Being a student can be exciting and rewarding, but it can also be stressful! Looking after your mental health as a student is just as important as studying hard. We hope this guide and the activities in it will help to make sure you are set up to cope with the changes and challenges that we all go through in our lives, and help you develop a positive mindset so you can get the most out of all the exciting opportunities over the coming years!
What is Mental Health?
When we talk about mental health, we are referring to our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. Many people think of mental health as only mental health problems or illnesses, but we all have mental health in the same way we all have physical health. Mental health can be thought of in the way we feel about ourselves and those around us, the way situations make us feel and how we respond to them, and the choices we make to overcome difficulties and challenges.
Why is it Important to Look After Your Mental Health?
You are at a time in your life when there is a lot of change. You may be starting new qualifications at school, leaving school altogether, or have increasing responsibilities like a job. To add to this, your body and your brain are rapidly developing and it can be a tough time to build and maintain relationships.
Essentially, your teenage years can be a very hard time and it is okay for you not to feel okay all the time! However, these stresses can sometimes build up and lead to bigger problems. It is important to identify potential triggers and learn how to cope with stresses so that you can look after your mental health as you grow and develop.
Understanding the Teenage Brain
For many years, it was assumed that the brain was fully formed in early childhood. However, recent advances in science have shown that the brain is not fully matured until you are in your early twenties!
As a teenager, the parts of the brain involved in your emotional responses – such as happiness, anger and sadness – are live and functioning, but the area of the brain that keeps emotions in check, controls your impulses and helps apply reasoning is not yet fully developed. This area of the brain is called the limbic system.
Essentially, this means the teenage brain is prone to strong emotions and making impulsive decisions. This can make life quite difficult when there are many important decisions to be made about your future during your teenage years.
If you’re accused of being a “typical teenager” when you’re moody or impulsive, you might be able to blame this on your brain development!
The good news is that the adolescent brain is very adaptable and your capacity for learning is greater now than at any other time during your life. This makes your teenage years a great time for having new experiences, exploring learning opportunities and developing strategies to deal with all of life’s twists and turns!
Triggers for Stress & Anxiety
Throughout your life, many things may affect your mental health and wellbeing, such as relationships with friends and family, school work and exams or transitions to new phases of your life as you grow older.
To learn how to manage your emotions and keep your mental wellbeing at its best, it can be helpful to understand what may trigger stress for you. The first step to feeling better is to identify the cause so you can move towards taking action.
- Think about a time that something has negatively affected your mood or made you feel stressed. Write down what triggered this and how you felt at the time.
- Look forward to the next year of your life, particularly thinking about school or college. Is there a situation you think might cause you to feel stress? Write this down.
Stress is not always bad for you. There is a theory that a certain amount of stress is needed to make us productive and we can use the adrenaline from this to our advantage in situations where we need to perform well.
However, too much stress can become overwhelming and makes us less productive. In these cases it is important to try to reduce our stress levels. There are various coping strategies that might make you feel better.
Channelling the adrenaline from a stressful situation into exercise can help in many ways, such as improved sleep and increased concentration. There are lots of different types of activity (think running, yoga, or even a walk) so you can choose one that suits you.
Share Your Feelings
Talking to someone might help you feel like you are not on your own, letting you talk through your feelings and think about potential solutions. Simply spending time with a friend or loved one can also help when you are feeling down.
Take Some Time for Yourself
You may feel that you have lots of different priorities, such as school, work, exams, and responsibilities at home. Setting aside time to socialise, relax, or enjoy a hobby or activity encourages you to take a break and recharge, which is particularly important round exam time.
Take Control of the Situation
We all have times when we have to undertake situations we might not enjoy, such as exams at school. Whilst you cannot change this, you can take control of some elements to make it a more positive experience. For example, creating a revision timetable can reduce the stress of balancing your workload and make sure you are as prepared as possible.
Strategies to cope with stress can be varied, depending on each person and the situation, so what works best for you may not work for someone else. These strategies are to help you feel with a situation that causes you stress, not necessarily to make the stress go away.
- Thinking back to the previous questions, how might you reduce feelings of stress using coping strategies?
Sometimes our coping strategies are not enough to help when we feel stressed and this may lead to feelings of anxiety and extreme low moods. At these times, we may need some extra help. Although everyone reacts in different ways, some general symptoms to look out for are:
- Lots of headaches or stomach aches, including feeling dizzy and sick.
- Changes in appetite, such as not feeling hungry or eating more to feel better.
- Changes in behaviour, such as suddenly wanting to spend lots of time alone or feeling angry,
- Changes in sleeping patterns, including not being able to sleep at all to sleeping lots more than usual.
If you or someone you know experiences these symptoms for more than a couple of weeks, it is important to speak to someone like a parent or teacher about this as they will be able to offer you extra help and support.
Having a positive attitude and good self-esteem can help you cope with difficult events or times in your life. You can learn to have a more positive attitude and build self-esteem by focusing on what you have the ability to control, rather than focusing on things that have happened in the past or on things that you can’t change.
One way to help you feel that you have control in a situation is to set SMART goals for yourself so you can celebrate your successes and build a positive mindset. SMART stands for:
S – Specific – goals should be clear and not vague. Remember to think about what, where, when, and how when setting your goals.
M- Measurable – you need to be able to see whether you have achieved your goal or not in order to celebrate your success!
A – Achievable – the goals you set should be within your abilities. If you set a goal that is too difficult, you are more likely to fail and feel negatively about the situation.
R – Relevant – you need to make sure the goal you are setting is something you really want, and that it is something that is going to be helpful for you.
T – Time – your goal should have an end-point so you can recognise that you have successfully achieved your goal!
- Set yourself a SMART goal to achieve in the near future that will make you feel proud of yourself. This could be something smaller like “I will get 8 hours of sleep each night before school next week” or something bigger such as “I will improve my marks by 10% by the end of the school year”.
It is okay to change your goals as you work towards them! If you find that your goal is too easy and you do not feel challenges, try setting the bar a little higher. If you feel that you are expecting too much of yourself, or your situation changes, change your goal to make it more achievable. Setting yourself goals and achieving these will help you to have a more positive mindset, build confidence and resilience, and help you to cope with changes and stressful situations in your life. Even a small step towards a goal is progress that should be acknowledged and celebrated!
Further Information and Support
There are many useful resources out there that can help you understand and build positive mental health and wellbeing, and lots of organisations that can offer confidential support to young people and their families.
Childline offers help and advice about a wide variety of issues. They have a free phone line that you can call for support. You can also talk to a counsellor online, send Childline an email, or post on the message boards.
Telephone: 0800 1111 (free 24 hour phone line, 7 days a week)
Samaritans aims to provide support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope, or at risk of suicide throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Telephone: 1161123 (free 24 hours phone line, 7 days a week)
Young Minds is a charity fighting for children and young people’s mental health.
Parents Helpline: 0808 802 5544 (9.30am to 4pm, Monday to Friday). Text: 85258 (24 hour, 7 days a week)
Mind is a mental health charity which provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem.
Telephone: 0300 123 3393 (9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday) Text: 86463 (9am – 6pm, Monday to Friday)
Action for Happiness
Action for Happiness helps people take action for a happier and more caring world. Their website features evidence-based ideas for actions we can take to feel happier and promote mental wellbeing.