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Missing family and can’t concentrate

Hi, I am an international student and always been a family-oriented kind of person. I’m very close to them and I miss them so much. When I came here I thought I would be able to visit them on my breaks but with borders closed I haven’t been able to. I can’t concentrate in class, it’s so hard to focus! What should I do?

Thanks for your question – I know many students struggle with this same problem, and of course Covid-19 and all the adjustments this has forced has made this harder. It sounds like you’re dealing with a number of issues; homesickness, adjusting to a new country and university course, and of course all the stress that naturally comes with being a student.

In dealing with problems of concentration and focus, I would suggest you try mindfulness meditation. There is evidence that this practice can lead to a number of benefits including enhanced sustained attention. Our website has some guided exercises you might find useful. We also regularly run workshops on ‘Optimising Focus and Attention’ that teach strategies you may find useful.

While nothing can replace your family while you’re here, it’s important to consider other ways you can feel connected to people, even if it’s temporary. Isolation is an added stressor that can make other demands in your life feel harder, and we all need support. Make sure you are staying in regular contact with your family where possible, and consider ways to increase your in person contact while you’re here (and when it’s allowed!) such as joining some clubs or activities at the university or organising something social with people you’ve already met.

Finally, managing stress is an important part of being a successful and happy student, and there are a number of ways to make this easier. You can find some useful resources here. Self care is always important and involves looking after your physical health, taking time out for yourself to relax or have fun, and connecting with other people around you. Consider what activities you know help you when you are feeling stressed, and think about what supports you have here.

If you’d like to talk this over with someone one-on-one, counselling at Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is free of charge, completely confidential and counsellors are experienced in helping students manage similar situations to what you describe.

Crippling exam anxiety

What are some “emergency” strategies for coping with sudden and crippling anxiety or panic during an important exam or presentation when there is no time to use breathing techniques?

Exam situations and oral presentations are very common sources of anxiety for students. During any situation where you are experiencing a sudden burst of anxiety, your body goes into overdrive – you may notice yourself breathing more quickly and becoming short of breath, you may begin to sweat more, feel like you are going ‘blank’ and have difficulty remembering what you were planning to say. The following tips might be useful in learning ways to cope with anxiety.

1. Although you may not have time to do a full 20 minute breathing technique (though these are helpful to do prior to your exam), there are some brief strategies which you can learn to use and practice in your exam or presentation. For example, when you begin to feel panic rising, remember to breathe! Part of the problem with panic is that our breathing gets very short and shallow, and our brain then interprets this as ‘something wrong’, which of course makes us panic even more! Taking a couple of moments to focus on your breath can help the body to calm down at times of stress, and also can help to focus our attention on the task at hand. Click here for some tips on breathing through your anxiety. You can also find some guided breathing and relaxation exercises here. It may be helpful to start practicing this on a regular basis, rather than only when you are feeling anxious.

2. Before the exam, it is important to feel adequately prepared by knowing your subject. Academic Skills Unit has some helpful information about preparing for exams, effective studying, and presenting. Be mindful of getting enough sleep and nutritious food – looking after your physical and mental wellbeing will give your brain its best chance.

3. Try not to get anxious about being anxious! You don’t have to be perfectly calm to perform well, and if you are expecting yourself to stay calm then you may end up worrying more and then getting in a bigger panic. Accepting that you will feel nervous, and even trying to study or practice your presentation while you are feeling anxious may help you to tolerate your symptoms of anxiety better so they don’t get in the way.

4. Be aware of any of your negative self-talk. For example; thoughts such as, ‘I can’t do this’, or, ‘I’m going to fail’, can increase anxiety and panic. Try replacing negative thoughts with calming and encouraging thoughts, such as; ‘This is just anxiety, it can’t harm me’, ‘This too will pass’, ‘Relax – everything will be OK’, and ‘Everyone in my class is in the same boat’. By thinking more positively our confidence to engage in the task is boosted and we feel better about our abilities to complete the exam or presentation.

5. Many of these skills take time to practice and develop, so don’t forget about them once semester is over! Practice them regularly so you are more prepared the next time you are in an anxiety provoking situation. Counselling and Psychological Services regularly runs workshops which address a range of skills that can help manage anxiety, including mindfulness, changing negative thinking and managing difficult emotions.

Best of luck with your exams!

No group of friends, a problem?

