Healthy living

This article focuses on the importance of healthy habits for wellbeing. The article provides useful tips and information regarding physical wellbeing, diet, responsible alcohol use, exercise and sleep.

Background

When you start university, you will encounter many new experiences. Some you will enjoy, others you may not. Adapting to a new environment can be challenging to some students. This article focuses on how to build the foundations of emotional balance and mental wellbeing. It will guide you through making a plan to make small changes that can increase your emotional resilience (ability to adapt to stressful situations) and mental wellbeing.

How could this affect me?

You may be looking forward to living away from home and building your independence or it may feel like a very daunting task, or a mix of both. All the above are normal and understandable. It may be that you are looking forward to learning in depth about your chosen subject and hoping that you may find some like-minded people at University.

Whatever it is that has brought you to University, those early weeks are likely to bring up many different emotions, both positive and negative. Common challenges can include:

Social aspects

  • Uncertainty about what will happen or what is expected of you
  • Feeling under pressure to socialise
  • Not knowing what to say to people or how to start a conversation
  • Anxiety around forming new friendships
  • Learning to live with other people

Sensory considerations

  • Other people’s noise, tidiness, hygiene
  • Possible environmental triggers to sensory overload – halls of residence, lecture theatres, cafeteria

Cognitive overload

  • Feeling overwhelmed by reading lists or workload
  • All the new experiences and information that you are taking in can be exhausting

Practical considerations

  • Learning to look after yourself including your physical and mental health
  • Making appointments
  • Being responsible for your finances
  • Using public transport
  • Disruption of previous daily routines and the development of new university routines
  • Learning your way around a new city or campus
  • Uncertainty about timetabling and where you are meant to be
  • Managing deadlines
  • Working in groups

What to do next?

Register with your local GP surgery as soon as possible

Practical tips

To meet the challenges we face in life, we need to keep our bodies and minds healthy. A simple model for this, based on Marsha Linehan’s research, is the PlEASE model: treat Physical illness, balance Eating, use Alcohol responsibly, balance Sleep, and get Exercise.

Physical Illness

When we are ill, it becomes harder for us to think clearly and we may find ourselves getting upset or angry. It is important that you see a GP straight away if you feel ill. However, it can be daunting to phone the GP surgery and talk to the receptionist.

There are a few things you can do to make GP appointments work better for you:

  • You could visit the GP surgery before you are ill so that you are familiar with the layout. If you feel you could do with some extra support, take a family member or friend with you.
  • Find out if you can book appointments online.
  • Write down what you need to say to the receptionist or GP before you go.
  • Complete a hospital passport, which explains how you like to be communicated with, how you express pain and what people can do to reduce your distress. This can be useful for both the
  • GP and hospital staff.

It may be possible to ask for the following reasonable adjustments:

  • Early/late or longer appointments
  • Somewhere quiet to wait, or waiting outside and being called in from there
  • Seeing the same clinician if at all possible (recognising that in an emergency this may not be possible)
  • Accessible information in a format you understand about how and when appointments are available and how to get prescriptions or access services like cancer-screening tests.

Balanced eating

Our energy levels and emotions are directly affected by the food we eat and what we drink. When you start university, it is likely to be the first time you have had to look after yourself and many students can find that they turn to fast food, chocolate and crisps as these foods are often cheap and easy to get hold of. These types of food can also initially provide some comfort of their own. However, if they are our main food source, they can lead to us feel run down and exhausted.

It is a good idea to plan ahead for how you will ensure you have a balanced diet while you are at university. Learn about what nutrients you need to keep your energy levels up, so that you can make the most of your learning and university experience. Practise cooking some of the meals that you know you enjoy. Below, we provide some useful links to easy recipes.

Responsible alcohol use

Many people can use alcohol to try and reduce the feelings of anxiety, especially when socialising. In the short term, these can appear to reduce the anxiety/distress, which is why some people use them. However, in the longer term it creates increased distress and anxiety, so does the opposite of what is intended.

Before you start university, plan for how you are going to manage uncomfortable situations in which you may feel tempted or pressured to drink. Think about what you are comfortable drinking and learn the signs that you need to stop drinking on that evening. It can also help to think about what you enjoy and what helps you to feel calm and relaxed.

