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Counselling and Psychological Services

Loneliness, anxiety and low self-esteem

It’s my last semester in the Uni, yet I feel like I have never had a close friend since my arrival in Melbourne two years ago. Everybody has their own circle since they are here since their first year or met during a foundation year. I have tried so hard to approach people to make friends. It’s sad to have nobody here, to not talk to anyone for days, to have nobody to study together with. I always think there is something wrong with me, so I push myself more to approach friends, such as taking the initiative to work together in a group assignment. But, as expected, it’s only a formality and once the assignment ends, we lose contact. I also hate myself at some points. Every time I hang-out with someone or have group discussion, there are voices in my head saying bad things like “they think you are weird”, or “they must feel uncomfortable around me” “they must want this to be over soon”. I went to a CAPS consultation but can’t seem to really tell the counsellor everything that’s inside my head. I was so stressed out with my thoughts and problems but can’t say much during the consultation. Please help.

Thank you for your message – I really feel for you! It sounds like you are having a difficult time and feeling very alone. I can see you’ve made a lot of effort to try to build connections with others – you have taken great initiative and been brave. It also sounds like it can be hard when your mind comes up with those difficult thoughts when you’re trying to connect with others.

I want to encourage you that you’re not alone – it is quite common to feel lonely, sad and like everyone else has made friends but you. Making friends does take time and can seem very daunting, but it definitely isn’t too late. It sounds like you have felt like this for a while. This period of lockdown has magnified feelings of social isolation for many people and changed the way we can meet others; however it is still possible to meet people at this time. Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) has a resource page that talks about skills for making friends. Look out for the University’s Social Connection online events, which are designed to help new people meet. You may also like to join some other UMSU groups and societies.

It also sounds like the thoughts about feeling judged or unaccepted can make it hard for you when you’re trying to connect with others.  This kind of social anxiety is very common and there has been a lot of research on it, meaning there are a lot of good evidence-based treatments available. Every semester CAPS runs webinars and workshops about these kinds of experiences, with lots of information and practical tips on tackling social anxiety.

I am glad you have come to see a counsellor at CAPS. I wonder if you might consider telling the counsellor you have seen about this Ask Counselling question? Some people find it easier to write down their thoughts instead of talking about them – and you’ve done a great job sharing about your feelings in this online forum. Perhaps you and your counsellor could look at this question together – we really want to support you.

Family issues during the COVID-19 pandemic

Due to Covid-19 restrictions I decided to move back to my family home before borders closed. My parents have had an uneasy marriage since I was born, but it has steadily gotten worse and came to a breaking point just before I went home.
Their relationship is highly conflictual, and they are in the process of getting a divorce. The environment at home is very difficult, my parents are verbally aggressive towards each other and will often speak critically about the other in the presence of myself and my younger siblings. When I speak to them about their behaviour it has not changed anything and leads to conflict. They are both at fault from my perspective and have not taken the steps required to create a better environment for my siblings.
My dad is very busy at work and often avoiding conflict with my mum, and my mum is preoccupied with her feelings about my dad. As a result, I end up being the role model to my younger brother and sister. This is taking a toll on the time in which I could be studying.
I’m afraid that when I leave to go back to Melbourne in the holidays nothing will change. I can’t focus on my exams and frequently find I am tired. I guess I just want some reassurance that I’m not crazy and that this isn’t okay, even though my parents treat it as the norm.

Thank you for sharing your story– what a difficult experience for you! I can see that you care a lot about your younger siblings and I’m really glad you reached out. The way you are feeling sounds like a normal response to a difficult situation and when we are experiencing hard times, we sometimes need extra support.

It sounds like you feel pressure from many sides: trying to be a good role model to your brother and sister; feeling stressed and angry about the conflict at home; concern about the impact on your siblings when you return to Melbourne; sleep difficulties; and also the challenge of keeping up with your studies and exams. This is a really tough situation and it makes sense that you are struggling with it.

