How to Maintain Mental and Physical Health in College

How to Maintain Mental and Physical Health in College
portrait of Jessica A. Gold, M.D., M.S.
By Jessica A. Gold, M.D., M.S.

Published on April 13, 2021

Share on Social

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 of these changes put college students at risk of developing mental illness. School-related stress can even exacerbate existing conditions.

School-related changes and stress put college students at risk of developing mental illness and can even exacerbate existing conditions.

The onset of certain psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, typically happens before individuals reach their mid-20s. As such, prevention and recognizing the warning signs of deteriorating mental health are key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle in college.

While the transition to college can be challenging, most students eventually acclimate to their new surroundings. As a campus mental health provider, I compiled some tips to help you make a smooth transition to higher education and maintain balance and well-being throughout your college years.

7 Tips for Staying Healthy in College

Get Enough Sleep

Nearly every day I advise students to sleep more and work less. 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 often 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

Exercise Regularly

Exercise can help with your sleep and also improve your overall fitness. Students' relationships with exercise can vary significantly. Some exercise to relieve stress and will prioritize fitting it in, even when they're busy, while others will 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.

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.

Carry healthy snacks with you, such as carrots, bananas, nuts, dried fruit, and kale chips.

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 struggled with eating, 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. Don't put it off — your health takes priority.

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, while 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.

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.

Closely monitor your behaviors, including how often you use drugs and/or drink.

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. Be sure you closely monitor your behaviors, including how often you use drugs and/or drink.

It's also helpful for college students to socialize outside of parties and look for alternative ways to hang out with friends without the involvement of drugs and alcohol.

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.

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:

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 issues can benefit from this conversation.

Understanding Mental Illness and How to Get Help

Mental health challenges can be debilitating, often causing college students to struggle socially and academically. Read on to learn how you can help yourself and your peers.

Know the Signs and Symptoms of Mental Illness

Signs of mental health issues in students 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 struggling with their mental health wait too long to seek help and end up coming in when their symptoms are already severe and therefore more difficult to treat. It's best to use your school's health system in a preventive manner, as soon as you start recognizing any signs of mental health issues in you or someone close to you.

Emergencies, of course, are different. For these cases, you should know what kinds of crisis resources your college offers. Additionally, 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 better 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 preparation, and note-taking.

Mental Health Resources for College Students

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.

Feature Image: Rawpixel / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Many students experience food and housing insecurity. Learn how these insecurities affect students. Get tips for overcoming common barriers. Learn about the financial challenges of AAPI students and find scholarships for Asian American and Pacific Islander college students. Learn how to use personal pronouns to increase inclusivity and create welcoming spaces for trans, nonbinary, and LGBQ+ communities.