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Seven Self-care Tips for College Students

As summer comes to a close and you make your way back to your (online or in-person) campus, it can be challenging to refocus your energy and get back into the swing of academic life. College can be an incredibly exciting time for young adults – and it comes with potential stressors like financial burdens, academic pressure, homesickness and pandemic-related hardships like social isolation, any or all of which can lead to mental health challenges.

In 2021, a study by the American College Health Association found that 48% of college students reported moderate or severe psychological stress, 53% reported being lonely, and 26% had considered suicide. It’s important for students to practice self-care to reduce stress, avoid burnout and maintain and enhance overall health and wellbeing. According to the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) curriculum, practicing self-care helps you be able to adapt to changes, build strong relationships and recover from setbacks.

Keep these tips in mind to help you or someone you know practice self-care and take care of their mental wellbeing while in college.*

  1. Set a routine – and keep it.
    In high school, students tend to have the same schedule every day – something along the lines of breakfast, school, extracurricular activities, dinner, homework, repeat. This structure isn’t a given in college; classes will be at different times, clubs might meet at night and students might find themselves sleeping in regularly when they don’t have morning classes. But having a routine has been shown to lower people’s stress levels and help them feel more productive and focused. Consider planning to wake up, eat, study and exercise around the same times every day. This will help give you a sense of control, lower your stress levels and even improves focus.
  2. Get enough sleep.
    An article published by Harvard states that over 50% of college students get less than seven hours of sleep per night (the minimum number of hours recommended for healthy adults by The National Sleep Foundation). Sleep deprivation can lead to symptoms of depression, but college students who prioritize sleep are likely to see positive effects like improvements in academic performance, their ability to concentrate while studying and less daytime sleepiness. Need more inspiration? Check out the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s tips for a good night’s sleep.
  3. Exercise.
    The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends adults exercise at least 2.5 hours each week – that’s only about 20 minutes per day! In addition to staying physically fit, exercise has many proven health benefits, such as making people happier, improving functional capacity, lowering risk of diseases and decreasing depression and anxiety. Taking a walk around campus, going to the gym or participating in an organized fitness class are all things students can do to get a little exercise in. For exercise to truly feel like self-care, MHFA recommends you choose a form of exercise that you like.
  4. Eat nutritious meals.
    Of course a well-balanced diet is good for physical health, but it is also crucial to mental wellbeing. A nutritious, balanced diet can help you think clearly and improve your attention span, whereas eating lots of processed foods can lead to inflammation, which may contribute to mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Stress and depression can cause people to either undereat or overeat, triggering a vicious cycle. Check out this Sutter Health article for more healthy eating tips.
  5. Drink plenty of water.
    Your brain is 73% water, so drinking lots of water is also important to healthy brain functioning. Without enough water, the brain starts to shut down, which can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety. If you’re not sure how much water you need to stay healthy, try out this Hydration Calculator from Everyday Health.
  6. Practice mindfulness, meditation and gratitude.
    According to Medical News Today, mindfulness is a practice that increases awareness of the present moment by focusing on thoughts, feelings and sensations. One way to do this is through meditation, which has a laundry list of benefits including increased ability to manage stress, increased self-awareness, increased patience and tolerance and even improved sleep quality. If you’re new to meditation and don’t know where to start, try out a guided meditation– all you have to do is listen. These can be found in meditation apps like Headspace or Calm, websites like Mindful.com and even YouTube.

    To practice gratitude, focus your attention on things you are grateful for. Benefits include improved relationships with others, experiencing more joy and pleasure and even strengthening your immune system. There are many ways to practice gratitude like keeping a gratitude journal, thanking others and asking yourself questions that promote grateful thoughts such as, “How do other people make me happy?”

  7. Clean up.
    According to Verywell Mind, cleaning and decluttering helps people gain a sense of control, improve their mood and even reduce levels of anxiety. College students often live in a small dorm with roommates, and it’s easy for things to get cluttered. Creating a chore list can help hold you and your roommates accountable for maintaining a clean living space that can be a sanctuary during stressful times.

Creating a self-care plan can be helpful in keeping yourself on track. To get started on your plan, ask yourself these three questions from the MHFA curriculum: Have I decided what I will do for self-care? Who can I speak with now? Who can I call if I feel upset or distressed later?

Check out these related blogs and sign up for a MHFA training to learn more about how to practice self-care!

*These self-care tips are not a replacement for professional treatment. If you feel you or someone you know is in danger, call 911, a local mental health crisis hotline or one of the following national crisis resources for immediate assistance:

  • • Suicide Prevention Hotline: Dial 988
  • • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 (TALK)
  • • Crisis Text Line: Text “MHFA” to 741-741

 

References

American Academy of Sleep Medicine. (2008, June 9). Poor sleep can negatively affect a student’s grades, increase the odds of emotional and behavioral disturbance. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. https://aasm.org/poor-sleep-can-negatively-affect-a-students-grades-increase-the-odds-of-emotional-and-behavioral-disturbance/.

An, H. Y., Chen, W., Wang, C. W., Yang, H. F., Huang, W. T., & Fan, S. Y. (2020, July 4). The relationships between physical activity and life satisfaction and happiness among young, middle-aged and older adults. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7369812/.

Cedars Sinai. (n.d.). Sleep deprivation. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/s/sleep-deprivation.html

Cherry, K. (2020, April 26). The importance of maintaining structure and routine during stressful times. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/the-importance-of-keeping-a-routine-during-stressful-times-4802638#:~:text=Research%20has%20consistently%20shown%20that%

20routines%20can%20play,regular%20routine%20can%20help%20you%3A%

20Lower%20stress%20levels.

Cronkleton, C. (2022, Feb. 25). Mindfulness and emotional well-being strategies. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/mindfulness-for-mental-wellbeing.

Gordon, S. (2021, Feb. 23). The relationship between mental health and cleaning. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-mental-health-and-cleaning-are-connected-5097496.

Greater Good Science Center. (2016, March 23). A simple weekly mindfulness practice: Keep a gratitude journal. https://www.mindful.org/a-simple-weekly-mindfulness-practice-keep-a-gratitude-journal/.

Harvard Summer School. (2021, May 28). Why You Should Make a Good Night’s Sleep a Priority. https://summer.harvard.edu/blog/why-you-should-make-a-good-nights-sleep-a-priority/.

Kennedy, K. (2022, June 30). Hydration calculator: How much water do you need to drink a day? EverydayHealth.com. https://www.everydayhealth.com/dehydration/hydration-calculator/.

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2022, April 29). Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/meditation/in-depth/meditation/art-20045858.

Mindful Staff. (n.d.). How to practice gratitude. Mindful. https://www.mindful.org/how-to-practice-gratitude/.

Northstar Transitions. (2021, April 24). Can drinking water help improve mental health? Northstar Transitions. https://www.northstartransitions.com/post/can-drinking-water-help-improve-mental-health.

Suni, E. (2022, April 13). How much sleep do we really need? Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need.

Sutter Health. (n.d.). Eating Well for Mental Health. https://www.sutterhealth.org/health/nutrition/eating-well-for-mental-health.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2019). Physical activity guidelines for Americans, second edition. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf.

Yang, J. and Mufson, C. (2021, Nov. 2). College students’ stress levels are ‘bubbling over.’ Here’s why, and how schools can help. PBS News Hour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/college-students-stress-levels-are-bubbling-over-heres-why-and-how-schools-can-help.

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