I often see a group of friends who always do things together and I start to wonder why I don’t have such a group. It was easier during lockdown but since people starting going out again it feels even lonelier, and I feel insecure when people ask who I do usually hang out with. This is worsened by the fact that I’m not that kind of person who likes to initiate a meet-up, so I just hang out if somebody asks to. How could I cope with this situation and stop pretending that I’m okay doing things by myself?

Thanks for writing in with this question, as it addresses a problem that many students face when coming to a new city. It’s important to remember that everyone’s social life is different, and although you may see many people spending time in groups, not everyone has this experience and this doesn’t mean there’s something different about you. However the need for connection with others is very real, as is the need for the sense of belonging that can come from having a group of friends. It sounds like you’re experiencing some social anxiety which is getting in the way of you having these needs met. If this is the case you’re definitely not alone, and you don’t need to pretend that you don’t want friends, everyone does!

It’s great to be open when others initiate, but it’s important to let people know that you are interested in spending time with them. It’s very possible that some of the people you are meeting also feel insecure and may need some encouragement! Some friendships build slowly, and sometimes we meet great friends through other people we didn’t connect with as well. Some information on the skills needed to develop friendships can be found here and here.

Remember that it takes some time to build a good friendship group. There are some things that you can do to increase your opportunities. Friendships often develop around shared activities. Check out the University of Melbourne Student Union for clubs and activities. If you’d like to explore ways to manage the social anxiety that can come with these situations, feel free to make an appointment at Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS), or check out our workshops, we regularly run workshops and webinars on building social connections and understanding social anxiety.

When Mental Health Impacts Studies

So I’ve been struggling with my mental health, as so many are particularly after last year. Now new issues have arisen regarding anxiety and stress and I can’t focus and I’ve lost drive. I’m concerned about how far behind I am at this point in the semester. At what point do I need to let someone at the university know that I’m struggling with my own anxiety and depression and so my ability to study. How do I set myself up for success while I catch up from what feels like my own shortcomings but is really a Mental Health issue??

This is a good question to ask, as you’re right, many people are struggling with mental health issues. And these issues can often impact on study, affecting concentration, motivation and energy levels. It can be frustrating and stressful to feel that your mental health is preventing you from doing your best work.

It’s important to be aware of what kind of support is available to you as a student. In addition to individual counselling, Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) also offers a range of workshops to help enhance your learning skills, as well as strengthen resilience and self-care. Academic support may also be available if your study is being affected by a health issue. Letting someone at the university know that you are struggling with your mental health may be helpful as you may be eligible for some extra support. If you are experiencing ongoing mental health issues, then consider reaching out to Student Equity and Disability Support (SEDS) to find out what kind of assistance may be possible. You can find more information here. If you have been seeing a mental health professional then you can request supporting documentation from them to assist in your request for support.

It’s definitely important to reach out in anyway you can, rather than struggling to cope on your own, so make sure you’re checking in with people regularly, both your personal supports as well as those at the University.

Lost with no direction

I graduated from undergrad last year and am starting a postgraduate program this year. However, I feel lost about where I am going, and think that I am unprepared for careers and further study. I feel as though I’m not good enough for anything, and will struggle no matter what I do. I have no definite or clear goal that I think I can achieve easily. It feels as if I am currently stuck in a rut, and keep using up time and energy that lead me back to where I was before. Some people I know seem to have it all planned out with study or jobs. In comparison, I don’t know where to start. What can I do to find my way?

Hi there,

Thanks for sending in your message. It sounds like you are having a difficult time at the moment. You say you feel like you are stuck in a rut and unsure about what the future holds. While it is normal to feel like this at times, it may be that you have been feeling like this for a while, and that is why you are reaching out.

Working out what path to take in life is not always easy. It can be difficult to work out what direction to head in. Some people know the path they want to take early in life, but for many it can take longer, so don’t feel like you are the only one feeling like this as it is a very common feeling. It sounds like sitting down to chat to supportive family or friends, or with the careers team at Uni Melb may help with this.

You say you have no definite or clear goal that you think you can achieve. When setting goals, it is good to set small, achievable goals that are easy to complete in your day to day life. Using the SMART goals method may help, but most importantly make them achievable. It may be as simple as going for a 15 minute walk every day. When you hit these smaller goals, it can give a sense of accomplishment, and set you up to feel confident in achieving bigger goals.

Alternatively, focusing on what is important to you through values can be helpful. Values are your hearts deepest desires for how you would like to act. They are not about what you want to get or achieve; they are about how you want to behave or act on an ongoing basis; how you want to treat yourself, others and the world around you. It can be helpful when goal setting to ask yourself “does this goal align with my values?”, if the answer is no, this may be why you are struggling with what you are doing, and things may need to be reassessed.

