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How to make the most of university | Psyche

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Guide

How to make the most of university

Learning psychological flexibility is the key to coping with difficult times and to pursuing what really matters to you

Photo by CSM/Getty

Need to know

University is a wonderful but challenging time

Make no mistake about it, university is the opportunity of a lifetime. You could meet friends or romantic partners who will be with you forever. You’ll probably have lots of irresponsible fun. You’ll have true independence for the first time. You’ll learn many new things, ranging from academic stuff, to cooking stuff, to money stuff, to the beauty of diversity in human beings. And you’ll likely figure out who you want to become in the world.

However, university also comes with some huge challenges (which you’ll doubtless have discovered if you’re already there). Being away from loved ones can be hard. Living with new housemates can be hard. Throwing yourself into countless new, and sometimes intimidating, social situations can be hard. Cooking for yourself can be hard, so too managing your own finances effectively. On top of all that, academia has unique pressures: exams, coursework deadlines, presentations and topics with increasing complexity.

Over time, these challenges may well bring you inner discomfort – thoughts and feelings that are not particularly nice, such as low mood, self-doubt and worry. Indeed, mental health problems are common across all demographics, but university students are particularly vulnerable. For instance, one recent study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found, in a sample of 1,173 students, that more than 50 per cent were experiencing clinical levels of poor mental health (even before the pandemic, mental health problems had been rising in students for some time).

The problem with avoidance

If you’re like many students, what adds to the risks is that you may find yourself unwittingly responding to any such inner discomfort in unhelpful ways. Let me give you a couple of examples of how this could happen (which may or may not have been taken from my own experiences at university!).

Imagine that I worked really hard on an assignment. On the day the marks are released, I walk to the psychology department, excited to see the outcome of my efforts. It turns out I scored a disappointing 45 (out of 100). My immediate feeling is one of numbness but, as the day goes on, I start to have the recurring thought that I’m not smart enough to attend university, and I begin to feel quite low. I decide that there’s only one way to respond to this inner discomfort: get drunk. And so I drink the night away, and in doing so I manage to limit my exposure to the unwanted thoughts and feelings. However, the next day, the mark still exists, which I still feel low about and, because of my hangover, I go on to miss two lectures and make no progress on another assignment. The attempted avoidance of inner discomfort has functioned to put me in a deeper hole.

However, it gets worse. It doesn’t take long for us to get the idea in our heads that, to increase the chances of successfully escaping inner discomfort, the best way is to avoid any risky, challenging situations in the first place. I’ll give you another example to illustrate how this avoidance strategy – so tempting but ultimately counterproductive – can easily develop.

Imagine I had a crush on a course mate. After a few months of planning to act, I actually do: I ask the person out on a date. They say ‘no’. I act cool about it but I’m really quite hurt, and these feelings of hurt are something I’d rather not have to experience. My first strategy to avoid this inner discomfort is to distract myself with computer games. However, soon afterwards, I also begin to avoid going to places (1) where I might run into this person, and (2) that might trigger the feelings of hurt that I was trying so hard to avoid (lectures, nightclubs, the gym). The result is that my life ends up being narrowed because of my need to avoid inner discomfort.

If you’re to thrive at university, it’s incredibly important you understand how this vicious cycle could affect you too. Avoidant behaviours can lead you to a life where you either do stuff that’s bad for you (drinking alcohol in excess, taking drugs, gambling, risky sexual behaviour, isolating yourself, eating ludicrous amounts of ice cream or over-bingeing Netflix), or you stop doing stuff that’s good for you, all in a vain attempt to protect yourself from feeling certain feelings or thinking certain thoughts.

Given the ways that attempted avoidance can negatively impact our lives, it won’t surprise you to learn that this strategy is a major contributor to mental health problems. In other words, it’s in your best interest to watch out for the role that avoidance plays in your university life. That’s my first and most important bit of advice – avoid avoidance. But how can you avoid it, and what about the proactive things you should do instead? In fact, there are several positive, active steps you can take to thrive, and there’s a mindset for avoiding avoidance; in this Guide, I’m going to share them all with you.

