This resource has been developed as part of OCD Action’s collaboration with Student Space, a mental health initiative run by Student Minds that offers safe and confidential support for students during the pandemic.
Sources for this page:
Expert talk by Dr Rob Willson, Keeping well with OCD during Covid-19, Accenture student mental health research
Mental health and wellbeing are not just about diagnosable conditions and getting treatment. There are also things you can do in your everyday life or to manage your environment which can make a huge difference. You probably find that OCD is a big part of the equation, but not all of it. Starting or being at university can be an exciting and vibrant part of life, but it can also come with plenty of stress.
Academic and social pressures is a challenge to mental health for a lot of students. For most people, being at university also means living alone and manging many aspects of life more independently for the first time. There are steps you can take to boost or protect your mental health, gain confidence, and have a better understanding of what you’re experiencing.
The key is to build an environment that is supportive for you as an individual. This environment includes the people around you, your habits, your resources, and how you speak to yourself.
Any positive change you make in one area affecting your wellbeing can lighten the load on the rest. If you are struggling with making certain changes, there might be something different you can focus on for now.
Change takes time, and starting can be the toughest part. The challenge with taking care of your wellbeing usually isn’t knowing what to do, but rather finding how to make it work for you. Explore with yourself what tips feel like they would help and be patient with yourself as you try them out. Remember that you are doing this to take care of yourself, not to add more things to your list of pressures or responsibilities.
Be aware of how you’re feeling
It can be a challenge to be aware of our mental health, because it changes from day to day and depends on so many different things. Also, by its very nature, how we feel impacts the way we see things. If you are struggling with your mental health, you might think things ‘aren’t that bad’ because you are coping, or on the other hand you might feel so overwhelmed that your good days feel out of reach. Learning to recognise how you’re feeling allows you to take action to take care of your wellbeing, and it gives you an important context into what is happening in your life.
Keeping track of how you’re feeling with a journal or app can be a good way to give yourself more context around what is happening. Has it been a tough couple of days, or weeks? Does this time overlap with stressors in your life? How were things before this period? It’s just as important to keep track of when you’re feeling well, so you can read back and remind yourself that ‘good days’ also happen.
Part of learning to look after yourself is learning to recognise when you might need to focus on it a bit more. Everyone’s ‘well’ and ‘unwell’ are different, so it can help to develop an understanding, over time, of what things look like for you. Some people cry more, some less. Some people isolate themselves, others avoid being alone. As you get to know your own signs, you’ll be better able to put self-care strategies and support in place sooner.
Anxiety is a huge part of living with OCD, so most people find that their symptoms get worse when they are under a lot of stress. The changes and pressures that come with being at university can make it harder to manage the OCD. High levels of stress and anxiety can make you more tired, irritable, or overwhelmed. This isn’t a failure or something to feel bad about – it means you could probably use some extra care.
“Often, when I speak to people who doubt how well they are coping, they reveal a little paradox. They tend to feel like they are coping least when they are struggling the most. But I think that is a little unfair. In reality, when people feel most overwhelmed, they are often doing the best job of coping. I think it comes down to the fact that sometimes coping just isn’t very easy and doesn’t feel great. Sometimes it means making it through the next five minutes. And I think that’s fine – if that’s the next challenge, then getting through a tricky moment deserves to be recognised for the strength and resilience it entails because that is what it means to cope. So, when I speak to people who say they’re not coping, what I usually hear are stories from people who are doing an amazing job of navigating through a very tough situation. And I think the people who tell these stories deserve a $***-ton of credit.”
– Helpline volunteer
How you feel
Irritable or impatient
Sad or pessimistic
Anxious or nervous
Quick shifts in mood (Getting easily upset, or ‘moving on’ from something more quickly than you usually would)
Low interest or enjoyment in things
Lonely or neglected (You could also describe this as feeling more ‘needy’ – this is not a bad thing! Having needs is a normal part of everyone’s life, and these go up and down)
Wanting to escape / desperate for change
How you behave
Constant worrying, difficulty making decisions
Avoiding situations, people, or events
Difficulty concentrating or focusing
Change in eating or appetite
Change in sleeping pattern or tiredness
Change in energy or motivation levels
Crying more often
Using things like drugs, smoking, and alcohol more than usual
Difficulty breathing or hyperventilating
Sore or tense muscles
‘Wooziness’ – blurred vision, feeling faint or dizzy
Stomach issues – nausea, indigestion, diarrhoea, constipation
Reach out for support
Having the right support is a bit of a snowball. Not only does it improve and protect your mental health, it also makes it easier to seek more support when you need it. There are often messages about ‘reaching out’ if you are struggling with mental health, but what this can actually look like might be less clear.
