The One Where First Year Is Nearly Over

It’s the weekend before we break up for Easter, and the fact that technically that means we only have one week left of teaching for first year is finally sinking in.

It feels like I’ve been here an age, like I’ve always complained about trekking up Forum hill, like I’ve always had lunches that consist of bizarre combinations of items at the back of my fridge shelf, like I’ve always been friends with the awesome group of people I hang around with in the evenings – but the reality of it is is that we’ve only been here 7 months. 7 months of living pretty much independently and having to build new relationships; 7 months of adapting to a new timetable of working hours, a new level of academic expectation; 7 months of finding my feet 200 miles away from home.

Students soaking up the sun on campus

Students soaking up the sun on campus

We might still have summer term to come with weeks of no-doubt glorious weather and torturous indoor revision, but in many ways first year is nearly over and that’s just a little terrifying. Terrifying, but also pretty awesome – because we’ve nearly made it through and out the other side of the baptism of fire that is your first year at university. I’m feeling pretty reflective about the whole experience thus far at the minute, but I think there will be time for a proper review post at the official end of the year. At the moment, there’s still plenty going on in the here and now to keep me occupied.

Things have definitely been getting hectic in the past few weeks. The deadlines for the end of term are amping up and I know I’m not the only one in saying I’ve got two huge essays in for next week that I’m not quite as far along with as I’d like. As a result, there’s been a lot of mutual daydreaming about the imminent holidays going around, but I know that after a month away I’ll be glad to be back in Devon and at Exeter – exams or not.

Watching the solar eclipse

Watching the solar eclipse

Despite the extra pressure recently though, there’s also been plenty of good stuff going on too. First year historians submitted our choices for second year modules this week (whether I’ll get my first choices or not is another question entirely), and in choosing a French language module I’ve been reminded that in just over 12 months I’ll be heading off on my study abroad year. We’ve also been blessed with some pretty gorgeous weather; Friday was the technically the first day of spring (with the added excitement of the first solar eclipse since 1999) but you wouldn’t have guessed it. For the past two weeks students have been lounging about in the sun on picnic blankets all over campus, or else playing football outside accommodation blocks. There is a slightly ‘prospectus photo shoot’ feel to it all, except that it’s genuine – and I can’t help but feel this is Exeter at it’s best.

Exmouth beach

Exmouth beach

The other weekend saw a Saturday so sunny that it warranted another spontaneous trip to Exmouth, along with at least a quarter of the student population. The beach was packed with kite surfers, families and students, and sitting on the sand with a Tesco meal deal, my Feel Good playlist playing through mini-speakers, and some great company – I felt about as happy as I think I’ve been in a long while. Even the 12 hour essay writing stint I had to pull the next day for slacking off couldn’t put a damper on my mood.

It’s tempting sometimes to get caught up in the workload and grade aspirations, but I think it’s also so important to take aside those days to appreciate just where you are, and how great it is to be there.

The Universal University Issue: Dealing with Stress

Stress is a popular topic at the moment. Everyone seems to be constantly stressed; jobs are stressful, deadlines are stressful, thinking about the future is stressful. We crave weekends and the holidays for a brief respite from it all, and dread the workload starting again.

Stress and anxiety seem to be a ruling norm in student life especially, and certainly at the moment with Term 2 coming to an end, and essay deadlines and exams looming. Either you’re stressing too much at the detriment of your health, as evidenced by the long waiting lists at the Wellbeing Centre, or you’re not stressing enough at the detriment of your grades. At the moment though, I’d have to say I see far more of the former. With increasing competition for university places driving up the offers and expectations, I’m sometimes acutely aware sitting in the back of lecture halls how hard everyone in the room has worked to get here. And how hard most of them are working to stay on top of everything.

Personally, I’m no exception to this. I’ve had high standards for myself since I was 13, and feel pretty crushed if I don’t meet them – so I angst, redraft and stress over every piece of written work up until the deadline so I feel like I can say “I’ve done my best”. And when the essay comes back and it’s a 2:2 instead of a 2:1, I spend my time pouring over the critiques and red biro question marks in the margin, berating myself at where I so obviously went wrong.

