Protecting & Supporting your Mental Health
The brain is a complex organ that is responsible for how we think, how we feel and how we act. Just like other organs in our body, it can be affected by our environment and behaviour.
It is normal to feel sad or angry sometimes, even if those feelings last for a few days. If you think negative feelings are starting to last a bit too long, or come around a bit too often, you may want to consider making some lifestyle changes to improve your mood and support your mental health.
Making lifestyle changes is not always easy and may not deliver instant results, but setting yourself some achievable targets and planning them into your week, could give you something to look forward to and help you stay on track. It can help to bring others into your plan too if possible.
Alcohol and smoking
Controlling our vices can be easier said than done and many factors can make it challenging. Alcohol and smoking can be the instant 'go to' for many if they are feeling low, anxious or stressed but they can also have a negative affect on a person's ability to deal with these feelings.
There is some very interesting information available on smoking and mental health. The Mental Health Foundation: Smoking and mental health points out that, in the UK, smoking rates among adults with depression are about twice as high as among adults without depression. People with depression have particular difficulty when they try to stop smoking and have more severe withdrawal symptoms during attempts to give up.
Nicotine stimulates the release of the chemical dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is involved in triggering positive feelings. It is often found to be low in people with depression, who may then use cigarettes as a way of temporarily increasing their dopamine supply. However, smoking encourages the brain to switch off its own mechanism for making dopamine so in the long term the supply decreases, which in turn prompts people to smoke more.
Research into smoking and stress has shown that instead of helping people to relax, smoking actually increases anxiety and tension. Nicotine creates an immediate sense of relaxation so people smoke in the belief that it reduces stress and anxiety. This feeling of relaxation is temporary and soon gives way to withdrawal symptoms and increased cravings.
- Smoking causes receptors in the brain to release dopamine which makes you feel good, however this wears off and returns the smoker to a state of tension.
- The NHS say that smoking increases anxiety and tension and smokers are more likely to develop depression over time.
- The NHS say that when people stop smoking, anxiety and depression levels are lower, quality of life and positive mood improve, and the dosage of some medications used to treat mental health conditions can be reduced.
- Stopping smoking improves taste, makes it easier to do exercise, and can make you feel like you have more control in your life.
- There are a lot of physical health benefits too.
- If you would like to stop smoking, then we recommend that you read our page.
- If you can cut out the cigarettes, and even the e-cigarettes, this could make a massive difference to your mental health.
Over lockdown, many people have reported drinking more than before. Drinking more can be common when there are environmental stressors but it can also quickly end up doing more harm than good to your stress levels and your health.
There is a lot of information available on the effects of alcohol on mental health:
All of these sources include a key message: regular consumption of alcohol changes the chemistry of the brain. It decreases the levels of the brain chemical serotonin - a key chemical in depression. As a result of this depletion, a cyclical process begins where you drink to relieve depression but this causes serotonin levels in the brain to be depleted, leading to you feel even more depressed.
If you are experiencing anxiety, a drink might help you feel more at ease, but this feeling is short-lived. The so-called ‘relaxed’ feeling somebody may say they experience after having a drink is due to the chemical changes alcohol causes in the brain. But these effects wear off fast and can make your anxiety even worse when they do.
Further information is available on our Alcohol page.
A lot of research has been done into diet and its effect on mental health.
Mind, the mental health charity, has produced a video which discusses 8 tips on how food affects your mood;
- Eating regularly to maintain a stable blood sugar level can help to reduce tiredness, irritability and depressive feelings. Eating “slow burning” foods and those that are high in protein, such as nuts, seeds, oats and wholegrains.
- Make sure your getting the right fats. Your brain needs some fat to help it function properly, like omega-3 and omega-6. Good fats are found in, oily fish, chicken, walnuts and almonds, olive and sunflower oil, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, avocado, milk yoghurt, cheese and eggs.
- Increase your protein. Your brain needs protein to regulate your thoughts and feelings, and helps to control your blood sugar levels. Try eating protein rich foods; lean meat, fish, eggs, cheese, legumes (peas, beans, lentils), nuts and seeds.
