I don’t usually focus in on a particular population of folks when blogging. I like to write blogs for everybody. But over the past year I’ve noticed an influx of college students showing up in the therapy room, with some horror stories about what it is to be a student today. The stress students experience seems unusually (ridiculously) high over the past few years – rigorous peer competition, honors-everything, a B minus perceived as a colossal failure… from where I’m sitting, the stress seems higher than it ever was, certainly for me, and even for students ten years ago.
From the pressure of academic work to the struggles of living independently for the first time, college students are working with sometimes overwhelming levels of stress and anxiety. While my therapeutic orientation is often more insight-oriented and less behavioral, I reluctantly acknowledge that some behavioral changes and tips can help make the transition to college (much) easier. So! This one’s for you, collegiate! Behaviors and practices to take care of yourself in today’s college environment:
Prioritize self-care (and life-care!)
Self-Care. It’s a buzzword. I KNOW. But self-care is often the first thing that gets neglected when we’re feeling stressed, and it’s also pretty much the most important thing you can do to decrease stress. Personally, I struggle mightily to keep up with taking care of my body when I’m under pressure, and I suspect that I am the standard.
So, what is self-care, really? While taking long walks and bubble baths always seems to be the big winners (more about this here), I think self-care (life-care!) can be much more fundamental and basic. Think foundational elements:
- Eat food that you love and that nourishes you, and eat enough of it. Not eating enough can contribute to anxiety and irritability, so take care to keep yourself nourished.
- Get enough sleep, whatever that means to you. I have two best friends that can get by on less than 6 hours. I need a solid 9. Prioritize the amount of sleep that your body needs. If you can’t get it at night, nap, whenever you can grab one.
- Move in ways that feel good to you. This does not mean you need to go to the gym. Move yourself around, stretch, walk or jog a bit, jump up and down – whatever you feel your body needs. You do not need to meet some prescribed number of minutes of gym activity for it to count. It’s all movement; it’s all good.
- Relax when you need to blow off steam. Whatever you can do, for however long you have, is better than nothing. Deep breathe for a few seconds or disappear for an entire Saturday. Stare at a wall, or even your phone for a bit, if need be (unpopular opinion, I know, but I stand by it). Do whatever is available to you, that works for you.
- Be in community with people you love, who understand you. More on this next week, but connection is essential to health, and socialization is so important to keeping us happy and functioning. Yes, it’s an important part of the college experience, and yes, you should make room for it.
Setting up a firm foundation keeps stressors that sometimes feel unsurmountable, manageable. Do whatever works for you, focus on what you can control, and prioritize caring for yourself.
While it’s going the way of the dodo in today’s rapid-fire culture, mindfulness can be incredibly helpful in keeping things manageable and in perspective. In a nutshell, mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment, without judgment. It helps reduce stress and anxiety, and improves overall well-being, by creating intentionality in one’s day and bringing the focus always back to the task at hand. There are countless ways to practice mindfulness, such as meditation, deep breathing, and yoga – Even taking a few minutes to focus on your breath can help you feel more centered and calm.
Implementing a regular meditation practice doesn’t have to be daunting. A good place to start can be finding a meditation app (I recommend the Calm app) or using a free guided meditation on Youtube, like this one. Again, do what you can with whatever time you have available – you don’t have to do this for an hour a day. Fifteen minutes is great.
Practicing intentionality and focus in daily life is just that – a cultivated practice. It can be difficult. This is an area to be gentle with yourself, and practice patience when you inevitably find your mind stretching in eight (or eighty) different directions. When you notice your attention wandering from a task at hand, gently bring yourself back to a singular area of focus. Writing down thoughts can be helpful when they become too distracting (write them down and then set them aside for later – I keep notebooks around the house for just this purpose). In a multitasking world, doing one thing at a time is unusual, so don’t be surprised when it feels weird – just keep at it.
Easier said than done, right?
One of the biggest sources of stress for college students is feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work that needs to be done. While I have a bone to pick with the expectations of such a massive workload itself, implementing organization tools can really help make shorter work of the massive piles of tasks. Here’s a few things I’d recommend for anyone trying to keep things together:
- Use a planner or calendar (paper or online) to keep track of deadlines, assignments, and appointments. Put something on the calendar as soon as you schedule – if you wait to do it later, you might forget. Don’t overschedule yourself (if possible), and remember to keep a little time in between appointments and plans. (Just as an aside, I like Michael Hyatt’s work on time management and all things planner-y… check him out here.)
- Break larger tasks into smaller, more manageable ones. For instance, write one paragraph and take a short break, rather than plan to execute an entire paper in one sitting. Ten paragraphs with a five minute break after each one feels much less dauting than writing out the whole thing in one shot.
- Prioritize your work based on its importance and deadline. Do the most important things first, and delegate or put off things of lesser importance. Getting a bunch of semi-important things done often doesn’t feel as fulfilling as finishing one task of larger importance. Get the Big One out of the way, celebrate with a piece of chocolate (or whatever strikes your fancy), and move on to what’s next.
- When something is good enough, call it done. Don’t spend your extra precious time wringing your hands over something that’s been finished, but could maybe be a bit more improved. That rabbit hole is endless, and can lead to burnout and anxiety if not managed.
And, with that – I’m calling this post done! I’ll do a Part Two next week. In them meantime, please email me your thoughts and responses – I love to hear your feedback and contributions.
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