Self-Care for Students

Reviewed by Robert P. Bogenberger, Ph.D.

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For as long as I can remember, I was told college was an incredibly important, formative, and mandatory experience I was going to have. 

By the time I reached high school, I had begun to think of college as the place where you meet your lifelong best friends at day one orientation, then spend four years making poignant memories before gliding smoothly into adulthood. As it turns out, my expectations didn’t entirely line up with reality.

The reality is that the transition into college is just as huge and overwhelming as any other big life change, and usually comes with the added pressure of thinking you’re supposed to be having the time of your life every day. 

My first attempt at college as a bright-eyed 18-year-old didn’t quite go as planned. And at the time, I thought something must be wrong with me that things weren’t immediately clicking into place. 

I was scrambling, trying to find the right way to meet people, the right balance of schoolwork and socialization, and figuring out how to not let my night owl tendencies completely destroy my sleep schedule. I was stressed and overwhelmed, with no idea how to care for my floundering mental and physical health. 

And I just assumed I was the only one struggling. So, after trudging through all of one semester, feeling lost and overwhelmed, I ended up leaving.

That was nine years ago. And with the benefit of time and distance, I now realize that almost every student experiences a version of what I went through.

As a new college student, you face certain challenges you’ve never had to face before. Challenges like moving away from home, managing deadlines, looking after your own finances, and building an entirely new social circle—all while balancing lots of other commitments. 

Self-care is always necessary, but for a college student who’s most likely leaving their support network behind, managing your own well-being is more important than ever. 

But what is “self-care,” anyway?

What is Self-Care?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.” By this definition, self-care is a broad concept which encompasses hygiene, nutrition, lifestyle, environmental factors, socioeconomic factors, and self-medication. 

However, defined more succinctly by Oxford Languages, self-care can be thought of as “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.” This is the more commonly known definition, and is what we’re focusing on when we discuss self-care for college students. 

Self-Care Misconceptions

Often, people have an inaccurate perception of what self-care actually means. You may have heard any of the following misconceptions:

  • “Self-care is selfish.” This self-care misconception may be the most damaging. Self-care does not equal self-indulgence—it’s about taking care of yourself so that you can be healthy and well. Self-care can also increase productivity for students, so never feel guilty or selfish for indulging in some much needed “me-time.”
  • “Self-care is frivolous.” Self-care isn’t just an excuse to spend lots of money, and it’s far more than just “treating yourself.” It’s about understanding your own needs and priorities, and allowing yourself time and energy to look after yourself.
  • “Self-care is a luxury.”  Sometimes we can be made to feel that self-care is a luxury, rather than a priority. But maintaining a healthy life balance and taking care of yourself is essential, and not something you should feel guilty for prioritizing.

Signs a Student is Not Taking Care of Themselves

Whether you’re a concerned parent, a worried friend, or wondering whether you yourself may be in need of some self-care, there are some tell-tale signs that indicate students may not be taking care of themselves. They include:

  • Increased sick days: Lack of sleep and poor nutrition can weaken the immune system, which makes infections, colds, and flu more likely, and can lead to more days spent in bed.
  • Increased moodiness: Treating yourself as unimportant, or less important than impending deadlines or social events, can lead to increased irritability. This can in turn have negative influences on relationships and your work-life balance.
  • Stress and Anxiety: Shortness of breath, chest pains, heart palpitations, panic attacks and abdominal pains are all unpleasant physical symptoms of an overworked mind—and could be a symptom of a mental health condition
  • Burnout: General fatigue, lack of sleep, lack of creativity and purpose, emotional numbness and a cynical outlook are the major symptoms of burnout, preventable by self-care.
  • Depression: If left unchecked, feelings of worthlessness can often snowball into hopelessness. If you find that you have slipped further into depression, self-care alone might not be the most effective treatment, and it is important to seek help from a mental health professional.

What Causes Lack of Self-Care in Students?

  • Not enough time: dealing with lots of deadlines, or studying for exams, can leave you feeling as if you have no time left for yourself.
  • Partying: drinking, taking drugs, or not getting enough sleep can have a negative impact on bodily health, and often on mental well-being.
  • Social life: college can often mean you meet a lot of different people from different circles- this can make it difficult to preserve energy for your own self-care.
  • Underlying mental health conditions: mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety or eating disorders can affect students’ ability to care for themselves. In these scenarios, professional medical help should be sought.