When there’s conflict in a family (whether it’s expressed or not), it can feel a lot like being on a boat in a storm. A seasoned captain knows they need to make some adjustments (drop an anchor, let down a sail, get more sailors on deck) in order to get through the period of rough weather. They also understand the kinds of things that are in their control, and the things that aren’t. From your description of the situation, it is likely that you are not able to directly change the source of stress, your parent’s relationship and their behaviour, for which they are solely responsible.

So, as you find yourself in this storm the following suggestions may give you tools to help you to navigate this difficult time:

  • Look after yourself. This is a tough time. Studying at Uni is hard enough, let alone when there are other personal challenges. Check out the CAPS resources on supporting your Wellbeing, including information on how to improve your sleep.
  • Acknowledge your feelings.  When we are facing challenging situations, it is normal to experience intense emotions. Emotions are a form of energy, which may become overwhelming when we find ourselves in the midst of a personal ‘storm’. Allow yourself time to observe and express what you’re feeling. This could be through journalling, talking with supportive others, mindfulness practice, or creative activities such as drawing, painting, poetry, music.
  • Practicing mindfulness is also an effective way to cope during stressful situations. It helps us focus on the “here and now”, rather than on worries about the future or ruminating on the past. You might considering registering for the CAPS ‘Midday Mindful Moments’ sessions that are held via Zoom on Wednesdays and Fridays. There are also commonly used mobile apps, such as Smiling Mind and Headspace, which include mindfulness exercises and other helpful tips to manage stress.
  • I also suggest that you take time to connect with friends, and do things that you find enjoyable, such as a walk outside. There are established benefits for our mental health that come from connecting with others and from spending time in nature.
  • Consider booking an appointment to see one of our counsellors at the CAPS service. It may be helpful to have some one-on-one support to learn more about things like: personal boundaries (how to be responsible for our stuff, but not take on other people’s responsibilities); interpersonal effectiveness (such as assertive communication); and value-guided living (living a meaningful life).
  • Finally, although you didn’t mention being concerned about your safety, or the safety of your siblings, the Safer Community program at the University can provide support for students who are concerned about family violence.


Coping with isolation

I’ve been locked at home for almost three whole months. I was isolated for two months in China, as the virus situation was extremely bad in January and February. To continue my study, I transferred to a third country and was isolated for a fortnight while there.

When I finally got here the only result was that I have another 14-day isolation period, with a high study load. I feel I’m spied on by the hotel I live in now as I can’t even open the door to have ventilation. If I do, I get a phone call from the reception telling me not to do so.

I’ve been locked in prisons for doing nothing wrong, deprived with freedom or even the right to see the sky. So many troubles, the policy change, time difference adjustment, study load, sleeping problems, no food, apartment rental, life plan, parents’ divorce issue, Chinese discrimination… nothing is right. Who can help? I see little hope.

Thank you for reaching out, it is clear that you have experienced very challenging circumstances in these unprecedented times. It is understandable that you are feeling overwhelmed during this period of isolation. Like you, many Melbourne University students are experiencing stress and anxiety as they try to manage academic demands in addition to the far-reaching impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. You can find specific strategies and advice for coping during the Covid-19 pandemic here or you may wish to enrol in one of the Counselling and Psychological Services workshops on boosting your resilience and wellbeing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

For most people, there is likely to be some impact on mental wellbeing when in circumstances of extended isolation from other people.  Hearing your story, I can imagine that there is a cumulative effect from multiple experiences of isolation which must be very hard to cope with.  It may be helpful to remember that although your period of isolation is very restrictive, that it is temporary and aimed at keeping you and others around you safe from Covid-19.

It may be helpful to try to build structure in your day to reduce feelings of restlessness, sadness or demotivation. Many activities that usually provide structure to the day have been affected for students, leading to difficulty focusing on tasks and remaining motivated. Socialising and regular exercise or sport are common activities that have been impacted and many students are turning to online platforms as a way of re-engaging with friends, family and other resources.

