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Self-care for college students

Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman

A college student studying and looking stressed.

Growing up, I was told that college was an incredibly important, formative, and—in our household—mandatory experience. 

Over the years, I began to think of college as the place where you meet your lifelong friends on the first day and spend four years making poignant memories before gliding smoothly into adulthood. As it turns out, my expectations didn’t entirely line up with reality.

Instead, like most new college students, I found myself facing challenges I’d never had before: moving away from home, managing my own health and finances, and building an entirely new social circle, all while balancing loads of other commitments. 

Starting a new life away from home can be daunting. And while prioritizing self-care is always important, it’s especially crucial for college students who are likely leaving their support networks behind. 

Self-care misconceptions

For some, the term “self-care” conjures up images of face masks, bubble baths, and “me time.” In reality, self-care is a broad term that includes a variety of choices people can make to improve their well-being. Anything from setting firm boundaries to cooking more often at home can fall under the umbrella of self-care. 

Even so, you may have heard the following criticisms of self-care:

  • It’s frivolous. Self-care isn’t just an excuse to spend money, and it means far more than “treating yourself.” It’s about understanding your own needs and dedicating time and energy to looking after yourself—a necessary lifelong practice. 
  • It’s selfish. This misconception can be especially damaging because it implies that caring for yourself somehow inconveniences others. This belief can prevent students from prioritizing their own needs, especially if they feel like other people are depending on them.
  • It’s a luxury. Self-care is often marketed as an indulgence, rather than a priority. But maintaining a healthy lifestyle and taking care of yourself is essential, not something you should feel guilty about.

Signs of needing self-care

Whether you’re worried about your child or a friend or wondering if you may be in need of self-care, here are some signs to watch out for:

  • More sick days: Lack of sleep and poor nutrition can weaken the immune system, which makes common illnesses like colds more likely.
  • Greater moodiness: Irritation, anger, or other outbursts of emotion can be signs that a person’s needs aren’t being met.
  • Excessive caffeine use: Not getting enough sleep and feeling generally fatigued can lead students to rely on caffeine. They may use energy drinks or coffee to improve their mood or help them keep working at a particular level.1
  • Burnout: If a student stops taking care of themself, they may be heading toward burnout. A number of behaviors can signal that burnout is around the corner, including cynicism and withdrawal from family or friends.

Why don’t students practice more self-care?

Students may have trouble focusing on self-care for a range of reasons, including:

  • Lack of time: Classes, clubs, sports teams, and studying can take up more time than students are prepared for. Dealing with so many deadlines and commitments may leave students feeling like they have no time left for themselves.
  • Party culture: Late nights and new experiences are seen as hallmarks of the college experience. But drinking, drug use, and irregular sleep can all have a negative impact on your physical and mental health.
  • Social life: College is a great place to meet new people. But building connections and maintaining several different social circles can make it hard to save time and energy for self-care.
  • Underlying mental health conditions: Preexisting mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder can get worse when a student moves away from home and their familiar support network. If this resonates with you, visit our therapist directory to find help from a licensed professional.

How to practice self-care

Self-care isn’t one-size-fits-all. You might find that self-care looks like joining a club, and for a friend it could mean carving out alone time in their busy schedule.

Regular self-care can make a big difference by helping you feel more secure, improving your quality of life, and giving you a better understanding of your own health. Building a toolbox of coping mechanisms and healthy habits can help you lay a strong foundation for college and beyond.

Physical self-care

When your body feels unwell, it’s hard to find the motivation to manage other issues. That’s why taking care of your physical health can be the first step toward overall wellness. Try these simple actions to get started.

  • Establish a sleep routine. Going to sleep and waking up at consistent times, reducing screen time before bed, and keeping your sheets clean can all improve your sleep quality.
  • Get the right nutrition. For many students, college is the first time you’re completely in control of your own diet. It’s important to eat balanced meals that make you feel good, rather than overindulging or restricting. You should also drink plenty of water, because dehydration can worsen your mood and decrease brain function.
  • Take charge of your medical care. Scheduling and keeping appointments, filling prescriptions on time, and taking medication as prescribed are all forms of physical self-care. Managing your own medical care can also give you a greater sense of control and autonomy.
  • Exercise. Whether you join a vigorous team sport or an online yoga class, regular exercise can help improve your physical and mental health.

Social self-care

Socializing is a huge part of college, and each student’s social needs are unique. Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind.

  • Avoid isolation. Sometimes when life gets busy or stressful, isolating yourself seems like the easiest solution. But even though relationships take energy and effort, the support and companionship you receive tend to outweigh the work you put in.   
  • Focus on deep connections. There are many ways to meet people at college: sporting events, clubs, fraternities and sororities, study groups, and so on. Making new friends can be exciting, but remember that closeness takes time to develop. Nurturing a handful of close relationships can be just as rewarding—and sometimes less draining—than keeping up with a lot of casual friends.
  • Take the alone time you need. Everyone has their own take on personal time. Some people want company as often as possible, and others need time alone to recharge. Listen to your instincts, and let yourself accept or turn down invitations based on what you really want, not what you feel pressured to do.

Mental self-care

Mental self-care comes in many forms, and the most effective approach depends on the person. These practices should be accessible for most students.

  • Read a book or watch a movie. Books, shows, and movies can be welcome distractions when life seems overwhelming. They’re a great way to relax and escape into a fictional world for a little while.
  • Get creative. Creative outlets help keep you sharp while letting you step away from your schoolwork. Drawing, knitting, dancing, or playing an instrument can all help your mind feel rested and inspired.
  • Unplug. Social media and other forms of technology are so pervasive that it can be difficult to recognize their impact. A digital detox is a great way to relax and reset.
  • Clean your house. Students tend to live in close quarters. Because cluttered homes have been associated with higher stress levels, creating a calm, organized environment can help you lower your stress level and regain a sense of control.3  
  • Meditate. Meditation and mindfulness focus on intentional presence. Acknowledging and calmly accepting feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations is a form of self-care that can lead to healthier, more deliberate communication with yourself and others.

Where to find support

What we need to feel healthy can change from day to day. On difficult days, it may seem harder to manage your own self-care.

If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available. Look for campus resources such as student support services or peer support groups, or reach out to a licensed mental health professional.

About the author

Kirsten Fuchs is the editorial coordinator at therapist.com. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English-Technical Communication from University of Central Florida, and she’s excited to be pairing her copywriting expertise and love of written language with the support and clinical insights of the therapist.com team.