The little things really do go a long way. A friend taking me out to dinner. A note of encouragement left on my desk. A spontaneous text of appreciation from a flatmate. Small gestures have helped pull me out of a difficult period this semester, and I’ve found myself paying it forward just the same. 

At The University of Edinburgh, an academic year is broken down into two semesters. While the second includes a reading week, the first runs from September to December without a break: eleven teaching weeks plus revision and exams. In the winter months, semester one can be an overwhelming and exhausting slog. Particularly during deadline season, losing the weekends to work, part-time jobs or other activities can push students to breaking point.

That’s what happened to me. For the first few weeks of the year, I was skipping lectures to catch up on other lectures, reading article after article, book after book, for deadlines for my three courses. I wasn’t eating or sleeping right, I spent most of my time pouring every ounce of my spare energy into extra-curricular projects, writing various applications and building a resume, while staying up late to irrationally check my essay referencing for the tenth time before submitting. Not knowing how to slow myself down or ask for help, things started to take their toll. Eventually, I was waking up at night not being able to breathe. I fell out with a friend, received some bad news from home and the lowest grade since coming to University, and then it all hit like white noise. Stress and anxiety took over. My body shut down.

For a while I struggled to get out of bed in the mornings and eventually I stopped going to university all together. I shut people out, even my flatmates, removed myself from social situations and completely neglected my work. As someone who loves learning and who loves people, this wasn’t me. I’m not saying pushing yourself to the point to a nervous breakdown is by any means productive, but it forced me to reassess how I was ‘doing university’. So I did. 

With the support of the family from home, I was able to rebuild myself. I took the weekend to completely relax. I had a bath, I made food. I went to the cinema. I wrapped up and went on a walk in the freezing cold. I wrote a letter to a friend. I changed my sheets. I reconnected with someone I haven’t spoken to in years. I cut down to one coffee a day (a huge adjustment, believe me). I listened to podcasts and read some poetry. I learned how to do a 4×4 Rubik’s Cube. 

That Monday morning, I got up at eight am and wrote out an action plan. Things started to get better and I was managing my time far more effectively. Funnily enough, when I began prioritising my health, my grades drastically improved. 

The university counselling services have a long waiting list. An ’emotion badge’ collection was the extent of our mental health and wellbeing week. While students can now walk around with a pin that says ‘sad’, the deep-rooted problems on campuses around the world are being overlooked. I have found my university to be largely unsupportive, but the community we’ve built here as students, on the theatre scene in particular, has been a saving grace. 

So yes, if I’ve learnt anything since coming to university it’s that we have to support each other. Pushing myself to the limits is not productive for myself and not fair on the people around me. Ironically enough, we all feel isolated from time to time. It’s so easy to forget that while we have vastly different experiences, we’re in the same boat. Consciously taking the time out to check in with yourself and with others is so important. 

I’d like to finish with a poem I came across during all of this. As an English Literature student, almost all of my reading during term-time is for class or assignments. I have recently found that reading poetry every now and again helps settle my nerves, reground myself and reconnect to the world around me. 

[I love uncertain gestures]

By Valerio Magrelli, translated by Dana Gioia

‘I love uncertain gestures:

someone stumbles, someone else

bangs his glass,

can’t remember,

gets distracted or the sentinel 

can’t stop the slight 

flicker of his lashes – 

they matter to me 

because in them i see the wobbling 

the familiar rattle

of the broken mechanism. 

The whole object makes no sound, 

has no voice; it only moves.

But here the apparatus,

the play of parts has given way

a piece breaks off, 

declares itself. 

Inside, something dances.’

Photo credit: Tim Edwards, Nature Picture Library