Prioritizing your health in college—both mental and physical—is essential to success as a student. According to the American Psychological Association, over 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health issue in 2020–2021. Meanwhile, 50.8% of students reported feeling moderate psychological distress, with 22% feeling serious psychological distress, according to a 2021 survey by the American College Health Association. Thankfully, with the rise of mental health awareness spreading across the world, we are more equipped than ever with knowledge and resources to help. Many college campuses offer on-campus counseling offices and telehealth options that students can utilize for their mental health needs, often free of charge. Here are some other important but easy steps you can prioritize to promote a healthy mind in college.
One of the most important things you can do to help keep your mind healthy is to give it a break. Your brain cannot work at its full capacity 24/7, and if you don't take a break, your body and brain will eventually take one for you, resulting in a crash and/or burnout. That’s why it’s important to take brain breaks while you work! I know it may feel elementary, but studies have shown that taking breaks between tasks actually boosts your productivity. In an interview with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Leonardo G. Cohen, MD—a senior investigator at NIH and senior author of a 2021 study—says that taking breaks between tasks “appears to be the period when our brains compress and consolidate memories of what we just practiced.” Fun activities to do on your brain breaks include drawing, singing, going on a short walk, making yourself a snack, reading, knitting, crocheting, or listening to music. One thing to avoid? Social media. It’s an unproductive break between tasks more often than not, as it is designed to “suck you in.”
Another way to keep your mind healthy is to practice positive affirmations. Although it may feel a little silly at first, positive affirmations instill in our brains that we are loved, we are enough, and we are valued. Humans love patterns—we seek them out in everything around us. Having a positive affirmation routine is a pattern of thinking that your brain will eventually latch onto. It won't happen right away, but consistency is key! You can find plenty of examples of affirmations on the internet, and you can come up with as many as you want on your own.
As with your physical health, self-care is an incredibly beneficial strategy to help keep your brain healthy. Mental self-care involves doing things to help de-stress and clear your mind. Just like your body, the brain also gets tired, and when that happens, it won’t have the energy to complete certain tasks. Sometimes, our brains don't even have the energy to complete tasks we deem “simple,” like brushing our teeth, showering, or eating. When this happens, it’s important to first give yourself grace and patience. Second, you should find a way to rest your brain. Just like your heart, liver, and kidneys, your brain is an organ that deserves to be taken seriously, treated with care, and not pushed beyond its limits.
Ways to show your brain some self-care and avoid mental burnout include taking a short nap, watching a comforting show or movie, reading or listening to an audiobook, playing a low-stress video game (or watching someone else play), or cuddling with a pet or stuffed animal. According to the Sleep Foundation, a 20–30-minute nap can help boost alertness in adults, while an hour and a half may be needed to avoid fatigue for long stretches. Both types of naps avoid interrupting your deep sleep cycle, which would result in grogginess and an increase in exhaustion. To avoid any nighttime problems, it’s best to try and nap before 3:00 pm so that it doesn't interrupt your regular sleep schedule.
The constant influx of information on the internet, prolonged stressors like work and school, and the strain of long-distance social relationships in college are a lot more than our brains were originally designed to handle. Giving your brain a break and some much-needed kindness are both vital in assuring it can adequately do its job without tearing your body apart in the process. Your brain is a very important organ, and it deserves just as much love and care as the rest of your body does!
Part three of this series will cover healthy academic habits in college. In the meantime, explore other articles on prioritizing your mental health on CollegeXpress. And if you or someone you know needs professional support, learn more from the National Institute of Mental Health or another trusted resource—help is free and available 24/7!