Maintaining your sanity while pursuing ‘Master’s degree’📚🧠

Picture credits: Host Student

A master’s degree can be overwhelming especially for international students like me. Leaving your home country where you’ve been living all your life, adjusting to an education system you are not accustomed to, and coming to a land full of strangers is enough to make you lose your sanity. Sometimes days get so bad that you feel like giving up on everything; literally everything. In those moments all that you wish for is maintaining your sanity. But you don’t know how. Too many commitments start taking a toll on your mental health because you feel like you’re always juggling. Don’t get me wrong. There are good days too. There are days full of positive experiences and they make you realise that things in life aren’t that bad. But when you are surrounded by negative feelings and experiences it’s often hard to figure out how to navigate your life. In this blog, I want to tell you how you can take care of your mental well-being while pursuing master’s degree in university. These are the things that helped me and I hope they might help you too.

(also check out my video below where I talked about my ‘Master’s degree experience at a UK university‘)

1. Get organised

Even though I managed to be topper of my class during undergraduate degree, I struggled because I lacked time management skills. It was like I was always studying but things never seemed to end for me. So the first thing I did before coming to Edinburgh was develop my time management skills and get organised. This was really helpful. Having a system that’s not cumbersome but easy and convenient is the most important thing one can do while in university. This is because university life demands commitments such as exams, essay deadlines, tutorials, extra-curricular, etc. To begin with, you can use a digital calendar like google calendar or even a notebook- whatever works for you. You can even use both of them like me. Make sure you check them everyday so that you are aware of what’s going on in your course.

2. Stay Consistent

Consistency is so important that I can’t say that enough. I am a believer of doing (at least) something each day rather than doing everything all at once. When you put little efforts each day into your studies, you make progress each day. You prevent yourself from becoming super anxious close to essay deadlines or upcoming exams. A lot of students under-estimate how much time things are going to take and put things off for later. Personally, this is not a good approach because it is an invitation to burnout. I am not saying you should never take a day off of studying. Frequent breaks are important and I encourage them. But when you know your essay is due next month, it is better to stay consistent in your level of efforts rather than leaving everything for the last moment.

3. Make time for the things you love

This is something I am trying to learn. I have a tendency to get super focused on my work or studies that I forget to make time for the things that give me pleasure. Like watching a movie or an episode of a comedy show, reading a book, writing, traveling, etc. Always make sure you take some time out each day and do something that you love. It can be anything. Think of it as an investment because university life can be very overwhelming and you need activities on a regular basis in order to rejuvenate your brain.

4. The bigger picture

It’s true that challenges are very discomforting. But what’s also true is that challenges are temporary. University life is indeed stressful but it’s all a part of process. Remember why you are in university, why you are studying in the first place- it’s because you love your subject and you want to do something meaningful with the knowledge you will attain. By reminding yourself of the bigger picture, you gain a refreshing perspective.

5. Make friends

Never under-estimate the importance of making friends in university. This is something I have learned recently. I am an introvert and a shy person so it’s not easy for me to make friends easily. I am also socially anxious which make things even harder. Regardless, it is crucial that you make friends for the sake of your mental wellbeing. Talking to people is a good way to stay sane. You can meet people whichever way suits you. For introverts, meeting in big groups can be a bit too much. What they can do is meet with people in smaller groups- maybe a group of 2-3 people.

6. Ask for help

Everyone struggles in university. But no one should have to go through the challenges alone. Universities now have such strong mental health support for students and staff members. And the services are all free provided by the professionals. It’s always helpful when you share your feelings and emotions with someone. It can be professionals or it can be your closed and loved ones like family members or maybe friends you trust with your problems.

DISCLAIMER: This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are struggling with mental health issues, you must seek professional help immediately.

A deadly second wave is here. Make sure you take care of your Mental health too.

