“Self-care” is a term that is frequently found on product ads on social media or casually mentioned when giving advice to a stressed out college student. It is easy to say the phrase, but let’s be real, does anyone have time to balance studying, work, social activities, relationships, to actually spend time on themselves? Many may say no, but reality is that you should.
Have you ever been around a toddler who missed their nap time or has been overstimulated? Trust me, you don’t want to be around them. They are usually cranky, whiny, or crying excessively. If it is crucial for toddlers to nap or have downtime, it should be just as important for adults who lead an extremely busy lifestyle to find ways to do the same. As a nurse practitioner, I have had several students come in displaying physical symptoms of stress and once all other diagnoses are ruled out, I refer them to meet with our counselors. Yes, you read that correctly. Your body can exhibit physical symptoms of stress if you do not spend time to unwind or practice “self-care.”
Physical symptoms of stress include:
- Headaches, muscle tension, neck or back pain
- Upset stomach
- Dry mouth
- Chest pains, rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Loss of appetite or overeating “comfort foods”
- Increased frequency of colds
- Lack of concentration or focus
- Memory problems or forgetfulness
- Short temper
A study in 2015 conducted across 108 U.S. college campuses found that three out of every four college student reported at least one stressful life event within the past year (ranging from personal appearance or social relationships to problems with family).2 Twenty percent said they experienced greater than five stressful life events within that same time frame. When asked about suicidal thoughts or attempts to harm themselves, one in five college students said they had thought of suicide, while one in ten actually attempted it. For students who identified as a sexual minority such as gay, lesbian, and bisexual had two to three times more suicidal thoughts or suicidal attempts than heterosexual students. Transgender students were among the highest in reported mental health diagnoses and suicidality.2 At Stevenson University, Dr. Linda Reymann, the director of the Wellness Center, has noticed a trend in students who lack self-care or coping strategies. “Lack of self-care can impact friendships. If a student has difficulty caring for themselves, it is challenging to put energy into a friendship. It goes back to the basic analogy, if your tank is empty, it is hard to give of yourself to others. Anxiety and depression are our top two diagnoses and I do believe a lack of self-care can impact the severity of symptoms.” Stress as a college student is very real and it is important to find ways to manage it.
So what exactly is “self-care?” Dr. Sally Bonefas, a clinical psychologist at the Wellness Center, defines it as “any conscious action we take in order to maintain or improve our mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. Although the concept of self-care is logical, it is often overlooked in the busy-ness of life. Effective self-care reduces anxiety, raises mood, and improves the relationship with oneself and others. Self-care refuels our energy. It is not a selfish act, as it serves us as well as those around us.”
Here are seven ways to exercise self-care.
- Good sleep quality is an essential human function – it allows our brains to recharge and our bodies to rest.3 Slight sleep deprivation or poor sleep is so crucial that it can affect memory, judgement, and mood.2 The Center of Disease Control (CDC) recommends 8 to 10 hours of sleep for teenagers up to 18 years of age. 4 For 18 to 60 year olds, the CDC recommends 7 or more hours per night. 3 Napping throughout the day can also improve energy levels.
- Exercise burns extra calories, but it also releases endorphins and increases serotonin function in the brain.5 Low serotonin levels can lead to depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, panic, and even excess anger6. Exercise has an antidepressant and anxiolytic effect.5 The most consistent effect occurs when regular exercisers perform aerobic exercise (running, jogging, swimming, dancing, spinning, etc) at a level with which they are familiar. 5 Exercising for 30 minutes or more a day three to five days a week can significantly improve depression or anxiety symptoms. 7 Smaller amounts of physical activity (as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time) may still make a difference. 7
- Be kind to yourself. Are you overcritical of yourself? Do you replay mistakes in your head or punish yourself for your failures? Self-compassion is a powerful predictor of mental health. 9 For example, self-compassion reduces the risk of depression, anxiety, neurotic perfectionism while increasing life satisfaction and social connectedness. 9 Self-compassion represents acceptance towards all aspects of oneself including those that are disliked. When practicing self-compassion, you have the ability to face painful thoughts and feelings, without the drama or self-pity.9
- Eating well. Self-care means making sure you are well fed. Are you eating food that provides you with quality energy to function?10 Do you make time to eat healthy meals or do you skip meals because you are rushing to class, work, or cramming for a test? I have had several students tell me they eat 1-2 meals a day and snack the remainder of the day due to time constraints. Some students even forget to eat because they are so focused on class work. Eating a balanced breakfast regularly and omega-3 based food such as fish (salmon, sardines, anchovies, etc), chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans have shown to boost your mood.11
- Journaling, meditation, and yoga. Journaling helps you process your feelings, ignite creativity centers in the brain and will help you be in the present moment.12 Writing your thoughts, feelings, and experiences allows for healing from stress and trauma.13 It can even boost your immune system.13 Meditation can alter your feelings of stress and anxiety.14 Meditation trains the brain to achieve sustained focus and to return to that focus when negative thinking, emotions, and physical sensations intrude.14 Meditation has also been found to change parts of the brain that becomes hyperactive in people with depression. It also helps protect the hippocampus (the area involved in memory). A study showed that people who meditated for 30 minutes a day for eight weeks increased the volume of gray matter in their hippocampus.14 Yoga encourages one to relax, slow their breathing and focus on the present, causing a shift from the flight-or-fight response to the relaxation response in the nervous system.15 Yogic practices inhibit the areas of the brain responsible for fear, aggressiveness and rage, and stimulate the rewarding pleasure centers creating a sense of well-being, feelings of relaxation, improved self-confidence and efficiency, lowered irritability, and an optimistic outlook on life.15 Consistent yoga practice can improve depression and lead to significant increases in serotonin levels.15 Click Here for a list of recommended apps you can download to start your journey to relaxation.