If you would like further support an individual appointment at CAPS may be a good place to start. Please do book in if you feel this would be helpful.


Fearful of meeting new people

I am insanely scared of meeting new people. I have no fear of doing presentations or greeting customers in my hospitality job. However, I feel so afraid of new people that I avoid situations like meeting up with friend’s friends, going to party’s, or entering a café. I am not outgoing, and I feel worried that others hate me. I thought this was due to racism but nowadays I’m in my home country, and I am still experiencing the same fears. I need to make new friends and meet people but I just feel too afraid to do this. I would really like to change my situation, I feel too lonely. Do you have any advice to overcome fear of meeting new people?

Hello there and thank you for your question! There is a lot to go over so I have broken our response into different categories:

  • It is perfectly normal to be nervous around new situations and new people, although sometimes we get more anxious than we can tolerate and choose to avoid a situation. As a basic starter managing your anxiety will help this process, so in preparation for new situation, work on breathing exercises, something simple like breathing out longer than you are breathing in, or long deep breaths.
  • We can worry about what other people think, but it is important to know that other people are often having the exact same thoughts going through their own heads, especially new people. Humans spend between 90-99% of their thinking time devoted to themselves, and we hold a thought in out minds for a maximum of 3-4 seconds. So if you are worried about other people, there is a 1-10% chance they have had a negative thought about you and this thought is gone a few seconds later. In general, everyone is just as scared of you as you are of them!
  • It is not so strange that you can greet customers without fear, in employment, there are rules and expectations that can be followed, whereas in new social situations it is less predictable as to what can happen.
  • Work relationships can also be friendships, that would depend on whether you have any shared likes, values or dislikes with a co-worker. There are also levels of friendship, most research indicates we need between 2-8 friends that are close, but other than that we can have other people in our lives that we can discuss and bond over a smaller amount of things, i.e. a co-worker may like basketball and if like this you can discuss this topic, it is not necessary or expected to go any further than this. However, it is important not to rule out people you work with completely.
  • Unhelpful or irrational thoughts can also hinder us in approaching new people (“they hate me” to use your example). It is highly unlikely that someone who has never met you will have a thought that strong about you, but we inherently trust our thoughts. In these cases they need challenging. As a base rate, during or after a social engagement, ask yourself: “did anyone SAY any of the things I thought they were thinking?” – the answer will inevitably be no. It can be helpful to challenge these thoughts in a structured way via a thoughts diary.

Hopefully that advice can get you on the right track!


Feeling distant

Lately I have been feeling lonely and distanced from my friends. I feel like I am not as connected as I was before. I overthink quite a lot and I’m beginning to have shortness of breath again. I always compare myself with my parents who seem well connected to their friends. I barely chat with my friends on Facebook or via phone or text message. What should I do to overcome this? Should I try reaching them out by calling them? I don’t know what I should talk to them about.

You say you are feeling lonely and distanced at times, sorry to hear that. It has been a difficult year, as many of us were in lockdown and not able to spend time with friends. Many have said that this has made them feel like friendships have drifted apart. It sounds like you have an expectation of yourself to be more social, and it is normal to want to connect with others, but everyone will have their own levels of social interaction that feels okay for them. 

You say it is difficult to connect with some of your friends individually and I am wondering what is preventing that? Is it perhaps, as you mentioned, anxiety around not knowing what to talk about on the phone, or are there other reasons as well? Social anxiety often results in us feeling more self-conscious in social situations. and can include overthinking things. This a very common experience that many of us will go through at different times in our lives, and there are many different ways to help manage this, such as breathing to help regulate your physiological response and challenging or unhooking from anxious thoughts.

In terms of connecting with friends, a great way to spend time with them is by taking part in a shared activity, as it puts less pressure on the conversation being the main focus. Perhaps you can organise a hike, see a movie, or another activity with one or a few friends? Even a walk around the garden, or cooking a new recipe together can be a way to connect. It is likely that others are also feeling a bit anxious about socialising, so reaching out to them may be a way to kick start that connection again. We often assume that others are doing much better than we are, because we compare how we feel inside with what we think is happening on the outside for someone else!

If you are considering reaching out to other people more, you may want to try to do this in gradual stages so that you don’t feel too overwhelmed. Try to be kind to yourself for at least taking small steps in the direction you wish to go.

