How to Take Care of Your Mental Health as a College Student - A girl sitting down with a stack of books and apple on a book

How to Take Care of Your Mental Health as a College Student

Michelle Mattero
March 22, 2023
March 14, 2023

This blog post was written by Michelle Mattero, Counselor at Nivati. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.

“College is the best time of your life!” We’ve all heard it before, and while it may be true, for some, it doesn’t come without its challenges. Along with managing coursework and adjusting to campus life, mental health and overall wellness can be at an all-time low. 

Over 70% of American college students meet the criteria for at least one mental health issue. The good news is you’re not alone. The even better news is you can learn ways to improve your health—physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally—and overall wellness while in college.

This article will break down why health and wellness are important for college students, plus how to care for your mental health and wellbeing as a college student. 

Why are Health and Wellness Important for College Students?

College is a transitional period; for many, it’s the first time living independently without the usual forms of structure and support. Important factors contributing to a student’s success in college—motivation, focus, self-esteem, and social interactions—can be negatively impacted by mental health challenges. 

Prioritizing your health and wellness will continue to benefit you in many ways as you navigate your college experience and beyond. Review these self-care strategies to learn how to better care for yourself and evaluate your current practices that may need improvement. 

Self-Care Strategies for College Students

1. Create a Routine

As mentioned, a lot of independence comes with being a college student. In high school, you may have had a routine that held you accountable and kept you on a regular schedule. Now, with classes at varying times, the freedom to see friends when you want, and no one waking you up to get moving, you may have noticed that the lack of structure has left you feeling stressed. Putting a routine in place has proven to lower stress levels and help people feel more motivated and productive. Think about planning to wake up, eat, exercise, study, and go to bed around the same time every day. This consistency can help decrease anxiety and improve your focus and resilience to stress.

2. Move Your Body (And Use Food as Fuel)

The health benefits of physical activity—including increased happiness, improved concentration, decreased anxiety, and reduced risk of disease—are reasons enough to get your body moving. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 2.5 hours of movement each week for adults (that’s only around 20 minutes every day!). Walking to class, dancing with friends, or stopping by your campus fitness center are all ways you can fit movement into your day. Finding a form of movement you truly enjoy will help you stick with it and be more consistent. 

Our diet and the food we eat impact more than just our physical health. If you pay attention to how you feel after certain meals, you may notice a difference between a well-balanced meal and one that contains more processed foods. Consuming a lot of processed foods (any foods that are changed from their natural state) can cause inflammation in the body which in turn may increase anxiety and depressive symptoms. We’re also more likely to feel sluggish after a highly processed meal. Check out this healthy eating plate model from Harvard University to learn how to build a healthy and balanced diet. 

For more information on healthy eating, check out these articles:

3. Talk to Someone 

Therapy is good for you! It’s normal to feel as though you can’t talk to your parents or friends about everything going on in your life. Talking to someone outside your close network allows you to honor your privacy and independence while you work through things you may not be ready, or interested, in sharing with others. Therapy provides a safe and supportive space to express and process your feelings. Everyone can benefit from learning new ways of coping with life's challenges. Talking to a therapist can increase your ability to think more positively and make your mental health a priority.

Below are a few benefits of therapy for college students:

  • Learn the skills to manage difficult emotions and get through tough days. 

Life is full of challenges, and having the tools and skillset to cope with difficult situations and emotions is crucial to our overall wellbeing. Therapy allows you to create a coping toolbox you can access whenever you need it. 

  • Work through past hurts that may be holding you back. 

We may not always realize how past situations or times we've been hurt are still affecting us. Therapy provides a space to reframe these situations and move forward without feeling stuck on thoughts or feelings that no longer serve us. 

  • Get actionable advice from an unbiased professional. 

There is no judgment or bias in therapy. This allows you to feel empowered while taking action and making changes. 

We are making great strides in breaking the barriers and stigmas surrounding mental health treatment. Put yourself first and take the step towards a better you. Reaching out to your university counseling center or student services to learn about resources available to you is a great first step. 

Related: How to Start Therapy: Common Questions Answered

4. Boost Your Mood

There are a lot of factors, both in and out of our control, that affect our mood daily. Those feel-good chemicals in our brain—serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins—all play roles in boosting our mood and making us feel better. Take a look at ways you can naturally increase this flow of happiness: 

  • Get sunlight.

