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  • Writer's pictureEuropean Waves

Breaking the stigma: discussing mental well-being of MA students

In a highly competitive and dynamic world of higher education, more and more students are experiencing mental health issues. In this article, second-year EPS students Anna Loi and Irina Percemli discuss stress, anxiety, cultural adaptation, imposter syndrome and other challenges facing students in their academic journey. They also give some useful tips to overcome them.

Anna Loi & Irina Percemli

The mental well-being of students is becoming an increasingly important issue, especially among high-mobility students such as Erasmus Mundus joint master students. According to the data gathered by the survey organised by the Mindful Mundus Programme*, 4 out of 5 respondents reported having faced a mental health challenge since the start of their Erasmus Mundus program. The survey shows that 7 out of 10 students reported having faced anxiety and 6 out of 10 — stress since their Erasmus Mundus started. These data have pushed the organisers of the Mindful Mundus to discuss these issues while also breaking the negative stigma in society around mental health problems.

Are stress & anxiety always bad?

Joint Master programmes such as Erasmus Mundus are considered very prestigious, as you get to experience multiple countries and diverse academic backgrounds, and build friendships worldwide. What is not mentioned as often, however, is the amount of stress and hardships entailed by frequent moving, adaptation and the necessity to make new friends every couple of months. Many students find themselves disillusioned while also trying to put up with academic and other pressures.

You may have a plethora of different feelings without even understanding where they are coming from. If you do not know enough about stress and anxiety, you might even end up blaming yourself for feeling this way. But the truth is, all those feelings are valid and have an explanation. The answer most likely lies in stress and anxiety, which are completely normal in these situations. That is why it is very important to understand what they are, where the symptoms come from, and how to trace them.

The concept of stress can assume two different connotations: distress and eustress. Distress, which is frequently referred to as "negative stress" or "bad stress," refers to the experience of unpleasant feelings, such as worry, panic and hopelessness. On the other hand, eustress is considered “positive stress”, which acts as an engine for our well-being, pushing us into action, improving our performances, and adding excitement to our lives. Imagine the adrenaline rush before a big presentation, the energy before a big event, or the excitement right before a trip.

However, while it is typical to encounter stress, prolonged exposure to distress can trigger a variety of mental and physical health problems, including fatigue, headaches, a faster heartbeat, and a range of emotions such as melancholy, anxiety, and anger.

On another note, when we go deeper into the complexities of anxiety, we see that anxiety is a response to stress, threats and concerns that we might encounter in our daily lives or on occasional events. It can manifest with psychological and physical symptoms.

As eustress, anxiety can work as a motivating factor in some situations, acting as a helpful force before important tests or events. However, the delicate equilibrium is in danger once anxiety turns into our daily companion. Indeed, we must be cautious about the severity and duration of these overwhelming feelings. Self-awareness and vigilance become essential, especially when anxiety begins to dominate our daily lives, and our response to distress becomes emotionally disproportionate. This, in a nutshell, signals the potential presence of an anxiety disorder.

Telling anxiety from anxiety disorder

In contrast to the temporary and manageable features of everyday stress and anxiety, anxiety disorders turn into major obstacles that interfere with our daily lives. An anxiety disorder manifests in strong, irrational fears or avoidance of specific objects, places and activities. The symptom load becomes very heavy and appears insurmountable for individuals to handle on their own.

Anxiety has a negative impact on many aspects of our well-being, including our body, thoughts, and behaviour. Our mindset becomes very pessimistic, resulting in difficulties concentrating, emotions of hopelessness, and extreme worrying about the future. These emotional and physical problems frequently result in behavioural changes. Thus, people may prefer to stay at home, avoid circumstances that previously triggered anxiety, lose interest in once-enjoyable activities, and withdraw from social connections.

A clinical diagnosis of an anxiety disorder requires the monitoring of specific symptoms for at least six months. Some of these symptoms may include continuous and excessive worry that interferes with everyday tasks, as well as indications such as nausea or abdominal pain, fast irritability, restlessness, and difficulty relaxing our body.

Furthermore, several risk factors can trigger the start of an anxiety disorder. Childhood trauma or other mental health concerns, exposure to physical and emotional abuse, dealing with uncertainty and life changes, chronic stress, feelings of isolation, financial struggles, and physical health challenges are some examples. Understanding and addressing these risk factors is essential in building an effective strategy for managing and reducing the burden of anxiety disorders.

Mindfulness — a tool to deal with stress

The practice of mindfulness is a useful strategy for dealing with stress and anxiety symptoms. Journaling, deep breathing, artistic expression, mindful eating and drinking, body scanning, taking breaks from social media, and practising active listening can all be incorporated into our everyday routines to preserve a healthy lifestyle.

Mindfulness entails living in the present moment without judging our ideas and feelings, thus cultivating a more positive relationship with our minds. Here are some tips to practise mindfulness and deal with stress/anxiety:

Grounded techniques for the senses: The following exercise demonstrates how mindfulness can be used to increase awareness of the present moment by concentrating on how our senses work and weaken our negative thoughts. Begin by observing and naming five things you see in your surroundings, such as the colour of a nearby object. Turn your attention to touch, identifying four things you can physically feel. Recognise three sounds around you. Engage with your sense of smell to identify two odours. Lastly, concentrate on taste, identifying one flavour or sensation in your mouth.

