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Why I’m focusing on surviving this term instead of thriving, and that’s OK

mental health > my degree


I see different times of my life in colours. It’s a condition known as synaesthesia, and it means I get to look back at periods and judge my emotions based on the colours I saw them as. Every term that I’ve studied at Cambridge since starting last year has a different palette of colours in my head, which says a lot about how I perceived that time in my life.

The Michaelmas that I matriculated was dark green, red, and a deep, pretty blue. It was vibrant, everything was new and exciting, full of hope and new experiences. Lent term was the colour of a blue sky. I fell in love for the first time, things seemed bright, and I felt somehow carefree. Easter term was golden. I was stressed, of course, but my sister got married, it was sunny every morning when I walked to the library, I’d take long trips to Fenditton when I was stressed, and I got to spend may week drinking in the heat.

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Lent term, blue skies

The colours I saw, and the memories that stand out to me when I think about first year, were always happy. I’d escaped the mental health issues I experienced as a teenager. Then I got into second year, and things started to turn dark and grey. It’s felt like it’s always raining since I arrived back in Cambridge, and it feels like I’ve made less fun memories in favour of unhealthy coping mechanisms.

My mental health took a bit of a turn this term, and that’s ok. A variety of personal issues and personality issues coincided with the stress of a Cambridge degree, and I’ve not been at my best. But the problem is sometimes that doesn’t feel like an option. We’re not told that it’s ok to have low periods, to have less productive periods, to miss the occasional deadline when it all becomes too much.

My entire outlook was changed when I was talking to a friend about my workload – I told her I was overwhelmed with all my essay deadlines, as well as with all the extra-curriculars I’d signed up to. But she pointed out that I’m only in Cambridge for half the year, and all the time we spend in this city we have amazing people and amazing opportunities thrown at us. It’s ok to live in the moment a little bit while we’re here, enjoying the people we’re around, enjoying the University culture, and focusing on what makes us happy.

The last thing I’m encouraging people to do is to ghost their supervisors, miss all their lectures, and turn term into an 8 week long party. But last year, when I was happy, I thrived academically. It feels like this year I haven’t been able to keep up with the high standards I’ve set myself, and a lot of that can be attributed to my poorer mood.

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Me shipping myself away from my responsibilities (just kidding please prioritise your mental health responsibly, write your essays people <3)

So I’m focusing on making myself happy. I’ll write my essays, but if I’m short of time I won’t stay in the library until the early hours to cram in extra readings – I’ll get a good night’s sleep and turn in something I could probably do a better job of. I’ll go to lectures, but I won’t beat myself up if I lose focus sometimes. And I’ll make sure I fill enough of my time with things that make me happy, because how can I flourish if my mood is low.

That’s right, all I’m going to do is keep my head above water. It’s a sad fact that Cambridge students sometimes aren’t reminded that doing that is an option. But it’s just not realistic to expect yourself to always be at your best. This article is a reminder that sometimes it’s ok to focus on making yourself happy, and not overworking yourself is an important part of that.

I want every term I spend in Cambridge to be filled with warm, happy colours in my head. And it’s ok to be kinder to myself, and make sure I’m not burning myself out with work, in order to make that happen.

All photos are the author's own.