By its very nature OCD might bring feelings of isolation or shame. This can lead you to feel on your own, even if you do have supportive friends around you. You might have people around you who, maybe unknowingly, accommodate some of your rituals or make you feel bad about them. Letting them know how you’re feeling and what support you need can be part of building an environment that is positive for your wellbeing. You can do this with or without mentioning OCD specifically.
Your friends or family might not know about OCD, but they will understand feeling under pressure and getting stuck in worrying. If you have someone you trust, telling them about your condition will allow them to support you and help them understand if you are struggling.
You can read more about Talking to someone about your condition.
“Having OCD at Uni can be a lonely experience. Meeting other people with OCD has always made a huge difference to me. That’s what led me to setting up my own support group at University for students with OCD. I found it very helpful meeting students who shared an understanding of OCD and the difficulty of managing it whilst at University! Being part of the support group was one of the best parts of my University experience and a couple of the members of the group have become life long friends”
– Support Groups Volunteer
OCD Action runs dozens of support groups that meet over Zoom, Skype, and phone. These groups are not therapy, nor are they there to push you in any way. The main goal of these groups is to fight the shame and isolation that often comes with OCD. Hearing from or speaking to others who understand this strange and scary experience can lift a bit of the weight of it. It can also help you to feel part of a community or flex your social muscles if you’re out of practice.
The list includes groups for people experiencing OCD or related conditions, including some for specific themes or experiences. There are also groups for loved ones, a group for young people and a specific group for students with OCD, BDD or Trichotillomania and / or Dermatillomania.
You can find the full list at the bottom of The sign-up page.
If you would like to ask any questions about the groups, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call the Cromer office on 0303 040 1112.
The Accenture research into mental health at university found that loneliness was the experience that was most related to poor mental health. This isn’t surprising, and we know that it can go in both directions – loneliness impacts negatively on wellbeing, and struggling with mental health can also lead to more isolation. This is something that is true for everyone, but it is a particularly big issue for university students and people with OCD, and it has been harder during the pandemic.
The same is true the other way around, though. Having good-quality friendships at university, even just a few, was found to have the best impact on mental health, not counting getting good quality treatment.
You have many resources around you through your university to meet people socially, maybe more than you know. Even if clubs and societies aren’t quite your thing, you might meet people there who you can build an individual friendship with.
Technology is a great way to keep in touch, and has been incredibly important over the past years. For some, this can have a more comfortable pace to get to know someone through. For others, meeting in-person might feel better. Explore for yourself and with others what feels safe and allows you to engage with each other best.
The most important thing to know about OCD is that it is treatable – there are very successful treatments that have stood the test of time and really do help most people with OCD to get their life back from it. That being said, choosing to try therapy or medication can sometimes feel quite uncertain or scary. You can get in touch with the OCD Action Helpline if you would like to…
- Find out more about the treatment options
- Ask any questions you have
- Talk about any doubts or worries you have about treatment
You can also read our resource about Treatment options.
Your university might not offer specific OCD treatment, but they will have mental health and wellbeing services that can still be a part of your supportive environment.
There is also a disability service, through which you can access academic support like-
- Adjustments to get around obstacles brought on by OCD, such as extra time in exams
- A point of contact to discuss your needs as they change, and who can help you navigate student disability support
- Financial support if this is needed because of OCD
You can read more about this on our page about Support at university.
Remember the rest
There are also plenty of practical things you can do that can impact your wellbeing as a whole, which will include your mental health.
Practical tips and changes can be the most appealing, because you can see them. They can also feel like the most pressure to ‘get right’ for the same reason. Keep in mind that although these things are simple on the face of it, things like university pressures, socialising, or running low on time and energy can complicate things. Try setting small but specific goals to build up any habits. Remember to acknowledge the little victories, because they really do add up with time and practice.