Get outside and enjoy the sunshine on your face (with protection, of course!) to increase your serotonin. Sunlight can also help reset our circadian rhythm to improve sleep and energy levels. 

  • Break down large tasks.

Dopamine—the “pleasure chemical”—is released when we feel satisfaction and fulfillment. Breaking down large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones can help us reach our goals and get that boost of pleasure from achieving them. 

  • Hug someone you love.

Physical touch is a key way to release oxytocin into your body. This “love” or “cuddle” hormone helps us feel connected and strengthens our relationships. 

  • Laugh or watch something funny.

Endorphins reduce pain and anxiety while boosting your immune system and mood. An easy way to get endorphins flowing is by laughing. 

When you’re looking to boost your mood, think back to these simple ways to take care of yourself and feel better. 

5. Make Sleep a Priority

Have your sleeping habits changed since you started college? Studies show that more than half of college students get less than seven hours of sleep per night. Sleep deprivation and poor sleeping habits can lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and overall worse health.  Students who prioritize their sleep are likely to see positive changes in their mood, improvements in academic performance, and better concentration, and feel less sleepy during the day. Seems worth a shot to me!

Review the tips from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) on how to get a good night’s sleep:

  • Follow a consistent bedtime routine.
  • Get a full night’s sleep every night.
  • Avoid foods or drinks that contain caffeine, as well as any medicine that has a stimulant before bedtime.
  • Keep computers and electronics out of the bed.
  • Don’t go to bed hungry, but don’t eat a big meal too close to bedtime either.
  • Avoid vigorous exercise within six hours of your bedtime.
  • Make your bedroom quiet, dark, and a little bit cool.
  • Get up at the same time every morning (even on the weekends!)

You can find even more tips on getting a good night’s sleep here.

6. Practice Mindfulness

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn—the mindfulness master—mindfulness is defined as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”. To put it simply, it’s being intensely aware of the present and all that comes with it. There are several benefits to practicing mindfulness including reduced stress and anxiety, improved sleep and attention, and increased feelings of gratitude and happiness. Meditation, visualization, and mind-body exercises are all ways to practice mindfulness. 

Some simple ways to start include:

  • Pay attention.

Slow down and notice what’s around you. Invite all of your senses—sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste—into your experience. A favorite technique of mine is “5-4-3-2-1” in which you notice five things you can see, four things you can feel or touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Practicing this exercise instantly increases my awareness of what’s around me and helps me feel calmer and more grounded.  

  • Live in the moment.

Try to approach every experience with acceptance, openness, and awareness. When we truly feel present, it’s much easier to find joy in the simple things in life. 

  • Focus on your breathing.

Our breath is an anchor for calm that we can always return to. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or struggling with negative thoughts, take a moment to breathe. Close your eyes (if you’re comfortable) and follow your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Focusing on your breath for even just three breath cycles can help you relax. 

This S.T.O.P meditation is a great place to start.

7. Develop a Support Network

Research demonstrates the link between social relationships and various aspects of overall health and wellness. Depression, loneliness, and stress are shown to increase when someone has poor social support. When our social support is strong and thriving, we may notice improvements in motivation, self-worth, connection, and managing stress.  

Social support can come in many forms and from different people in your life, including family, friends, classmates, and coworkers. The network we create and the people we surround ourselves with can determine how well we cope with stress and our ability to grow as an individual. The influence of those around us helps shape who we are. Therefore, we want to be intentional and cognizant of whom we choose to have in our circle. If you’re wanting to improve or expand your support network, think about ways you can meet new people, make new friends, and deepen the connections you already have. 

This was a lot of information, and it may be best to start slowly and gradually increase how you take care of yourself. Think about an area of improvement that is most important to you or relevant in your life right now and start there.  

Kudos to you for putting your health and wellness first!

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By participating in/reading the service/website/blog/email series on this website, you acknowledge that this is a personal website/blog and is for informational purposes and should not be seen as mental health care advice. You should consult with a licensed professional before you rely on this website/blog’s information. All things written on this website should not be seen as therapy treatment and should not take the place of therapy or any other health care or mental health advice. Always seek the advice of a mental health care professional or physician. The content on this blog is not meant to and does not substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Michelle Mattero
Michelle Mattero
Michelle Mattero, LPC, is a mental health coach, content creator, and writer at Nivati. Michelle's work has been driven by her passion for helping others and improving the inclusivity and accessibility of mental health services. She is trained to use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and mindfulness-based strategies to help people live the life they envision.