College can be both an exciting and stressful time in your life. You are often experiencing your first extended time away from home and first taste of independence. You will likely experience a wide array of emotions as you navigate new academic and social situations. You may struggle balancing the demands of college and personal responsibilities, or connecting with a new peer group. Here are five helpful strategies to support mental, emotional and physical health during college.
Strategy #1: Build connections within your new community
The desire to belong and feel connected to others is a basic human need. It may take some time to meet new friends and build relationships. Being active in the community can help you avoid isolation, loneliness and disappointment. If you are not a naturally social person, it may feel like a leap to step out of your comfort zone and engage someone in conversation.
Start by striking up conversations with peers that you see in multiple classes, or in the cafeteria line. Friendships are often formed by repeatedly spending time together, engaging in activities of mutual interest.
Below are some suggestions if you are unsure how to get out and meet new people:
- Attend campus events of interest, such as plays, sports or dances
- Join intramural leagues to play sports such as dodge-ball or corn hole
- Join campus clubs to meet peers with similar interests
- Join student organizations that will support your personal and professional development
- Attend services at your local place of worship
- Join or start a book club
Strategy #2: Maintain self-care and manage stress through mindfulness activities
Self-care is the practice of taking an active role in protecting your well-being and health. Self-care can look and feel different for different people, whether it means turning down invitations to go out with friends in order to get some sleep or scheduling classes at the time of day that you feel most awake and energized.
To explore self-care practices, ask yourself where you feel safe and secure. What activities allow you to seek refuge when the responsibilities of life become overwhelming? Do you turn your attention inward and hibernate from the world? Do you spend time with friends, family, and loved ones? Do you structure your time and surroundings to feel more orderly?
Create a list of activities that help you feel safe, nourished and rejuvenated. Then plan time to engage in at least one activity each week.
Mindfulness can be both a self-care activity as well as a way of managing stressful thoughts and feelings. Practicing mindfulness means paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment. Anxious or depressive thoughts and feelings may arise when you spend the majority of your time reflecting on the past or jumping ahead to the future.
Mindfulness supports your ability to remain rooted in the present moment. You may enjoy practicing mindfulness through yoga or meditation. However, for many young adults it can be challenging and stressful to sit in stillness or practice yoga. Mindfulness can also be practiced by walking in the woods with awareness of your thoughts, breath, and the way your feet make contact with the ground.
Mindful eating can be achieved by slowing down and engaging the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing while eating a meal. Adult coloring books provide opportunities to focus attention in an intentional way.
Strategy #3: Practice healthy habits in all areas of your life
It can be tempting to order a late-night pizza or take-out food as you stay up studying or hanging out with friends. Healthy habits such as regular balanced meals, movement and mobility, and adequate sleep are crucial to feeling well physically and mentally. Find balance in your diet by eating fruits and vegetables earlier in the day if you know you will have a late-night study session.
Aim to get around eight hours of sleep each night, in order to give your brain and body time to rest and restore. Invest in a good pair of earplugs or an eye mask if you have difficulty sleeping due to the distractions of sharing a room or living space with others. Avoid indulgence in drugs and alcohol, as both can impact your judgment and health.
Get up and move! Whether you schedule exercise into your daily schedule and planner or wear a tracker that reminds you to take a certain number of steps each hour, make sure you get 30 minutes of exercise each day. Schedule your homework or study sessions to include a five- or 10-minute walk after 45 minutes of desk or computer work. A quick walk does wonders to energize the mind and body after extended periods of sitting and focused attention.
Strategy #4: Identify and utilize campus resources
Identify resources on campus, such as the learning support center where you can receive tutoring or academic assistance in challenging classes. The learning support center can also help you learn how to study better and gain time management and organizational skills to manage your academic course load.
Take advantage of professors’ office hours and meet with them on a regular basis to discuss your progress in class. Form study groups to prepare for exams and to hold one another accountable for academic responsibilities. Seek and form relationships with trusted adults on campus, such as resident advisors, teacher assistants, counselors and peer mentors.
Strategy #5: If you need help, reach out
Stress is an expected part of college life. However, it is important to recognize when you are experiencing more than a typical amount of stress and if mental health conditions arise. Mental health conditions can affect your thinking, feelings and mood. When untreated, mental health challenges can impact your physical health, relationships with friends and family, and your ability to function on a daily basis.
According to an article published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 75 percent of all lifetime mental health conditions begin by age 24. Some signs that you may be experiencing a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression include:
- Increased anger or irritability
- Loss of interest in activities one used to enjoy
- Changes in eating habits
- Sleeping an excessive amount
- Uncontrollable thoughts
Although you may experience each of these signs from time to time, someone with a mental health condition may have difficulty attending class or completing personal hygiene due to the severity of the symptoms they experience.
Mental health conditions can also be triggered by stressors experienced during college. Stressors that may affect mental health include:
- Relationship breakups
- Financial stressors
- Academic pressures
- Drug and alcohol use
- Inadequate sleep
- Social pressures
- Gender or sexuality questioning.
If you need help managing any mental health challenges, reach out. You are not alone. The article referenced above states that one in five youth and young adults experience a mental health condition. Identify adults that you trust and can talk to about any mental health concerns.
Mental health conditions can be managed with counseling, support and strategies to manage stress. The more you talk about mental health challenges, the easier it is to receive the health care and support needed to manage mental health conditions. Begin the conversation today.
Remember that college is an exciting and stressful time for all students. If you are having difficulty adjusting to the new routine, social situations, or academic pressures of college, start by identifying one positive change you would like to make. Set a goal to work towards, being specific of what you want to achieve and how you plan to accomplish it. Be realistic and start with something that feels attainable.
You can feel empowered to tackle larger goals once smaller goals have been achieved. Celebrate each step forward and recognize progress over perfection. Be consistent, and treat yourself with kindness if you have an off day where you do not meet your goal. It takes time to build new relationships, habits and practices. Commit to supporting your mental, emotional and physical health during college, because you are worth it.