Mental wellness is a lifelong pursuit to strengthen one’s mental, emotional, social, and psychological status—and college is a great time to establish and practice healthy habits. Just as we practice good oral hygiene to have healthy teeth and gums, practicing mental hygiene results in mental wellness. Because mental wellness is part of a holistic wellness ideal, some of the mental hygiene strategies also promote physical and other types of wellness, and have a number of positive benefits for our whole system.
The following list includes 10 ways you can strive for mental wellness and practice self-care:
1. Take Breaks
College is like a marathon—not a series of sprints. Succeeding academically in multiple courses simultaneously while engaging socially and in co-curricular activities, and maybe even while working, taking care of a loved one, or other demands requires sustained effort. You may not feel like you need a break, but force yourself to take one knowing that at the end of the day your mind will thank you.
Mental breaks can take many forms. A break can be two minutes of silence when you shut off your screens and music and just focus on your breathing. There are many free mindfulness and relaxation exercises available online, including this “12 days of mindfulness” collection from LinkedIn Learning and these mini meditations created by a SUNY New Paltz faculty member.
2. Practice Gratitude
Even on the worst days you can find something to be grateful for, and finding the positive gets easier the more you practice. Maybe someone holds a door open for you. Maybe the sun is shining (or whatever your preferred weather conditions are). Maybe you are free from illness and pain. Training your brain to find, and be grateful, for what is going right helps your break release dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters responsible for making us feel good. To start, consider using a block of Post-It notes or other cards and try to fill as many as you can throughout the day. You can even leave them for others so your gratefulness can catch on.
3. Respect Your Social Meter
One definition of extrovert and introvert focuses on where you get your energy from. Extroverts come alive when they are around other people and feel energized from that experience. Introverts might be the life of the party, but the effort drains them and they need time alone or with someone they can be quiet with. Know your needs and respect them. Introverts may struggle with FOMO, and even extroverts have their limits.
It’s not always easy to find solitude on a college campus. The international symbol for “I want space” is to put in your ear buds. Taking a walk through or away from campus can also be a peaceful escape, and consider exploring your campus for more private nooks and crannies.
4. Spend Time in Nature
Research has proven that interacting with nature has cognitive benefits. Natural light is a salve to your mind and body. You can enjoy the outdoors any time of year—The Norwegian idea of ‘friluftsliv’ is that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes, and you simply need to prepare to be able to enjoy the out of doors all year long.
This attitude is important since the lack of light in the winter can affect your mood—it’s important to get some while the sun is up, even on cloudy days. But if you just can’t motivate yourself to actually be outside, there are benefits to looking outside (or even at a picture of outside!), so try to find a space near a window that offers natural light and a view of green space.
5. Practice Sleep Hygiene
Even a short deprivation of quality sleep leads to cognitive impairments and irritability. Regularly using caffeine to make up for a chronic lack of sleep is a vicious cycle. Poor sleep habits such as an irregular bedtime and naps can lead to insomnia. Here are some sleep hygiene strategies:
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule as much as possible. That means not sleeping in too much on the weekends.
- Avoid lengthy naps. Set an alarm for 30 minutes to allow for about 20 minutes of actual sleep. Lengthy naps can leave you feeling even more sluggish than before and interfere with your regular sleep cycles.
- Sleep when it’s dark if possible. Block out as much natural and artificial light as you can. Consider wearing an eye mask if needed.
- Eliminate loud noises by using a white noise app, fan, or wear comfortable ear plugs. If you use your phone as a clock be sure it is on Do Not Disturb and Night Mode.
- Avoid spending time in bed—save your bed for sleeping or resting. That will cue your mind to want to sleep in that spot.
- Get natural daylight and be physically active during the day, but avoid harsh lighting and exercise in the final hour before sleeping.
- Don’t eat a late heavy or spicy meal or a lot of sugar. Your body needs time to digest, and sugar can make your heart race.
- Prioritize sleep. College is full of good opportunities that you have to say no to. Be selective, and give yourself permission to occasionally miss out.
- Alcohol is a depressant that can make you feel sleepy, but research shows that the use of alcohol makes for a less restful night’s sleep once the effect wears off.
6. Avoid Using Alcohol and Other Mind-altering Substances Other Than as Prescribed
Mind-altering substances range from caffeine (see Practice Sleep Hygiene) to alcohol to narcotics and psychedelics to over the counter and prescription medications such as sleeping pills and opioids. Some individuals are genetically prone to addiction, and some substances, including sleeping pills, are inherently addictive. Even moderate use of mind-altering substances can interfere with mental wellness. Alcohol is a depressant, and if you are already sad or depressed alcohol lowers inhibition and increases the risk of suicide and self-harm.
7. Elevate Your Heart Rate and Stretch Each Day
Activity that elevates your heart rate 50% (use 220 beats per minute minus your age) for 30 minutes each day (or 150 minutes a week) has numerous benefits, including improving circulation, lowering blood pressure, decreasing risk of type 2 diabetes, and helping you live longer (!). Additionally, it elevates your mood and reduces stress and depression after only five minutes and over time can even alleviate long-term depression. Elevate your heart rate daily, but do so early on if you can; elevating your heart rate too close to bedtime can interfere with your ability to fall asleep.
8. Minimize Social Toxins
While mental wellness provides you with resilience to cope with challenging situations, it cannot be achieved in an environment that bombards you with negative messages and chaos. If you are in a toxic relationship with a partner, parents, friends or others, minimize or end the relationship and get support. Seek out social interactions that are positive and make you feel good about yourself. Building healthy, nurturing and supportive relationships through genuine connections to those around you is critical to mental wellness.
9. Listen to Music and Watch Shows That Make You Feel Good
Just as surrounding yourself with negative people is problematic, exposing your brain to negative messages from music and movies can bring you down. Listening to sad or angry music can be cathartic, but over time can induce negative emotions. The brain has trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction, which is why a horror movie can induce a sympathetic “flight or fight” response (racing heart, shallow breathing, feeling cold, etc).
10. Be Kind and Help Others
In this world when you can be anything—be kind! Especially to yourself. When you’re able to be generous, practice random acts of kindness and see how that impacts your mood. Research has demonstrated that people who volunteer once a month report better mental health, including being more satisfied with their lives, than those who volunteered less frequently or not at all.