What to do

Learn the six ways to wellbeing

As I explained, when you experience inner discomfort, attempting to avoid that discomfort (which is perfectly understandable) can function to stop you from doing the very things that really are good for your mental health – but, of course, that raises the question of what those good things are.

Extensive research, conducted over many years and from academics all across the world, has pinpointed the behaviours of psychologically healthy people. This culminated in the Five Ways to Wellbeing (2008) framework, first proposed by the New Economics Foundation, which in 2019 was extended to include a sixth way by Geetanjali Basarkod, a wellbeing researcher based at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education in Sydney, Australia. These six ways to wellbeing are:

  1. Exercise.
  2. Challenge yourself.
  3. Connect with others.
  4. Give to others.
  5. Self-care.
  6. Embrace the moment.

Therefore, if you want to have top-notch wellbeing at university, you basically need to find a way to build those six behaviours into your life on a continuing basis. In fact, right now, you may want to take a few minutes to create your very own wellbeing plan, where you consider how you might bring those six ways to wellbeing to your life. These are some of the questions you’ll want to answer:

  1. What’s exercise going to look like for you: the gym? Running?
  2. What’s challenging yourself going to look like for you: is your university course enough – perhaps you need something outside of it? Beginning a new hobby? Starting a part-time job?
  3. What’s connecting with others going to look like for you: joining a society? Partying with friends?
  4. What’s giving to others going to look like for you: will you give your time to a family member in need? Or your energy to a charity?
  5. What’s self-care going to look like for you: making the effort to learn how to create nutritional meals? Maintaining good sleep hygiene?
  6. What’s embracing the moment going to look like for you: how are you going to throw yourself fully into your present-moment experiences?

That’s it. Very simple. However, there’s a catch, which makes this whole thing not quite so simple. Even once students know that doing those things is likely to be good for them, many still don’t actually do them. Why? Well, their minds get in the way – often, and especially, because of those difficult thoughts and emotions I mentioned earlier. Consequently, we need to take some time to think about how to optimally interact with the human mind, so that yours doesn’t stop you from living a full and meaningful life at university.

Understand the importance of psychological flexibility

In my work with students I use an approach called acceptance and commitment therapy (commonly called ACT) that’s an offshoot of the better-known cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). A principal aim of ACT is to develop psychological flexibility – which will help you thrive at university (and in life in general).

Psychological flexibility might sound like psychobabble, but it involves a straightforward idea: that you can have the emotional nimbleness to take your unwanted thoughts and feelings with you while moving your feet towards what’s important. There are two elements to that definition for you to think about:

  1. You need to figure out what’s important to you.
  2. You need to figure out how to interact with your thoughts and feelings so that they don’t stop you from moving towards what’s important to you.

Identify your values

Right now, rather than expanding on those two points with words alone, I want you to get the gist of psychological flexibility experientially. So stay with me here as we go on a little journey. Let’s start with number 1 above. In ACT, we figure out what’s important to us through values-clarification exercises. These exercises prompt us to think about the areas of our lives that are most important (and, in your case, how these might show up in the context of your university life) and the qualities we’d like to bring to our behaviour in those areas. Have a go at the question below to begin your journey into values:

If you won a huge amount of money on the lottery, what would you do with it?

Sometimes, the answers students write down to this question might not immediately feel like they’re revealing a whole lot but, if you dig, you’ll usually find the gold. That is, you’ll get some insight into what’s important to you and what sort of human being you’d like to be on planet Earth. For example, if you write down that you’d travel the world, then what’s underneath that? Why would you do that? These are some possible answers:

  • You love adventure.
  • You want to learn more about culture and history.
  • You’d like to connect with human beings from different countries.
  • You think that by travelling you’d be able to challenge yourself physically.

Now have a go at digging into your own lottery answer in the same way and see what you come up with.

Set yourself some specific goals

OK, once you’ve had a go at answering the lottery question, I want you to choose one of the values that exists just below the surface of your answer, and then create a specific goal that will bring that value to life. To help you do this, I’ll move through this process using the example above.

