As he enters third-year, Life&Style Writer Patrick Blake reflects on his experiences and offers his cure for heavy heads – bravery and perspective
This article discusses mental health.
At the time of writing, it is almost the third week of term, and I have reason to believe most returning students are finding re-integration to the university timetable about as easy as you would expect. Like astronauts, we have been floating up in the orbit of zoom calls and recorded lectures (the latter being something I still think ought to be the standard), and re-entry to the strong gravity of a university course is becoming an increasingly heavy task. There is no shame in it. You have been living outside of its pull for so long; nobody in their right mind could expect a smooth landing. Have you seen those videos of returning astronauts still expecting objects to float where they left them? Think of that, but replace the water bottle or whatever with a three-volume essential reading for your Tuesday (in-person) lecture. You are entering a whole new world, regardless of how well you know it. We all need to make a landing, however, so the woes that come with it are unfortunately inevitable.
I will retire the space metaphor quickly to make my point abundantly clear; this is all very overwhelming. If you are like me, a third-year student, I am sure the sudden stress of a dissertation or other independent research project has become something you are desperately trying to balance into what is left of your university experience. Perhaps you are a second-year, finally entering the ‘normal’ university experience, excited and yet afraid; the pressure of making up for a year stolen from you by the cruel turns of fate, alongside a workload you never got a chance to be broken into.
Or maybe, brave reader, you are a first-year, ready to take that first step into the water, in the wake of all the chaos of the past year and a half – I remember too well how overwhelming it was, regardless of a catastrophic backdrop. Whoever you are, no matter how well you feel you are doing; you are currently pushing through one of the biggest events of the past 50+ years. That alone I would like you to understand is an achievement. You would not ask a person living through the Blitz to toughen up – and yet here in our own country-stopping historical moment, we are told to expect it from ourselves.
Of course, words on a page do not feel as real as we would like; nor do words we say to ourselves. We can tell ourselves a hundred times over that we are living through “unprecedented times” (to quote countless corporate emails) but it does not make it feel any easier. I have found my head to be heavy with thoughts as I try and break into socialising once again, meeting people, drinking and staying out late, and all the other things I once thought were normal. Like a weight, my head rests against the keyboard of my laptop as I juggle my academic work too. Despite how many times I remind myself what is happening, sometimes it still feels like I am failing if I cannot pull my head back up to face it all. For myself and my anxious friends, the crushing pressure stirs the pot of overthinking and worry into overdrive; it is no coincidence that the more things on my plate, the more I doubt myself.
In the depths of the overthinking pit, it can be easy to stew on the most mundane of details. One interaction goes awry, and suddenly it is ‘bloody hell, life is over, how much does a one-way plane ticket to somewhere far away cost?’. These thoughts in a normal time would be – and are – hard enough. But now, in the aftermath of our own little apocalypse? They hit with the force of a truck. Our brains are more primed than ever to believe that they cannot deal with the real world, after being tucked away behind screens and in bedrooms for a year or so. These thoughts have a serious capacity to not only make you feel like a piece of dejected damp laundry, but also seriously damage your mental health, or prevent you from doing the things you love. If you are an over-thinker, I am sure that idea probably just feeds the fire.
But fear not, my dear reader. You are not damned to this overwhelming blast of fear and commitments, despite how trapped you might feel. I have been in this rut for the past few weeks, and I think I am beginning to break out. I have found that two ideas have helped me do this: perspective, and bravery. I am sure this sounds obnoxious, like a wikiHow article telling you ‘How to Not Be Sad’ – but I would like to pull others up as I climb, so if there is any value in this at all, I hope it reaches out its hand to you.
Perspective is something I have learnt not to be about telling yourself to find perspective, to say to yourself ‘this isn’t a big deal’ or ‘there are bigger things than this’. Trust me, I have tried for years to cram some sort of positive thinking into my skull and it seems to always slip back out like an eel covered in olive oil. Perspective offers something so incredibly valuable; a chance to view yourself from outside, to understand more than your own experience, and I have found it really alleviates the overwhelming nature of the current world. But the trick with perspective is that it has to be experienced, to be observed. You cannot teach it to yourself; you have to appreciate something that gives it to you. One way I have managed to do this is by talking to my closest friends about their lives at large; the great highs, the deep lows, the way their lives flow alongside mine and yet their worries are so different. As I heard them tell me about their mixed emotions and their many experiences, I did not feel so alone in my struggles, a feeling I had been trying to give myself for weeks. Suddenly, one poorly delivered joke I made last week did not seem like such a disaster; in their lives full of their own worries, would my friends really remember such a tiny thing?
Another (more mentally taxing) way of gaining some perspective was looking over the past year of the pandemic, and reading into some of the more niche ways it has riddled so many lives with worry. In all the chaos, I do not feel pathetic anymore for suffering. It is a normal part of historically bad times – and across the world, people are just as down as I have been. I do not want to call back to the old “we’re all in this together” bollocks that seemed so forced in the early days of the pandemic; but I promise you, I will struggle right beside you. It is not a beautiful thing, struggling, but I am not sure it ever was supposed to be.
This one seems the most magical of the two. Oooo– ‘bravery’. It conjures up images of fearless knights in shining armour, superheroes, steely activists striving for a better future in the face of evil. A legendary term reserved for legendary people. But I have discovered the hard way that actually, bravery is not being fearless. In fact, fear is the foundation of bravery – the bravest people are the people who are absolutely scared shitless of whatever they are doing bravely. Because how can you be brave if you are not first afraid? To rise up and do the thing that scares you, to feel that fear so intensely burning in your heart and to go through with it anyway – that is bravery. It is so much more valuable than fearlessness. Any fool can walk into what seems like danger, careless and blind. Only a strong person can know they fear what they are going to do, but they will do it anyway. It is that fact that has helped me the most through these rough few weeks. Every time I have been afraid of something, I embraced that fear, felt all of its gnawing ire, and then went through with it anyway. Academic pressures, deadlines, socials, all of it is a fearful challenge, but also a chance to be brave. I have found that each time, it is simultaneously just as hard, and yet progressively easier. Like a workout for the mind, the weights never get lighter – you just get stronger.
You should not strive to not be afraid, despite how often people will display it as a weakness. It is just that you should not let that fear stop you. Of course, it is important to remember to take small steps, do what you can, and forgive when you cannot summon the bravery. Nobody can master an art in a day, and bravery’s no different. But keep pushing through, and I hope like me you might become braver, and feel how much stronger it makes you. It truly is the essence of confidence. Be afraid with me, reader, but let’s keep going anyway.
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