We know that social connection and physical exercise are both very important for our mental wellbeing. The Melbourne University Sport centre has developed some online resources to guide students who wish to exercise at home. There is also a new Melbourne University student resource called The Social Connection that has been designed to connect students and foster and sense of community while the University as a whole operates remotely.

If you think that speaking to someone would be helpful, then I would encourage you to book an initial telehealth consultation at Counselling and Psychological Services. As a student of the University this is a free and confidential service that can be delivered remotely and safely while you are in isolation.

Stress and anxiety over novel coronavirus

I’m writing this because I suffering a lot since last month. I’m from mainland China. I noticed the news about an unknown virus are spreading. I cannot shut down my internet to seek a moment peace. I began to experience nightmares. Every day I woke up, I worried about the food, water and even the air. I feel unsafe. I start to feel anxious. Then, comes the travel ban, followed with more anxious. The good things is, I’m getting better. I kept myself from the intense news. But I have strong uncertainty about the future, or I may say the real world. I feel unsafe.

Thank you for your question. The situation that you’re in right now is a very stressful one, particularly as there is a lot of uncertainty about what is happening and what will happen in the future.

When experiencing these distressing events, it’s normal for stress levels to continue for a while. Sometimes this includes a sense of being unsafe. Sleep is often affected, as well as the way we feel about the future. Too much exposure to distressing information in the news can also exacerbate the stress response, as this increases our sense of being in danger, even if we are actually safe.

When a stressful event is continuing for a long period of time, the symptoms of stress can often build up. It’s great news that you feel you’re getting better. Limiting exposure to the internet and news can be helpful, as it’s important to be able to have some breaks from receiving distressing information.
It may be helpful to remember that for most people, the effects of stress will continue to reduce with time, and there are some things that you can do that will help you manage this difficult time. Where possible, try to keep to a routine and communicate with supportive friends and family. Engage in activities that you find enjoyable or comforting. Click here to stay up to date on advice from the University on what support and options are available for students who are affected by the travel ban, and click here for some more information on managing stress associated with the Coronavirus (covid-19).

Mental health

How I can I limit my reactions on negative issues, what I don’t like to talk in front of people about it directly, sometime it ruins relations, people also find me rude.

Hello and thank you for your questions. From my understanding, you are asking how you can limit your reaction to negative issues, as you find you don’t like to talk about it with others or that talking about it with others can have a negative impact on your relationship with them. You also may have had the feedback that others find it rude if you talk about it. Sorry you have experienced this.

As I am not sure what the negative issues are or what your reaction is, therefore I will answer the broad question of how to process negative emotions in a healthy way, without impacting on others.

As humans, it is normal for us to feel a whole range of emotions – some we label as negative and others we label as positive. These ‘negative’ emotions often include things such as anger, sadness, boredom, jealousy, frustration or feeling low in mood.

These emotions can produce a ‘negative’ reaction such as being irritable, crying, ruminating (thinking too much) about different situations, feeling unmotivated and low on energy (or sometimes feeling agitated and restless), wanting to isolate yourself from others or pull away from friendships or situations.

There are a lot of healthy ways to help process emotions we label as negative.
– Regular exercise has an important role in our mental health and can make us feel more alert and clear headed, and able to handle the challenges we may face in life
– A balanced diet and making sure we get enough sleep are also important
– Crying is a very healthy response to life’s stressors and frustration. If you feel to cry, allow your tears. You will find you usually feel better after allowing yourself to cry.
– Journal writing helps people to process their emotions
– Writing a letter (without sending it!) can be useful if your frustration is about a situation or directed towards someone in particular
– Thinking about how much the situation will matter in five or ten years can be a good way to gain some perspective and to ask yourself if it is worth reacting negatively
– Although you say you don’t want to talk to others about it, sharing our frustrations with others in a safe and supportive environment can often make them easier for us to deal with
– Talking to a counsellor about your reactions can be another way to help process them

Also make sure to check out the upcoming workshops, as we often run workshops that address ways to improve our wellbeing, manage stress or to communicate more effectively.

