Reflecting on mindfulness for Mental Health Awareness Week

In this Research Reflections blog for Mental Health Awareness Week, our newest Research Officer Beth reflects on the anxiety she felt after graduating and shares some mindfulness techniques with the Healthwatch Essex team.

Mental Health Awareness Week is an important time that encourages every individual to think about mental health and help to combat the stigma surrounding it. This year’s awareness week ran from the 15th – 21st May and focused on the theme of Anxiety. Over 8 million people in the UK are affected by anxiety disorders, and feeling anxious is a common emotion experienced by many each day (Mental Health UK, 2023). There are a lot of things that can lead to anxiety, such as life events and exam pressures, and what is helpful for each individual may differ. In this blog, I will reflect on the anxiety I experienced both in my final year and after graduating from university, and how I drew on mindfulness techniques to provide comfort during these ambiguous times.

Young people between the ages of 18 to 24 are the most likely group to feel anxious in the UK (Mental Health Foundation, 2023), and typical of this age group are students either starting or finishing their undergraduate degrees. Going through a major life transition is one of the main sources of anxiety, and for students in their final year of university, the transition of finishing university is anxiety provoking, with a survey finding that 49.1% of students felt concerned about their future (Keane et al., 2021; Rethink Mental Illness, 2019). When students reach the end of their studies, they are faced with navigating a postgraduate career and searching for jobs, whilst balancing the feelings of finally finishing their degree. The uncertainty around these situations leads to excessive worry and self-doubt. There is often little support from university systems about the future as students are encouraged to self-manage, and thus a transition that is expected to be exciting for students, leaves them feeling as though they are ‘thrown in at the deep end’ when finishing their degree (Kim et al., 2022).

When I graduated from university, I found that this came with a whole host of different emotions, I was excited, happy, and nervous for the next stage of life ahead of me. It felt overwhelming to leave an education system that had provided comfort and structure to my life for such a long time, and I often found myself questioning ‘Well what do I do now? Where do I start?’ I struggled with not seeing my friends or no longer having a strict daily routine and this began to impact my well-being. Around 2 months after graduation I also moved house, another life transition which left me feeling isolated from the familiarity of friends and family being close by. I now had to navigate the adjustment from finishing university, whilst settling into a new home and looking for work in a different area. It was difficult not to compare myself with friends I had graduated with who were going travelling, being accepted to their masters’ courses, or were already finding full-time jobs. This left me feeling even more lost and confused around what to do next.

One of the biggest questions a student is asked in their final year of university is ‘What are you planning to do once you have finished?’ Though this question may come out of genuine interest from family and friends, for a lot of students it leads to feelings of perceived expectations from others. For instance, some students may be unclear of where they want to go next and might not even want to pursue their degree subject anymore (Ladejo, 2013). It can be embarrassing to admit this to others. I often felt an expectation from my family that now I was a graduate, I should have this great job, one which pays well and relates to my degree because otherwise what was the point of spending three years studying? So, when I struggled to find any entry level jobs and when I did, received rejection after rejection from applications, I began to feel inadequate and like I had let both my family and me down. I lost all motivation to even apply for jobs and felt apprehensive about meeting friends and family in case the conversation of ‘Have you got a job yet?’ came up.

When learning how to manage all these overwhelming thoughts and emotions, I turned to engaging in mindfulness activities to calm down. Mindfulness is the practice of directing one’s attention to the present moment, increasing self-awareness and understanding of your thoughts and feelings whilst being non-judgemental (Schreiner & Malcom, 2008). When introduced to this concept in university, mindfulness photography really stood out to me. This is the practice of walking without any expectations, being curious and paying attention to the small things that may not have otherwise been noticed (Palombo, 2021). The mindful photographer is encouraged to be conscious of the present moment, taking in their surroundings and capturing it with a photo of something that they are drawn to (Miller, 2021). Spending time in nature is a great way of seeking peace and relaxation from moments in the day that may be difficult to manage.

