University Survival Guide

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Autumn. To me now, Autumn brings to mind a soothing pallet of glorious colours; golden, copper and russet leaves crunching beneath toasty feet on cool, crisp mornings. When I was at University though, Autumn denoted fear. Paralysing, petrifying, panic-inducing fear. Coursework deadlines piled up, exams loomed and the carefree summer days felt like a distant dream. I was far too busy worrying about essays and fretting about how little money I had left to notice an autumn leaf drift along the breeze.

It took me several years and a painstaking amount of trial and error to realise some crucial truths. There were in fact countless small changes I could have made to help those hazy, coffee-fuelled and frazzled days to become a whole lot easier. If I could go back in time and give myself a hug, a brew and some kind words of advice, here is what I would say…

Stay connected - no, not with your Facebook friends or WhatsApp contacts but with the people around you. With family and friends. With people in your physical presence. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t suffer in silence. Reach out. You’re likely to be surprised at how many others are going through the same thing, or perhaps you will stumble across those who have had similar experiences and might be able to help.

Get creative - start by coming up with meaningful ways to spend evenings after studying, beyond the easy, go-to settings of the student union or the pub. There are now tons of places offering workshops, handicrafts, niche sports and all kinds of weird and wonderful activities. You never know what you might enjoy or be secretly skilled at until you try! Use the money saved on beers to invest in experimenting, and if you’re strapped for cash you could even meet up with likeminded souls for a craft session at home. You won’t waste any time with a hangover, and will wake up feeling refreshed and inspired rather than full of doom.

Find your flow – whether it’s yoga, running, drawing, writing, skating, climbing or dancing. Make guilt-free time in your schedule for something that brings your full focus and attention into the present moment. Rather than beating yourself up for time away from books and essays, welcome the distraction wholeheartedly as a way to truly free your mind from stress for an hour. Trust me; you will be twice as productive when you get back to work

Connect with nature - this one is a biggie, especially if you live in a city! University life is full of fun and exciting distractions, making it very easy to forget the simple solace found in taking a walk in the fresh air. Find a park to spend some time clearing your head and marvelling at the beauty this world has to offer; nature gives us a sense of perspective which can soothe even the most frazzled of minds. Don’t live near a park? Even just a patch of grass or a bench next to a tree will do! Get outdoors and you are sure to feel the difference.

Learn to practise balance - in absolutely everything. Anything can be bad for us in excess, even sleep, water and studying! Once you start to observe and play around with balancing your behaviours, you’ll learn to berate yourself less. Start small - if you work a crazy amount of hours in the morning, reward yourself with an easy afternoon. If you pig out on pizza and beer one night, try a healthier option later in the week. Not only will it eventually come naturally, but you’ll likely start to make better choices.

Breathing exercises – this is the single most revolutionary thing I learned to get me through the bitter end of university. The breath is inextricably linked to bodily sensations and patterns of the mind, particularly when it comes to anxiety and fear. In calming the breath, the body and mind naturally follow. If you spend a little time learning simple techniques like mindful deep breathing or alternate nostril breathing, you will be prepared for even the most critical of anxious moments. These kinds of breathing exercises salvaged me from years of panic attacks and I truly believe that had I not learned to control my breath, I would not have a degree. Having only got the hang of it in my final term, it really was better late than never - don’t feel like it’s too late to give it a shot!

Don’t sweat the small stuff – as the saying goes, it’s all small stuff! Take each day and each worry as it comes, tackling things one at a time rather than as a tangled mess. Don’t waste precious time worrying about the “what ifs” and hypothetical outcomes – when you do, small things become huge and unnecessarily out of proportion. That colossally important exam you’re panicking about? I promise you won’t even remember it in a couple of years’ time.

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Rachel Bilski is the co-founder of Shanti Niwas, a yoga collaborative currently holding yoga retreats and classes in Portugal and Vietnam. You can follow her musings on yoga, travel and life on the Shanti Niwas blog: www.shantiniwas.com/snblog