  • If you love adventure, then perhaps you make a reservation at a hotel in a city you’ve never been to before.
  • If you want to learn more about culture and history, then maybe you start the book on Egyptology that’s been on your bookshelf for a while.
  • If you want to connect with human beings from different countries, then, perhaps next week, you’ll try to speak to the person from Scandinavia, who lives in the student accommodation next to you.
  • If you want to challenge yourself physically, then a session at the new climbing centre might help you to bring that value to life.

Chances are, you can see that this isn’t rocket science, but you may well have questions about values and goals. These are some of the more common ones that pop up:

How many of these goals should I be trying to complete?

There’s no magic number with this. Generally speaking, provided it doesn’t affect your ability to self-care, then the more you act in line with your values, the better your psychological health will be. However, it’s important to note that values can trickle into your life in the absence of goals, provided you know them. For example, imagine that you know you’d like to connect with people from different countries. One day you might find yourself at a bar and the person who orders next to you speaks in an unfamiliar accent. If you’re clear on your values in that moment, and are willing to let them guide your behaviour, then perhaps you’ll strike up a conversation.

Do values change?

Yes. Values are built from our experiences and, as our experiences change across time, so do our values. For example, when I had my son Max, my most important value became about being a loving and caring father. With that in mind, it’s worth revisiting values every now and then to make sure you’re up to date.

Your goals from the examples above seem like short-term goals, but I assume that long-term goals exist too?

Totally correct. If your education is important to you, then a long-term goal will be to complete your degree and, on the way to your long-term goal, you’ll complete many short-term goals. It can be hard to skilfully set goals without professional support, but certainly not impossible.

Is there a best way or formula that can be used to set goals?

If you set ‘SMART’ goals, then you’re more likely to complete them. SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. However, my favourite goal-setting formula is called ‘WWWW’, and involves answering each of these prompts for each goal you set:

  • What will you do?
  • When will you do it?
  • Where will it take place?
  • Why is it important?

Recognise the barriers in your way

OK, for now, if you’ve managed to create a specific goal for yourself, then you’re about halfway through your experiential tour of psychological flexibility. That is, you’ve begun to think about your values, and you’ve created one goal related to one of those values. The problem you now have is that, as you move towards your values, your mind is likely to put barriers in the way. I often wonder why this happens. Why would your mind not want the best for you? For example:

  • Why, when your education is important to you, does your mind try to make you avoid giving a presentation by feeding you terrifying thoughts?
  • Why, when friendship is important to you, does you mind tell you that ‘You’re not so good socially’?
  • Why, when being physically healthy is important to you, does your mind suggest that a tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream is a better idea than going to the gym?

The reason your mind does this is that it has evolved to be ultra-sensitive to threat and discomfort, and it sees its job as being to protect you from such things. For the most part, this has been great for human beings in terms of survival. However, these days, if you listen to your mind too much, then you might find yourself living a life not of your choosing. Let’s think about this idea with the example goals I’ve written above.

  • You’re about to book a hotel in a new city, and you have this thought: ‘It’s a bit scary to be in a new city by myself, especially in winter. I think I’ll wait until summer to do this.
  • You’re just about to start reading the book on Egyptology that’s been on your bookshelf a while, and you have this thought: ‘I’m tired, I’ll watch Netflix instead.
  • You’re about to start speaking with that person from Scandinavia, and you have this thought: ‘Starting a conversation with a total stranger is going to be awkward for both parties, so I’ll wait until it happens naturally.
  • You’re just about to go to the new climbing centre, and you have this thought: ‘My friends are going to be so much better than me at this, it will be embarrassing if I go.

Do these sorts of internal barriers feel familiar? Do you find that your mind is skilled at giving you good reasons not to do stuff? Take a moment now to predict the internal barriers likely to arise as you try to complete your goal from the lottery exercise. It’s an important thing to do because becoming aware of the barriers is the first step to overcoming them.