Picture credits: NDTV.com

On April 18, 2021 India had a record number of cases and deaths: 2.75 lakhs and 1,620 respectively. It’s something very very serious. People are standing in long queues to get themselves tested for the infection. Healthcare system has collapsed completely that not enough beds and oxygen cylinders are available for COVID-19 patients. People are dying. What could be more worse than that?

While the second wave in India is affecting our physiology we should not forget that it’s also taking a huge toll on our mental health as well. Everyone is stressed. Some wise minds have fear too of contracting the virus. People are very much worried. Quite honestly, stress, fear and worry during these unprecedented times is very common. When situations arise unexpectedly and there is uncertainty around us it’s ordinary to lose grip over our mental well-being. What’s important to know is that we should not let ourselves not prioritise our psychological well-being. While the pandemic is not under our control (although we could have been more careful since the beginning) what’s under our control is how we keep ourselves and our families safe. Moreover, taking good care of our mental health is also under our control.

The worst part is that the pandemic may subside (hard to be exact which year) but the way it’s deteriorating people’s mental health is very concerning. “I don’t think this is going to go back to baseline anytime soon,” says clinical psychologist Luana Marques, at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. Luana Marques is constantly monitoring the mental-health impacts of the crisis in US populations and elsewhere. According to a survey conducted by US Census Bureau it was found that more than 42% of people reported having symptoms of anxiety or depression in December 2020. The number has increased significantly from 11% between January-June 2019. The times are difficult and alarming. Things aren’t very rosy in India as well. The second wave is so deadly that many people (including me) are facing anxiety on a regular basis.

An important question comes up: how to preserve our mental health?

  1. Make time for the activities you enjoy: Some people like to write while others enjoy cooking, reading, watching movies & tv series, etc. Everyone has different activities they enjoy engaging in. Find out what interests you and make time each day for it. It helps take the mind off the pandemic situation.
  2. Talk to people (virtually): The pandemic has made us all feel isolated and lonely. We are unable to meet our friends and relatives. Thanks to technology we have an alternative (although not a permanent one). Talk to your loved ones- call them, Skype them, whatever’s possible. Talk about what you’re feeling. Listen to what they have to say.
  3. Meditate and exercise: It cannot be stressed enough that meditation improves not just our physical health but mental health as well. People who meditate have stronger neural connections which allows for more synchronised communication. Meditating for 5-10 minutes in a day is enough if you’re a beginner. Exercise also have many benefits and make sure you add it to your daily routine.
  4. Eat healthy food: While it is common to gorge on unhealthy food items during times like these, we should not forget to take a healthy and balanced diet. Reduce carbohydrates and sugar in your diet. Add healthy fats. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. There are evidences from scientific studies that diet does play an important role in regulating our mood.
  5. Prioritise your sleep: We often lose our sleep during crises. Having trouble falling asleep or having nightmares becomes common. Make sure to go to bed at a fixed time. Keep your bedroom quiet, dark with a temperature that is not too hot or too cold. Don’t consume caffeine or alchohol before bedtime.
  6. Don’t forget to take breaks from news stories: Consuming news stories constantly all day can definitely create a lot of stress. That is why it’s crucial to take occasional breaks from news stories (on television, social media, etc). It’s fine to keep yourself updated but that shouldn’t mean you let it affect you psychologically. Set a time and frequency for watching the news updates. By doing that you will protect yourself from the stressors.

Routine is saving me from having a mental health crisis

Picture credits: The Spruce

When we hear the word ‘routine’ we almost always have an immediate response:

“Routine? That sounds so boring.”

