How to Maintain School-Life Balance for Mental Health in College
Whether you’re heading to college for the first time, heading back after a break, or just struggling to keep up, it’s important that you take time to set boundaries and determine how to split your time. College often requires a significant amount of stress, with time dedicated to navigating often intense social relationships with teachers, peers, and new friends. Balancing that stress with a hectic schedule of studying, memorizing, and learning to perform to academic standards can be intensely bad for your mental health.
And, for most of us, college is the first time we spend time away from family, without the guidance and support of parents. It might be the first time you’re responsible for all household chores – although you can mitigate this with the help of a resident advisor. Setting up those healthy boundaries between school and life is important both for navigating college and for maintaining your mental health.
Set Aside Enough Time Every Day
Time management is an important skill throughout most of life but as you move out of high school, you’re more responsible for it than you have been at any point in time. While high school mandates schedules and has strict requirements for setting aside blocks of your day to study, college often has no such thing.
The result can be one of two negative scenarios, in which you either spend all your time working and studying and burn out or spend too much time engaging in social life. Neither are healthy or good for your ability to move through college without problems.
Treat College Like a Job – If you have a job, you go to work at a specific time, you do the work, you check out, you go home and back to your life. You have specific days off a week, which might occasionally be infringed on by sudden emergencies, but for the most part you have time to yourself to do the things you like and to enjoy your life. While that doesn’t mean you should be approaching college like a 9-5 job, you probably do want to do something similar. However, college won’t always cooperate. You might have classes at 8 AM and classes that start at 5 PM. So, you might have to adjust your day around to ensure you get enough free time in one day. But, you do, on average, want to spend about 8 hours of your waking day, every day, on studying and lectures. If you have to do more some days, compensate on another day by taking extra time off.
Get to Know Your Schedule and Plan Things Around It – It’s important to understand your schedule, when you’re likely to have high stress moments, and when you’re likely to be under a lot of pressure to do extra work. Normally that maps to end of semester, scheduled tests, etc. If you know when these points are, you can avoid planning social things around them, giving you more time to relax. Planning social life around your schedule gives you the freedom to focus on your obligations to yourself, while making time for the things you actually want to do.
Make Time for Breaks
It’s easy enough to plan your schedule to fit in as much as you can. And, if you’re planning to study for 8+ hours a day, you plan to do that. That’s all well and good, providing you have downtime scheduled in. That should include something like a 10-minute break every hour. That break should include stretching or physical activity. Downtime should also include breaking studying into blocks of a few hours, rather than attempting a full marathon of learning all day. So, for example, you might study for 2 hours, go out for a walk, check what you remembered, and then continue studying.
Breaks also extend to days. If you go from study and lectures to managing friends, family, and parties, you’re quickly going to get overwhelmed. Make sure you have downtime scheduled in, where you focus on yourself. For example, stay in one day a week to Netflix or read a book.
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Build Good Self-Care Habits
Self-care will help your mental health long-term, as it gives you the physical and mental stability to navigate stressful situations. What does good self-care look like?
Have a Bedtime – Getting up and going to bed at the same time every day can greatly improve your energy, your focus, your concentration, and your ability to motivate yourself. Why? It helps you to balance your circadian rhythm so that you expect to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Most people coming out of high school already have that in place. Try to maintain it. And, while it’s okay to go to bed a few hours late some days, try to make up for it by sleeping in a bit more. You do need the sleep.
Eat Well – Poor nutrition can wreak havoc on your concentration, your mood, and even your mental health. For example, did you know that vitamin A deficiency mimics the symptoms of depression? Eating well means following the general guidelines of a government resource like “MyPlate.gov” or following an 80/20 rule of “roughly 80% of my diet should be good for me”. Diet rules don’t have to be extremely strict, but try to keep nutritious foods high, fatty and starchy foods at a minimum, and alcohol at a minimum.
Exercise – Most people know that exercise is good for their mental health, but few people know how much. For example, did you know that 30 minutes of walking can improve your energy levels for up to 2 hours? Exercise helps to trigger the reward circuit in the brain, it reduces dopamine and serotonin, and it releases endorphins that help you to feel happy. That eventually means you’ll feel better every day you exercise. Long-term, good exercise habits can help you to build a more solid foundation of mental health, build self-confidence, and build self-esteem. Plus, if you exercise outdoors, those results are even better.
Of course, you don’t have to hit the gym for 2 hours every day. Light to moderate exercise is more than enough. So walking, cycling to your classes, or doing other light exercise is more than enough. However, chances are, you have access to a lot of free sport and team sport activities, which you should look into because they can be very physically, mentally, and socially rewarding.
Don’t Be Afraid to look for Help
If you’re struggling to maintain a school life balance, it’s likely a sign that something is already wrong. Luckily, most campuses have plenty of resources on hand for mental health support. These often start with basic counseling and time management assistance and extend into references to therapists and even stays at clinics. Reaching out and asking for help, even if you don’t fully think you need it, can mean the difference between improving your mental health and having it deteriorate further while you’re studying. That’s especially important because college is stressful, which negatively impacts mental health, without everything else going on.
Good luck with your journey through college.
If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health challenges in college like depression or anxiety, help is available. And, it can help you to get back to normal. If you have questions with mental health treatment, Compassion Recovery Center is here to help. Contact us to ask about our mental health programs and how we can support your specific requirements as you move into treatment.