Source: Mindful Mundus presentation by mental health expert Sunika Joshi

Breathing techniques: they can help relieve tension and anxiety by increasing relaxation and alleviating the nervous system.

  • 4/7/8 breath technique: first, sit down and put your tongue on the roof of your mouth behind your two front teeth; breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds; hold your breath for 7 seconds; breathe out through your mouth for 8 seconds. (Repeat four times, twice per day!)

  • Abdominal breathing techniques: slowly take a deep breath, fill your lungs with air, expand your abdomen, exhale and contract your abdomen inwards

  • Square technique: breath in 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, breathe out 4 seconds, hold your breath again for 4 seconds and repeat the cycle.

Adapting to new environments

As seen above, stress and anxiety are our permanent (though unwanted) partners throughout our student journey. Studying abroad requires dealing with many challenges, including language barriers, financial problems, lack of social support, loneliness, and pressure to achieve excellent academic performance. In fact, the stress associated with living in an unfamiliar environment is one of the main triggers of mental health problems in international students. This is especially relevant for Erasmus Mundus or other joint programme students, who must move three or more times throughout their studies. This is why knowing where you stand in your cultural adaptation cycle is vital.

Now, what is the cultural adaptation cycle? It is a process of adjustment to a new country and environment. There are four stages of it. First, you experience the honeymoon phase — you just moved to a new country, and everything is new and exciting. But then, suddenly, the crisis (also known as culture shock) kicks in. At this stage, you feel surprised, disoriented, or confused when interacting in a different cultural environment. This might trigger a spectre of negative emotions and feelings; you may feel homesick, lonely, depressed, angry or even become physically ill. If you are at that stage right now, it may seem hopeless. But the reassuring fact is that the recovery phase follows after this. Here, you develop an understanding of how and why things are done and can navigate the new culture more easily. The final phase of the cycle is the adaptation phase. It comes when the new culture feels like a second home, and you regain emotional stability.

Source: Mindful Mundus presentation by mental health expert Karla Ricaurte

Wherever you are in the cycle, it is good to acknowledge that your feelings might be related to the adaptation process, and it is completely normal to experience them. Furthermore, your classmates might be dealing with the same hardships. You do not have to struggle through it alone.

Do you feel like a fraud?

Do you find yourself thinking, ‘Everyone knows more than I do’ or ‘I shouldn’t have gotten this scholarship’? In addition to the bumpy cultural adaptation cycle and many more challenges related to studying abroad, students also have to deal with the fact that our society increasingly requires us to achieve more and compete with each other for everything. When studying in any MA programme (let alone a prestigious Erasmus Mundus programme with extremely high-achieving peers), you are almost guaranteed to suffer from imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is the condition of feeling anxious and inadequate and not experiencing success internally despite being high-performing in objective ways. It is a feeling that leaves you with the impression that you do not belong, and your biggest fear is that people will discover that.

Here are some tips you can try to deal with imposter syndrome:

  • Question your negative internal voices and keep failure in perspective: negative self-talk is the enemy of confidence and progress. Try to identify and challenge these voices. Remember also that failure is not a weakness, it is your opportunity to learn.

  • Assess the evidence: Make a simple 2-column list — on one side, “Evidence that I am inadequate” and on the other side, “Evidence that I am competent”. This can help bring perspective.

  • Remember what you are good at: Are you focusing on the things you are struggling with rather than seeing all the things you are good at? Document your skills (ask a colleague or relative to help you), then try to own them and be proud of them rather than dismissing them as “normal”. It could be situations at work or in your family/social environment. Let these positive experiences define you, too, rather than feeling identified with the activities that trigger your insecurity.

  • Avoid comparing yourself to others: Whose definition of success are you using? We all have different skill sets, experiences and goals. Try to create your own definition of success and value what you are rather than what you think you should be.

Imposter syndrome often goes together with perfectionism, a trait that involves an implicit feeling of being flawed and an irrational desire to be perfect. As Brene Brown describes it in her book The Gifts of Imperfection:

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to do your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a 20-tonne shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”

Perfectionism might be one of the reasons (although certainly not the only one) that keep you procrastinating on your assignments and tasks. One way to deal with it is to try using the 70% rule: instead of aiming for 100% perfection in your work/project/paper, try to be content with the 70%. This rule works because it helps you start working and helps you finish your project without getting stuck.

Last tips and reminders

This article aimed to tackle some of the mental health challenges that students might face throughout their academic journey. We strongly believe that mental health should be discussed more, and help should be available to everyone.

Last, but not least, always remember this:

  • Use what works best for you: in this article, different tips were provided to overcome some of mental health challenges. You do not have to use all of them; just choose what works for you.

  • Seek help from a professional: if you are concerned with your mental health, do not try to self-diagnose. It is always okay to ask for help. Sometimes, we need guidance in our lives, and that is okay. Books, podcasts, and websites can be useful tools; however, be aware that some techniques might actually harm you depending on your condition. That is why it is important to ask for help from a professional. Many universities provide psychological support and guidance for students facing mental health issues.

* The information in this article was based on resources from Mindful Mundus, a pioneering mental health support project for Erasmus Mundus students. All the resources from the project are available on the Erasmus Mundus Association website. Special thanks to the mental health experts Sunika Joshi, Ester Serra Mingot, Karla Ricaurte, Liliyana Mbeve, and Georgiana Darau.



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