A year ago, I would have agreed with those ‘five words’. But today I won’t. Well, I have my reasons and the most important one is that routine saved me from having a mental health crisis. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is something we have never experienced before. Things are definitely going to get better and normal very soon (they already are). We must not forget all the lessons this pandemic has taught/teaching us because it’s something we might face again in the future if we don’t correct our mistakes now. Overall, it can be said that our lives have changed forever. So many people have lost their lives. So many people contracted the virus and suffered (so many still are because remember the pandemic isn’t over yet). So many people are going through mental illnesses including clinical depression, anxiety disorders, etc. In such unprecedented times it is quite okay to feel mentally exhausting. During the pandemic, researchers at the University of Glasgow conducted a study to examine the effects of COVID-19 pandemic in the mental well-being of people living in the UK. The study was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. What was found is that the suicidal thoughts increased from 8% to 10% and it was the highest among young adults (18-29 years). Researchers agreed that the percentage increase might look like a small number but it is a concern because it happened during a short period of time. 

During times like these it is more important than ever to have a routine. It’s not a guarantee that everything is going to be perfectly okay but it does help a lot when there is so much uncertainty around us. Routine gives us something to look forward to everyday and it does give a structure to our days. 

YOUR DAYS ARE STRUCTURED:

As mentioned above, routines help give structure to our days. When we know we have to wake up, eat food, do our most important tasks at a particular time in a day we are guiding our days and not the other way around. There is an agenda and we look forward to completing those agendas when we have a routine. There is more focus and our brains don’t wander much because it knows well enough all that it is supposed to concentrate on. Decide what time you will wake up and stick to it. Decide what time you will go to bed and stick to it. Have a set time for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Structure your days. Have some daily routines because your brain will thank you for that.

LOWER STRESS AND ANXIETY LEVELS:

When days are not planned it becomes natural to get caught on everything that comes our way. This results in more stress and anxiety levels. However, by having a routine we learn what to focus on and at what time. We start training ourselves to focus on what’s right in front of us and let the insignificant things stay what they are. We feel more in control. We feel less stressed and don’t get anxious so easily. Routines act like an anchor of predictability. Dr Steve Orma, a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Clinical Psychologist works with patients suffering from anxiety, insomnia and stress. He says, “Routine helps with stress. Create a set schedule for doing chores, work tasks, meetings, exercise, paying bills, and all the usual things you need to do. Put these into your schedule. Once this becomes your normal routine, it’s easier to accomplish everything, because it becomes habit.” Remember, what gets scheduled gets done. 

YOU ARE MORE CREATIVE AND PRODUCTIVE:

Every creative genius had a secret: a daily routine. I know this wasn’t a secret you were expecting but it’s the truth. Routines helped these geniuses bring out their creativity and be productive. Below image is the daily routine of Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States. 

Picture credits: The Focus Course

It’s quite true that Ben Franklin did not follow his routine 100% every day. It’s not possible. There is so much that comes up unexpectedly because of which sticking to a routine every single day becomes rather impossible. Nevertheless, he was a very productive person because he followed his daily routines as much as he could. Routines help us stay on top of our game just like it helped people like Beethoven and Freud. We are less distracted and start prioritising things in our lives. And people who know what to prioritize can be nothing but creative and productive. 

BETTER MENTAL HEALTH:

Having a good mental health is so important right now. Nothing is of any significance if there is mental turbulence all the time. When the world has become isolated and we have somewhat lost chances to meet our loved ones in person it is natural to feel mentally unstable from time to time. This is where routine comes in to rescue us. If there is anything I am 100% certain of it’s the fact that without having a routine almost every single day I would have lost my demeanour. Routine kept me in check. It made me realise that I could control some of the things in my day. This eventually helped me having a relatively better mental health. 

Don’t be very hard on yourself when it comes to building a routine. It takes time. Forming habits take time. Some days you are going to be very productive while the other days it will hard for you to keep up with your routine. And that’s okay. Life happens. Try again the other day. Just because you have stumbled once doesn’t mean you have to stop trying. Prioritise your mental well-being. There is so much that depends on it. 

Diet and your Mental health

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It is not rocket science to know that diet plays a crucial role in our mental health and overall well-being. In schools we came across a very common word quite frequently and that word is ‘balanced diet’. We were taught that foods rich in proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals should be taken and such diet is a balanced diet. Sadly, we seem to have forgotten the lesson now. We are jeopardizing our mental and physical health by eating junk food filled with ‘empty calories’.

