Working Through It: A Self-Care Syllabus for Back to College
Alright. Here we go. Breathe in. Breathe Out.
It's official; I've begun my senior year of college. It's so wild to think about how things change so incredibly fast. It seems like it's been a lifetime between now and my first day at my university and I feel like I've experienced and learned so much. Along with gaining knowledge on many of the topics that I'm studying, I've also learned a lot about myself, my mental state and how I deal with stress in college. We're all swiftly thrown into this experience, without any real advice about our mental health or well being. Sure, we are given a ton of advice about what colleges are the best, what sororities we should sign up for or which pre-requisites we should take first -- which is all fine advice! However, there's never a strong focus on talking about the mental anguish and draining that goes into college. I wasn't even aware that there were services at my school that provided depression and anxiety screenings until the END of my sophomore year. I didn't know I could have a certain amount of free counseling sessions at the counseling center until my junior year. And I'm not the only one.
We don't like to talk about mental health. Or depression. Or suicide. Or any of the ugly things that go on after we're done pretending that everything's fine. The expectation is that you get thrown into a new life, a new schedule and you need to adapt right away. But the reality is taht starting college is a huge transition as far as the amount of stress we experience, compared to our high school years. And the worst part is that it doesn't get harder gradually...it snowballs on you before you're even prepared.
And now, after having the last two years (Sophomore and Junior) become the most stressful and fast paced years of my life, I feel now, entering senior year--I'm more prepared. But that doesn't necessarily mean I'm less stressed and anxious. Instead, I now feel like I'm standing at the bottom of a mountain with snow at the top, and oh yes, that boulder of snow is forming. And I don't want to feel that way. This is the last year of college, and despite everything, I've learned so much and I'm so excited to finish my degrees. I'm so excited about the wonderful organization I've been apart of. I want to take this all in, with everything I've learned, and have a good senior year. But I also realized, that along with my knowledge on AP style and sociological theory, I've also learned a lot of very necessary tips for SURVIVING mentally and psychologically in college. And I realized that I was forced to teach myself these skills because last year, even though I had succeeded in many thing academic-wise, my mental status was slowly searching it's all time low.
We've all seen the memes on twitter or wherever, where we're joking about how stressed we all are about college classes. I feel like my generation has definitely felt the need to create humor as a tactic to cope with the stress we deal with. Along with the expansion of social media, I think this also shows that our generation is stressed as hell, and that we're all just trying to cope with all the stuff we're dealing with.
So whether you're a freshman starting off in college or if you're further down the line and already feeling the heat, I think it's time for you to take some notes on how to take care of yourself. Because I certainly didn't enter my first day at school prepared. And now, it's senior year and all I'm doing is anticipating all the stress I'm going to have instead of realizing all the valuable tools I've learned. Because this is unfortunately not made a priority when we're first told about the mystical world of higher education. But it's so important. College students are at very high risk of suicide or having suicidal thoughts. Anxiety and depression rates have gone through the root. I've seen this through statistical studies as well as people I know going through a hard time. Everyone deserves to get an education, but everyone also deserves to not lose themselves on the way there.
I. ORGANIZATION: DO YOU
I've learned that throughout college, one way or another you figure out a way to map out everything you have to do. Whether it's physical planners or digital calendars, it's good to try out different forms of organization to figure out what works best for you. The thing that personally saved my sanity was Google Calendar, which I discovered my junior year. Just having a tool where I can block out what I have to do and where I have to be at what time is a blessing. As a person who still will always have a physical planner, Google Calendar was that extra step that made me feel more in control.
Last year I gave a crack at bullet journaling, which I wrote about in a blog post here. While I enjoyed creating my own layouts, I realized that I couldn't expect myself to keep it up this semester because it's going to be way too chaotic. So, I decided to invest in a Ban.do planner, which I've heard many good things about. The thing I like about this planner, is that it's like your friend and your biggest fan. It makes organizing your busy, hectic schedule actually fun. All the bright colors and pleasing designs right away calms me down when I open it up. It also and has a ton of motivational and uplifting features to it that is honestly has been helping so much. I would suggest that even if you get a classic Moleskin, write yourself a "GO YOU" or "You've got this note" on certain pages-- it helps to remind yourself that. Here are some pictures of my planner that I'm using this semester (I'll definitely be showing it off more, so be ready):
II. GET THOSE Z'S: SLEEP SCHEDULE
Ah, sleep and college students. Two things that aren't supposed to go together, right? NOPE, WRONG. I'm honestly tired of all this over-glamorization and romanticization of having lack of sleep during college. All the BuzzFeed articles and memes don't help either. Yes, we get it. Millennials are all exhausted and going to bed at 3 am cramming. But did anyone actually try and figure out why we're so god damn tired? It's because we don't prioritize sleep any more. We all go on diets and exercise routines, but never think about the benefits of going to bed at a time that is actually good for us (obviously, everyone's internal clock is different). This "no-sleep" philosophy is something that I officially let go of last semester. Like, no thanks. I'm not going to tweet about how I'm staying up and cramming for an exam until 3 am because I'm not doing that. Why? Because I've been in school long enough where I know this won't do any damn good. I did that my first two years on certain nights and it did not go well. Investing in time for sleep--ACTUAL sleep, is absolutely necessary. So stop it with the "college students never sleep" stereotype. Let's change it to, "college students are making sleeping cool again".
Obviously, this is easier said than done--but sleep is something that is so important to be part of your self care routine. The best way I have avoided late night study sessions is by simply following some strict rules for myself to make sure I get a good night's sleep. This means making sure you get as much as I can done while I'm awake and the sun is still up. Your sleep routine should be a spiritual experience--yes I mean it. Make it special. Don't make it just one of those things you have to do. I started getting into the mindset last year when I got really busy that "I can sleep while I'm dead! I need to finish this now!". But now I realize how horrifically unhealthy this is. Yes, there is time to sleep.