I’m not so naïve as to realise that this sort of perfectionism isn’t a healthy attitude, but in some ways, ‘stress’ has been useful. For a start, the excessive revision and work I put into my A levels were what got me into Exeter in the first place, and I’m certainly grateful now for those unpleasant weeks in June I put myself through. Stress is also what kicks me into gear to get reading done before seminars, or essays submitted the night before deadlines. In moderate quantities, it can be pretty helpful. But then again, there’s a dark-side to stress.

Stress can build up to a level where you feel crippled by it, where the to-do list is so long it’s impossible to know where to even start, and can leave you curled up in a ball dreaming of your days at kindergarten. At the far end of the scale, stress can cause panic and anxiety attacks, and is often strongly linked to depression.

So stress can go both ways – the good, and the very, very bad – but if I’m honest, I’m a bit sick of fixating on it. Stress takes up so much of my time and thought processes, and if talking to older students and adult relatives is anything to go by, it’s set to take up a lot of my future too- and that’s a bit of a depressing thought.

It can sometimes feel like we’re constantly seeking the perfect equilibrium of a work-life balance, and once we reach that seemingly unattainable goal, we’ll finally be happy. In reality though, everyone knows that the ‘grass is always greener’ idea is just a dream. What we’ve got is what we’ve got, and what we need to learn is to not just survive our lives, but to live them. But I don’t want to live a life that’s dictated by meeting my own ridiculous standards, that’s focused around just making it through to the weekend or to the next holiday. I want to be able to accept that there’s work to do, and sometimes quite a lot of it, without building this whole huge mental block around it and spending more time complaining and worrying over it than actually getting down to it.

So, what options are there available to combat stress?

I’d consider there to be two approaches:

1. Change the situation

This can mean a lot of things, whether it is taking time out of your job for health purposes or asking for deadline extensions. The stigma around mental health is slowly being combatted, but society still isn’t quite there. Despite what judgements you might be worried colleagues or friends might make, you wouldn’t go to work with a broken wrist or without your glasses, and dealing with stress or acute anxiety can be just as disabling. We shouldn’t feel ashamed to take a little extra time for the sake of our health to take a break and to regain a sense of perspective.

This approach however isn’t always the best for the long-term, and when coming back to the ‘stressful situation’ or dealing with stress in general, it might be worth looking at another approach:

2. Change your attitude to stress

Now, this of course is easier said than done, but it really doesn’t have to be as difficult a mental task as it sounds.

Dr Mike Evans is a Canadian doctor renowned for his media-based approach to communicating public health information and advice. His Youtube video entitled ’23 and ½ hours’ on exercise has almost 5 million views, but I’d consider his 10-minute lecture on The Single Most Important Thing You Can Do For Your Stress to be pretty inspirational advice.

Dr Evans considers that just changing the way you think about stress, from something that happens unavoidably to you to something that you actually create is a key step in reducing anxiety over stressful situations.

Most people think stress is something that happens to us…(but in reality) stress passes through a 2 pound piece of tissue on the top of your face called your brain…

We say things like, my job is stressful, or my friend Sylvia is stressing me out, but in fact, we create the stress in our brains… it’s your thinking that brings the stress.”

Dr. Mike Evans

It seems like a simple idea, but personally it was the simplicity of it that affected me so much. I don’t think changing your thinking style and attitude to stress so drastically is going to happen overnight, just as a life-long pessimist can’t suddenly see the glass as half full, but Dr. Evans puts forward a strong argument that such an approach can be learnt.

I’d like to think that in trying to approach things in the past few weeks that would normally stress me out (such as intimidating essay titles, page long to-do lists and long put-off phonecalls) with a different attitude, I’ve already noticed a difference. Similarly to how I talked in a previous post about tackling exercise at university, although it’s hard-work at first, it’s got to the stage now where I actually enjoy taking a positive approach to previously stressful situations. I try and remind myself that the stress I’m experiencing is in reality all self-generated, and try and change my approach to whatever the situation is that’s making me anxious.

For instance, whereas before I might think “Oh God, I’ve got so much work to do I can’t possibly manage it without pulling multiple all-nighters/having no weekend”, I now try and change that thought to “I’ve got a lot of work but I’m capable of doing the best I can in the time I’ve got.’”

Different things work for different people, and I can appreciate that many are not in the position to be able to work on changing their mind-set, but it’s certainly something I think is worth thinking about. And I’d recommend giving Dr. Mike Evans’ video a watch too 🙂

Five of the Best Exeter Eateries

So last week I finally got my act together enough to do something I’ve been wanting to get around to since the beginning of term; writing for Exeter’s prestigious student paper Exeposé.

