Taking care of your mental health in college

July 05, 2022

Mental Health Wellness
Female college student feeling bored on a class at lecture hall.

College students are no strangers to stress. College life is full of stressors like due dates, grades, pressures from family, social events and tests. It’s typical. Even so, stress can impact mental health if left unchecked.

“Chronic stress can cause anxiety or depression in college students,” explains Ryan McQueen, M.D., Service Line Chief of Behavioral Health and Medical Director of Adolescent Service at Riverside Mental Health & Recovery Center. “Every student should be aware of their stress and learn how to manage it to protect their mental health.”

How to recognize stress

In many cases, stress is a healthy, normal reaction that happens to us when we’re being challenged in some way or experiencing something new. College is full of challenges and new experiences — both academic and social — so stress is bound to happen.

You can recognize when you’re stressed by paying attention to how you feel. Is your heart beating fast and your breath shallow? Are you sweating a little more than usual? This is your body’s normal response to stress (also called the “fight-or-flight response”).

Another aspect to recognizing your stress is learning what causes it. Sometimes, stress is triggered by something that isn’t immediately obvious. Look at your everyday routine first. There could be something there that you’ve been ignoring.

How to manage stress

When stress creeps up, it helps to take a quick time out.

“Find a quiet spot to yourself and breathe deeply and slowly, allowing your abdomen to rise and fall as you inhale and exhale,” explains Dr. McQueen. “This is an easy yet very effective way to relax yourself, whether you’re at home or in a public space.”

You can also try doing one of the following as you breathe deeply:

  • Close your eyes and visualize a calming scene.
  • Repeat a calming word or phrase or say a prayer in your head or quietly under your breath.

Once you get through whatever is causing your stress (that big midterm test, for example), go do something to counteract the stress — something to relax. This is important because the body can sometimes have a hard time “turning off” the stress response, leaving you feeling on edge all the time.

Mental health experts often recommend exercise and spending time with loved ones or friends for counteracting stress. Studies show that people who are physically active are happier and less likely to suffer from depression. The same is said for people who have strong social connections.

Or you can do one of these other relaxing activities:
  • Drawing
  • Going for a hike in the woods
  • Listening to music
  • Reading
  • Taking a nap
  • Watching a movie

However you choose to relax, just make sure it’s going to benefit your mental and physical health. That means avoiding the stereotypical college behaviors like staying up late or binge drinking.

More tips for managing stress in college

Try out these additional tips over the course of a semester to see how they improve your stress and mental health:

  • Be social on campus. Join a club, volunteer or attend religious services, for example.
  • Call your loved ones often. Talk to them at least once a week. Mention your stress.
  • Get to know your classmates. They’re going through the same thing you’re going through. You can help each other!
  • Plan ahead. Use a calendar and to-do lists to plan and manage all of your activities and assignments well in advance. This will lessen anxiety related to time management.
  • Take advantage of professor or TA office hours and study groups. If you’re struggling to understand class materials, don’t go it alone! Office hours and study groups exist so you can get support.
  • Take care of yourself every day. Eat more healthy foods, drink enough water, get enough sleep, and carve out some time every day for relaxation.
  • Search for wisdom. Books and other resources can help you better understand your purpose and give you hope for the future.

When to seek professional help

If it seems like your efforts to reduce your stress on your own aren’t helping, it might be time to talk to a professional. Frequent stress (or chronic stress) is linked to several health conditions, both mental and physical, and should be evaluated by a medical or mental health professional.

Some signs and symptoms of chronic stress include:

  • Anxiety
  • Body aches
  • Chest pain
  • Depression
  • Dizziness
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Headaches
  • Panic attacks
  • Sleep problems
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Weakened immunity

If you’re experiencing any of these signs or symptoms of chronic stress, make an appointment with Rhonda Tucker Sproles, Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCWS) at Riverside Primary Care- Hidenwood, or Penelope Duvall, M.D., a Riverside psychiatrist offering telehealth visits via Riverside Hayes Medical Center, or a mental health professional. These individuals are trained and experienced in treating chronic stress, anxiety and depression.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to admit you need professional help. Maybe you don’t believe that you deserve help, or maybe you’re worried about sharing your problems with a stranger.

“If you’re hesitant about seeking help, declare to yourself that you’re going to find help,” says Dr. McQueen. “Make a formal declaration by saying it out loud or writing it down. This will encourage you to see it through.”

If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression, get help now. Call Riverside Mental Health & Recovery Center at 757-827-3119

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