Friday, 19 August 2016

Results Week and the Positive Fresher

Disclamer: the following is totally unsolicited advice based solely upon my own experiences and mistakes, and therefore I accept no liability for the effect it might have on your life. Unless that effect is positive, in which case: you're welcome. 

Hello! I currently have about two hours to go before I miss the self-imposed deadline of “well at least I’ve posted twice in two weeks this time”, and while I was trying to get creative and express my excitement about and on behalf of those who’ve received their A-level results… alas, that post shall have to wait.

Today, here are five tips on boosting and maintaining positivity as you move into the world of University – or if you’re already there, and need some help. This blog post is going to form the basis of a zine and video based around looking after your mental health at university – so watch this space and hopefully there’ll be a few tips you can pick up.

Look after your physical health

Physical health doesn’t always = sexual health (which is often shoved down one’s throat at uni – if you’ll pardon the pun), but of course, trying not to get pregnant or catch an STI will probably have quite a positive impact on mental health over all. One less thing to worry about, and all that. If you are, or think there is a chance you may become, sexually active then it’s worth thinking about various methods of contraception, and protection from STI’s (condoms condoms condoms, they are everywhere at uni and they’re free, you could probably bury a body under the amount you’ll be given) – and you’d be frightened to discover how many people just don’t seem to think about this. Take advantage of the fact that you’re away from parents who make you cringe over the topic and find out as much info as you can about your sexual health. Chat to a nurse, have an STI screening, go and do a chlamydia test just for fun – you get a free pen sometimes. Just make sure when you’re “finding out” this information, it comes from a doctor or reliable online resource like the NHS website: not from your hallmates who might think they know everything.

What I really want to talk about regarding physical health, however, is how much it can affect your outlook on life when you’re a fresher. You will get fresher’s ‘flu and you will try to treat it with copious amounts of vodka and a couple of paracetamol, but this won’t work. Make sure you take a few days off after fresher’s to wind down and treat your symptoms with a cough bottle before the onslaught of course work begins – powering through for the fresher’s week/fortnight is, in most cases, fine.

Diet is super-duper important in ways we forget about. What you put into your body can have a massive impact on how you feel, and though many students feel duty bound to survive on instant noodles and maybe the occasional pasta and tomato sauce culinary trainwreck creation, it’s actually incredibly important to make sure you’re eating right. This sounds like a simple one, but reminding yourself of the impact the right food can have on positivity is important – if your weight fluctuates massively during term time, this might impact your self-esteem – no matter how much we wish it didn’t – and feeling sluggish after eating junk does not bode well when you’re expected to be on top form and getting involved in everything under the sun for weeks on end.

Register at your local doctor’s. Say it with me. Do this in the first week. The first day. Do it while your parents are still there so your mum can fill in the paperwork. Getting the relevant jabs should also be a no-brainer, though easy to forget. Just register and don’t say I, or the barrage of emails from your Uni, never told you so.

Get some exercise. As someone who gets most of their exercise on dancefloors, probably not even burning off the calories from the alcohol that got me there in the first place, I’m not gonna preach on this for very long. Just exercise, ‘kay? Try out a new sport or roll out the yoga mat in your room. Explore your new location on walks or jogs. This not only looks after your physical health but can be a great opportunity to ponder what on earth you are doing with your life

Basically, major or minor health problems can affect every aspect of your life at Uni, including relationships with other people, the way you view the world and how well you get on with your course (mustn’t forget your course!). So looking after your physical health by eating right, going to the doctors, exercising and looking after yourself can make you feel a lot more positive and nip a lot of problems in the bud.  

Get a job!

Not only can getting a part-time job supplement your student loan – or lack thereof- and thus help to combat the stresses and strains that will inevitably come with having to manage your own finances for the first time, but for me, having something else to do and somewhere ese to go outside of Uni has been invaluable. A part-time job can create a whole new social circle and I’ve made some great friends since I started working at a bar last year. It might take some time out of your studies, but one or two shifts can give your week structure where you might just be watching Netflix, napping, or multi-tasking at both. In short, bitching about Uni to people at work and bitching about work to people at Uni is what makes the world go round, and it certainly helps keep me positive.

Cleanse your social media

I’m going to offer a general step-by-step for this in a later post, but keeping your social media on the positive side is a really useful thing to do. Particularly when you begin Uni, all your information about events, your new halls and even your course will be online and for the most part on social media. Therefore, the last thing you need is a barrage of negativity each time you log on to Facebook.
This is an ideal time to “cleanse” your social media from a lot of the people and things that make you go “grrr” as you scroll. I’m not saying be that person who deletes everyone from school on Facebook because they’ve hashtag “moved on”, but getting rid of some people’s negativity from your online life can be good. If you’re not ready for unfriending and potential offending, Facebook’s “unfollow” button is key here.