Self-Care Tips for College Students

Practicing regular self-care can have a significant positive impact on many areas of a student’s life, leading them to feel more secure, and in control, feeling less anxious, improving their quality of life, encouraging healthier behaviors, and ultimately leading to a better understanding of their own health. And, of course, all of this in turn helps them gain the most from their studies.

Taking small steps to build a self-care plan can help you build a toolbox of coping mechanisms and healthy habits. The following sections outline self-care tips for college students and different actions that you can take to build a self-care plan that is right for you.

Physical Self-Care

  • Establish a sleep routine.  Simple things such as establishing regular sleeping and waking times, reducing screen time before bed, and keeping your sheets clean can all improve your well-being. 
  • Get the right nutrition. Focusing on eating a balanced diet that makes you feel good, rather than restricting or counting calories, is beneficial in maintaining a healthy mind. Cooking for yourself can also help you learn a new skill, and may even become a hobby! And remember, staying hydrated is always important, as it boosts brain function.
  • Take charge of your medical health. Scheduling and keeping appointments, taking medication as prescribed, and managing your health are all part of good physical self-care.
  • Exercise. Take up an exercise regimen you genuinely enjoy. This could be anything from a vigorous, fast run to a relaxing, slow yoga session. Joining a college sports team can also help you meet new people, which will also contribute to social self-care.

Social Self-Care

  • Build connections. Establishing close connections is important to your wellbeing. There are lots of ways to create close relationships at college, so check out your college events calendar to find events that suit your interests. You could attend sporting events, join a club, join a fraternity or sorority, or even start a study group to help you get to know some of your classmates better.
  • Spend time with others. Socialization is key to self-care, but sometimes when life gets busy or stressful, it can be easy to neglect the relationships you have spent energy building. There is no set number of hours to socialize, as everybody has different needs. What’s important is making time for what makes you feel good.
  • Schedule “me time.” It’s important to make time for yourself to relax and recharge. Plan a fun day with activities you enjoy doing.

Mental Self-Care

  • Read a book or watch a film. This can help transport you to a different land or era, or even just learn about something that fascinates you. It’s also a great way to relax.
  • Get creative. Mental self-care includes doing things that keep your mind sharp. You can draw, knit, dance, or play an instrument – whatever helps your mind feel rested and inspired.
  • Unplug from technology. Social media is everywhere, and it’s a good idea to keep track of the things that are filling your mind, as they can greatly affect your psychological well-being. A “digital detox” is always a great way to unwind and relax!
  • Declutter your dorm. The space you’re living in may be small, especially if you have a roommate. Creating a clean environment that you can live happily in can be an act of self-care. You might find it declutters your mind as well.
  • Meditate or try mindfulness. Acknowledging and calmly accepting your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations is a form of self-care. Practicing self-compassion and self-acceptance can help you to maintain a healthier inner dialogue.

Self-Care Looks Different for Everyone

Self-care isn’t one-size-fits-all. One college student might find their self-care requires a lot of physical care, such as working out or giving their body the right nutrition. Another college student might see self-care as finding time to step out of their busy life to find “me” time. 

It’s about meeting your own individual needs and listening to what your mind, and body, wants. Try to create a self-care plan that works for you and be aware that it might change as your life does.

There’s no one right way to practice self-care. What’s most important is making the time to prioritize you.

Our mental health and mental wellbeing can change day-to-day. On low days, it can often be harder to take action to manage your own self-care. If you’re struggling, please remember—help is always available. This could come from your own student support services, or by seeking a professional medical appointment. Here at Therapist.com, we pride ourselves on having an extensive directory of therapists available, ready to give students access to professional help should they need it. Explore our directory today to find out more.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kirsten Fuchs

Kirsten Fuchs is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English-Technical Communication from University of Central Florida. She is excited to be pairing her copywriting expertise and love of written language with the support and clinical insights of the therapist.com team. When she's not writing articles, she's working in other roles within PESI, a non-profit continuing education company (and parent company of therapist.com).

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