Inside-out in university: Managing your emotions

“That’s Fear. He’s really good at keeping [Alana] safe.”

A transition from pre-university to freshmen life is daunting, no doubts about that. I speak from my experience in transiting from junior college (JC) to SMU. I still remember the feelings from a little more than 2 years ago. I was definitely excited to be intellectually stimulated, meet new people, and join new CCAs. Basically, I was looking forward to having a flexible student life after being in a structured environment for so many years! Finally, I can experience an education in the truest sense of the word. No more memorising formulae that I’d never use, no more standard answers to memorise for examiners to mark an A upon, and best of all, no more boring lectures, yay!

Weeks into freshmen year, I was experiencing a crazy rollercoaster ride of emotions. To be honest, I am afraid of rollercoasters. Never rode a big one like the Battlestar Galactica before, and not planning to any time soon. In this transitional period, I was stressed, lonely, uncertain, etc. etc. Independent learning! Projects! Class participation! Career talks and workshops! Join this! Join that! One can only take so many things yelling at me, and not go crazy.

crazy roller coasters

This was how I felt. Going about at high speed, with many loops, uphill climbs and downhill falls. There was so much excitement, but too much nausea.

In JC, we took more than a year to complete Project Work; here, I had more than FIVE projects and reports of comparable scale cramped in 13 weeks or less. In JC, I could hang out with classmates during breaks; in Uni, I spend so much time eating or studying alone because schedules clash, or I am too tired of rejection to find lunch buddies. The pattern of highs and lows repeated each semester. The first few weeks of school would be great, I’d look for friends to hang out together, chill, and have a life. Then after mid-semester comes crunch time when deadlines loomed, and stress levels peak. I stop making the effort to take care of my emotional health, suppressing all kinds of feelings to remain efficient and productive. It did not feel good at all. Plus, school is not the only thing that can stress a person out. Besides being a student, you are a daughter, a friend, a colleague, and so much more where stress can come from.

One day, I chanced upon this TED Talk by Guy Winch. He was speaking about the case for practicing emotional hygiene. Take some time to watch it. TED Talks always leave you with more ideas and some could be life changing, I’m not even kidding. His talk made me realise this very important thing. That is, I am responsible for my own emotional well-being as much as I am for my own physical safety. I am a paranoid person, and my fear of things going awry stops me in my tracks when I see danger looming. The way I suppressed emotions was dangerous, and it might lead to real chronic depression some day if I continued what I did.

I’ll briefly talk about the essence of Guy Winch’s talk, if you have not already watched it. How many of us pay attention to wounds we suffer on our minds, as much as we pay attention to physical wounds? We are taught to keep cuts clean, to prevent infection; to see the doctor when we are ill, to prevent illnesses from escalating. But we were not taught to address emotional wounds. What do we do when we feel lonely, anxious, or even distressed? We think about it over and over again, telling ourselves that we are lonely, we are anxious, we are sad. Why do we not do something about it?

There are several reasons:

1) Fear of being judged as weak
This fear may be present in many, if not some, of us. The crippling fear that if we reach out for help from friends or family, they may brush it off, telling you, “Man up, bro!” or “It’s okay, it will get better eventually.” If you have encountered these responses before, you may find that they make you feel weak, dismissed, or that your unhappiness is unwarranted for. That is not the case. We have the right to feel down, and it does not signify weakness. It just means we are going through a rough patch. What we really need is for someone to empathise with us. Empathy, or placing yourself in someone else’s shoe, is something powerful that connects people; create bonds, and a way to express care. There are people who can empathise more so than others. That’s why we have to reach out to the right people as well. Reaching out to someone who cannot even attempt to empathise with you might make you feel worse, and more withdrawn.

Also, if someone wishes to share their feelings with you, do try to understand what they are going through. Open your mind, and create a safe, non-judgmental environment for them to begin healing. As you practice this more often, it gets easier. Because we are reciprocal beings, you would also have forged a friendship where you can go to this person for help when you feel down too.