Mental illnesses have become very prevalent. In the United States, nearly one in five adults is suffering from mental illness. The data is quite shocking. There are mood disorders, anxiety disorders, hypertension, etc. There is no single factor causing mental illnesses. There are genes, environment and chemicals in the brain contributing to mental health issues. However, through studies it is now being established that there is a relation between poor diet and poor mental health and the vice versa. When we eat good food it is often associated with feelings of well-being. A study was conducted by researchers on this line of thought and it was found that consumption of fruits and vegetables in good amount may be associated with higher levels of mental well-being in both the sexes. A systematic review of 12 epidemiological studies also found that eating good and healthy food items facilitates good mental well-being.

Good diet fighting depression

A clinical trial led by Dr Felice Jacka who is a director of Food and Mood centre at Deakin University, Australia became the first randomized control trial (RCT) that answers a very important question regarding good diet and good mental health. People who suffer from clinical depression get the best results when their treatment is a combination of medications and therapy. As it turns out, a good diet can also play a critical role in alleviating the symptoms of depression.

a. The Experiment

For the experiment, a total of 67 men and women participated. The participants were suffering from depression and were taking medications and/or going for therapy sessions regularly. The participants in the study were all consuming lower amount of fruits and vegetables, lower dietary fibres, too much sugar, too much unhealthy snacks and processed food. In other words, their diet was poor. Participants in the study were divided into two groups: an intervention group and a controlled group. Participants belonging to the intervention group were put on a Mediterranean diet (diet typically rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, beans and olive oil) and met with their dietitian regularly. While people belonging to the controlled group were not put on Mediterranean diet but were required to attend social support groups. After 3 months, depression symptoms of the participants were recorded.

(Note: The scale used was MADRS scale (Montgomery–Åsberg Depression Rating Scale). The scale is from 0-60 in which a high score means an individual is very depressed as compared to a lower score. An average score of the participants came out to be 25).

The result?

People who took Mediterranean diet for 3 months improved their score on depression scale by an average of 11 points. While people who were on their usual diet improved by an average of 4 points.

b. The Diet

What should you Eat: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat/unsweetened dairy, raw unsalted nuts, legumes, eggs, fish, chicken, olive oil and lean red meat.

What should you avoid: too much sugary items, processed foods, breads, refined cereals, fast and fried food.

It will not be right to comment that a good diet is one thing that will help people fight depression. A causal relationship cannot be established. However, they are definitely co-related. A good diet helps and if followed properly benefits will be visible. Mental health problems have become quite common now and it is a good thing that scientists are diving deeper to find different ways through which such problems can be tackled. ‘We are what we eat’ is not after all a bad advice.

How are you dealing with the pandemic while you’re home?

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It’s been more than 8 months now since the whole world has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic is causing deaths of many people on a daily basis. It has economic implications too because of which GDP of the countries are suffering, people are losing their jobs, etc. Above all these issues the pandemic is taking a surprising toll on people’s psychological well-being. According to CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in late June 2020, 40% of the adults in the US reported struggling with mental health crisis or substance use. According to a study conducted at University of Oxford, researchers found that anxiety, depression and insomnia are the leading mental health issues recovered patients from COVID-19 are dealing with. They further found that 1 in every 5 recovered patients from COVID-19 reported having a first time diagnosis of anxiety, depression or insomnia.

The times are hard. Staying home most of the time and not been able to meet our closed ones including friends, family members and colleagues can be very challenging. Therefore, it is more important than ever that we keep ourselves psychologically fit. It is not easy working at home. It is not easy studying online for months. Overall, it is not easy to accept these new realities. But we humans are very resilient and there are some things we can do every single day to ensure our good mental health.

