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5 Ways I Improved My Mental Health the First Half of the New School Year

Different ways to practice effective coping methods.

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Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash
Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

This year, World Mental Health Day fell on my last day of class before fall break. I woke up with a headache, feeling burned-out from all of the schoolwork and ready to try and relax for four days.

I remember as a freshman wondering why students had a fall break a little over a month into the school year. As a senior, I have valued this break immensely as it provides me time to regroup and prepare myself for the rest of the semester.

Leading up to this day, I had to use a lot of coping methods to maintain a healthy stress level and reduce my anxiety of schoolwork. Sometimes I spiral into a funk and feel as though I can’t physically or mentally continue with school. This year, I was determined to combat this feeling. 

Here are five things that I did this first half of the semester to keep my mental health up. 

1. Make time for meals with my friends

In the past, I have skipped meals to stay in the library to do homework and study. There are cafes in our libraries, so I would grab a snack such as a bag of chips or a muffin and use that as my fuel for the long day ahead of me.

However, I realized that my lack of good nutrition was causing me to do worse in school. I would tire out more easily and get headaches easily. Junior year I lost five pounds in the fall semester from skipping meals all of the time.

By planning a lunch with a friend or group of friends, I force myself to be part of a commitment. This allows me to get an actual nutritious meal to keep me running for the night while also  allowing me to get out of the school bubble and maintain friendships with people. When I shut myself in the library, I would sometimes not see my friends for days on end.

This method provided me with two boosts to my mental health: food and substantial friendships.

2. Exercise with my dog

Everyone hears this all of the time. Having a fitness routine is said to  help immensely with mental health by reducing anxiety and improving cognitive function. Personally, I get gratification from not being holed up in a room or a library all day and getting some exercise.

I have my dog on campus, so instead of opting for the gym, I take her for walks around campus. My dog has loved walks ever since she was a little puppy. She still has an abundance of energy in her, and sometimes I feel like she’s walking me. I take her on the same 20 minute route approximately three times a day to provide both of us with the right amount of exercise and fresh air.

Even if you don’t have a dog on campus, sometimes walking around outside with a friend is another great way to fit mild exercise in especially on Lehigh’s campus!

3. Creating music playlists

Sometimes music is able to describe my feelings and moods better than I can verbalize myself. Having the ability to create groups of music that I understand and can draw connections between has helped me immensely with my mental health.

I have always loved music since a young age. I played three instruments and am almost always seen with headphones and my head bobbing. I have been creating playlists since I first made my Spotify back in 2012. There are different types of music for every occasion, and I enjoy capitalizing on the gift of music and making playlists relevant to me in my life.

I have a relaxation playlist filled with acoustic and indie songs to put on when I’m getting ready for bed. I have a hip-hop playlist when I’m doing housework or walking around to class to keep me awake. During my studying and homework, I play classical music at a soft volume.

Creating playlists allows these genres to not be mixed all of the time, and I can keep a steady rhythm and routine going when I put a specific one on repeat.

4. Learning to say no

Senior year is not the easy happy-go-lucky year that everyone made it out to seem. I have four classes, preparation for two theses, and extracurriculars including writing for three publications and an internship. I love all of these activities and what I do, but in the past, I have always overextended myself further.

When a friend asks me for help on a project, I usually say yes. I know that my friend would do the same for me, and I like sharing my knowledge and skills to teach others. However, this mindset has pushed me into extremely stressful situations. I was suddenly balancing time crunches for my own work and my friend’s work. 

The amount of work that I had became too much, and I was stressed about helping others more than I was about helping myself. I made commitments and wanted to be reliable on those. Eventually, I helped finish everything, but this experience taught me how to say no in future endeavors.

This has been an integral mindset for me as midterm papers rolled around. I know that I can’t and shouldn’t overextend myself. It’s not selfish at all to focus on yourself and your own priorities before helping others. This doesn’t make you a bad person; instead, you are looking out for yourself and your own well-being.

5. Sleep

This has always been a difficult goal of mine. I always justified that I could catch up on sleep during the weekend and opted to stay up late nights, whether I was completing homework or catching up on homework.

Last year, I got extremely sick from my lack of sleep and pushing my body to being productive for ridiculously long hours. Between school and my part-time restaurant job, my physical and mental health were completely spiraling. I would wake up with headaches and feel like I couldn’t move because my body hadn’t regenerated completely with the small amount of sleep I was getting. 

This year, I was determined to make a change. 

I try and aim for at least six and a half hours. Although this is a decent amount of time away from the recommended eight hours, I used to only get four. This is a huge improvement for me personally. 

Sometimes I even sleep in later and get those eight hours. By framing sleep as a necessity instead of a hassle, I have been able to tell myself that it’s okay to not finish everything that night. School work isn’t worth destroying your health, no matter how that may seem in class or at the time.

Grades and GPA are stressed immensely in college, though, and I know the desires to complete everything in order to maintain high aspirations and standards. However, the number or grade letter doesn’t define your worth, and missing one day isn’t the end of the world.

As an extreme workaholic, I had difficulty falling asleep if I knew there was still work to be completed. But after reframing my mindset, I have been able to sleep more easily and tell myself that I can’t be perfect in everything. Sleep allows me to work at my fullest potential the next day, and I have noticed the most dramatic shift in happiness and esteem from doing so this year.

Looking forward

When I get back from break, I know that school is going to be more difficult. I’ll be counting down the days until Thanksgiving break. I hope that I can continue to practice these methods that have helped me so much up to this point. Hopefully, I can discover some more to be the best and happiest version of myself during these times of stress.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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