ExeposeI decided not to challenge myself too much, so settled on opting for a nice humdrum article for the Lifestyle section on five of my favourite places to eat in Exeter. I changed the topic slightly to look at places to take visiting friends and family, and drafted it more than a few times to check I met the terrifying vague criteria of ‘quite light and fun’. That being said, it was good fun to write something a little different to the student blog posts I’ve been working on, and I was pleased with what I came up with.

Fast forward to today and cue me waltzing casually (I wish) into the Forum for my 9am Medieval lecture, sweeping up the latest edition of Exeposé on my way. Flicking through the headline articles, I genuinely did a double-take to see my name bolded on the front of the Lifestyle section. I had honestly completely forgotten my article would be in this week’s paper, and never expected that my first attempt would be given almost a full page (pictures included) on the front of the section! I don’t think I fully processed what I was doing when I submitted my article, but I’m pretty chuffed to say the least 🙂 I love writing in any form, but the satisfaction of seeing something I’d reworked over several days in print was something I hadn’t anticipated. I’ll definitely be writing for Exeposé again if I get the chance!

As a bit of a cheat post therefore, here’s my Five Best Exeter Eateries to take Guests article, as published in this fortnight’s Exeposé, reproduced for my blog.

We’ve all been there; you’ve got guests trekking their way across the country to visit for the weekend whether you like it or not. You can’t be expected to sacrifice that lone can of Heinz beans left in the back of your cupboard (or that tin of tuna that might, one day, finally get eaten) so eating out it is. While Exeter is blessed with a plethora of eatery-options don’t worry about trawling Trip Advisor attempting to come to a decision – here’s a fool proof guide to impressing friends and family with some of the best, most iconic places to eat out in Exeter.

Tea on the GreenFor Breakfast

Imagine every possible egg-related breakfast you can. Double it. Now throw in a front-row view of the Exeter’s best-known landmark, and you have yourself a winning combination. Tea on The Green is about as quaint, cosy and quintessentially English as it sounds, and while it’s perfect for afternoon scones, I’d argue it’s the breakfast takes the biscuit, guaranteed to keep everyone happy with options ranging from the lowly ‘Monk’s Choice’ of marmalade on toast, to the full-out Full English.

Boston Tea PartyFor Brunch/lunch

Boston Tea Party

Boston Tea Party

Ideally located for a quick, tasty, mid-shop lunch – Boston is the home of honest, nutritious food, and particularly fancy latte art. Second only to Tea on the Green on the brunch front, Boston Tea Party also offers a whole host of mains, from burgers and toasties to butternut squash mac and cheese and roasted sweet potato cous cous. The unexpectedly huge upstairs seating space will impress guests too, especially if you manage to nab a couple of the vintage chesterfields in the corner.

Exploding Bakery For Coffee and Cake

Space is definitely limited in this wee little cafe tucked in a corner by Central Station, but the Exploding Bakery is about as wholesome as it gets. While it offers a relatively limited lunch-time range of homemade soups (rustic hunk of soda bread included), savory croissants and tortillas, it’s the coffee and cake that it’s really famed for. Costa, Starbucks and Café Nero too mainstream for your hipster, organic friends? The Exploding Bakery’s cappuccino and carrot cake is where it’s at.

Thai Restaurant For the Fancy Dinner

Bae is visiting for the weekend; the Firehouse has been done one too many times, and even with Valentines over and done with you’re thinking about pulling all the stops out. Allow me to recommend the humble Thai Jasmine. A little on the pricey end for student-eateries, but oh-so-worth it for the delicate lemongrass curry, the oozing deep fried vegetables, and the soup so fragrant it’s genuinely like drinking perfume (and I mean that in the good way).

The Old FirehouseFor the Pub (and pizza) Experience

The Old Firehouse

The Old Firehouse

This is an article about student-recommended eateries in Exeter, did you really think The Old Firehouse wouldn’t make the list? Home of many a society social, and the famous Firehouse Challenge of an entire pizza (and a bottle of red wine, depending on who you talk to), the Firehouse is an Exeter student staple and rightly so. Treat friends and family alike to a pint of west country cider and make them jealous of the fact your local pub is such a Harry-Potter-esque haven of twinkling-fairy lights, live music and constant buzz.