Use mental techniques to overcome your barriers

Having identified the barriers to your goal, the next step requires you to figure out how to interact with these barriers in such a way that you can still move towards your values. ACT offers four skills to help you with this:

  • Defusion involves taking a step back from your thoughts and following their advice only if that advice helps you to move towards your values. For example, imagine you’re trying to quit smoking and your mind says ‘Just one cigarette will help me to relax.’ If you’re able to look at the thought and evaluate it in terms of your long-term goals, then you’re more likely to act optimally. One simple way to achieve distance from your thoughts is via the use of a prefix. For example, if your thought is ‘Having a cigarette will help me to relax,’ then adding the prefix ‘I’m having the thought that having a cigarette will help me to relax’ will create a little more space between you and the thought, giving you a better chance to control your behaviour.
  • Self-as-context involves interacting with your self-stories flexibly so that they don’t inhibit valued action. For example, say you have the goal of trying out a new sport, but you have a self-story of ‘I’m not very good at sport.’ How then does that self-story function in your life? Does it stop you from doing what matters to you? The first step here is to become aware of your self-stories, and a good way to that involves two steps: (1) write 10 sentences that begin with the words ‘I am’ and follow those sentences with descriptions of yourself; (2) sort those sentences into two piles. In the first pile, put the sentences that are objectively true: eg, ‘I am 175cm tall.’ In the second pile, put the sentences that are, in fact, self-evaluation: eg, ‘I am a selfish person.’ The sentences in the second pile are your self-stories and being aware of them will help you to spot when they are controlling your behaviour in dysfunctional ways.
  • Willingness involves embracing your unwanted thoughts and feelings while moving towards meaning. For example, if you’re about to walk into the first social event of the year for a new society you’ve joined, chances are that you’ll feel anxiety. The easy way to avoid the anxiety is simply not to attend the event. Or is there another option? Can you be willing to have your anxiety while doing this important activity? A really simple way to practise willingness is to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable, and then persist with the activity while the discomfort is there. For example, you could start writing that essay you’ve been avoiding and, when the feelings of boredom come along, you could carry on with the essay in the presence of the discomfort. (Jump to the final section of this Guide for a couple more exercises on this skill.)
  • Mindfulness involves bringing your attention back to the present moment, in situations that matter, when your mind has wandered to the past or to the future. For example, when your mind is catastrophising in the middle of an exam, can you look curiously and nonjudgmentally at that experience, and then bring your attention back to the exam paper in front of you? There are many mindfulness audio files available on the internet (eg, the Frantic World website is very good) to help you practise this skill, however taking three deep breaths will usually help you reorient your attention to what’s important in the moment.

Obviously, you’re not going to master psychological flexibility simply by reading the information and little exercises above, but I wanted to give you a flavour of the kind of skills you can develop to help you – and, at the end of this Guide, I’ve listed several books and other resources you may want to look into if this approach interests you. I hope you can at least start to see the essence of psychological flexibility. If not, then let me recap the rationale.

Difficult feelings are normal – it’s how you respond to them that matters

Life for students often isn’t easy and, when life isn’t easy, the amount of inner discomfort (unwanted thoughts and feelings) you experience will increase. Honestly, take it from an expert in these things, you can’t get away from the fact that sadness, anxiety, worry and a whole host of other negative emotions are going to exist for you during your time in the academy. Importantly, given the context, for the most part, these experiences will be absolutely normal.

However, your response to this inner discomfort can create problems for you. As we’ve seen, if you try to avoid these experiences in unhelpful ways, then the hole you’re in is likely to get bigger. But if you’re psychologically flexible, then unwanted thoughts and feelings are no longer a difficulty you need to get rid of. You don’t have to fight with them, or change them, in order to do stuff. You can just have them; you can take them with you as you move your feet towards meaning.

Just think about that for a second. Imagine living in a world where you make decisions based on what you really want out of life, rather than being pushed around by your inner discomfort. Plenty of the best things in life bring inner discomfort. Inner discomfort by itself isn’t a problem. Inner discomfort becomes a problem only when it stops you from doing things. If you can develop your psychological flexibility, then you’ll have ultimate liberty – your inner discomfort will play like a radio in the background while you get on with chasing your dreams.