- Drink more. Being hydrated allows you to think clearly and concentrate, and help you not be constipated. You can drink water, herbal or green tea, or diluted fruit juice. Stay away from high sugar drinks, or even “zero” sugar carbonated drinks.
- Eat a rainbow of fruit and vegetables. Eating a variety means that you will have a good mix of essential vitamins and minerals to help you.
- Reduce the caffeine. Caffeine is in chocolate, coffee, tea, cola and energy drinks. Caffeine can make you feel anxious, and depressed, disturb your sleep or cause withdrawal symptoms. You can cut down or shut it out completely.
- There is a link between the brain and the gut. Eating healthy gut foods like fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and live yoghurts, can help keep your gut healthy, and your head too. Your gut can take time to adjust – So you may want to make
- Beware of intolerances. If you think that you are intolerant, you can contact your GP or a dietician.
This is one of the biggest lifestyle changes that we can all make to improve our mental and physical health. The government report on exercise and health says that there is no minimum amount of exercise to achieve some benefit, but more is better.
Exercise has been shown to reduce depression and anixety and improve cognitive function. GPs can even prescribe exercise as a treatment for anxiety and depression.
The NHS website points out that people who regularly exercise have;
- up to a 35% lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke
- up to a 50% lower risk of type 2 diabetes
- up to a 50% lower risk of colon cancer
- up to a 20% lower risk of breast cancer
- a 30% lower risk of early death
- up to an 83% lower risk of osteoarthritis
- up to a 68% lower risk of hip fracture
- a 30% lower risk of falls (among older adults)
- up to a 30% lower risk of depression
- up to a 30% lower risk of dementia
The NHS website has lots of advice on how to get fit for free. If you are able to invest some money in your physical and mental health, then you could consider a gym membership, or even a few sessions with a personal trainer. Most gyms should provide a free induction to help you get started.
Whilst you are at University you can also take advantage of all the sports clubs and societies that are on offer and subsidised by the Students’ Union.
Remember that it doesn’t have to be a “sport club” to be exercise, many societies will also involve some exercise too.
Try doing 30 minutes a day of exercise and see how you feel. The idea being that the more you do, the better you feel.
Sleep hygiene is the practise of paying attention to things that disrupt a regular and refreshing sleeping pattern, and trying to eliminate or minimise these.
Having poor sleep can exacerbate mental health problems and make you feel depressed and lacking in energy and creativity.
You could try a sleep diary app to help you to monitor your sleep, or keep a record of days when you have had good sleep and when you have had bad sleep.
Keep an eye on the following, and see if these are disrupting your sleep;
- Blue lights, bright lights or screens before bedtime.
- Alcohol, drugs or nicotine.
- Not exercising that day
- Poor mental health, or conditions such as ADHD.
- Irregular work patterns or working nights.
- Stress – Like work, University, Money, relationships
- Loud housemates or neighbours.
Being creative challenges us, makes us feel more confident, feel more engaged and resilient. It gives us something constructive to focus on, work towards and can help us feel proud of our achievements.
There are lots of ways to be creative;
- In the Kitchen - You could become an expert baker, making bread or cake. You could experiment with new foods or recipes. You could even get your own sourdough culture, yoghurt culture or brew your own ginger or alcoholic beer.
- Music - You could learn an instrument, start DJing or producing music, join a band, or join a choir.
- On paper - You could learn how to draw, or paint. You could start a collage of photos, or a scrapbook of newspapers. You could start writing a diary, write short stories, or poems.
- On your feet - You could learn how to dance, join a ballet group, or start cheerleading. You could join an acting group or apply to be an extra on TV.
Lots of these are options are already offered by our societies, volunteering and sports clubs. If you are learning from scratch, then you are much more likely to stick at it with a bit of help and a supportive community around you.
