It's show season at the moment and I am aware that lots of people are finding it hard to balance long rehearsals and study and are finding it to be a very stressful time of year, I wondered if you have any advice for these students?
First, I want to thank you and everyone who gives up their time to take on extra activities. Whether it is shows, volunteering, Student Union activities, raising money for charity, leading a society or subgroup or being a student ambassador, I am inspired by the generosity of spirit shown by students.
I don’t underestimate that this generosity of spirit can come with an awful lot of stress and worry. I spent a lot of my time as a student involved in the arts and I remember well the moments when, in a brittle, sleepless fug of tension, I would dissolve into tears because I had pushed endlessly at a door that wasn’t budging. Said door wasn’t budging because it clearly said ‘PULL’ in capital letters in not one, but two places, yet still I pushed and sobbed helplessly with the overwhelming awfulness of it all . . . . I’ve been there. Really.
So, what is a frantic, overworked, underappreciated, creative student to do? Perhaps the first step is to give yourself permission to feel a bit irrational and be forgiving both of yourself and others. Easy to write. Immensely tough to do, but nonetheless essential.
Banish all those berating thoughts. You know the ones: “you’ve only got yourself to blame”, “I’m so stupid, why can’t I manage?”, “I’m not doing anything well at the moment” and so on and so on. This may take more determination and energy than you think you have, but it is vital to being kind to yourself. In a rudimentary adaptation of CBT techniques and distraction, I have a method which may work for you: every time the intrusively negative and taunting thoughts arise, I consciously and deliberately have another script ready (you can see I am an actor through and through). It is a gentler, more rational script that expresses gratitude for what I have, acknowledges my fears, but goes on to say what I would say to a friend or student in the same position. I wouldn’t berate, criticise or judge, but I would seek to listen, to understand and to support. Just like you would if it were anyone else. This is a crucial step. You have to be strict with yourself (not in a hostile way, obviously) and begin to act deliberately as a friend to yourself. Write down some positive, grounding thoughts. Put them on post-it notes near the coffee machine, on your script, on your computer and anywhere else that you are spending too much time these days.
Secondly, be a friend to other people. Working together on anything can be a bonding experience, but it can test and challenge relationships like little else. Basic principles (that you know already but are easy to forget when frustrated and exhausted) matter. Address the issue not the person. Be forgiving, but assertive; don’t let things simmer until you are burning with resentment and passive aggression. Apologise if you make a mistake or hurt someone’s feelings. Remember that friendships and people matter more than even the most spectacular show, project or production. Walk away rather than explode or meltdown. Make time to regroup and restore yourself to relative calm – it is as much part of the process as learning lines, checking the lighting cues and attending rehearsals. Disagreements will happen, but you can work it out. However, the way you handle it matters if it is not to cause even more stress and distress.
What about the purely practical challenge of fitting it all in? Well, you may not be able to fit in everything you want to do, so choices are going to have to be made. Think about those choices. Some things have to happen – these are not choices. However, many more things will be negotiable. A smaller number of things are not necessary at the moment or even at all. Work out what is in which category. For the non-essential, non-urgent tasks, talk to people so that they know you will be in touch or fulfil an obligation after the performance. It won’t take long and it will give you permission to focus on what has to be a priority, manage expectations and preserve relationships.
You may not be able to do everything perfectly. Sometimes good enough is good enough. The audience doesn’t know how the production is supposed to be, but the show does have to go on. The assignment doesn’t have to be publishable, but it does have to be handed in by the deadline. You don’t need to hunt for hours to source the ‘perfect’ present for your best friend, but you do need to remember it is her birthday. It is okay to do as well as you can when there is too much to do, but not okay to opt out entirely. Perfectionism may often be said to be the enemy of progress (or was that just my Irish mother?), but it can also be the enemy of wellbeing too.
Remember too that there are lots of us here in SW17 and beyond who are available to help. Don’t be on your own with the burden of it all. When time is precious, use it well and use it to be with people who might make life a little easier or simply more enjoyable. The counselling service, Nightline, tutors and the SU VP for Education and Welfare can all be invaluable in walking alongside you during testing times. Sometimes people worry that they are ‘wasting time’ in seeking help because they don’t perceive their problems to be ‘significant enough’. There is no hierarchy. Everyone is studying on demanding programmes. It is hard enough when all is well and there are no additional pressures. Asking for help and support is never a mistake.
If face-to-face conversation is not your thing, there are lots of other options. I have come to love Head Space which is an App that offers adaptable and guided meditation and relaxation techniques. I started off a sceptic and ended up Andy’s biggest fan (this will mean nothing to you if you don’t know the App, but suffice to say, I spend a lot of time listening to Andy). There are others too you might like: Cove, Mindly, Calm and Pause. I know. The names are a bit off-putting, but abandon your cynicism and explore. It may just be a minute or two a day, but it might make all the difference. For more sustained support, have a look at the Big White Wall, Silver Cloud or the dedicated student Tea and Empathy groups on Facebook.
At the risk of sounding like your mum, don’t forget the basic physical things that make you feel better: eat well, sleep (or make time to catch up on sleep even if you’re going to have to manage on less for a while), exercise, read a book, watch something absorbing, talk about something other than work and the extra-curricular activity that is dominating your life and laugh. I know you’re thinking you don’t have time, but I’m going to be annoying and say that not only do you have time, but you must. Really. That is not my usual approach – I am all for autonomy and facilitated decision-making as you know from my lectures and seminars. However, this is non-negotiable. Without making time for sustenance – physical and emotional – you won’t be able to do anything else. I know that when I least think I have time for fun, relaxation and looking after myself is when I most need to make time for it. It is hard when there is an overwhelming amount to do, but it is also essential. I promise. Make a pact with someone else if you can’t do it alone. Agree a time to eat, walk round the block or just take a break.
Whatever you’re doing this term, enjoy it and thank you for taking the time. You make St George’s a better place and contribute to a community.
Break a leg!