1. Build a routine
Picture credits: charlesstone.com

Having a routine is the most important thing right now. By building a routine we allow ourselves to have some structure during the day. Routine helps us remain focused and not get distracted by the unimportant things. Rachel Goldman, who is a psychologist and clinical assistant professor at NYU School of Medicine says, “When people don’t have a routine or structure to their day it can cause increased stress and anxiety, as well as overwhelming feelings, lack of concentration, and focus.” Having a routine does not mean we should have a very strict schedule. The rationale behind a routine is to give a structure to our day so that we have some sense of control over it. Furthermore, routine is more than crossing off our to-do lists. There should be sufficient time for self-care as well. When people have a regular routine their stress levels are low, they are much more productive and are able to form good daily habits. In the end what matters is that we follow a routine that works best for us and not forget that everything takes time.

2. Moderately consume the news
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We are living in the 21st century where gathering information is not a problem anymore unlike older times when information was still scarce. The real challenge is to eliminate what is not important and relevant and consume what needs to be consumed. We all suffer from information overloading. This is why it is more important than ever that we consume information moderately especially the news related to the pandemic. We do not realize it but news affects us unconsciously and the negative affect it has on us comes out in form of our behaviors. Just the way excessive sugar is toxic for our bodies,’ news is toxic too. We do not feel any changes taking place in our bodies so we keep on consuming news mindlessly without realizing that it is harming our minds. There is so much the media is feeding us 24*7 and it is not relevant at all.

3. Eat healthy food items and exercise regularly
Picture credits: Archana’s Kitchen

Keeping healthy eating habits and exercising regularly can definitely keep us both physically and psychologically fit. So many people are complaining gaining weight as their routine has been completely disrupted. Guess what? Whatever routine you are having is a new reality and you might as well adjust to that. According to a report published by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on 27th March, 2020 good nutrition becomes very crucial before, during and after an infection. While eating healthy food does not prevent anyone from contracting the virus it becomes important in supporting a strong immune system. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, eating nuts and whole grain foods, avoiding too much sugar, fats and salt, drinking plenty of water can be among the first steps towards a healthy diet. We are supposed to move our body parts and they work better if we remain physically active. Some research suggests that elevated levels of aerobic activity (exercise that significantly raises our heart rates) may be associated with greater reductions in depressive symptoms.

4. Connect with people
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The pandemic has changed how we interact and connect with people. Fortunately, we have technology because of which we are able to know about the well-being of our loved ones even if they are thousands of miles away from us. It is important that we understand social distancing is physical distancing and not emotional distancing. Since we should be physically distant during these times in order to avoid the spread of the virus we should keep in mind to stay connected with each other. Call your friends from time to time. Call your family members from time to time. Keep a close check on them even if it is virtually. Ask them about their activities, jobs, studies, etc. Keep them in a loop so that they do not feel isolated. A key finding in one of the latest studies was that time spent consistently with the family members was related to better mental health. People spending more time with parents and siblings face to face or via video/messaging was related to less loneliness and less depression. So, don’t forget to connect with people on a regular basis.

5. Get a good night’s sleep
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Sleep is something which should never be compromised with especially when times are stressful. An adult human body requires 7-8 hours of an uninterrupted sleep. Sadly, people sacrifice their sleep because they wrongly perceive it as a luxury. Sleep is not a luxury. It is a necessity just like the air we breathe in. No matter how stressed you are for whatever reasons make sure you get a good night sleep every single day. Sleep empowers an effective immune system and heightens our brain functions. It further enhances our mood. Try to remember the time when you didn’t get enough sleep at night and you were all cranky the whole day. Make sure you sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Avoid your screen time at least 1 hour before going to bed. Prioritize your sleep and you are prioritizing your life.

Mental health goes back to over 2,000 years ago

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Philosophy is not everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t mean to be rude but that’s true. Nevertheless, it is an integral part of one’s life. At least, it should be. There is an old story Thales of Miletus who was a Greek philosopher. His friends used to make jokes saying, Those who can, do, others philosophize.” To someone like me who keeps philosophy at the top (other than science and writing) it seems quite offensive. Surprisingly, as the story goes Thales took the words of his friend seriously and made huge amounts of money. Looks like, philosophy does pay off.

