BY TESS REMICK ’21
College students can easily feel anxious balancing school, work, friends and family while also trying to figure out the rest of their lives. For many, being on their own, maybe for the first time in their life, is difficult. Mix that with rigorous academic workloads and unhealthy sleeping habits and it can leave one’s mental health in a disastrous state.
As academic and social obligations continue to pile on, students can be taught effective coping skills to escape anxiety and depression. Exercise, meditation and a change of scenery are common staples of many self-care articles, said Erin Murdock ’18, a senior community advisor at Mount Holyoke.“When my residents get overwhelmed, particularly during final exams and midterms, I really try to remind them to practice self-care. While some people can just power through the exam period, others struggle. I try to encourage my residents to take a break, get some fresh air, shower and get a full eight hours of sleep,” said Murdock.
In addition to self-care, practicing a concept known as self-compassion has implications for students’ mental health, especially in times of heightened stress. Research done by The Washington Post shows that self-compassion helps students form habits that support good health. With its three pillars of mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness, self-compassion can be described as filtering out negative thoughts, feelings and memories without dwelling on them.
Such studies have shown that self-compassion is important for mental health and overall well-being. “It’s hard not to compare yourself to others, but when you do, you don’t tend to focus on your own strengths which can help you succeed,” said Erica Weathers, a clinical social worker at the College. “Instead, you focus more on your deficits which can lead to negative internalized self-judgment and decrease motivation. We are trying to help students develop more self-compassion as a way of sustaining themselves long-term, but it’s a process.”
A 2017 study published in Health Psychology Open found that people who have higher levels of self-compassion tend to handle stress better. Participants in the study said they spent less time reactivating stressful events by thinking about them at length. Self-compassion starts with mindfulness: dwelling on problems can induce physical responses to stress such as spikes in blood pressure and blood sugar and suppression of the immune system. Many of the critical thoughts we make subconsciously impact our confidence.
In a New York Times study, students participated in a reading and writing exercise intended to instill a basic message to help them manage tension: “People are free to change at any time they choose to.” The students who completed the exercise had lower levels of stress, reported more confidence in coping and achieved slightly higher grades at year’s end, compared to a control group. These results were measured through the students’ self-reporting in online diaries and through cardiovascular and hormone measurements.
While some students can mediate their problems with the methods mentioned previously, those who are either unable to employ these methods or find these methods ineffective should seek outside help. The stigma surrounding mental illnesses makes it seem like seeking help for mental health is a sign of weakness — those seeking it often feel like outsiders. “I think students feel a lot of pressure to perform and achieve and fear that if they encounter struggles, they’ll be viewed by their peers as inadequate or ‘not good enough,’” said Weathers. “It’s interesting because often I will hear from students that they are quick to refer a friend to counseling, but are less inclined to make an appointment themselves, either because they don’t feel their problems are ‘big enough’ to warrant counseling or they are fearful of being judged in a negative way by others.”
However, seeking help from a counseling service is a form of self-care. “On average, in any given academic year, we see approximately 36 percent of the overall population and by the time students graduate, we will have come into contact with approximately 65 percent of their graduating class,” continued Weathers.
In terms of self-compassion and self-care, there are plenty of school stress management tips available online or through Counseling Services. “I also find it is beneficial for when I’m at work or having lunch with a friend, to try to leave my academic stress at the door and really be present in that moment,” said Murdock.
“Reassure yourself that this too shall pass — that whatever you are going through currently will be over in a matter of weeks, and you will be in a completely different place,” said Weathers.