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Counselling and Psychological Services

Moving out of home

My dad died 2 years ago and my mum and I have supported each other through this and we are very close. Now I would like to move out into a share house. I have spoken with my mum but she cries when I try and talk with her about it. I love my mum a lot and I don’t want to hurt her but I really need to have some space.

It is good that you have supported your Mum and been supported by her with the loss of your father. However, it sounds like you are ready to leave home and develop your independence. This is a natural progression and development in your life. This will be hard for your mother, and for you also, as you love her, and her grief would touch you. Now you are creating yourself as a young adult, making decisions about what you want in your life and what is important to you.

Perhaps one way to think about it is as a continuum, rather than as polarities. You are not leaving your mother forever, and can have regular time together and make contact by phone, etc. If you are not living with your mother, are there ways that you can be together, favourite activities that you can both look forward to doing together?

It is part of being a parent to meet the challenges of children leaving home. In these circumstances your Mum is being challenged. I hope she has good friends and loved ones who will support her through this transition in her life. Similarly for you good friends and loved ones can provide support through this transition in your life. Counsellors at Counselling and Psychological Services are available if you would like to explore this further.

How can I cope with exam stress?

I’m a good student most of the time, go to all lectures and tutes, do the written work but I really stuff up exams. I get really stressed and can’t remember what I am trying to learn and then don’t do so well. I’ve got two exams coming up and I don’t want to stuff up again. What can I do?

Being anxious about exams is a common experience for students, often made worse when you can’t switch off from these anxious thoughts. Some students describe feeling like they are in some kind of a mind block, where one anxious thought leads to another, often attached to physical symptoms like racing heart, dry mouth, sweating excessively and shallow breathing, which in turn re-enforces anxious thoughts.

In order to deal with the anxiety, you could start with breathing exercises every time you tense up by taking a short break and just focussing on your breath for a few minutes, then making it slower and deeper (breathing down to your abdomen). Performing these exercises frequently teaches your body and mind how to relax. Leave a bit of time just before you go to the exam to do your exercise in a quiet place.

Another strategy involves saying “stop” (even aloud if possible) to your anxious, negative thoughts and replacing them with positive messages like reminding yourself of previous successes/ encouragements.

A good counter-balance to anxiety is keeping up with your physical and pleasurable activities in the stressful lead-up period to exams. Remind yourself that your general wellbeing is a necessary ingredient to efficient study and not wasted time.

Check out some of our webinars on managing stress and exam anxiety, as well as our guided relaxation exercises.

If none of the suggested strategies work for you, book an appointment with a counsellor or a medical practitioner.

How do I motivate myself?

My personal motivation has been decreasing over the years and is now depleted to nothing. The only motivation I have comes from fear of public humiliation. If it weren’t for this fear, I would stay at home every day and have very little to do with anyone.
What can I do to genuinely motivate myself?

Personal motivation is a tough one to muster all by ourselves and it sounds like you’ve been struggling to do this for some time alone! Personal motivation is affected by many other factors like energy levels, personal confidence, social relationships, enjoyment in activities, and outlook in life. When motivation is low we can feel like everything is difficult, and yes, it would feel easier to just stay at home.

Simple strategies to increase your motivation include:
– having small realistic goals
– pursuing things that interest you
– rewarding yourself for even small gains and achievements
– writing a gratitude list
– revisiting your overall life values and dreams.

It might also be a good idea to talk about this with a professional for a number of reasons. Firstly, what you say about your fears about public humiliation sounds similar to social anxiety. Most people with social anxiety experience a preference to stay at home and avoid public places, however this can really reduce your enjoyment in life and your overall confidence and/or motivation. Secondly, loss of motivation and interest can be a symptom of depression, and it may be helpful to explore this possibility further. Free, short term, confidential counselling is available for all students from Counselling and Psychological Services.

How to stop negative thoughts?

When I was a kid I was a positive thinker. However, for a long time now, I notice I have really negative thoughts. I want to go back to being a positive person, because my negativity makes me very bad company and I do not want to make other people sad as well. How do I stop thinking negative thoughts?

There may be many reasons why you are experiencing more negative thoughts and you are feeling sad. It may be that negative and difficult things have happened to you, you may have been spending more time around a person or people who think negatively, you may have experienced criticism, or you may have become more critical of yourself in response to something that has happened. I’m wondering if you’ve also been experiencing feelings of low mood or depression? Negative thoughts can lead to low moods and can also be increased by them. What is encouraging is that you have noticed this change in yourself and are able to both articulate it and explore doing something about it.