Additionally, I have a lot of problems sometimes with sleeping due to anxiety/panic attacks, which is something a lot of young people deal with. You can see my advice on specifically dealing with anxiety attacks later on in this post, and how you can apply it when you're trying to sleep.
Some things I've been trying to do lately to help get a good night's sleep:
- Avoid ALL social media for a significant amount of time before bed. This could be an hour or half hour. Basically when you're getting ready for bed, brushing your teeth, doing a sheet mask, DON'T look at your phone in between. And if you're still not quite ready to sleep, lay in bed and read a book you like or listen to music--even a podcast if you need something a little extra occupation before bed! But please, for the love of god, get away from that blue light.
- Drink warm tea before bed.
- Get a comfy-ass pillow.
- Take a warm bath/shower before bed.
- Use a sleeping eye mask + ear plugs on particularly restless/distracting nights.
- Meditate. There's a lot of good apps out there, but one that I've been using is Calm, which has timed meditation that you can set based on how long you want to be mindful. I've been trying to do 10 minutes of deep breathing before I lay down. The Calm app also has this cool thing where it plays soothing music that is specifically made to help you drift to sleep.
III. TALKING YOURSELF OUT OF ANXIETY ATTACKS
I never knew this would be a valuable college skill. Well, it is. Along with organization and study skills, this is something that has helped me get through these last couple of years of college. A lot of us are dealing with anxiety, depression or general stress. These issues are often caused and definitely amplified by the fast paced demands of college. Just last week --the week BEFORE the first day of school-- I had two pretty severe anxiety attacks in two days. This was mostly because I was already over-anticipating all the stress and responsibilities i would be dealing with. My mind right away became a tornado and started jumbling up everything, making it seem like I was completely not prepared to start the semester. Throughout the last couple of years, I've had a lot of nights where I felt suddenly numb and overwhelmed by everything. I had days where in the middle of class I felt like running out and crying or even zoned out and started tearing up, hoping that no one would notice.
A lot of the times it gets really bad for me on some evenings; when the general stress of the day is over and I'm now at home--thinking about all the things I have to still do. The best thing I try to do is talk to myself in my head, and literally talk myself out of losing it. I tell myself to not worry about the things I can't control right now. I tell myself to just try and do whatever I can now, even a little bit, and then save the rest for the same day. Anxiety attacks usually start when we try to do a lot of things right away, because we want to get as much done as we can. If you know that feeling all too well, you know it never works. But I've learned that comforting myself when I was freaking out really did help. After all, we know ourselves best and sometimes we just need to be alone and even have a nice cry.
IV. TAKE A MOMENT (OR A DAY)
Along with finding time before bed, it's so crucial to make sure you're not on full-speed mode all day constantly. Take a moment to breathe. To eat. To drink some water. This were little things that I really let slip in the last couple years. I noticed that I was conquering all my large tasks well, like essays and projects. But when it came to remembering to stay hydrated? Well, I got an F in that. Because it got to the point where by 4pm I felt lightheaded and sick, and it was purely because I wasn't drinking enough water. Same thing with eating. It's so important to take these moments to check yourself, literally. Have you had enough water? Did you stop and take a couple deep breathes? Do you have a second to just sit down? Have some fresh air?
In one of the English 101 classes I'm tutoring this year, the professor I'm working with was talking about excused absences and she took the time to talk about mental health days. I thought this was so amazing because I never had my professors really focus in on the importance of taking mental health days and that YES, you can take them. I'm glad she took the time to explain that. It just helps normalize the idea to college students that it's okay to not be okay. It's okay if you are feeling like you need a day because the world is all too much. This also helps bring out into the open the conversation about mental health issues, so that students know that it's not all in their head.
V. CONSUME ART
You know what honestly calmed me down and made me feel less stressed the other day? Watching a video of a slam poem on Facebook. It just randomly popped dup on my feed and I watched it and immediately got inspired. Art makes us feel connected to things. And it reminds us that the whole world does not just consist of all the things we have to do and all the things we're stressing about. It also makes us realize that we are not the only ones going through mental anguish. It's a way to escape, while still keeping your mind active and inspired. You can feel this from consuming any mediums of art: poetry, novels, music, art, and yes, even TV shows.
Some artsy things I consume to feel better:
- Poetry. What I'm reading now: New American Best Friend and Instinct to Ruin
- Visit a Museum. Most of these beautiful places are free, and if you're a Clevelander reading this, friendly reminder that the Cleveland Museum of Art is FREE, along with a ton of other art galleries in the city.
- Music. Spotify, Itunes, whatever works best for you--indulge yourself in your favorite jams. If you don't know where to start, check out my self care playlist here.
- Taking photos.
- Whatever creative expression YOU enjoy!
LINK OF STUFF -- MORE THINGS ON SELF CARE AND KEEPING YOURSELF MENTALLY HAPPY THIS SEMESTER:
- Leandra Medine's podcast, Monocycle is truly a gem I didn't know I needed. She shares some crucial advice on being kind to yourself and having good self care. One of my favorite episodes is where she gives her take on how she talks herself out of an anxiety attack. You can find it on iTunes.
- Article, Girlboss: We Desperately Need To Talk About Mental Health More, And Here's Why
- The College Student Mental Health Crisis - Psychology today.
- Apps: Calm (Sleep and meditation), Stop, Breathe and Think (meditation and breathing) and Headspace.