During my final year of university, when I felt overwhelmed, I started to go on mindful photographic walks. I would go to a park that overlooked the London skyline just as the sun was setting as I found that the colours that illuminate the sky during this time were beautiful. I practiced being fully observant in the present moment, focusing on breathing and taking in the surroundings of nature. In these moments I often felt my shoulders drop and my head feel instantly lighter, it provided me a sense of relief. I took a photo of anything that caught my attention, without any expectation of it looking perfect but just capturing the moment of silence I had in my mind. After the first couple of times, I realised how much being in nature helped restore my thoughts and find peace in situations that were otherwise clouded by stress. When I began to lose motivation to find jobs after finishing university, I made sure to prioritise going on a mindful photographic walk each day. This is something I still practice today when I’m feeling overwhelmed, as stepping into nature, and having this quiet time allows me to reflect and increases my productivity when I get home.

Developing and engaging in mindfulness activities can be productive when experiencing anxious thoughts and has been found to significantly reduce anxiety levels (Schreiner & Malcom, 2008). Knowing these benefits and how mindfulness has been such an important practice for me in times of stress, I asked my colleagues at Healthwatch Essex to engage in a mindfulness activity. I provided some links to both mindfulness breathing and photography tasks and asked them to write a small reflection on how it made them feel. As you can see from their comments below, this activity was eye-opening and enabled many of them to be reflective which helped them to relax.

Healthwatch Essex engages in mindfulness through:

Mindful journalling
‘As a person with ADHD I find it hard to slow down and focus and when things are busy, I tend to get even more hyper and manic, the process of sitting down and writing can seem overwhelming, but, ‘Five Minutes in the Morning’ feels achievable and helps me focus myself and take a breath before the day begins.’

 

Mindful reading
‘My favourite mindfulness activity is to read which I do most evenings and have done since I was a child. Reading is a great way of taking some time out and I appreciate this time even more when I’ve had a super hectic day.’

 

 

Mindful runs
‘I love clouds!! Always happen when I’m staring at clouds or taking pictures of them… there is something about the sky and cloud forms which offers me reassurance, I’m not sure why but if I’m having a bad day, I feel settled and calmer knowing that when I look up, I have some peace. Being a runner it’s amazing to be able to just engage your senses whether that be sound, scents or scenery- I find the sky almost like a thought post box and I’m always mindful (and hopeful) that a lost soul will pick up my good and bad times.’

Mindful runs
‘I’ve been getting back into running recently and have realised just how good it is for me mentally. Sometimes, I like to stop on my runs and take photos. I’ve felt a bit guilty about this as there’s a pressure to keep running and not take a break. Before, I’d have thought that I took these photos just to record the scenery, but you’ve encouraged me to realise that the process is more mindful that that. Taking photos helps me to capture the joy I feel right then; a joy at being able to run again, to be outside, to live near woodland trails, and to have rediscovered an activity that makes me feel unstoppable.’

Mindful photography walk
‘I tried the mindful photo walk activity during a break from working by walking around my local streets. Initially I felt quite self-conscious stopping to take photos which I might not have done in a more scenic area. I found myself drawn to colourful plants like I usually am but also to the patterns the sand formed on the pavement and how the cat blended in with stones. It made me spot things in my local area I had never seen before, and I felt calmer when I got home.’

 

Mindful photography walk
‘I found it really beneficial. I love getting out in nature, but I found after the breathing, I started to notice things more (I saw 3 ants carrying leaf debris….and once I noticed those, I saw there was actually hundreds walking in a line!!). I wondered if mindfulness also helps with memory, as I could then recall the names of trees etc. Going to start doing this more regularly.’

 

Mindful photography walk
‘I love the tree as it is two shades of green which looks lovely against the blue sky. I am also really lucky to live close to the river, so I try to go down there every day as I find the water really relaxing and calming. It definitely makes a positive difference to my mental health.’

 

Mindful gardening
‘Growth in so many ways, from the growth of life through soil, through to nurturing life through care.’

 

 

 

Mindful sewing
‘This was so mindful. Made me sit down and just enjoy sewing.’

 

 

 

References and links

Beth Pittuck, Research Officer