A good way to learn about how to modify your thoughts is through Cognitive therapy. It teaches you to examine your thoughts and reframe them from being negative to more realistic (and often more positive). Other types of therapy can look at the underlying reasons why you might be thinking more negatively and feeling sad. Mindfulness can help you to respond to your thoughts with more curiosity and self-compassion.

Internet websites such as Moodgym are quite useful in learning to understand and manage negative thoughts and moods. Regular exercise, even a simple daily walk, can also make a difference to our mood. Our website has useful resources, and you can check out our workshops, many of which address ways to manage difficult thoughts and feelings. You can also see a Counsellor here at Counselling and Psychological Services to gain a greater understanding as to what this negative thinking means.

How do I improve my studies and social life as an International student?

I am masters engineering international student. Unfortunately I am feeling inferior or demotivated as I am not happy with my study performance and also my social life.

Thanks for your question. You have taken on two challenging things: studying at a post-graduate level and moving to a foreign country – both of these are challenging things to do and can take a period of adjustment. If you are not studying in your first language, this can increase the challenges.

It is important to remember that you have passed all the hurdle requirements in order to study at the University of Melbourne and you deserve your place here. It’s also useful to keep in mind that you are living in a culture that may be very different to the one you left. Sometimes it takes a year or longer to feel really comfortable in a foreign place; from learning how to get around and where to shop, to recognising and understanding the new jargon and ‘slang’ that local people use.

With all that going on, and the study as well, it can be hard to have the energy and time to go out and make friends. What can be useful is to join a group and meet people on a regular basis, so there is enough time to get to know people. You could join a group related to Engineering, or join a social group. There are groups for International students organised by UMSU International, who represent international students at the University. Also there are many specific interest groups on campus. More information on UMSU International can be found here.

If you need some more ideas or are concerned the social issues are more than a lack of opportunity to meet people, then please come in and speak to one of the Counsellors here at Counselling and Psychological Services. The service is free of charge, confidential and counsellors are experienced in helping students manage similar situations to what you describe.

Should I cut ties with my friend?

I recently met up with a friend. She spoke negatively about my relationship with my boyfriend (eg: listing all the mutual friends that apparently hated him). This friend of mine does not know my boyfriend well yet I have found out that she has been gossiping about my relationship with other people. If she was a true friend, she wouldn’t say things like that to me right? Should I cut ties with this person and end the friendship?

It certainly isn’t nice to realise that people are talking behind your back. I have a few questions about the situation though… Is this something this friend has done before? Can she often be hurtful or unkind in her comments? If yes, then you might want to consider what level of friendship you want with her – whether you cut her off entirely, or just see her less and expect less from her than you might now do.

However, if this is out of character for your friend, then it might be good to look at why she is acting this way, and why your mutual friends may dislike him (if they do). Is she worried about how this boyfriend treats you? Is she concerned you’ve become so involved with him that you are ignoring other friendships? Are you ignoring other responsibilities and this worries her? If the person is a good friend, then talking to her about why she is worried about your relationship might be a good idea. Do it at a time when you can truly listen to her and not get upset. See if she has some rationale behind what she is saying, or does she have no good reason behind her view of him and the relationship?

A true friend can actually care enough to risk telling you things you may not want to hear. So yes, sometimes a true friend will say ‘bad’ things to you, to try to help you. However, these should be said with kindness and respect, and not gossiping behind your back. These things need to be considered before you decide whether or not to cut your friendship off. Having a chat to her – even if awkward – might be the best thing to do first.

Have I wasted my time?

I feel like I have wasted the last three years studying a degree that I didn’t enjoy. At the same time, I have no idea what I would want to do instead, and find myself confused and anxious about my whole life. I have been accepted into a Masters program so I’m obviously competent, but the thought of continuing study in the same field depresses me. What’s your advice?

Good question! It’s great that you’re taking some time to ask for help, as it sounds like you’re experiencing doubts about your course and where your life is going. This can be a very common worry for students. What to do depends in part on why you didn’t enjoy the degree. Is it because you are not interested in the topic or have realised you don’t want to work in that field? Or is it due to the way the course was run? No matter how interesting the area, sometimes study can be onerous. Finding out a bit more about what a typical job in your field would actually be like can be helpful, as it may be a lot more enjoyable than the experience of studying it.

If it’s because you don’t want to continue in this area at all, don’t panic. People often feel pressure to know exactly what they want to do with their career, or that they must find their ‘calling’ early on. It often takes a period of trial and error to find the area or role that suits you best, and even then it may not be perfect. It’s worthwhile taking some time to figure out what your values are, what is meaningful for you in general, and what makes you happy.

