How I got through a hard time at uni

Deadlines, lectures, part time jobs - there’s a lot to juggle at university.

With so much on your plate, it can be tempting to put looking after yourself on the backburner. After all, if eating better, sleeping better and exercising more was as easy as Instagram makes it look, we’d all be doing it.

And with the ocean of tips, advice and recipes out there, it can be hard to understand what prioritising your health actually involves. So we’ve asked recent graduate Pauline Narvas to tell us how she did it, step by step, from deciding it was time for a change to applying what she learnt to other areas of her life.

Time for a change

During her second year of university, Pauline was feeling very stressed and overwhelmed by her academic life. She was juggling three part-time jobs alongside her degree, and fatigue and depression were taking their toll. She would often break down in tears, feeling like she wasn’t equipped to deal with the pressure.

In the summer of that year, a big life event really knocked her back: “It felt like the end of the world to me,” she recalls. Social media made it worse, triggering jealousy and comparisons with others.

But, just when she was at her lowest ebb, something switched: “I was tired of feeling lousy and down, and wanted to take full control of my health and wellbeing.” It was time for a change.

Pauline smiling, looking directly at the camera
"It felt like the end of the world to me."

Jog, eat, meditate

So, where to start? Inspiration came from Pauline’s health-conscious dad who, seeing how much she was struggling, convinced her to go for a few quick jogs with him, just to get her out of the house. Having not done much physical exercise since school, this was a big step: Pauline was genuinely surprised to find that even a short jog made her feel much better.

Is exercise really all it’s cracked up to be?

Getting active doesn’t have to mean hitting the gym. Any kind of physical activity can have a positive impact. Whether it’s a short walk round the park, doing some stretches in the morning, or having an impromptu dance party in your kitchen, every little helps. Still not convinced? Here are some of the benefits of upping your activity levels:

  • Managing your mood - you’ve probably heard of endorphins, the “feel good” hormones. Well, good news: exercising releases lots of endorphins, which can improve your mood and help you feel calmer.
  • Managing stress - if you move more and become physically fitter, your body becomes better at regulating cortisol levels. Cortisol is a “stress hormone” our bodies release when we’re anxious. Lowering your levels of cortisol can help reduce the risk of a wide array of health problems such as high blood pressure, a weakened immune system and anxiety and depression.
  • Fighting depression - a research study found that you can reduce the risk of depression by nearly 20% if you increase your level of activity from nothing to exercising at least three times a week. Pretty nifty!

If you’re interested in learning more about how exercise could impact your life, there’s lots of useful information on Mind.org

The jogs became more frequent and Pauline decided her next step would be to join the gym. Starting out with one session a week, she gradually built up her confidence enough to try weight training. Improving her physical strength helped her feel mentally stronger too.

This is when Pauline began thinking more broadly about her wellbeing. She improved her diet and decided to try a meditation app, which turned out to be a game-changer.

“I didn’t know that sitting still and doing nothing for ten minutes could have such a big impact on my mind,” she says. During her daily sessions, Pauline learnt new coping mechanisms: “The app I use has lessons at the end of each practice,” she explains, “they are like snippets of wisdom for dealing with negative emotions.”

You got a friend in me

The meditation app also has a Facebook group associated with it, with members supporting each other.

“Having a positive and empowering network makes all the difference,” she says. It has been an uplifting experience being able to use social media as a positive tool, rather than the anxiety-producing trigger it used to be.

All this made such a difference that she actually found her third year at uni less stressful than her first year.

Bossing it

Since finishing university, Pauline has been balancing a day job with freelance coding work. She has found that having an hour of ‘me’ time in the morning makes her day much more productive, and the meditation techniques she’s learnt help her keep things in perspective.

Her confidence has also increased greatly – she now feels able to speak up about her ideas and opinions, and has delivered several speeches sharing her passion for the tech industry.

Facing her biggest audience to date, at the Inspire Women in Tech conference, she found that knowing she’s had the strength to get through a very bad time in the past gave her a boost, emphasising how far she has come.

Pauline speaking at an event
"2016 Pauline probably would have fainted or something."

Pauline’s tips…

  • Listen to yourself! It’s all about balance. If there’s a night when you just need to rest, then do it. It’s all about self-awareness
  • Take a step back from social media if it’s bringing you down. FOMO can be overwhelming on top of everything else you’re juggling in your life
  • Find a community of like-minded people who will support you. We need to have more open conversations about mental health.
Find out more about Pauline
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