Anxious about travel restrictions

I am in China currently and I don’t know when I can get back to Australia. I’m worried about how this will affect my studies and whether I will still be able to graduate on time. I feel extremely anxiety and I could not sleep for more than one week and I feel sadness all day. I don’t know what should I do.

Thank you for asking this question, as you are definitely not alone in experiencing uncertainty and anxiety about this issue. First, it’s important to try to stay up to date on advice from the University of Melbourne. You can do this by going here to get information about what support is available to you, as well as advice that may be specific to your course. Also make sure you are regularly accessing your student portal and ensuring you are reading any updates that may be sent from the University.

Even with this information, it’s normal to experience stress, anxiety and sadness. When situations are uncertain and evolving such as this one, it can be very difficult to manage the anxious thoughts and worries that come up. This anxiety can also have physical symptoms such as disturbed sleep. Where possible, make sure you are communicating with supportive friends or family, try to keep a healthy sleep routine and practice self-care. For some more advice on how to manage stress and anxiety, have a look at the Counselling and Psychological Services website.

Emotion management

I feel I’m too sensitive. 1. I feel I actually don’t have friends. When I talk to them, some of their behaviours and words make me feel they actually don’t care about me. 2. I can easily feel anxious or angry. 3. I have issues in relating to my family. I try to manage my emotions, but sometimes I couldn’t help myself to argue with them. 4. Last semester I failed one of my subject. For nearly one month, I did not want to talk to anyone.

It can be hard to know what is ‘too sensitive’. Sometimes our emotions may seem stronger than we think they ‘should’ be, and sometimes they seem stronger than other people’s, but that doesn’t mean that they are wrong. Strong emotions can also be helpful as they are our brains way of telling us something important.

If you are finding your emotions to be overwhelming, or they are affecting your ability to relate to other people or your studies in a helpful way, then it can be useful to learn some new ways to respond to them. Being able to understand why you feel so strongly about something is important, as is treating yourself and your emotions with self-compassion. Judging your emotions as too strong or yourself as too sensitive will often lead to more distress, whereas responding with compassion and without judgement will make it easier to manage and communicate your emotions and in turn help you take more effective action in your life.

Self-compassion is important as we as human beings are inherently flawed; we are not supposed to be perfect. Self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal shortcomings and can re-focus your attention to ways of improving yourself for next time. A simple self-compassion strategy is to imagine how you would treat a close friend if they disclosed a similar situation to what you have experienced.

There are many useful tools that can help people better understand their emotions without judgement, and to manage those emotions in a healthy and more helpful way. If you’d like to try some other techniques on your own there are several resources you can try, such as mindfulness. However, you may find it easier to learn and practice these techniques with the help of a counsellor. Counselling and Psychological Services provide short term, confidential counselling, as well as well as a range of workshops throughout semester that you may find beneficial.

Maintaining a relationship during exams

Last semester boyfriend and I broke up during the exams over something really small and idiotic. We were both so stressed and tired and put pressure on each other. It all just blew up! We got back together but I’m already really anxious about my studies and fear that I’ll stuff up our relationship in a stupid reactive way. I don’t trust myself to manage this. How do we get through this time?

Yes, managing both a relationship and exams at the same time can seem a difficult combination. However if you support each other well, then the relationship may become even stronger. Here are a few tips;

1. Work with your boyfriend to support each other’s study routines, while communicating how you each like to manager your stress levels. This can help you to figure out whether it’s possible to support each other, while also trying to manage and reduce your own stress levels.

2. Consider whether you might be better off just having some space during exams and then coming back together to celebrate when they’re over. Sometimes it’s hard for two people who are very close to support each other when they’re both going through a hard time. It might be easier to spend time with friends, or someone who isn’t so stressed.

