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For the undergraduates among you, this time of year will be one of unbridled optimism. You WILL be more organised, you WILL work it harder make it better harder better faster stronger. Put this editorial on ice for a few weeks, when that all gives way to blind panic. For those of you doing a thesis or dissertation, that panic will have likely already set in. It did for me.
It was around this time of year—perhaps this very week—when my Honours dissertation topic fell apart and I spent the better part of a day lying in the foetal position having suicidal thoughts before breaking down over the phone to my mum. At her urging, the next day I went into Student Health and, though this was Dunedin and not Wellington, I was told what many of you at Vic have been—that counselling appointments were booked up for the next two to three weeks and I’d have to wait.
That was the first and only time I’ve asked for counselling and, though I’m sure those services do the best they can with limited resources, the experience kind of put me off asking again. Of course, there’s a fuckload of other factors at play as well. Pride. This stupid stoic ideal that’s foisted on men. Guilt, both over being a burden to others and over presuming that my problems warranted the attentions of a trained professional. I can function just fine on a daily basis so I’m likely to only need those services again in a crisis in which case, same answer. We can book you in for two to three weeks’ time. Thanks.
For most of us, university will be the best period of our lives, but it often doesn’t seem that way at the time. After all, uni holds the key to all our future endeavours—no pressure! On top of that, many of you will be like me, your sense of self-worth tied almost exclusively to the capabilities of your brain. When that bit malfunctions, or starts looking insufficient, this can be pretty cataclysmic. In a ceaseless intellectual crucible, the last thing you need is an attack of existential angst—seriously, fuck that. The only reason I was able to drag myself through my degree was by being freakishly passionate about political theory, and really wanting to write about how to reconcile neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics with a liberal-rights framework via Gadamerian hermeneutics. Obviously, this isn’t going to work for everybody.
None of this should be interpreted as me telling you not to seek help, because you should. But if you can’t or won’t, you shouldn’t have to rely on periodic waves of inspiration to carry you through. Thankfully, there are still things you can do to make the ride easier, particularly during the stressful run-in to the end of the year. Looking after myself during my university years involved a lot of trial and error; here’s a list of the things that helped me the most. Most of them will seem trite and obvious, but that’s kind of the point—all too often the pressure of study makes us forget the basics.
- Eat properly. Chips are not dinner, although breakfast cereal can be. Flat meals are a huge help. This is number one on the list for a reason.
- Get enough sleep. Cut down on caffeine and sugar, particularly from late afternoon onwards. Eat properly (see above) and exercise if possible. Bear in mind that getting enough sleep is not the same as sleeping in. There’s this thing called “the morning” that contains a whole bunch of extra hours you can add to your day—bonus!
- For a few weeks in second year, I started making coffee at night and leaving it by my bed in a flask, all so that I could chug the cold, grainy liquid in the morning and give myself the kick I needed to get out of bed on time. It was surprisingly effective, and anybody who isn’t instantly repulsed by the idea and can see the merits might be the kind to find it useful. Apparently there are alarm clocks attached to coffee machines that automatically start making coffee five minutes before going off—teach your grandma how to use Amazon and start dropping Christmas hints.
- Facebook is an enormous time sink and has an observed, adverse effect on the user’s mental health. Deactivating your Facebook account isn’t enough, because you can reactivate it with just your password. Instead, get a friend or flatmate you trust to change your password before deactivating, and to keep the password secret until after exams. On an average day this will save you between one and two hours; on days where you’re stuck at the library with nothing to do but study, it could save you half a dozen.
- Have at least one outlet. My outlets were a weekly column and occasional benders.
- Keep in touch with your flatmates to maintain a minimum level of human interaction. If you don’t have that kind of flat, stay in touch with your other friends.
- If you’re in Honours or Masters or a similar sort of hell-pit, use your shared misery to bond with your classmates. This is particularly advisable for classes with an abundance of hotties.