As summer collapses into Autumn, we begin a new year of university study. A fresh pile of books and, for many of us, fresh fears about how teaching is going to take place this term, how grades will be met, and how we will look after ourselves in the process. Whether you are new to university or returning, feelings will be heightened given the global situation. Perhaps this is a good moment to pause, take a breath, get a pen and paper, and write a bit down about how you are feeling. 

As we prepare in our individual ways – stationery hauls, clearing our workspaces, (or leaving things until the last minute,) it is important to think a bit about our overall mental and physical health. Prioritising your brain and caring for it in advance of stressful times will enable it to cope far better once they arrive. 

It is important to make it clear that the tips in this article are not a substitute for seeking professional help for your mental health. If you are struggling, or even just looking to maintain a good mental space, seeking help is both a brave and smart step to take. 

That being said, here are eight helpful tips to care for your brain at the start of a new term:

Illustration by Robin Ireland
  1. Define your own working hours

The importance of this became apparent to me during lockdown. Whilst working from home, it is sometimes expected that you will be immediately contactable. However, this simply is not good for our brains – they need to split up tasks somewhat and acknowledge the divide between relaxation and study time. Study materials will often be made available at once, meaning that you can complete tasks as and when works for you. Whether you are an early riser who likes intense bursts of study, or a night owl who likes to read things twice, defining your own working hours and patterns will enable you to feel more in control of your studies.


2.  Make your room a safe place to work 

We have all heard the phrase, ‘tidy space, tidy mind’. Given that we will largely be studying in our own space this term means keeping those spaces clean helps to keep our mind calm when working. It is also important for our space to be a stimulating and personalised one. Think about the ways that you can change your space to make it feel more like a home – perhaps scents that remind you of good memories, or postcards on your wall from happy places. Sites such as Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace sell affordable second-hand furniture, meaning you can improve your space in an affordable way. Look for bedroom ideas on Pinterest or Instagram, and think about how your space will inspire you to be your most calm and productive self. 


3.  ‘Humans are plants with complex emotions’ – food and water for brain health

Wherever we turn, there is bombardment to eat and exercise in order to change how our bodies look. However, it is more helpful to nourish yourself with the focus on your brain, instead of your body. What foods make you feel happy? Is there a new dish you would like to try making? Eating a varied diet, and being curious about new foods, are some helpful ways to use food to help keep our brains healthy. Staying hydrated and getting enough sleep also help to limit the fogginess that can come from studying for long stretches of time. Baking, cooking and preparing your own meals can also be a fun way to learn what you like, and what foods make your brain feel good.


4.  Move your body to help your brain 

Again, as with food, exercise and the way it impacts your brain will differ greatly from person to person. I enjoyed reading Jog On by Bella Mackie, in which she explores the way that running helps her and others manage their mental health. As with food, exercise is often used as a way to make us feel worse about ourselves and our bodies, feeling that we must look a certain way in order to enjoy it. However, it has been proven that exercise is great for brain health, so perhaps make a list of activities you enjoy doing, and things you’d like to try, this term. 


5.  Get out into nature

The draw of studying at Sheffield is often the amazing green spaces within and outside of the city. Getting a bus or driving to the surrounding areas can do wonders for mental health, but there are also spaces within the city if you do not wish to travel far. Whiteley Woods is a beautiful place to walk, leading to the Forge Dam and the beginning of Endcliffe Park. The view at Bole Hills is also beautiful. Have a look for green spaces close to where you live, and regular visits can help to clear and care for your mind. 


6.  Stay connected to avoid isolation

Whilst in-person contact is limited, there are many ways to stay connected online. Perhaps it is time to rekindle an old friendship, or an old interest, and join a forum dedicated to it. University societies also have Facebook groups –  joining these is a great way to interact with others with similar interests, or others who identify in similar ways to you. Whether you are looking to connect with other LGBTQ+ students, improve your gardening and growing skills with the allotment society, or chat about music with other students, it is always worth having a look at the universities list of societies and get involved online, to avoid isolation and broaden your network. 


7.  Prepare an emergency self-care toolkit

There will, of course, be times when things become overwhelming. So, preparing a small kit for when this happens can be helpful. What you put in will depend on what you find soothing and relaxing – some chocolate, bubble bath or materials to craft or make something are just a handful of ideas. Some people find it helpful to also include things that pull them back to happy moments, such as souvenirs from a holiday, or pictures with loved ones. 


8.  Be compassionate with yourself

This is a difficult time, and depending on your situation, you may still be separate from loved ones. As with the previous term, you are not expected to coast through this term without any difficulties. It is okay to take time off or to seek more help from the university for your mental health. Build on self-care and nourishment practices you already have, or things you personally want to do. Remember, you are best placed to know what will help you. 


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