Self Reflection

University, Stress and Mental Health

It can be terrifying growing up nowadays as there is so much choice around. The possibilities are endless, yet you feel trapped and like life is closing in on you forcing you to decide on what your career should be.

GothicSculpt
“The hardest battles are fought in the mind, not with the sword.” – Hellblade, Senua’s Sacrifice. This was a model I did in my third year. It had absolutely nothing to do with any project I was working on, but it really captured how I felt. Alone and in the dark, trying to find my way out.

What subjects do I study at school?

Do I go to college?

Will it look bad if I don’t get a degree?

For me, I had never really had any doubt in my mind I was going to University. I had always had a passion for graphic design and art, so it seemed natural to go to University to study Animation. It was exciting; I’d secured myself an unconditional offer at Ravensbourne University and couldn’t be happier.

My first year was great; I was living away from home, looking after myself and studying a subject I found fascinating. I had lovely classmates, not that I was particularly social myself, but it was a great atmosphere and one I look back on fondly. However, come my second year I began to notice I felt a mounting pressure growing on me. I still felt like a novice in things I was doing, and I wasn’t excelling at anything. I would look at classmates around me knowing what they wanted to do, and they’d chase after it.

You’re so far behind them, they’ve spent a lot more time learning than you have. You’ll never catch up.

It’s funny how thoughts creep up on you; they start off relatively quiet, a whisper in the back of your mind. However, it becomes skilful at creeping and you become blind to it approaching. Your body knows it’s there; headaches and tension become a familiar feeling, screaming at you to notice the stress that is mounting up. However, you carry on until it gets to a point where you cannot ignore it anymore. By this point in time, fight or flight kicks in. You either run away from the situation, you decide University isn’t for you and drop out or let your grades slip. Or you face the thoughts head on.

For me, I ran. Come my third year I had been ambitious and wanted to take on lots of different projects so I could really try and secure myself a top final grade. I was still stressed out about what I was going to do after University, but I had my focus with all my projects. I had noticed that I had started to need my partner a lot more and I found myself crying quite often.

However, it didn’t occur to me how stressed I had become until one day when I went in for a routine check-up for my Crohn’s disease (a chronic health condition that, for me, was triggered off by stress). I was told the severity of the inflammation that had occurred due to the build up of stress and not paying attention to how my body felt. I was in pain every day, whether that be headaches from tension or stomach aches through my illness, but I had learnt to live with it being a part of my life.

Due to the severity of the inflammation, I had to go into hospital for around a week. I can honestly say this was the best thing to have had happened to me at University. It was a huge wake up call and reality to check into how I was coping with things and how my mental health was declining. I remember my first few nights in hospital, I felt relief. I was stressed that I had just started my third year of University and now I was in hospital, falling behind in my work but I was also relieved as I had a reason to give myself a break (not just from University work, but from being wrapped up in my own little world, or rather nightmare, for the past couple of months).

Now, I could have chosen to carry on my University work from in hospital and continue to be distracted by my work and goals for the future, however my dad helped me recognise that I needed a break, some time to take a step back and gather some perspective on my situation.

When I look back now, I could see I had gone into autopilot, my brain shut off and me falling asleep at the wheel. I was rapidly rolling down a hill heading to an inevitable crash at the bottom. However, the passenger in my car, my dad, tapped me on the shoulder to wake me up and I applied the breaks and pulled over. There, I was able to think about what had just happened and how I’d gotten to the point of falling asleep. I was able to recognise the negative thought patterns that had exhausted and numbed me to what was happening around.

University can be a very stressful experience and can make you question why you decided to go there in the first place. However, what I have learnt from my experience is that self-reflection can be one of your greatest tools to success. Had I not listened to my dad, my mind, my body whilst I was in hospital, I feel sure I would have ended up back there again, possibly ruining my chances at achieving a good grade at University.

However, from taking a step back from my situation I was able to identify that the thought of getting a relevant job after University was stressing me out no end.

My partner and I want to live together after University, but I’ll likely need to be based in London and he’ll be in Chichester, the commute will be too much.

…I don’t know what I want to specialise in, I feel like I have to choose a speciality to get a job after University.

…I don’t have enough time to get my skills up to scratch before I finish my third year.

The combination of all these thoughts (and many, many more) was making it impossible for me to focus on any of my work. I had to drop a project as I just couldn’t deal with the stress of doing it, thinking about how it wasn’t going to help me to develop any skills to get a job after University. This shift in perspective made me realise that, for me, the best thing to do was to not set any expectations to go into an animation job after I finished my third year.

In actual fact, I lined up an easy job at an energy provider so I could give myself a break after I finished my studies. That job turned out to be great; I got to use my creative skillset and learnt a whole lot more which has made me into a bit of a jack of all trades – master of none, sure, but boy do I have a desirable skillset (check out this TED talk if you don’t think you’re designed to just specialise in one area!).

I couldn’t focus on my third year as I was dealing with the stress of getting a job straight after University else I’d be behind everyone else or, worse yet, never make it as an animator. However, that thought was impacting my ability to do my coursework as I would spend so much time thinking about how I needed to use this time to work toward getting a job, I ended up not doing anything as I felt so exhausted.

I would never have realised this had I not accepted a break when it presented itself. It’s easy to think that you need to be using all your time to do something practical or work toward a goal; however, the value of doing nothing, letting yourself just think and just be in your own mind, is invaluable. I ended up with a First-Class Honours and learning a lot about myself and how I work.

If you’re struggling right now and feeling like you can’t find a way out, take a step back and really acknowledge those thoughts running through your mind. They will tell you a lot about what is best for you. Take away those pressures and expectations and take care of yourself, you’ve got this.