Between classes, homework, exams, late night study sessions and parties, taking care of your health — both physical and mental — can easily fall by the wayside in college.
To help give students tips on how to best take care of their mind and body, Matt Forte spoke with adolescent medicine expert Karen Latimer, MD, and New York University staff social worker John Fredrickson on the BUILD Series stage.
“Students are oftentimes surprised at how difficult it is to just kind of take care of yourself and the basic functions,” says Fredrickson. ”It’s back to basics: Eating, sleeping, and getting exercise are three things that have extraordinary effects on our mental health and our mood, and they’re sometimes the hardest things to actually build a routine around.”
Fredrickson says that many fall into the trap of “believing you don’t have time to care for yourself.” But prioritizing sleep, staying active, and eating right are all important when it comes to maintaining both physical and mental health.
The good news is that most colleges are stepping up in terms of nutritious meals offered on campus. “They offer so much more than they used to offer,” says Latimer. “I feel like we had a salad bar, but it was wilted, sad lettuce and kind of old tomatoes. But now, really, there’s smoothie bars and beautiful salad bars, and there really are a lot of options on campus, if they can take advantage of their food plans. And kids just seem to know a lot more about nutrition.”
When it comes to mental health, some students put a lot of pressure on themselves, such as taking on more than they can handle or aiming to be “perfect.” “I think that sometimes we have these narratives that we tell ourselves about, ‘If I don’t do x, if I don’t do y, then I’m going to fail, I’m not going to do well enough,’” notes Fredrickson. “And I think that’s one of those things that… to really take inventory of those thoughts and to challenge them a bit. Is that actually true? Is it okay if I do it this way? If you find that you are feeling overwhelmed, there’s no shame in taking a step back.”
Latimer adds: “It doesn’t have to be perfect and it’s not going to be perfect and managing those expectations. You might not get all As, you might not have the 4.0, even if you did in high school and that’s okay.”
By the same token, college students should be aware that they will face certain challenges in school, whether it’s tackling tough coursework or having to put themselves out there to make new friends. But those experiences are also opportunities to learn, grow, and build resilience. ”If we expect to go through life, and especially college, without any hardship or challenges or difficulties, we’re setting ourselves up for failure in many ways,” says Fredrickson.
He adds: “College is scary. Going to school is extraordinarily exciting — it’s a new environment, it’s a new context, for a lot of students it’s the first time living away from their families — but it can also be a really scary time as well.”
Fredrickson points out that almost every student he speaks with has some fears entering into college. “You’re not alone with those feelings,” he says. “That is a universal experience of college students.”
When you’re feeling stressed, he recommends a quick and simple way to relax: “I think taking moments throughout the day to just have a breath. It sounds so small, but it’s one of those things, I talk to students all the time [to] set a reminder on your phone — morning, midday, late in the evening before you got to bed — and just check in with yourself. Ask yourself, ‘What am I feeling? What’s going on in my body? What are the thoughts I’m having?’ And it takes almost no time at all and it can really make a big difference in increasing your self-awareness.”
To stay mentally healthy and happy, Latimer recommends staying off social media as much as possible. “It’s like the bane of society when it’s used as a compare and despair kind of a thing,” she says. Latimer also has some common sense advice: “College is a Petri dish. Keep your room clean. Stay away from people who are sick. Sandals in the shower. Condoms. And hand sanitizer.”
For Fredrickson, it’s all about self-acceptance and knowing that you will find your people: “Trust that your authentic self is enough and it’s good. I think that is one thing that so many students struggle with, especially early on. College is a time when you are figuring out your identity and you’re having new autonomy. There’s so much questioning — ‘Am I good enough? Is this good enough?’ Just being your authentic self is going to be your best self and people will love you for that.”