During freshers’, you’ll probably add everyone you meet on Facebook: perhaps because you can’t pronounce or spell their name so handing them your phone might be easier, or perhaps because you just drunkenly “click” and are convinced you’ll be at each other’s weddings. A month or so in, however, it might be a good idea to do a cull of people you only ever spoke to the once. Likewise, unlike and unfollow pages or accounts whose views really incense, offend or bore the bejaysus out of you – there’ll be enough of that in lectures or round the dinner table.

Hang with different crowds

Similar to the whole social circle thing I mentioned above, it’s really important to not just make one group of friends from your flat, course, or society. Try to spend time with a mix of people. Friend-making can be exhausting, and yes, once you’ve realised you get on so well with everyone on your corridor or you click with all the other Bio students, it feels like a huge relief and you might not see the point any more. Unfortunately these social circles can get bogged down by similar things. Instead, try to have a few solid mates who aren’t all doing exams the same week as you, or who don’t all have a disgusting kitchen to battle with that Tuesday night. In addition, remember that while freshers’ is definitely one of the easiest times to make friends, it’s not the only time. People are pretty open to a new friend, generally speaking. So if you find you’ve become a bit insular or you and your gang are grinding each other’s gears (I’ve never said that before… who am I?), maybe it’s time to try out a new society or text that person you barely see to invite them for a coffee. It can open up lots of new doors and make those negative “suffocated” vibes disappear. (I don’t think I say “vibes” either, really).

Perfect the art of “sorry”

There’s probably something about you that really gets on someone else’s nerves. And that’s if you’re perfect. If you’re normal, there’ll be a lot of things about you that get on a lot of people’s nerves, and they’ll probably be living under the same roof as you. Particularly in your accommodation, you might end up clashing with someone, whether it’s about social or political ideals, or people leaving too many pans in the sink. Whatever it might be, it’s not worth hiding in your room for weeks over – trust me. The key to a harmonious environment, or at least one where nobody murders anyone, in your flat or seminar, is to clear the air and say sorry. Even if you don’t mean it ad even if you think you’re totally in the right, just say “sorry” and drop it, because after all, we’re supposed to be adults now and you might as well start practising. Be prepared to apologise for views you feel are totally reasonable or things that’d be totally OK among your “home friends”, because you’ve been shoved together with people from different environments with wildly varying values. You don’t have to be best friends with the person afterward, but creating an atmosphere can be really damaging particularly when it’s in your own home. You might even get an apology back – or at least you won’t be the flat misery. 

Friday, 5 August 2016

A Year in Norwich: Yoga at the Buddhist Centre

As I now realise, six months after deciding to write a year's worth of posts about Norwich and for many personal reasons (genuinely a bit more than laziness) not actually writing them, I now officially only have a year left in Norwich... as an Undergraduate, at least. As all the adults in my life are currently proselytising, "who knows where you'll be a year from now?"

I am uneasy about this. At school, I couldn't wait to leave from about five years before the event and had decided my university plans about three years before they happened. Now, however, I don't quite want to leave. I like my life in Norwich. I like being a student. I adore learning about history. For the next year, my last in this current state, there will no doubt be overwhelming pressure to decide, or discover, who or what I want to be. What sort of person am I, and how will my future employment prospects reflect this? Who do I want to be on a daily basis: a continuation, development, or total re-invention of what I am now? Even though a new academic term beckons, something which may only happen once more in my life, I feel at twenty I am too old and decrepit for a back-to-school reinvention. Not that this should or will stop me.

One thing that keeps coming back with alarming clarity, however, is to enjoy Norwich, the place I am currently fortunate enough to live. "Enjoy where you are" was in fact the theme of a yoga class I recently attended at the local Buddhist Centre. Perhaps availing of such resources - which are harder to come by in the Irish midlands, for sure - should be part of me enjoying where I am, geographically speaking, for the next year.

Yoga came about when a friend I was staying with suggested it. It was to take place at the ungodly hour of ten in the morning. At 9.50, because at the time we were living at a ridiculously convenient location, we made our way there in our "exercise gear" (maybe) pretty half awake.

The bright and airy room with a high ceiling, fresh wooden beams and light streaming through the Velux windows was certainly a pleasant enough place to lie on a yoga mat. When we arrived people were already lying down with their eyes closed, in what I would later learn to be called corpse pose (maybe). We joined them with minimal fuss - there were only about six of us in the class in total, and when the instructor entered we would learn the purpose of the mysterious "blocks" which accompanied the laid-out yoga mats. Did you know there were blocks?

