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Healthy Coping Mechanisms

A list of quick-fix healthy coping mechanisms, from one student to others.

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 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.

When I started university three years ago, I was excited to begin a new and exciting chapter in my life. What followed were three incredibly difficult years where my mental health (or lack thereof) took centre stage not just in my personal headspace, but my academic life and in my closest relationships.  

Sadly, I do not think that my experience has been particularly unusual. Rather, it is broadly reflective on my generation.  

University is, by nature, an uprooting experience. It consists of young adults being removed from their familiar environments, and placed instead in an entirely alien community and lifestyle — usually for the first time in their lives. This engenders not only new experiences and emotions, but an intense level of uncertainty — of one’s identity, relationships, future plans, and personal motivations (to name a few).  

Furthermore, today’s students face the additional pressures of social media, which inspires personal comparison and perfectionism, both of which are detrimental to one’s self-perception and self-esteem. Under such circumstances it is unsurprising that students’ mental health is suffering at an increasing rate.  

When I was first faced with these difficulties, I, like many others, developed coping mechanisms to deal with the overwhelmingly negative feelings that I was experiencing. Unfortunately, these mechanisms were unhealthy, and made my situation significantly worse.  

Upon realising that the methods that I was using to make me feel better were having the opposite effect, I decided to try and find some healthy, beneficial coping mechanisms instead.  

As for most of my generation, my initial reaction was top hop online and Google “healthy coping mechanisms.” However, to my disappointment, there were very few results, and what results there were all seemed to say the same thing: exercise, sleep, eat well. While these are certainly vital for one’s well-being, I was after quick fixes — things that I could do immediately at moments when I felt low to make me feel better.  

Although some such lists have since worked their way to the top of Google’s algorithmic search results, it occurred to me recently that, over the last three years, I have, unconsciously, been developing my own list: things that work for me. Things that I do when I feel down which make me feel better — most of which I have yet to see on the lists of others. I present this list below. I hope that they help someone who needs them. 

1. Find someone to hug.

Science tells us that hugging can reduce stress, pain, and negative mood, so find someone and squeeze them tightly! 

2. Write with your non-dominant hand.

I started doing this in an (ongoing) attempt to become ambidextrous and engage the lesser-used parts of my brain. However, I soon realised that the relative difficulty of the act absorbed my full attention, drawing my mind away from negative thoughts. Additionally, while searching for things to write down as practice, I began to write about how I was feeling each day, which WebMD asserts can help improve one’s mood by increasing awareness of one’s feelings and making them seem more manageable. 

3. Put on music and dance.

Pop, jazz, rap, classical — whatever your music taste, stick on some tunes and move your body. This can be done with friends in a sitting room, alone in your bedroom, or out on the street with everybody watching. However you wish to do it, get moving and release those endorphins!  

4. Make yourself laugh.

Laughter is the best medicine” is an age-old adage that has many modern-day solutions. If you cannot find friends to make you chuckle in person, it is easier than ever to self-induce the giggles — try watching a sitcom on Netflix, or Vine compilations on YouTube.  

5. Go for a walk which will test you.

Lots of well-being lists include “go for a walk,” however this never quite worked for me. What I have found much more effective is going for walks which challenge me in some way. I think that I find them useful because they encourage me to feel intense emotions (other than melancholic ones). For me, climbing a hill, or walking in the rain without a coat, elicit emotions which I find grounding and remind me of the reality of the world outside my own head. (Remember to dry off quickly if doing the latter, though!) 

6. Learn to sit with your feelings.

While this is my least favourite coping mechanism to undertake, I have no doubt that it is the most important. Learning to sit and experience negative feelings is the only way that I know of to truly come to terms with them. I have yet to be fully successful, I perhaps I never will be, but every attempt makes me feel closer to self-acceptance and inner peace.  

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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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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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