Seneca, a stoic from Spain was born over 2,000 years ago. He was a terrific philosopher who made huge contributions to the stoic philosophy. He was the son of Seneca, the Elder. Seneca got his education from Rome and in spite of belonging to a wealthy family he left no stone unturned in imparting his wisdom. He had written a letter in his famous book “Letters from a stoic” where he talked about the importance of mental health. I was a bit surprised when I read that letter because it was hard for me to believe how possibly someone could be talking about such a delicate yet crucial subject such a long time ago. Yet he did. It’s all out there.

There are some key lines in that particular letter Seneca wrote. The excerpts are a clear indication to his efforts of prioritizing mental health. In other words, an attempt to maintain equality between physical and mental health.

  1. “The greater load, moreover, on the body is crushing to the spirit and renders it less active. So keep the body within bounds as much as you can and make room for the spirit.”

I am a skeptic when it comes to ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’. I believe what I haven’t explored and what I don’t understand yet should not be talked about. So, for my peace of mind and to avoid any sort of confusion for the readers I am going to attribute ‘spirit’ as human mind or simply human brain. Seneca has wisely separated the human body and human mind thereby separating two types of health: physical health and mental health. Seneca is not wrong in stating the importance of making some time for our mental recoveries. We are exerting ourselves physically ignoring the mental variable from the equation. Believing hand fracture is a problem while depressed mood for more than 3 weeks just a phase of life is nothing but an invitation to crushing our mental health by all means. If we are merely focused on recovering physically and not mentally or emotionally then everything is going to take a toll on us. That is why we must be careful enough about prioritizing not just our physical bodies but mental bodies too.

2. “There are short and simple exercises which will tire the body without undue delay and save what needs especially close accounting for, time. There is running, swinging heights about and jumping. Pick out any of these for ease and straightforwardness. But whatever you do, return from body to mind very soon. Exercise it day and night.”

Being physically healthy is the need of an hour because we are living in societies plagued with health problems like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, etc. Even Seneca around 2,000 years ago talked about moving our physical bodies to remain active and healthy. He suggested running, jumping, swinging heights out of many other exercises. But he was also very particular about practicing mental exercises. He said ‘return from body to mind very soon’. We may think mental clarity can be compromised with. I think it is the biggest mistakes of one’s life. We cannot move far if our minds are over flowing with baggage. So, in a way I believe if we are physically exerting ourselves once in a day to grow our muscles stronger, we should also exert ourselves mentally to grow our mental muscles.

3. The mind has to be given some time off, but in such a way that it may be refreshed, not relaxed till it goes to pieces.”

Occasional breaks from our busy schedules are very important. After all, there is a limit to everything. Seneca argues in his letter that we must always make time to refresh mentally because we can’t function to the best of our abilities if our emotional reserves are constantly depleting. At the same time, he is very careful about not letting that leisure time increase too much that we become lazy and sloppy. Relaxation is crucial and it is highly needed but too much relaxation is not good. Too much relaxation torn us apart into pieces and then more efforts are required to put those pieces back together.

4. “The life of folly is empty of gratitude, full of anxiety: it is focused wholly on the future.”

I am an ardent believer of practicing gratitude regularly. Even Seneca agrees. He says that life is no good if it has no place for gratitude. People who aren’t grateful for big and small things in life can never manage to stay content. Such people are always focused on building their future. They think future is the answer to everything. They are wrong. Present moments matter more. If we are present in the moment it does not mean that we become completely ignorant towards our future goals and make no plans. It means taking things one step at a time. Be active for your future. But don’t ruminate on it. It is not unhealthy.

History and philosophy have a lot to teach us. We just need to open our minds to let wisdom enter.