Key points – How to make the most of university

  1. University is a wonderful but challenging time. The opportunities are endless, but the experience can also be hard, and mental health problems are common among students.
  2. The problem with avoidance. When you experience difficult inner feelings, a normal reaction is to try to avoid them – but doing this can narrow your life and spoil your time at university.
  3. Learn the six ways to wellbeing. To protect your mental health at university, you need to: exercise; challenge yourself; connect with others; give to others; practise self-care; embrace the moment.
  4. Understand the importance of psychological flexibility. Knowing what’s good for you is only half the story – you also need to build a mindset that allows you to do what you want in spite of the inevitable difficult thoughts and emotions that will come along.
  5. Identify your values. To build psychological flexibility, the first step is to work out what really matters to you in life.
  6. Set yourself some specific goals. Next, you need to identify some goals that will help you fulfil your values – especially in the context of your university life.
  7. Recognise the barriers in your way. It’s almost inevitable that difficult thoughts and feelings will get in the way at some point – it’s important to spend time identifying them.
  8. Use mental techniques to overcome your barriers. Once you’ve identified the barriers, there are a range of techniques (defusion, self-as-context, willingness, mindfulness) you can use to overcome them.
  9. Difficult feelings are normal – it’s how you respond to them that matters. If you can develop your psychological flexibility, then you can take your inner discomfort with you as you move towards meaning and fulfilment.

Learn more

Develop your ‘willingness’

I mentioned earlier that a core skill within the ACT model concerns developing your willingness, which in lay terms is your ability to embrace discomfort. It’s such an important skill to have as a student because, as I explained, if you get into the habit of running away from discomfort, then in all likelihood it will have a negative impact on your university life. The problem with willingness is that it can be hard to practise. That is, it can be hard to create situations where you learn experientially that it’s possible to keep going when you feel discomfort. Below are two exercises I often use with my students, to help you practise this skill:

  1. If you’re able, begin some sort of physical activity such as going for a run. When you reach the point of the activity where you feel a physical discomfort, which leaks into psychological discomfort (eg, you have a thought like ‘This feels horrible, my legs are exhausted, I should stop’) then look at your discomfort, imagine it as an object (when I do this, my discomfort is a heavy, red, spiky ball), put it in your pocket, so to speak, and keep going.
  2. Find a friend or family member and suggest a game where you have to stare into each other’s eyes for a three-minute period. The rule of the game is that under no circumstances must eye contact be broken. Very soon into that game, you’re going to feel psychological discomfort, and your mind will be trying its best to make you break eye contact. But can you hold eye contact despite the discomfort?

If you manage to control your behaviour in these exercises for at least a few minutes beyond the point of the inner discomfort, then you’ll begin to see that acceptance of discomfort is an option for you. Of course, in these exercises, I asked you to do the activity; the important thing now is to take this experience and understanding with you into your life – to learn that it also applies in situations where such acceptance will help you do the things that are important to you.

Links & books

My book The Unbreakable Student (2021) is an ACT book that is written for university students.

Probably the most popular ACT book ever written, which will give you an experiential introduction to the model, is called The Happiness Trap (2nd ed, 2022), and it was written by the physician and therapist Russ Harris.

A brilliant educational book about ACT was written by the clinical psychologists Richard Bennett and Joe Oliver, called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: 100 Key Points and Techniques (2019).

If you are looking to find ACT therapists or ACT workshops where you live, then visit the site of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. By joining, you can also access premium online content such as podcasts, talks and much more.

At my website, you’ll also find a list of podcasts that often have ACT speakers. The ones to watch out for are: Psychologists Off the Clock, Empowering Lives, People Soup, and Playing-it-Safe.

You can also find plenty of ACT metaphors and presenters on YouTube with a simple search – however, Russ Harris and Joe Oliver have created my favourite content.