How to Maintain Mental and Physical Health in College
- The transition to college can induce stress and lead to mental health changes in students.
- The best ways to maintain health include exercising and making time for self-care.
- Be sure you know the symptoms of mental health conditions and how to get help.
Though an exciting time in many young adults' lives, college can also introduce struggles such as social pressures to conform or experiment with drugs and alcohol, problems achieving work-life balance, impostor syndrome, and a lack of sleep.
College students may also feel disconnected from their support systems back home as they encounter new people, values, and life experiences.
All these changes put college students at risk of developing a mental health condition, such as depression and anxiety. School-related stress can even exacerbate existing mental health conditions.
7 Tips for Staying Healthy in College
While the transition to college can be difficult, most students eventually acclimate to their surroundings. As a campus mental health provider, I compiled seven tips to help you make a smooth transition to college and maintain balance and well-being throughout your time as a student.
1. Get Enough Sleep
It often feels as though there aren't enough hours in the day for college students to do everything they want to do, whether that's going to class, studying, socializing, working, playing sports, or participating in extracurriculars. In this atmosphere of constant activity, sleep is typically the first thing to go.
In college, it's almost a badge of honor to pull an all-nighter. In the end, though, it doesn't matter how cool it might be or how many more hours you could spend studying by staying awake — getting enough sleep is critical to your health and well-being, not to mention your grades.
The best way to improve your sleep is to practice better sleep hygiene. Here are some practical tips to help you get a better night's sleep:
- Go to sleep and wake up at the same times every day
- Don't drink caffeine too late at night
- Avoid napping during the day
- Use your bed only for sleeping
2. Exercise Regularly
Exercise can help with your sleep and improve your overall fitness. Students' relationships with exercise can vary. Some exercise to relieve stress and prioritize fitting it in even when they're busy, whereas others let it be one of the first things to drop off when they start to feel overwhelmed.
If you're in the first category, be sure you're using exercise as a healthy coping mechanism and that you're not overexercising to the point of hurting yourself or losing too much weight.
If you belong to the latter category, I recommend finding ways to incorporate exercise into your everyday routine, even if it's just a brisk walk around campus.
3. Eat a Balanced Diet
Eating healthy in college can be challenging when relying on dining halls instead of home-cooked meals, or when your finances limit your food options. The Center for Young Women's Health and Nutritious Life provide useful guides for evaluating your food options.
One key to healthy eating is being aware that with odd studying hours and class schedules, you might get hungry at seemingly random times. Make an effort to carry healthy snacks with you, such as carrots, bananas, nuts, dried fruit, and kale chips.
If you've ever had an eating disorder, college can be a particularly triggering time. This is because restricting what you eat, binge eating, and purging are often tied to control and self-esteem. When you're stressed with school, you can start to feel out of control and bad about yourself.
If you notice you've been resorting to unhealthy patterns of behavior, whether new or old, make an appointment to speak with a nutritionist, mental health provider, or primary care doctor at your student health center right away.
4. Make Time for Self-Care
It's easy to forget to take care of yourself in college. But no matter how busy you may be, you need to learn to schedule time to do something you like or that relaxes you. Some may enjoy getting massages, seeing movies, or engaging in a hobby. Others may prefer performing yoga or practicing mindfulness.
Students can greatly benefit from focusing on the here and now, particularly when anxious or stressed. Consider using a meditation app to hone your mindfulness skills.
5. Recognize the Risks of Substance Use
College students often feel pressure to experiment with drugs and alcohol. This is particularly true given the normalization of binge drinking on college campuses, society's shifting attitudes toward marijuana use, and the prevalence of vaping.
It's important for students to understand the health risks associated with drug use. Ultimately, you should be making informed, rather than socially determined, decisions.
For example, while students may believe marijuana is harmless, the drug actually carries many risks, particularly regarding mental health. You should closely monitor your behaviors, including how often you use drugs and/or drink alcohol.
It's also a good idea to socialize outside parties and look for alternative ways to hang out with friends that don't involve drugs and alcohol.
6. Value Sexual Health and Safety
Sexual health is another key part of overall wellness. Students should practice safe sex and understand the different methods of protection and birth control. They should also know how to access STD screenings at their college health center.
Additionally, students should know how to talk about consent and safety in intimate relationships. Unfortunately, sexual assault remains a widespread issue on college campuses.
Some schools employ bystander training programs, which show students how to take action if they see a violent crime or assault. Such programs can also teach students about reporting mechanisms on campus and mental health treatment options for those who have experienced trauma.
7. Become Health Literate
One of college students' biggest hurdles is learning to take care of themselves. In other words, you should feel confident doing the following:
- Making doctor appointments online, by phone, and in person
- Discussing health conditions and treatment options
- Using basic health vocabulary
- Asking doctors questions
- Taking and refilling medications
Ideally, students will talk about health literacy with their parents or guardians before they get to campus, especially if they're already on medication or have a chronic condition. Even students without health conditions can benefit from this conversation.
Understand Mental Health and How to Get Help
Mental health conditions can be debilitating and may cause students to face social and academic challenges. Here are some tips on how you can help yourself and your peers.
Recognize the Signs and Symptoms of Mental Health Conditions
Signs of a mental health condition include changes in sleeping and eating patterns and new behaviors, such as engaging in risky actions or refusing to socialize. You might also notice changes in mood and/or speech, like talking really fast or struggling to tell a coherent story.
If you notice any changes in how you feel, it's a good idea to start tracking your mood using a worksheet or an app. If your mood is constantly changing or interfering with your everyday life, make an appointment with a mental health specialist.
Know How — and Be Willing — to Get Help
Get to know the mental health resources available on campus. One good place to start is your school's student health center website, which likely offers resources for those in crisis situations and for those with more routine needs such as therapy and psychiatry.
Many students with mental health conditions wait too long to seek help and end up coming in when their symptoms are already severe and thus more difficult to treat. It's best to use your school's health system in a preventative manner, or as soon as you start recognizing any signs of a mental health condition in you or someone close to you.
Emergencies are different. For these cases, you should know what kinds of crisis resources your college offers. And always have on hand the national suicide prevention lifeline, which is 1-800-273-8255.
Access Campus Learning Resources
Many students, particularly those with learning disabilities and/or ADHD, require specific accommodations to succeed in college. This may mean extra time on exams or testing in a quiet environment.
Students who previously had accommodations in high school should contact their school's disability services office before the term begins to learn what kind of assistance is available. These centers often help students in areas such as organizing, tutoring, test prep, and note-taking.
Editor's Note: This article contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a professional advisor before making decisions about health-related issues.
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