The instructor, whose patience with my total lack of knowledge let alone suppleness was second to none, began by getting us to breathe a lot - which I had expected - and while we were all breathing away – quite often, sometimes in, sometimes out - he spoke to us about a book on Buddhism he'd been reading before the lesson. It had featured the key phrase: "enjoy where you are." I hadn't expected yoga to cover mental or emotional well-being as much, but this was like getting a workout and a sermon at once – in the best possible sense. Of course, yoga is about not only physical stretching and movement but the harnessing of energy to bring positivity, vitality or relaxation to life. It’s very complicated; you wouldn’t understand.

So instead of focussing on where we’d like to be after lesson one, and feeling put out that others were ahead of us, our instructor advised us to enjoy what our body could currently do before we worked on making it better. He must have been reading my mind as I glanced jealously at the woman on my right who not only seemed to have harnessed more than her fair share of positive energy, but could more than likely put both legs behind her head. But for the rest of the ninety minutes, I looked to her only for guidance and not out of jealousy.

As it turned out, “where I was” proved not only enjoyable but useful. I was concentrating so hard on what my body was doing at the time that I didn’t get a chance to think of much else.  I experienced each stretch and ache of my muscles and had to concentrate on the basic instinct of breathing. I was giving my body attention it hadn’t seen in a while (for want of a more appropriate phrase), and as such the rest of my life didn’t really factor in for that hour and a half.

Lying flat on my back at the end of the session, relaxing my breathing, feeling my muscles nicely stretched as strains of Killing Me Softly floated in through the window, it would be incorrect to say that I totally forgot my worries. For me, the phrase “forget your worries” will inevitably bring a dozen or so of them to mind. It was more that in that moment, focused on what was happening now and, yes, enjoying where I was, those worries didn’t seem to have as much significance. I had better things to think about: an awareness and appreciation of my physical self.  

Having undergone major surgery in 2012 and another minor procedure in 2014, I have sometimes felt connected to my body on a slightly higher level –often whilst on a lot of painkillers, but still. It’s happened. I’ve often remarked that one thing my surgery taught me is that our bodies know best – they know what they need to do to heal, and how much rest will be necessary, as well as using pain to warn us when we mightn’t realise we’ve gone too far. Yoga gave me a sense of my body, too – what it could and couldn’t do, its comforts and limits. I discovered weak points I could work on and, surprisingly, there things my body could do that others found difficult. Such awareness is important, and deserves more focus. This awareness also led to an appreciation we often omit.

My body really is a tremendous thing – as is yours. Mine underwent spinal surgery and has recovered with the help of all kinds of surgical steel it carries around every day. It can dance – all be it poorly and mostly in the shower. It can give the most amazing hugs. It is admired - maybe, once or twice. And potentially, at-some-point-fingers-crossed-not-at-the-moment, it could grow a human being inside it and give birth to that person. Or people – but let’s not get too ambitious.

I’ve been very unappreciative of my body in the past. I’ve wished it was slimmer, had less spots, grew less hair – a lot less hair – and hadn’t required screws and rods to work properly. I’ve also wished it would be more co-ordinated and fit, although fitness is certainly not something you could wish for. I’ve been so unappreciative, that I’ve forgotten all the things it could do.

Appreciating your body is so important – especially at a time when for reasons unbeknown to me, women like myself are still being judged every day for what we do or don’t do with our bodies. The human body might be leered at, taken ownership of, assaulted and abused by our fellow humans, and any time we decide to do as we please with it, we run the risk of being labelled or shamed. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been made to feel as though every single decision I’ve taken about my own body has been the wrong one.

Bodies are a hassle: they cause a lot of undue stress. But they are also a source of wonder, and I’d strongly advise anyone with low body confidence or otherwise to take some time to regularly think about their body. Enjoy where you are with it. What can it do – what are its strengths? What does it need? Should we be feeding it or watering it? Giving it an airing? Allowing it room to stretch and breathe? Sheltering it or letting it out to enjoy the world?

I’m not going to turn this into a pledge to do lots and lots of exercise, as that will inevitably fall through much like my pledge to update this blog more frequently, but I think a change in mind set and more attention and focus on my body can lead to many improvements and accomplishments. Once I love where I am, then I can start setting goals. I always see the phrase “don’t exercise because you hate your body: exercise because you love it.”  Maybe I won’t be running any marathons quite yet, but perhaps more yoga sessions will remind me of the importance of my body and that it needs to be appreciated and looked after.