Wellbeing

Personal Tips For Surviving Uni If You’re Introverted Or Have A Mental Illness

What if university life isn’t what it looks like in the brochure? If you’re introverted, or have anxiety or a mental illness, uni life can easily feel daunting instead of liberating. That’s how I felt, so I wanted to share some tips I developed for staying centred and keeping afloat.

The promise of university life can seem so enticing to high-school graduates fresh from the battlegrounds of angsty teenagedom. We tend to idealise campus life as laying the foundations of adulthood, of helping us ascend into some higher plane of consciousness or selfhood… or something like that.

It all looks like a great time when you think of the source material – I vividly remember the advertisements of my university showing healthy, fashionable, friendly looking people looking off, wide-eyed, into the distance. The reality, though, is that for people who are a bit more introverted, accessing the brochure-style “campus culture” is a lot more difficult.

University doesn’t have set lunch times, study breaks or a forced internal structure. You’re expected to negotiate that yourself. And while that freedom can be really liberating, it can be overwhelming if you’re someone who finds solace in structure to give your life meaning and understanding.

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It took me quite some time to get used to this. I was a student with mental illness, who felt irrevocably anxious speaking in tutorials and found it very difficult gathering the mental and physical energy to engage with two-hour long lectures. Then having to engage with peers and campus activities can feel hopeless, and like you’re locked out of this magical haven of opportunity outside the classroom. It made me feel like there was little point of me being at uni.

Toward the latter years of my study I began to accept that I could never force myself to be something I wasn’t, and as a result, found my own way to work around studying and socialising. Learning how to relax and plan ahead was useful in this respect and I learned a few things which made me feel more comfortable – and actually made my time there more enjoyable and fruitful. Here they are.

Use the internet to make friends

This one seems a bit obvious, but if we idealise our degree and put expectations on ourselves to only make friends within our subjects because we think that means we’ll have the same interests, then we’re limiting ourselves. Everyone is going to have a different approach to uni life and you’re not going to immediately connect with your fellow students just because you’ve chosen similar career or study paths.

I found that using social media, forums and other online outlets and meeting people independently from the classroom (who still went to my uni), was really transformative for me as a student. It gave me the ability to bond with people outside of the classroom, who were still able to hang with on campus.

Meet uni peers outside of class (if you get along well)

The difference between high school and university can often be jarring to first time uni-goers. High school has a rigid setup for students, which may often be different depending on the type of school and grade you’re in. In high school, you may share the same timetables with your peers for a good deal of time and you’ll probably be in classes with them for a number of years, as well. University doesn’t exactly work this way. As an arts student, I was constantly making new friends and acquaintances only for them to never be seen again the following semester. This can be an incredibly lonely experience if you’re a sensitive person.

Putting in the effort to connect with friends, grabbing their number or adding them on Facebook to talk – and then meeting up with them outside of class – can be very fulfilling. Having someone to bounce your ideas off when you’re finding it hard to understand a concept in lectures, or if you appreciate having someone who can put those ideas into different wording, can also be extremely helpful.

Find extra-curricular activities and groups

This one is often the automatic go-to piece of advice for people who are finding it hard to adapt to university as an introverted person, and sometimes it isn’t the pearl of wisdom people are looking for. But it helps to realise that there are many, many more groups and societies in your uni than you may be aware of. It doesn’t have to be a corny sorority if you don’t want it to be.

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For many of my friends and myself included, belonging and acceptance was found in critical race discussion groups, feminist groups or in queer societies and events. If you feel like those elements are missing from your uni, then perhaps you could become the change you want to see. It’s likely you’re not the first person who needs those things even if they don’t exist yet. Being a part of building something can be incredibly invigorating and you don’t have to be the face of it, either, if you feel shy being in those positions of power.

Accept that maybe “campus culture” just isn’t your thing

This one seems a bit defeatist, but the reality is that all of us have different needs, interests and desires and university life can’t automatically provide for that. Your hobbies may lie outside of the campus bubble, and it’s OK to search for sub-culture and social environments outside of it.

Our expectation of university life will probably never match up to the reality – but the beauty of going to uni is that it can be completely customised to your own experience. Many people get actively involved in campus culture whereas others prefer to just go to their classes, leave and do something else with their day. No matter what, accepting that you are an individual with unique needs and adapting to that is absolutely necessary.

And as time goes by, things will become clearer for you. Take the time to prioritise your needs, and try and create healthy, positive challenges for yourself (which will lead to growth). There’s a good chance that everyone else you see on campus is freaking out as much as you are. Let that be comforting, not frightening.


Jonno Revanche is a writer/artist, editor of vaein zine and they are convinced that emo will never die. In the past their words have been featured in kill your darlings, I-D, noisey and daily life.