We have several groups and webinars offered by CAPS that could help including a 3-part webinar ‘Overcoming Social Anxiety’ and webinars on unhooking from negative thinking and increasing self-compassion. I would encourage you to book in if you think it may be helpful. We can always help with a more tailored perspective in an individual session with one of our Counsellors.


Separation anxiety

I’m a first year student studying biomedicine and admittedly everything was really last minute and I ended up moving to Melbourne by myself. I think I had severe separation anxiety, I felt helpless, feeling like I couldn’t make it through the day. So after 10 days, I made it back home, but I still have to still pay my Unilodge because of my contract and my Centrelink. This anxiety is also feeding into my schoolwork, I can’t study properly and I feel like I’m not smart enough. My biggest concern right now is that I don’t know if I can go back to Melbourne in Semester 2. Should I apply to defer for a year? It gives me relief to think that if I defer I can really just sort myself out.

Sorry to hear the start to the semester this year has been so difficult.  In responding to your enquiry, I assume you intend to study from home for the rest of the semester, provided you decide not to defer from your course.  One of the problems with anxiety is that our thinking gets ahead of what is actually  happening and goes into ‘what if’ mode about the future (e.g. what if I’m not smart enough, what if I can’t cope on returning to Melbourne for semester 2 etc.).  You can become so caught up with this anxious thinking that you become overwhelmed and feel helpless to take constructive action to address your situation.  It can be helpful if you find yourself worrying about a lot of things that might happen in the future, to try bring your attention back to the present and ask what is the next concrete thing that I can actually address.  It is better to focus on the small, day to day things that need to be done, and let the future take care of itself.  This keeps you grounded in the actual concrete reality of your life.  Sometimes just making a list of the things that need to be done can be helpful to regain some sense of control if you are caught up with anxious thoughts.  Certain practices such as mindfulness meditation can be helpful in developing the skill of grounding yourself in the present.  Feeling anxious can also drain your energy, so it is important not to neglect basic self-care such as eating properly, maintaining a regular sleep routine and getting some exercise.

On some practical matters, if you need to break the contract with Unilodge for your accommodation then it might be worth contacting the UMSU legal department to get some advice in relation to that issue.  If you decide to defer, it is a good idea to think about how you intend to spend your time if you are not studying, as you need some structure and purpose in your life to maintain mental health.  Another possibility might be to consider reducing your subject load.  This is allowable in some courses, but I don’t know with Biomedicine.  If you think you would cope better just doing two or three subjects for example, then I would advise speaking to the course coordinator in Biomedicine to find out if it is possible.  It sounds like you may also need to notify Centrelink about your change of circumstances.  These types of tasks can seem like major obstacles if you are feeling anxious and overwhelmed, but if you tackle them one by one you will start to regain a sense of being in control by taking constructive action.

Finally, with respect to your anxiety, if it persists and is impeding your ability to cope, it may be helpful to make an appointment to speak to a counsellor at this service, or alternatively there is the option of seeing a private psychologist under a mental health care plan obtained from your general practitioner.  There are also some webinars provided by this service on the topic of managing anxiety.  The next webinar on anxiety starts on 15 April. CAPS also offers regular mindfulness meditation sessions by zoom conference at midday every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

I hope some of this information is helpful. Wishing you all the best for the rest of the semester.


Exam panic

I had an exam yesterday which I was well prepared for. I downloaded the question paper and then my mind went blank, I had shortness of breath, I was nervous and I couldn’t even understand the questions. I began to cry in frustration. I have attempted to get support but the earliest psychologist appointment available is next Monday. I have an exam tomorrow, I have been receiving H1’s in all my assignments and I’m worried the same thing will happen.

Thanks for reaching out and contacting us. I’m sorry you had this awful experience during your exam, it sounds like your feelings were very distressing. The exam period is a very stressful time of year, and this year it follows the added challenges we have faced with the COVID-19 restrictions.

The symptoms you describe, such as shortness of breath and difficulty concentrating, are certainly signs of heightened anxiety. Although it is normal to feel nervous or experience some level of anxiety during exam time, there may be times when your anxiety interferes with your focus and concentration. There are several practical ways to help with managing your symptoms if they become overwhelming, such as relaxation techniques and reframing your thoughts.

One of the challenges with anxiety is that our breathing gets very short and shallow, and our brain then interprets this as ‘something wrong’, which of course makes us worry more. During exams, breathing exercises can be particularly helpful for managing anxious feelings and the physiological symptoms of stress. Most people benefit from breathing exercises. The great thing about them is that it only takes a few moments and can easily be done during exams to calm you down. When you notice you are feeling worried take a couple of moments to take a deep breath in, and then a slightly longer breath out.