I imagine you’ve gained a lot of useful experience and knowledge in the past three years, so try not to discount it all as wasted time. If you do want to continue with your degree, it’s important to find ways to manage the effect study can have on your mood. It’s easy to forget that study and work is not your whole life, so if you’re feeling this way, try to focus more on other areas that bring you joy. When you have free time, doing something new and fun, and spending time with people you love will remind you that your life is about much more than a degree!

Dreading going home for Christmas

Every time I go home I feel bad. After being away from home for so long, I feel confident, have good friends and am working at doing well in studies. My parents don’t see that, they find out what’s wrong and make it worse. My brother does not seem to care and sister barely speaks. I just used to feel bad and say things I regretted, then take months to find myself after Christmas, is it worth it?

Christmas and family gatherings can be tricky for many of us. That becomes more difficult if your parents highlight negatives when you would like them to appreciate how well you are doing. Because of the emotional bond and the significant history between you, what they say can hurt even if you know it is unreasonable.

What about not going home? Can you find a reasonable excuse? Remembering that as an adult you can make this choice for yourself. Just consider how you will manage your feelings and how you will manage the possible reactions of family members?

The alternative is to look at how to get through the time with them. Here are some ideas:

– Work out in advance exactly how long you will spend there and communicate this early.

– Manage your emotions actively, take time out, go for a walk, call a friend or any other practical idea you can think of (make a list before you go home). Staying in touch with good friends while away can be a good reminder of who you are away from your family.

– Make sure you spend a good deal of time alone, reading or listening to music, or out of the house going for a walk or swim. This will balance some of the uncomfortable social times

– Observe how your siblings appear to manage, they may have developed some useful strategies that you can adopt. Try to engage with your siblings on something you have in common, or an enjoyable way to pass the time (movies, games etc.)

– Think out some ways in advance that you can respond to your parents’ criticism, as emotions often take over in the moment, making it hard to respond calmly and clearly. Being clear about what your boundaries are is important. You don’t have to accept hurtful behaviour, even from family.

How can I fall asleep easier?

It takes me hours to fall asleep. I start thinking about work and study and just about everything else under the sun. Sometimes I wake up in the night and the same thing happens when I try to fall asleep. As a result, I get out of bed feeling exhausted or sleep really late. How do I improve my sleep?

Thanks for writing in; getting a good night’s sleep is difficult for many people and falling asleep can be particularly difficult if you are stressed or worrying about something that is going on in your life.

From what you have written there may be at least two things to consider that may help you. The first is what is referred to as sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene simply means putting in place a few habits and environmental changes that help you get a good night’s sleep. These include things such as slowing down your mind and body before you go to bed with relaxing activities and getting enough physical activity and eating well through the day, as well as ensuring your sleep environment is optimal.

The second thing to consider is the disruptive thinking that you have experienced while trying to fall asleep. Thinking about everything that needs to be done or difficult situations that have occurred can trigger anxiety, or at the very least, result in physiological arousal. This can take our bodies out of the relaxed state necessary for sleep. Good stress management techniques can help, including worry scheduling and guided breathing exercises. It may also be helpful to book an appointment with a counsellor at Counselling and Psychological Services to talk through what is bothering you and address these concerns during the day.

I can’t finish my PhD

After 6 years I still can’t finish my PhD. I worked very well for the first 3 years and was writing up when I had to stop for nearly a year due to a major illness. After getting back to writing last year I wrote more than 80 percent of it in 6 months and my supervisor and I both thought I would be finished by November or December at the latest. I am dismayed that I still have yet to finish. Help!

Many postgraduate students encounter obstacles along their “thesis journey”. Your experience of a major illness has certainly been a huge factor in prolonging the journey in both practical and emotional ways. I’m wondering if you’ve been able to identify any particular obstacles to the writing process, for example, anxiety and stress leading to procrastination, uncertainty over the best way to proceed, perfectionism leading to ‘writers block’, or sometimes monotony and lack of variety in day to day life can lead to loss of motivation and difficulty concentrating. If you can identify a specific problem it can make it easier to address.

It may be helpful to think about “completing” as a challenging task in itself. It is a task that requires clear delineation, time management, and specific practical and personal skills. It is a task for which many Phd candidates call in extra assistance. Who could assist you with the editing skills, the objectivity and the critical judgement required at this time? Consider the services of the Academic Skills Unit and the Graduate Research Hub.

“Letting go” of the thesis may also be a critical emotional step for you, as it has been a companion throughout your illness, and has given you both a routine, and an investment in your “future self”. Acknowledging your life investment in your thesis may be an important initial step in moving away from it. Consider this completion task as a “transition process” to new opportunities, new routines, and a renewed sense of self. Perhaps a discussion with a close friend or a counsellor at Counselling and Psychological Services could provide the space to reflect more on what is stopping you and what kind of support you need to move forward.

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