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Mental Health Awareness Month: 7 tips to manage your mental health in college

Being a college student can be overwhelming and strenuous on your mental health. These tips will help manage your mental health and make life a little easier.
BY Anandamayee Singh |   03-05-2019

7 tips to manage your mental health in college

It is no secret that college takes a toll on the mental health of students. Almost every article about college students for the past couple years has reported rising rates of depression and anxiety. Between the tug and pull of demanding academics and extracurriculars and the repercussions of exorbitant tuition fees, the significant spike in mental health problems seems unsurprising.

However, there are ways to face the overwhelming weight of being a college student today without totally crumbling in the pressure. As a recent college graduate, and staunch believer in finding alternatives to Gwenyth Paltrow’s Goop-y approach to wellness, I’ve struggled and worked to manage my depression and anxiety. Here are seven tips that have, for the most part, helped navigate the everyday despite intense anxiety and depression. They may not address the structural problems that significantly impact the mental health of college students, but they may make facing them a little easier.

Seek out help

It can be isolating and daunting to live with complete strangers, in a new environment, and for international students, often a completely different culture. I grew up in small, uniform and meticulous Switzerland. It took me a year to adjust to the vastness-- both in culture and size-- of American life. It really helped was speaking to my roommates, acquaintances, and seeking out a therapist. What surprised me most was that all my friends, even upperclassmen had felt lonely and scared in their time at college.

So speak to people. Opening up to them will make room for vulnerable, honest and deeply impactful relationships. Even if that doesn’t end up being the case with everyone, at the very least, asking for help will point you in the direction of resources and professionals who can help you. And that is imperative, because they will be able to assess the severity of your situation, and the kind of help you need.

Try to make lifestyle changes

A contributing factor to anxiety and depression is irregular routines. Depending on the severity and causes for your anxiety and/or depression, lifestyle changes can significantly impact your mental wellbeing. My anxiety and depression are much more manageable when I’m disciplined about mealtimes and bedtimes.So, try and push yourself to make small changes and bring consistency in your life. Whether it is making sure you always eat breakfast, or maintaining strict bed and wake up times, try and take steps to introduce regularity in your life. I hate saying this, but exercise is also exponentially beneficial for mental health. Try to incorporate a minimum level of physical activity in your life. I started incorporating exercise with a quick 10 minutes of cardio every other day in my life. Even a nice walk in the park can improve your mood. In my experience, it is necessary to do something that forces you to go outside everyday. Staying inside in your cocoon will make it easier for anxiety

Check in with your body

In moments when your anxiety and/or depression are particularly bad-- when you feel particularly empty-- it is very helpful to check in with yourself. Are you well-hydrated and fed? Are you sleep deprived? Have you had some form of physical activity?One of my best friends in college always asked me these questions whenever I confessed feeling anxious or really depressed, and it almost always helped.The answers to these questions will be good starting points, and will help in dealing with a particularly mentally challenging day.

It is also a good idea to speak with your therapist or a nutritionist to try and figure out if you are lacking any essential nutrients in your diet. Quite a few of my therapists have told me try out nutritional supplements before considering medication for my depression, as a dietary lack can significantly impact your mental well-being.

Recognize the strength in incremental change

Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of accomplishing an incredible personal transformation in a She’s All That-esque three minute montage. Developing  healthy habits and thought patterns takes time, and it’s easy feel disheartened or intimidated. So, it’s important to celebrate the incremental steps you take. Did you snooze your alarm once instead of the usual three times? Did you use stairs instead of the elevator? Did you choose a banana instead of a chocolate croissant for breakfast? Applaud yourself! Because that is the first step of investing in a healthier and (hopefully) more fulfilling life. I used to award myself with a single skittle every time I hit my water target for the day.

Practice developing a more consistently positive relationship with yourself.

College offers you many possibilities of discovery, whether it is the courses you choose, the clubs you join, or the relationships you have. However, in the myriad options, and large community of extremely talented people, it can be easy to get lost, and feel like an imposter.  I found that the way I spoke to myself became increasingly negative in the first year of college. It wasn’t until my therapist pointed it out that I realised how unpleasant I was towards myself, consistently catastrophizing slightly negative events, always worried that everyone hated me and I could do no right.

If you find your thought patterns becoming increasingly negative, take steps to develop a more positive relationship with yourself. Ask counselors about tools that will help reframe negative thought patterns. Whether it is positive affirmations, rigorous journalling or cognitive behavioural therapy, take out time in the day to address the way that you talk about and to yourself. Join group therapy, or check in with friends who have similar struggles and keep yourselves accountable.

Allow yourself rituals of self-care

It is important to prioritize yourself in the most emotionally and mentally distressing moments. When depression sits on chest in the morning, making it impossible to get up and start your day, or when anxiety clings to you, making you feel as if your body is not yours, that exhaling is so heavy, you might just cry, it is necessary to have rituals that help ground you. Personally, my anxiety makes me dissociate from my body, making me feel as if the world around me is not real.

There are specific grounding exercises for anxiety that help you focus on your breathing, and heighten your awareness of the tangible reality around you . If those don’t work for you, you can create your own rituals or practices. For example, my roommate took up crocheting in our second year to deal with her dissociative anxiety.

I have noticed that with depression, it is helpful to start small. Make your bed, then maybe try and brush your teeth and take a shower. Give yourself the time you need to start moving, even if it takes you an hour to roll over from your side, and congratulate yourself when you do, because when depression hangs over you, even a twitch can be a victory.

Spoon theory is your friend

Spoon theory is a disability metaphor used to explain reduced mental and physical energy for productive ‘everyday’ activities. It was coined by Christine Miserandino in 2003, to describe how she navigated the everyday with lupus. Spoons are a visual representation of how much energy a person has throughout the day. For people with disabilities, both physical and mental, each activity costs them a given number of spoons. So they have to plan and ration the amount of spoons they have depending on what they want to achieve in the day.

7 tips to manage your mental health in college

As you are learning how to manage your mental health, it is extremely important to be honest about the number of spoons you have remaining throughout day, so you can choose the activities you want to participate in accordingly. This is also a really good tool to help your loved ones understand why  you can’t make their event.Whenever I’m too exhausted or low energy to go to a friend’s party or dinner, I just say I’m out of spoons.

As is the case with your physical well-being, managing your mental and emotional well-being requires a great deal of dedication and patience. You need to be consistent and constantly check in with yourself to make sure you are making the best choices for yourself.

Related articles:
Mindfulness: How Brown University is championing the cool trend
“Enjoy your education, focus on things that matter.” Interview with Dr. Joanna Fountain
Tips to survive your first year at UCLA



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