Balanced sleep

Autism can make getting a good night’s sleep more difficult. Research has shown that many different factors contribute to this, including irregular sleep-wake cycles (circadian rhythms), physical health issues such as gastrointestinal problems and epilepsy, or anxiety and depression (which affect sleep because the brain is constantly trying to sort through the day’s events or other worries).

All of these factors can mean that it takes longer to fall asleep, it is harder to stay asleep and the depth and quality of sleep is lower than average. Being constantly tired can, of course, make your daily activities much more difficult.

Thankfully, there are many things that can help you to get a good night’s sleep. These include some of the other things on this list, like a balanced diet, and regular exercise. It also helps to have a clear daily structure, with consistent times for going to sleep and getting up. This can be difficult to establish within a typical student lifestyle, and can be affected by others in shared accommodation.

You can also contact the university’s wellbeing team for advice and support. If necessary, it may also help to talk to your GP about how to get a good night’s sleep.

Exercise

We all know that we should exercise regularly but sometimes it can be very hard to do, especially if you are feeling low or anxious about what others may think. It may help to remind yourself about the many benefits exercise can bring you, such as:

  • using up adrenaline (produced by anxiety)
  • releasing endorphins and other chemicals which are good for the body and mind
  • helping the body to repair itself better, with quicker recovery from infection
  • reduced anxiety and improved mood
  • helping to clear the head and think more clearly

If you are unsure which exercise to do, you could try talking to a trainer at the sports centre and discuss what would best suit you.

Questions to think about

Physical illness

Before you get ill you may want to consider the following questions:

  • Do you think you need any adjustments regarding timing of appointments?
  • How you would like the GP surgery to communicate with you?
  • Would you need to see the same clinician every time?
  • Are you comfortable making appointments on the phone or would you rather make them online?

Once you have the answers to these questions, contact the GP surgery and ask them to make any necessary adjustments. You can ask for a key named contact person who will navigate the system for you.

Balanced eating

A balanced diet requires planning as you need to allow time both for shopping and cooking, so you need to allow time for this in your timetable. Here are some questions you may want to think about regarding your preferences:

  • Do you think it would work better for you to devote one day (e.g. Sunday) to shop and cook for the week or do you think it would be better for you to introduce cooking as a daily routine at the end of each day?
  • Which vegetables and fruit do you most like? Can you find recipes that include them? In what other ways can you include them in your diet?
  • Have you considered sharing cooking with your housemates? It can be cheaper and also a good way to share the load.

Responsible alcohol use

Think about the situations in which you may find yourself tempted to drink more than you would like to:

  • Do you find it more comfortable to go out in small groups or larger groups ?
  • What sort of places you find easier to go to?
  • Do you like loud places or quiet places, bright lights or gentle lighting?

Once you know what makes things more comfortable for you, think about how you can explain this to housemates or new friends. It may feel hard to explain this to others, but most people want the people they are with to feel happy and have a good time.

Balanced sleep

Before you start at university, it may be helpful to think about your bedtime routine at home and what helps you to sleep well. Once you have a clear idea of what works for you, then the next stage is to think how you can replicate this at university. Are there things that you can bring with you from to help with the transition to university?

If you are going to share with others, think about what kind of agreement you could ask for in relation to noise levels and set quiet periods overnight. You may need to compromise to find something that works for everyone.

Exercise

It is sometimes hard to get into a routine to exercise regularly. Here are some things you may want to think about to get you started:

  • Do you like team sports or group classes or do you prefer to exercise on your own?
  • Do you enjoy outdoors or prefer a gym?
  • If you are not one for active sports, have you considered merely walking? Try walking to university a longer way or go round the campus grounds at east 3 times a week.
  • Looking at your weekly timetable, are there any slots between lectures you could use to exercise, even if for short periods?

Additional information and links

Physical illness

Balanced eating

Responsible alcohol use

Sleep

Exercise

About the author

This article was prepared by Dr Abigail Tolland, a clinical psychologist working in the University of Portsmouth’s Student Wellbeing Service.