As the days get darker and the stress gets heavier, it’s important to not lose track of who you are and why you came to uni.
Rewind to September. As our glorious summer faded and the dust settled on what was for me an excellent 1B, I couldn’t help but think that the high-grade glories would dissipate, that they would be depleted somehow by a kind of lurking corrosion. As the darker nights crept in, the 2A workload, paid part-time work and life in general crowded in, I tried to battle the sense that I wasn’t good enough. Now in my late 30s and an official mature student – wise fella, old fogey , whatever – I felt split between being this organised, professional bloke who always tries his hardest, and that other, less confident part of me: the darker part loomed at times this semester. I was too old, too northern, too thick to keep up the fantastic results of 1B. My creeping fears were confirmed when a subpar midterm came back. Had I taken my eye off the ball by expecting the highest grades every time? Had I pressured myself into a kind of inert, twitching ineffectiveness?
As Omicron spreads ever larger and ministerial misjudgments dominate the news – yes, Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking at you right now – it’s logical to feel like the only place we should be is at our desks, cooking up the next academic masterpiece, scribing away like devout medieval clergy, heroically saving the world from the clutches of pestilence and a fundamental lack of governmental responsibility.
The truth is: we are not computers, or machines, or masterminds, or career academics with a long list of edited, published theses. We are learners. We are imperfect. We are human. To recognise this is to take the first step in letting go of pressure that can feel mountainous at this time of year.
"We are learners. We are imperfect. We are human."
I fleetingly observed a subway poster as I was riding up to campus recently. “We are the present; we are the future,” it read. This may have been yet another fine example of greenwashing from the latest corporation hoping to hop on the eco-conscious bandwagon, but it did permeate. It made me pause for thought. It made me think that we are here to make the most of this opportunity and to grow as people, despite the dreich weather, the voracious variants, and a UK leader prone to gaffs of such monumental proportions that indicate he shouldn’t really lead anything at all.
There are practical solutions to the feelings we get at this time of year: no matter how bad you think things are, there are small tweaks to lessen exam season stress. My own mental health has a long and not always straightforward history, but I find these things help me out of the darker spots.
I’m massively fortunate to live next to Glasgow’s glorious Linn Park. A morning walk, ideally before 11am, is a remedy for just about anything. Being outdoors in the morning helps to balance your circadian rhythms which gives you a better night’s sleep; walking also helps memory and cognitive function, not to mention the physical benefits. The Norwegians have a word for enjoying the outdoors in the cold weather – friluftsliv – and as we all well know, Scandinavian countries tend to be amongst the happiest on earth.
"We are here to succeed, sure, but not at the expense of our mental health, not to the detriment of our relationships with those closest to us."
In short – and I know this is an overused cliché, but it’s a universal truth – give yourself a break. Countless times towards the end of this semester I have doubted myself and pressured my brain into a kind of fretting purgatory, where I worry that only the best will do, and that I’ll fall some distance short of those top notches, descending into a vague, muffled panic. Anger, resentment, and mental discomfort soon follow. We are here to succeed, sure, but not at the expense of our mental health, not to the detriment of our relationships with those closest to us.
And so, I want to leave with a kind of hope, as I always like to reach for in academic essays. The key philosophy is this: while we can’t halt the foul weather and dark nights, or single-handedly tame super-variants on steroids, we can do something about shielding from the mental minefield that seems to descend annually around this time of year. We must enjoy where we are, who we are, and who we will be. And, lastly, we must not forget: “We are the present; we are the future”.
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