Pursuing higher education is fantastic, but it can come with a lot of mental pressure. For many students, high school—and later college—is a transition to adulthood and is a first big step out into the world.
In college, you’re completely responsible for your own time management and self-care. And you may find yourself juggling multiple responsibilities, such as educational, extracurricular, social, family, and even work commitments.
So it’s probably no surprise that a significant number of students struggle with mental health challenges. A survey run by the American College Health Association (ACHA) in 2019 found that 45.1% of students experienced debilitating depression, while 65.7% experienced overwhelming levels of anxiety. And those numbers are only rising, driven by growing financial challenges, societal pressure, and uncertainty about the future.
But the good news is that younger people are more aware of the importance of mental health—and are more willing to start conversations about mental wellness.
“Today’s generation of college students and young professionals are more willing to talk about mental health than their parents or grandparents, and are closer than ever to breaking the stigma around mental illness.”
—Active Minds, a non-profit mental health organization
That’s great news if you’re struggling with your mental health. But ideally, you don’t want to reach that point. That’s why, in this post, we’ll be exploring some of the ways you can build your mental resilience and develop good habits for your college journey—and beyond.
Our top tips for caring for your mental well-being as a student
First and foremost: take care of your physical health
It can be difficult to remember to prioritize your health when you’re juggling your education, home life, and sometimes even a job. But staying physically healthy is critical to staying mentally healthy.
Get regular exercise
If possible, make going to the campus gym part of your routine. Or try walking or biking to class instead of driving or taking public transport. Joining intramural sports groups can also be a great way to get fit while getting some crucial socialization in (more on that later).
Eat regularly and healthily
It’s tempting to skip meals when you’re busy, but that’s a slippery slope to unhealthy eating habits. Instead, make it a point to eat regular meals throughout the day.
If you find it hard to put the books down, try blocking mealtimes out in your schedule in advance or arrange to meet a friend for lunch in the cafeteria. If you really can’t step away, try carrying energy-rich snacks in your bag to eat between classes.
Keep a consistent sleep schedule
One of the biggest mistakes students make is in sacrificing sleep. The sleepless, caffeine-and-energy-drink-fueled student is a common stereotype—but it’s not one to emulate. Because getting sufficient sleep is vital to functioning at your best throughout the day.
You need an average of seven hours of sleep each night. Any less, and you risk a lowered immune system, inhibited cognitive skills, and a greater likelihood of making clumsy mistakes.
Give yourself regular breaks throughout the day
If you’re feeling tired and unmotivated, don’t be afraid to give yourself a break. It may seem like you’re avoiding your responsibilities, but taking a bit of time away from your work can help to clear your mind and give you more motivation when you come back.
Take a short nap
Sometimes you just need to give in and allow yourself to have a nap—especially if you didn’t get an optimum amount of sleep the night before. But there’s a right way to nap, and a wrong way.
A lot of research has gone into finding the ideal length of time for a midday nap. The general consensus is that the ideal nap should be between 10 to 20 minutes long, and ideally taken before 2 p.m.
Work in sprints using a Pomodoro timer
Try studying in shorter bursts instead of attempting to focus for long periods. One method of doing this is with a Pomodoro timer. Set yourself anywhere from 25 to 60 minutes to do a task and focus on that task for the duration of the timer. When time’s up, give yourself a short break before starting your next sprint.
Try meditation, to help you relax and find peace
Meditation is a great way to clear your mind, destress, and find some calm in the middle of a hectic period. Mindfulness and meditation can help you manage anxiety, reduce stress levels, and become more mentally resilient.
If you’re not sure how to begin, guided meditation offers an easy starting point. (The Calm app has plenty of guided meditation sessions of varying lengths if you want to try it for yourself.)
Keep up with your hobbies
Don’t let the things you love become a casualty of your college life! Schedule time for your hobbies, or turn your hobby into a social activity by doing it with friends.
Choose your spaces mindfully
We’ve written before about how your workspace affects your mental wellness—and it remains relevant whether you’re working in a job, studying, or both. In short, the space you choose to spend your time in can boost or dampen your mood and creativity.
Create spaces that work for you
You’ll probably be working from several different locations depending on your mood or circumstances. That’s not a problem, so long as you ensure the space helps rather than hinders your learning.
In busy places, use earplugs or headphones to eliminate distractions. And choose a comfortable seat with a table at a good height. (That armchair with the sloping back may be comfortable, but after an hour of slouching over the laptop on your knees, you’ll be regretting it!)
Make time for your social life
When you’re busy, the first thing to be sacrificed is often time with friends and family. But neglecting your social needs can take a significant toll on your mental health and can lead to feelings of loneliness and a lack of motivation.
Combat it by making social engagements a regular part of your college life in a way you’re comfortable with.
Organize regular social meetups
Regular social engagements with friends and family can do wonders for your day-to-day resilience. Try organizing weekly lunch and dinner meetings, weekend trips off-campus, or joining a club or society. Or, if you’re worried about being outdoors in crowded places, why not have a standing weekly video call with your friends or organize an online game night?
But don’t be afraid to be honest if you don’t feel up to spending time with others after a long day. The important thing is to understand your own limits.
Choose an employer that supports you
Many students work part-time jobs while studying, either to put themselves through college or to get some spending money and save up for the future. But working while schooling requires impeccable time management, mental resilience, and awareness of your own limits.
Pick a company that supports employee mental health
A good employer will work with you to ensure you have the support you need to balance your education and your job—for example, by giving you flexible shift options or offering support in the form of helpful EAPs and other benefits.
Be gentle with yourself
It can be easy to fall into a mental rut when you’re overwhelmed by your course load and projects. However, it’s important to practice compassion and kindness towards yourself.
If things aren’t working, change
If you’re not doing as well as you thought you would or are struggling to concentrate, find ways to address the blockers without berating yourself or indulging in self-recrimination. You might need to find a different style of studying or to add more free time into your schedule.
Ask for help when you need it
Whether it’s calling your academic advisor, talking to a loved one, or seeking assistance from a therapist, there is nothing wrong with asking for help. If you feel yourself struggling with your course load or bowing under pressure, be sure to reach out to someone who can help.
Many colleges offer campus mental health resources, so be sure to ask about them. And don’t feel ashamed about doing so—almost everyone struggles with some sort of mental health challenge at some point. By identifying and treating it early, you can set yourself up for success.
Make mental health a priority
It can be difficult to remember to take care of your physical and mental health when you’re already juggling multiple responsibilities, but it’s crucial to your ongoing well-being.
By building good habits early on and developing your mental resilience muscles, you can lower your stress, equip yourself to do better in your studies, and allow yourself to really enjoy your college experience to the fullest.