Image taken by author

This week I am taking a slight diversion from my usual column on engaging with the beauty in Oxford’s ordinary things, by writing about what will soon be upon us – the dreaded ‘fifth week blues’. 

I remember my first fifth week in Oxford: people kept repeatedly mentioning the ominous, looming ‘fifth week blues’. And sure enough, they’re no myth. You’re over halfway through term but it still feels like you have so many weeks to go; you’re tired, deadlines are piling up… it can be quite dispiriting. 

There is a marquee in the front quad of my college, where two of my friends used to go every Monday morning, to study and then grab lunch. They called it ‘Marquee Mondays’, and it was so cute that I asked to join them on the Monday of my first fifth week. We got hot chocolates from the machine in the JCR and studied in a beautiful, peaceful silence – everything was going wonderfully. All until I somehow managed to pour my hot chocolate all over my friend’s computer! Long story short, it broke, and took a couple of weeks to be replaced. That is when it became clear that my week was crashing and burning before it had even properly begun. I wasn’t allowed back to Marquee Mondays after that, and my friends remind me of the incident at every possible opportunity. 

So how do we survive a week that from a distance seems doomed to be awful? I asked my friends and received a whole variety of responses, but overall there was the ever-present idea that relief from chaos and stress comes from simplicity, from taking a step back and turning to smaller and more simple things. 

One of my favourite comments from my various interviews this week was:

“The expression ‘fifth week blues’ reminds you that you’re not broken for being sad.”

I think the beauty in this expression we’ve coined is that it encourages solidarity: we are raising awareness about the importance of looking after our mental health. In normalising something like ‘fifth week blues’, we also normalise discussing how we feel with each other, caring for ourselves, and opening up when we feel down. On the surface, it may seem all about alpacas and cookies in our pigeon holes. But on a deeper level, we are contributing to breaking the stigma that surrounds conversations about mental health. Talking about ‘fifth week blues’ helps us realise that we all struggle and that it is ok to find life difficult or intense sometimes. 

At the same time, we shouldn’t be using the expression ‘fifth week blues’ to dismiss or brush over all the struggles we have. If you feel exhausted, run down, or depressed, you can’t just always slap the phrase ‘fifth week blues’ over it. It could end up serving as well as a wet paper towel on a bullet wound. Acknowledging ‘fifth week blues’ is not about dismissing long-term mental health problems: it is about opening up and normalising conversations about mental health, and emphasising the importance of our well-being in a university that is often so centred around academic validation. It’s about realising that having a bad day is normal. Our feelings matter, and we shouldn’t just ignore them. 

After acknowledging that we’re feeling down, there are definitely things that can be done to help. I think that the first move is to take a step back. From time to time, we may feel like we are drowning in between all of our commitments. Yet, sometimes all it takes is a little perspective, a reminder that the work we do here isn’t all that matters. Sometimes life is simpler than our assignments. One piece of advice a friend gave me this week is:

“Find the things that ground you, that remind you of life outside of this incredibly isolated social sphere, that make you think of your inherent worth as a person.

Doing terribly in a problem sheet or handing in the most incoherent essay of all time does not alter your value as a person! You can still experience joy, and love other things in your life outside of your degree! That is actually the purpose of the column I’m writing at the moment: I want people to understand that there is more to life than assignments and deadlines. We can still have so much fun here, experience so much love here, and enjoy things that don’t get a grade at the end of it all. 

One fifth week last year, there was one day where I just could not. We all have those days where we just can’t. We’re not perfect. We’re not machines. The essay I was meant to be writing quickly became a staring contest between me and the empty word document. Because some days, we just don’t have much to give. 

Feeling low is not something to be ashamed of. The essay did not get written that day. Although at the time it seemed like a life or death matter, in reality that essay did not deserve to have such a chokehold on me – it got done eventually, and it was ok. 

There were two friends who helped me to get out of my rut that day, who reminded me that I was more than an empty word document. And both of them showed me two very different and equally helpful ways to help myself, which I will share with you now.