It might also be helpful to be aware of any unhelpful self-talk that might be occurring during an exam. For example, thoughts such as, ‘I can’t do this’, or, ‘I’m going to fail’, can increase anxiety. Try replacing these unhelpful thoughts with something more encouraging such as “everything will be OK” or “everyone in my class is in the same boat.”

CAPS has several online resources that you might find useful when experiencing stressful situations; check out Exam Anxiety or Relaxation Techniques. Some other resources you may like to use are available through CAPS Student Resources, such as the mindfulness programs or our webinars on enhancing your learning. You may also like to book a free confidential appointment with a CAPS counsellor for further help with learning about how to manage stress and anxiety. You can book online or give our friendly reception staff a call of 8344 6927.

Thanks again for reaching out. I wish you all the best.


Dealing with grief

Recently, about a month ago, I lost a very close friend of mine. Her death hit me quite hard. My parents haven’t been very kind about it, they just assumed I would “move on”. I’ve lost people before, although not like this, and the loneliness is hitting me very hard. I’m scared to express because others will think I’m too hung up about it. I’m having a hard time focusing on my lectures and classes because of this. I’m stuck between wanting to express myself, and trying not to be selfish. After all, her family must be more devastated. My question is, where do I go from here?

Thanks for getting in touch with us, I’m so sorry to hear about the recent loss of your very close friend.  Losing someone important to you is a significant life event so it’s no wonder you are feeling hit hard by this. The current lockdown exacerbates this, as the initial human response to grief is connectivity. Due to the current restrictions, we are unable to connect in the ways we usually do.

Everyone’s reaction to losing someone is unique, and there are no right or wrong ways to react. It is normal and understandable that you might be feeling a range of different emotions like shock, sadness, loneliness, overwhelmed, numbness, or anger. It might be that you move between these feelings at different times or even over the course of a day.

Grief can also affect different parts of your life, not just your feelings. It may impact on your thoughts, physical health, beliefs about yourself and the world, and relationships. It’s understandable that you’re finding it hard to focus on your lectures and classes right now, as your mind is focused on more relevant and deeper-lying emotional issues. The University has a support team that can assist you with appropriate adjustments to your academic assessments if you need them after an unexpected event, like losing someone close to you.

There is also no ‘right’ timeframe that it takes to grieve the loss of someone close to you. It will take as long as it will take. That being said, there are some things to consider that might support you through this process:

  • As a more specific personal technique, a starting point is to out-loud or internally label which stage of grief you are in from moment to moment. Shock/Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining, and Acceptance are the classic stages, with Acceptance being the final stage. The previous stages are more fluid and interchangeable. For example, saying to yourself “that’s anger talking” when getting frustrated with others or yourself is one way to do this. This is self-validating and allows this stage of grief to be listened to and processed.
  • Look after yourself even more than usual – try to get enough sleep, regular exercise and eat a healthy diet. Also, try to balance spending time alone with that of time with others. I realise this can be tricky to navigate in the current restrictions.
  • Where possible try to keep your normal routine, but be kind to yourself in knowing that some days will be harder than others. This also involves self-compassion, especially in the area of what is called “comparative logic”, which is when you compare your situation to that of others perceived to be in a worse situation. Your pain is valid, and sharing it with the right people is not being selfish. Paradoxically, sharing this grief will aid your recovery, so you can get back to functioning “normally” more quickly. The metaphor of “being weak to be strong” is an apt one.
  • Express how you feel to someone that you trust. It sounds like at the moment you feel scared to share with your family or friends how you are feeling, as you expect they won’t respond in an empathetic or helpful way – in this case I recommend talking to a professional.You could do this by booking an appointment with a counsellor at CAPS or even calling a helpline or chatting online to a trained counsellor. Writing in a journal might also help to express yourself.
  • Stay safe. Sometimes grief and loss, and feelings of isolation and loneliness can lead people to have thoughts about death or suicide. It’s very important that if this happens, you talk to a mental health professional as soon as possible.

Take care of yourself.You will start to feel better, but it’s important to allow yourself the time and space you need to grieve. Ask for help when you need it.

Here are some resources that might help you in navigating the next few weeks and months:

  • Beyond Blue information about grief and loss
  • Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) –  book a free and confidential appointment with a counsellor

Thanks again for reaching out and look after yourself.

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