Light and Nature
Close your eyes and think about the smell of a forest in the rain, the sound of a river crashing over a weir, or the feeling of long grass between your fingers. Imagine the sound of birds in the trees, hot sand between your feet, or the feel of cold water on your skin.
Thinking about these things can trigger an emotional response – we can all do with more nature in our lives and being outdoors has been shown to lead to higher self-esteem, greater happiness and more confidence.
You can google best walks in south wales to see some truly incredible places, or stay local and see what the parks around Cardiff have to offer.
If you fancy a challenge there are a number of sports clubs that will take you into the wilderness and show you some breath-taking places, most likely with a dose of adrenaline.
If this sounds like something you would like to try, you can look at;
Community and Connectivity
Being part of a community can make us feel more engaged, supported and give us a sense of belonging. As well as being part of a community, it is important to feel connected to those around you.
At university there are so many opportunities to get involved, and it is a really good way of meeting new people and having fun, whilst learning new skills.
Things are certainly very different at the moment but the Students' Union is working hard to make sure you can still make new connections and get involved in the student community.
- Associations. The Campaign Officers also have Associations that they are part of. These are students from the same minority groups. Each Association is different, some are used to facilitate and arrange socials and events whereas others are seen to be more political and a sounding board for campaign ideas.
- Athletic Union. The Athletic Union are the home of student sport at Cardiff University. They facilitate over 65 student-led sports clubs and offer 5000+ students the opportunity to represent Cardiff regionally, nationally and beyond.
- Cardiff Volunteering. Cardiff Volunteering offers a wide variety of different and exciting projects to choose from which you can fit around your University schedule, as well as loads of one-off events and summer volunteering opportunities.
- Cardiff Student Media. Student media is always on the look-out for new recruits. There's no typical member - those involved are from a very diverse range of backgrounds, studying everything from physics to philosophy, and as long as you've got passion and enthusiasm, you'll be welcomed aboard.
- Give it a Go. Give it a Go’ is a Students' Union initiative which aims to showcase opportunities and taster sessions available from Clubs, Societies and Student Groups. It allows students to try a club or society for a one off cost, before they commit to membership. The vast majority of clubs and societies will run an introductory session and brand it as their 'Give it a Go'.
- Jobshop. The Jobshop is a free student employment service which aims to find paid work for registered Cardiff University students.
- Skills Development Service. The Skills Development Service (SDS) provides a range of training courses and sessions designed to build confidence, improve transferable skills and increase employability to learners interested in developing for their future after graduation with the added bonus of gaining certification.
- Societies. Society memberships are available throughout the academic year so it's never too late to join any of our Societies. With over 200 Societies to choose from, there's something to suit everyone.
- Student-Led Services. Student-Led Services are student groups that run similarly to societies and sports clubs, but have a specific purpose that they campaign for. SLSs are at the heart of the Students' Union in providing support for students with wellbeing needs.
- Student Voice. The Student Voice team work with Academic Reps and PGR Reps to ensure that the student voice is heard at every level of the university. You can be a Rep too, just get in touch with us at StudentReps@cardiff.ac.uk. You can also be involved in the decisions made by your Students' Union by becoming a student senator, a member of the scrutiny committee or part of the Officer's Executive Committee.Get in touch at Elections@cardiff.ac.uk to find out more.
You can also find communities outside of the University bubble through Facebook or other community pages.
Although it is good to stay in touch with the people from home, it is very important to have face to face interactions with other people. Schedule some time into your week plan to meet a friend for a cup of tea, a walk or a game of football. Ask them how they are feeling, and tell them how you are feeling.
Don’t be afraid to call friends or family who live away from you, but don’t sacrifice time outdoors, or exercising for time on digital devices. Schedule calls at a convenient time, and don’t rely on people living away over people in Cardiff.
Reach out, when you need help
Knowing when to reach out is very important because there is help if you need it; you don't need to suffer in silence. As a starting point, if you are not feeling your best, it may help to talk to your friends and/or family.
There is a lot more information available on our Mental Health page, including where to get help both inside and outside the University.
Contact Student Advice
+44 (0)2920 781410