The first friend messaged me when I was still staring at my computer screen. She asked how my day was going. After I told her about the state I was in, she invited me down to her room and we just chatted and chatted. She gave me some biscuits and we played chequers, and, eventually, I ended up lying on her floor singing along to Lana del Rey’s cover of ‘The Other Woman’. It’s extremely therapeutic, I would recommend it! Allowing myself to wallow was good – I was recognising my feelings and I was giving myself a break. 

Later on, another friend invited me on a walk. We ended up spending over an hour wandering, then skipping, then eventually running through Uni Parks, admiring the sunset and the spring flowers. I have a really funny photo of her lying on the grass, spread-eagled and laughing up into the glowing peach-coloured sky. In those moments, running around arm in arm like children, I forgot about all the work I had to do. I could let go and just allow myself to be silly and free. Life seemed so simple in those moments.

Having people you can be open with is really important. My support system was the main thing that got me through my darkest days. My ‘fifth week blues’ was made slightly more bearable by the people who could talk me through it, and get me out of my room. Because above everything else, it is about getting out. Getting out of that moment where you feel stuck or sad or anxious, and taking a step back.

On that line of thought, another piece of advice a friend gave me this week was:

“My advice would perhaps be to make sure that work doesn’t prevent you from spending time with friends. An issue with fifth week is that work often catches up with a lot of people and a reaction can be to lock yourself away in your room. Try and protect some time for friends.

We can become so trapped in our heads, our rooms, our assignments, and that is why opening up about our ‘fifth week blues’ and how we are feeling in general is imperative. 

Because work is not the most important thing in the world!

When I spoke to her about ‘fifth week blues’ and general well-being at Oxford, one of my friends talked to me about her grandma, and I found what she said to be truly beautiful:

“My grandma… I can’t begin to make comments about her experiences or start to comprehend her outlook on life, but although she’s in many ways a world away from mine, speaking to her always reminds me of why I’m here, shrinks things down to their proper relative sizes and reminds me that difficult things can be overcome.

Nobody could be more serious about academia and education – she graduated university with an average score of 96% in mathematics and it has shaped a large part of her life – but although every third message she sends me is encouraging me to study and wishing me luck in tutorials, the other two are invariably about taking care of myself, remembering to rest and stay happy. I often feel empty, or anxious, or any of the other common Oxford ills but she’s one person who never feels that far away. That’s just my personal example of how warming human interaction can be sometimes. Take care of yourself physically, think about what it is that makes you feel as you do, and call your metaphorical or actual grandma.

Maybe the best advice to help combat fifth week is simple: call someone you love. Connecting with people can help to drag things back into perspective, and we can be reminded that the most important thing is to take care of ourselves. Communicating with others and hearing other people’s experiences and feelings can be so validating. 

I will conclude with some final tips various people have given me this week when I asked them how to deal with ‘fifth week blues’:

  • “I like to set myself things to look forward to, such as social events or sporting stuff and then I’ll use that to motivate me
  • “Reward yourself on a smaller scale like a hot chocolate after a long period of work
  • “I speak to my mum more in fifth week
  • “A small act of kindness towards another person always boosts your sense of self worth
  • “Give yourself a day off. Just a day completely off work either on the weekend or even better during the week, just treat it as a small holiday

These may seem like simple things, but when we’re twisted in a knot over something complicated, relief from this can often be found in simple things. Above all else, I would advise you to take care of yourself, and try your best to be open about how you feel with others. And like everything else, fifth week does end. Hopefully we can all emerge from this fifth week remembering that it’s ok to feel rubbish sometimes, we are not alone in these feelings, and we can find relief in taking a step back.

“Let fifth week not be the worst week of your term but a turning point where you decide to face your life with a new perspective. When you’re at your most vulnerable may be the time you can feel closest to another person, and when you feel like you’ve lost yourself might be when you can come a bit closer to finding out who you are.