Balancing post-secondary school and life is not easy. We do our best to figure it out and, often, this comes with stress and a negative effect on one’s mental health.
When I think back to my days in undergraduate and graduate programs, I wish I could go back and tell my younger self, “Everything is going to be just fine!” I can’t believe I managed to wake up early in the morning every day, take five full-loaded courses, study all hours of the day and night, while also attempting to have a social life. It seems impossible years later - we should often give ourselves more credit than we do.
When I was in school I never saw my mental health as something I needed to protect. It felt like I needed tunnel vision: midterms, assignments, exams and figuring out what exactly it was that I wanted to do after graduation. I felt like I needed all the answers. When speaking to my classmates I noticed that this was a common theme.
Present day me feels proud that I pushed through, but wishes that I had been kinder to myself while I was a student. This leads me to tip one of what I wish had been shared with me during post-secondary school.
Tip #1: Reward Yourself - Correctly!
I will admit that, as a student, I had a funny way of “rewarding myself”. And I know many of you can relate to this. I would read/study for 20-30 minutes and then assume that this was where I insert a 2-hour break to watch something distracting on Netflix or YouTube. Then back to reading/studying for 30-45 minutes and, yes, this was where we insert another break - maybe for 1.5 hours. This was my idea of rewarding myself.
Although there is pleasure in distractions, it never provided the motivation or energy I needed to get back to my schoolwork and to be more effective. The real reward is when you get the work done, still with smaller breaks, and then treat yourself for the work you put in. There will be assignments and tests that hold a large percentage of your grade and having something to look forward to once the task is finished can increase motivation. One can also be very strategic in the area of rewards, especially with matching the level of reward with the task.
For example: You have a paper due on Sunday night, worth 30% of your grade, and it is now Wednesday afternoon. You haven’t started and fear procrastination, especially since the paper has a high value towards your final grade. Since there are only a few days left to finish you are starting to feel anxious and overwhelmed. One option to explore is making a really awesome plan for yourself for Monday, the day after the paper is due. Make a promise to yourself that you will only follow through with the reward if you stay on your routine - not waiting till Sunday to complete the paper - and, most importantly, get the paper done!
If procrastination is something you struggle with, move the reward forward to the day your assignment is due. This helps you to feel more motivated to get the work done earlier. You don’t want to get stuck cancelling the reward you had set up, for example a hang out with friends, because you still have to get the paper done.
There is no right or wrong way to implement a reward system, as long as you feel that the rewards are meaningful and you praise yourself for the hard work you put in.
Tip #2: Follow Routines
Routines can have a very positive impact on your mental health as a student. Routines allow one to set aside certain times during their day to dedicate to tasks, while also looking after your physical and mental health.
Going from high school to post-secondary school can bring about a huge shift in the routines that you have adapted to for several years. Adjusted sleep routines may have been the greatest shift I experienced in university. Sleep was often dependent on what I had due the next day or if I needed to study late for a midterm/exam. Our circadian rhythm does its best to align our sleep to create a stable sleep cycle for optimal functioning. This is disrupted if we don’t have a fixed sleep routine.
Start thinking about some of the things you would like to move into more of a routine, whether this begins with creating a sleep routine, meal times or exercise. Starting off with one routine that you commit towards can give you a sense of how it affects your mood, as well as feeling less overwhelmed. Make use of resources like calendars, alarms, or agenda’s.
Also don’t forget to schedule time for just you! This is easy to forget, especially when school gets busy. Designate a scheduled time for activities which you enjoy, and strategically, for days you know you can take some time away from schoolwork without any guilt.
Tip #3: Seek Campus Resources
An important tip I wish I knew while I was in school would have been to seek help from the services which the school provides.
There are often free services available to students that we either don’t know about, or don’t take advantage of while we have them. These services often include campus health care, fitness centres, counselling, academic advising, writing centres, career centres and resources for academic support for students with disabilities. Taking care of your mental health throughout school might include utilizing these resources.
Tip #4: Have Fun!
This is quite simple to write, but often hard to implement. Be sure to have some fun, no matter what program you're in or what year you are registered as.
It is important to stay focused on your studies, but squeezing in time for yourself should not be pushed to the side. Carve in the time for social engagement, but also designated time for just you! One fun technique you can try - by yourself or with roommates or others - is to write down a list of fun activities on small pieces of paper. Throw them into a jar and then, weekly or biweekly, pick out an activity and do it.
Optimize your life
Although I really enjoyed my years in school, I often look back and realize I could have had a more optimal time by taking steps to reduce the stress and anxiety. It is important to stay driven, motivated and supported - in all areas of life.
I am often very encouraged by how resilient and adaptive students are, especially completing school during the pandemic. Never forget that you are doing your best - even in the midst of not knowing what is going to happen to your classes, your own health, where you're going to live or when you will be able to see your friends.
Be compassionate and patient with yourself. And don’t be afraid to make yourself a priority at times.
Even with these tips, there are many complex struggles that student’s experience, whether it’s related to school, or issues affecting your ability to do your best work. Call our clinic today at 613-877-4148 to connect with a trained professional, like myself, to work with you in navigating through the struggles or adversities you might be experiencing as a student.