for students who are hunched over computers and desks all day! Even just going for a five minute walk around college or down the road to pick up some milk will help to clear your head.
You don’t have to join a gym or be a sporty person to take up exercise and benefit from it. The NHS website has an excellent podcast series called Couch to 5k which is a tried and tested programme to get you running in just nine weeks, in three 30min sessions a week. (Having done this myself, as a complete novice, I cannot recommend it enough! The sense of achievement at completing the programme is brilliant and my energy levels has improved considerably! I took longer than nine weeks to complete the programme, but it still works!)
Overcoming Anxiety by Helen Kennerley (UX/KEN) has lots of great advice on a range of topics. Including time management. This can be especially helpful when you are juggling multiple demands and having to manage your time on longer term projects.
The book suggests that you should start by identifying your normal routine and practices. Are you the kind of person that plans ahead or procrastinates? Do you work better in your room or in a library? Do you need quiet and a tidy work space? If you know that you concentrate better in the mornings, plan to do your more difficult ‘thinking’ work then. If you tend to get tired after lunch, perhaps use this time to do more straightforward tasks or to run your errands. If you get overwhelmed easily, plan out your time in small chunks across the week so that you know when you will work on specific tasks, that way you can concentrate on the task at hand without panicking about everything else that needs doing. (Have a look at my Study Skills post, in particular the end of the post on the pomodoro technique, for more advice on staying productive and focused in short bursts).
The comedian Ruby Wax has published two excellent books on mindfulness techniques called Sane New World: Taming the Mind (2013) and A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled (2016) [Univ library UX/WAX]. Both books are entertaining and informative! (Ruby Wax did an MSc in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy here in Oxford).
In Sane New World, Ruby describes techniques for calming the mind such as breathing and thinking exercises. Mindfulness aims to bring your awareness into the present moment, often by focusing on the breathing, and it encourages you to pay attention to your thoughts as just that, thoughts that come into the mind rather than an objective reality. Ruby explains this with reference to the imaginary frog!
‘The problem with thinking is when we confuse the thoughts about things with the things themselves. We can think about an imaginary frog in our minds and know it’s not the same as a real frog. But whenever our minds bring up something that physically doesn’t exist, such as our self-esteem, it’s hard to see the distinction. Thoughts about our self-esteem are no more real than an imaginary frog. If we switch to the ‘being’ mode we can see this much more clearly. We can stand back and witness our thoughts and feelings as experiences that come and go in our mind just like sounds, tastes, and sights. So when a thought comes up, ‘I feel like a failure’, we don’t have to take it as a reality and fall into the inevitable rumination (it’s just an imaginary frog).’ (p.174)
Both of Ruby’s books have a range of exercises to help you to train your mind to recognise the way that you think and as a result to gain more control over how you are feeling and reacting to stressful situations. They are well worth a read, and entertaining too!
There are many other books in the Univ library on a range of welfare and health topics, I’ve selected just a few that you mind find helpful. Have a browse on the ground floor of the library at the UX shelfmark for further information.
Useful Links for Oxford Students
Health and Welfare at the University of Oxford: here (includes links to the Disability Advisory Service and the Counselling Service)
Univ students should click here to access the college intranet pages on Student Welfare.
Oxford Nightline service: here (for Oxford and Oxford Brookes students, nightline phone service).