2) Perception of not having close friends who are available
Ever had those moments when you want to talk to someone, but don’t know who to call, or text? I have. It’s not that I don’t have friends; I have really great friends I can count on all the time. That was proven when I had broken down my mental barriers to seek help from them. But in the moment of feeling lonely, I would tend to think, ‘What if they are busy? I shouldn’t bother them. I’m such a burden. I should get through this on my own.’ Loneliness makes us feel disconnected from others. It distorts our perception that no one is there for us. When we prevent ourselves from seeking the connection we crave so badly, that feeling of loneliness is amplified. We might end up withdrawing ourselves further from social interactions if we do not break this pattern.

3) Unaware of resources within ourselves
As we are so caught up with studying, working, and having a social life (online, or offline), we tend to forget to take time off for ourselves. We don’t always have to rely on others to keep ourselves sane and healthy. How can we do it on our own? Many thought leaders have spoken up about slowing down pace of life, and the benefits of taking just 10 minutes each day to be mindful. During this me-time, we can reflect, look inwards, and think about our present self. What is it that we like about life now? Let’s continue to do that. What is it that we don’t feel too good about? Is there anything we can do to change that? If there is, how are we going to put the changes into action? Ask yourselves difficult questions. While some may lead to answers, others may not. Initially, we may feel helpless. Admittedly, the process of soul-searching is tough. Not to worry if you end up with more questions than answers, because there are so many possibilities to be creative about how we work around tight constraints.

Recently, I attended a talk by an innovation consultant, Charles Leadbeater. A key takeaway from his talk was that innovation comes from ordinary people who make use of constraints to work for them. We have that ability to make life work better for ourselves. (Of course, many other factors like high aspirations and collaboration contribute to great innovation. But that’s another topic altogether.) Applying it to our own lives, we have the resources to improve our overall psychological health.

With some of these mental blockages debunked, you may want to know: what can I do to start taking care of my emotional health? Besides reading on Dr. Winch’s article on 5 ways to practice emotional hygiene, the following short suggestions are some things that worked for me. I hope they give you a starting point to think about what works for you. These were helpful for me in improving my self-awareness and they definitely helped in the process of healing.

1) Be vulnerable
Being vulnerable means to let someone else into your emotional space and share your experiences while you are at your weakest point. I say ‘point’, because being vulnerable does not mean you are weak. Trust me, it is temporary. While it may be daunting at first, this is how relationships can be built based on trust. Being vulnerable in front of someone makes that person feel that you trust them enough to be willing to show this side of yourself to them.

2) Maintain good friendships/ relationships
Be there for others when they need you. In times of adversity, you will know that these friends are there for you as well. True friends got each other’s back, no matter how busy they are, or even if they have their own issues at hand. Everyone has his or her own set of problems, but we can always make time to help another feel better.

3) Seek help if needed
Seeking help from friends may provide some relief. However, if you still are unable to solve the root of the problem, and gets serious, maybe it’s time to seek professional help. Fortunately, there are helplines and counseling services in our institutions. These counselors are trained to provide neutral and safe spaces for us to talk about our problems, and help us to figure out blinds spots that we may have missed. Blind spots are perspectives that we may not have considered in our state of distress. They can be leveraged upon so that we are not as helpless, or hopeless as we think we are.

If you are from, or going to SMU, there is also a group of students called Peer Helpers you can turn to for help. As the name suggests, they are your peers, students just like you. They are trained with counseling skills to be avenues of support for the student body, as not everyone may be comfortable with seeking help from counselors. I am currently taking a module called Peer Mentoring and Facilitation, a pre-requisite to join the CCA as a Peer Helper! Even though they are not professionals, they are definitely equipped with skills to help. :)

After reading this post, I hope that you are more equipped to handle emotional stressors that you may encounter throughout your school life and beyond. Just remember: you are not alone, and you have ability to heal “emotional wounds”. If you need someone to chat with, or have any questions about this article, feel free to email me! I will try my best to answer you, and lend a listening ear, if needed.


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