3. Welcome and manage the stress to your advantage. Be aware that in order to give a good academic performance a certain amount of stress can be helpful. However, too much stress will tip you over into being reactive. Read here, here and here for some helpful tips on how to manage stress during this time.

4. Set aside a weekly time to meet and debrief, but have no expectations it will be a fabulous date. Just listen to each other, be supportive, and get regular sleep.

5. Agree ahead of time not to have a deep and meaningful “about the relationship” until one full week after you have both finished exams and handed in every assignment. Get some sleep; recover your sense of humour; get perspective; etc. If you MUST talk about your relationship then consult a close friend or family member first.

Is it worth it all, this studying?

My mother is working very hard to support me. I feel guilty because her business is not going well and she is tired and stressed. I could get a job to help cover my living expenses but it is hard to study and work. I am worried about whether I will be able to get a good job when I graduate, to one day take care of my mother financially. Is it worth it for me to spend so much money to study here?

This is a common and difficult dilemma you face. Many parents make sacrifices to support their children in study and it is understandable that you care about your mother. It sounds like you are juggling many competing demands and seem to be feeling a little overwhelmed by your situation. I wonder if you have tried to discuss your feelings with your mother. Often students don’t want to worry their parents more by sharing the pressure they feel. However, it can be helpful to have an open discussion about this and get her perspective on the situation as well.

It is wise to carefully decide if you can manage paid work as well as study. Sometimes when students take on too much paid work it impacts on their academic work. However, studying part-time may be a good compromise. These sorts of decisions can be difficult to make, so read here for some tips. A good start may to be first consider all of your options, then to list the pros and cons of each. There is usually no perfect option, but considering what your values are can also help to guide you.

The question about whether studying at all is worth all the sacrifices is a difficult one to answer, as it depends on what your priorities are, as well as the pros and cons which may be different for everyone. It may be helpful to do some research into what your options will be after your finish studying, so that you can better answer this question.

Whatever decision you make, it’s natural to worry about the future when we can’t know exactly how things will turn out. Managing worry about the future is a valuable skill that will help you to manage your study as well as your future work life. Mindfulness is a practice that can help here. You can also find some tips on stress management stress management here.

Study is one way of investing in yourself and your future opportunities, but so is taking care of your emotional well-being. You might like to come to Counselling and Psychological Services so you can better understand how to manage your situation and take care of yourself as well.

I’ve fallen in love, now what?

I’ve never had a long-term relationship but over the past week I’ve started hanging out with a guy who I met through my book club. But now it’s a period of anxiety where I’m trying to be my authentic self but also, put my best foot forward and not come off as too strong. How do I not mess it up?

The early part of a relationship where there is both possibility and uncertainty about the future can be exciting and terrifying and wonderful and awful! These feelings are a normal experience whenever you have strong feelings for someone and are to be embraced as unfortunately it’s not possible to ‘skip ahead’. There also isn’t any specific advice I can give you that will ensure you don’t ‘mess it up’. Sometimes things don’t work without it being anyone’s fault, such as when two people just want different things or are not compatible.

Being your authentic self is important, as ultimately if the two of you are honest and open about who you are, what you want, and how you feel, then you will be able to figure out if this is right for both of you. This requires being vulnerable however, which is often very scary. It’s difficult to define what ‘too strong’ means, as this will be different for everyone. If your feelings are stronger than his than that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with how you are coming across, just that the two of you are not in the same place. This is painful, but it’s important not to blame yourself.

You mention that you’ve been hanging out for the past week, which means there is still a lot more for the two of you to discover about each other. Try not to focus just on how you are coming across and what he wants, but also continue to recognize what it is that you need and want in a relationship.

Remember to also ensure you are engaging in other areas of your life that are important to you and who you are. Spending time with good friends, studying hard, looking after yourself and doing things you enjoy will help to increase your resilience and emotional wellbeing during this time. Remember that this period of anxiety doesn’t last forever, try to enjoy the fun parts and look after yourself when it gets tough.

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