- Unplug from technology. Technology is designed to keep us constantly plugged in, yet never fully satisfied. We are left drained by the constant barrage of notifications preventing us from truly living.15 Personally speaking, I know it is not easy, but taking a step back is the best way to open up the creative space that is necessary as a college student. Research has shown that downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to achieve our highest levels of performance.12
- Seeing a counselor at the Wellness Center. If options 1-6 did not help improve your mood, consider seeing a counselor. Sometimes, it can be difficult to share a troubling personal experience with family and friends. You may not realize how traumatic events in your childhood can still impact you as you enter adulthood. Sometimes, you just need to talk to someone nonbiased about your life. You can call (443)352-4200 to make an appointment with our counselor or ask us for recommendations to local therapists.
Be Kind to Your Mind, a mental health and self-care retreat for students will be held on Sunday, November 10th from 1-4pm in the Claire Moore Room. To sign up contact Jenna Womack at firstname.lastname@example.org
By: Sudin Thomas, MSN, FNP-BC
1American Psychological Association. (2019). Listening to the warning signs of stress. Retrieved on September 26, 2019 from https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-signs
2Liu, C. (2018). The prevalence and predictors of mental health diagnoses and suicide among U.S. college students: Implications for addressing disparities in service use. Depression and Anxiety, 36(1), 8-17.
3American Psychological Association. (2019). Stress and sleep. Retrieved on September 26, 2019 from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/sleep
4Center of Disease Control (CDC). (2017). How much sleep do I need? Retrieved on September 26, 2019 from https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html
5Young, S. (2007). How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of Psychiatry Neuroscience 32(6), 394-399. Retrieved on October 2, 2019 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/
6Bouchez, C. (2011). Serotonin: 9 questions and answers. Retrieved on October 2, 2019 from https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/serotonin#1
7Mayo Clinic. (2017). Depression and anxiety: exercise eases symptoms. Retrieved on October 2, 2019 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495
8Reynolds, K. (2019). How much does therapy or counseling cost? Retrieved on October 2, 2019 from https://depression.informedchoices.ca/types-of-treatment/counseling-or-therapy/how-much-does-therapy-or-counseling-cost/
9Neff, K, & Rude, S., & Kirkpatrick, K. (2007). An examination of self-compassion in relation to positive psychological functioning and personality traits. Journal of Research in Personality 41(4), 908-916. Retrieved on October 2, 2019 from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S009265660600095X
10Baratta, M. (2018). Self care 101. Retrieved on October 2, 2019 fromhttps://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/skinny-revisited/201805/self-care-101
11Magee, E. (2007). Foods to uplift your mood. Retrieved on October 3, 2019 from https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/foods-to-uplift-your-mood#1
12The University of Texas at Austin Counseling and Mental Health Center. (2019). Self care activities. Retrieved October 3, 2019 from https://cmhc.utexas.edu/selfcare.html
13Murray, B. (2002). Writing to heal. Monitor on Psychology, 33(6), 54. Retrieved on October 3, 2019 from https://www.apa.org/monitor/jun02/writing
14Harvard Men’s Health Watch. (2018). How meditation helps with depression. Retrieved on October 4, 2019 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/how-meditation-helps-with-depression
15Pettijohn, N. Why you will be happier if you unplug. (2019). Retrieved on October, 4, 2019 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanpettijohn/2019/05/07/why-you-will-be-happier-if-you-unplug/#5f3936b564bc