Different things work for different people, so don’t take the examples below as a list of what to do. It tends to be much more successful to explore what works for you by considering your situation, your environment, and how it feels when you try things out.
Sleep patterns, especially when tied in with poor mental health, can become a vicious cycle and feel very ‘stuck’. A lot of people find that maintaining a good amount of sleep can be especially difficult at university.
There are three elements of sleep that you can look out for – how much you sleep, how well you sleep, and when you sleep.
Sleeping at night and being awake during the day tends to help with health and mood, but unfortunately both having OCD and being at university can cause the pattern to switch, so this can be a good thing to keep an eye on.
You can also do things to help you fall and stay asleep better like reducing screen time and doing something relaxing before bed. If you find that thoughts and anxiety keep you awake, there might be something you can do to help yourself not get so stuck in them. For example, if you are a ‘clock watcher’ and worry about how long you have left before you have to get up, you can try limiting how easily you can check the time at night. If you have a ‘mental list’ of jobs that pops up when it gets dark and quiet, doing some meditation or writing a list before bed could help.
It’s not a big revelation that eating well and drinking enough water are good for our health, both physical and emotional. Poor diet can impact energy levels, cause physical discomfort, or even make you ill, all of which are likely to worsen your mental health. That being said, getting a take-away with friends or enjoying a favourite meal can be great parts of self-care. The goal is not to set ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels on your eating habits, but rather to keep an eye on how your diet makes you feel and making choices based on this.
Alcohol (or other substances) might also be part of your life, especially during university. Again, for most people, taking care of yourself comes down to finding the right balance based on how things make you feel. Some people with OCD might use drinking as a way to escape their thoughts and worries, but then find that their anxiety is even worse the next day, causing a vicious cycle.
It’s widely recognised that regular exercise can have fantastic effects on mental health, yet it can be one of the toughest habits to build for lots of reasons. Instead, we suggest focusing on getting into your body, which can include exercise if that’s right for you.
A lot of what we see and hear about exercise is very tied up in pressure and perfectionism, which is why it’s so common for ‘Going to the gym’ to be top of someone’s list but also quickest to be dropped. There might be a lot of shame tied up around exercising, not exercising, and the aesthetic results of it.
If you struggle with motivation or ability to do conventional exercise like sport or going to the gym, there are lots of alternatives. The goal is to get your body moving and to connect with it. For example, you can do some stretches, dance around to your favourite music, go for a walk, or practice holding funny poses in front of the mirror.
What happens around us often affects us in ways we might not be completely aware of, which can make how we are feeling confusing. Practice checking in with yourself to see how your environment is making you feel, so you can explore how to best interact with it. The shining sun might be lifting your mood, so take a few seconds to feel and appreciate that. Some background noise might be stressing you out, so you can put some soothing music on. If you’ve been sitting in a small room all day, you might notice a tightness in your body that says ‘Get me out of here!’.
Set boundaries around what people, activities, or situations you spend your energy on. There can be a lot of pressure, especially at university, to always be involved in things. If you are pushing yourself to go along when something makes you uncomfortable, it can be a drain on your mood or your energy. Going to fewer events but actually enjoying them can be much more satisfying.
OCD can be hugely confusing to navigate, especially if you are just learning about it now. It can bring up doubts about which actions are related to OCD. Asking for reassurance, checking, and overthinking are part of everyone’s day to day experience, so being able to recognise when these are compulsive can help you become more aware of your own OCD. A big part of this is looking out for why. If you are doing it to try to avoid or reduce your anxiety, it might be a compulsion or at risk of becoming one.
Compulsions tend to grow, as the OCD asks for more and more reassurance with time. If you find that you have to do something repetitively, and that you are seeking a feeling of ‘just right’ to know you’ve done it enough, this can mean it is compulsive.
Remember, though – be kind to yourself. Just because something is a compulsion doesn’t mean you are bad or you have failed. This is around increasing your awareness and understanding of your OCD. Whether you choose to challenge that compulsion should be based on where you are with your mental health and your treatment.
There are lots of resources out there for people who are working on challenging their OCD or practicing self-help. Here’s just a few:
Remember, there is good help and support out there. You can find out about what is available to you through charities like OCD Action and Student Minds, by speaking to your GP, and by contacting your university mental health and disability services. You can explore what support is right for you and work towards a life not ruled by OCD.