Simple ways to take care of your mental health

College is a whirlwind. Talk to any average college student, and they’ll tell you that their life consists of grades, sports, clubs, friends, parties, working, paying rent, and probably a million things in between. Granted, the busyness partially makes college so fun — but constantly moving from one activity to another can also take a real toll on a student’s mental health.

Of course, if you are a busy college student, you already know this firsthand. So what’s the remedy? How do you find the time to “treat yo’self,” as Parks & Rec’s Tom Haverford would say? Well, start by recognizing that you deserve to treat yo’self. Sometimes, those treatments look pretty serious, like regular therapy sessions or medication. Other times, though, they are smaller and simpler.

I’ve learned this throughout my own first two years in college. Between all the classes I’m in, the clubs for which I’ve taken on positions, and the friendships I want to maintain, I’ve spent many a night tossing and turning from the sheer stress of it all. Little by little, though, I’ve found some simple lifestyle changes that have helped my mental health to lift up a bit. Here are some of them!

Eat healthy. The foods you eat can have a serious effect on your brain, not just your body. Whenever I eat copious amounts of ice cream and fried food (so hard to resist on a college campus!), a feeling of sluggishness ends up replacing that momentary satisfication. I’ve also found that I sleep less and worry more on a poor diet. Eating a balanced mix of vegetables, lean meats, and fruits, however, can help you feel more energetic, awake, and generally pleasant.

But also… eat chocolate! No, seriously. Chocolate CAN be good for you — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Dark chocolate has anti-depressive qualities, in addition to tasting delicious. The occasional chocolate pick-me-up can do your mind good. It certainly does for me.

Get yourself on a regular sleep schedule. I know it’s hard to do, but getting healthy amounts of sleep is so important for your mental health. If I go to bed around the same time every night, I’ve found that my body will start to adjust itself to want to fall asleep around that time every night — if I go to bed at 10 for a few nights, it starts to become regular. But if I go to bed at 3 A.M. for a couple days in a row — well, that becomes a habit just as easily. You will in turn wake up feeling more refreshed, well-rested, and ready for the rest of the day.

Something that can help with balancing social life, schoolwork, and sleep is planning a schedule — a realistic one. Rather than waiting until the last minute to conquer a mile-high pile of things to do, make a schedule for your week so you feel more secure in knowing what you need to do. My favorite way to organize a schedule is on a whiteboard calendar, since it’s less wasteful than a paper one, and writing things down helps them to stick in my brain. Google Calendar is also particularly useful in this area (this site contains tips and tricks for making the most of Google Calendar!) However you do it, creating a written-out schedule means you can make time for each individual item on your list, and you can leave some room for spare time, too.

Make sure that you’ve also got some time to spend with friends. My reaction to stress is often to shut down and not really tell anyone how I’m feeling, but that never does me any good. So long as I balance it with more serious tasks like homework or job applications, going out for the occasional dinner or casual outing with friends is a positive influence, simply because the good vibes of others can reflect onto my own mood. Just talking to a friend one-on-one helps, too. Don’t keep your feelings and frustrations all bottled up inside — tell a trusted friend every now and again. Human feedback and affirmation can work wonders on a bad mood.

For those moments when you do need get away from people, have a place where you can recharge. I find it helpful to sometimes just step off campus, since on particularly stressful days, every official campus building seems to scream, “HOMEWORK!” I have a couple favorite coffee shops that provide a space to sip lattes and breathe for an hour or two. You might have a favorite coffee shop, too, or a favorite hiking trail. You might even prefer your room. Wherever it is, remind yourself that it’s available when you need it. Make time for yourself to go there.

Perhaps the most important item: know when to take time for yourself, period. Amidst classes, clubs, and social engagements, it’s often hard to find alone time, and that makes it all the more important to. But checking in with yourself is vital to assess what you’re feeling and how you can show yourself some love. Put on your favorite playlist, rewatch your favorite show, read your favorite book, go for a run, make tea, write in a journal… even write a few compliments for yourself and stick them on the mirror. The possibilities are endless. Just take a break, even if a small one, from the stress of college life. “Me time” is sometimes the best time.

These are all things that have worked for me, and I know that I’m still learning and growing as my time in college continues. The things that work best for you might be different depending on who you are, or some might work more than others, and that’s okay. Mental health is a complex topic precisely because no two brains look exactly alike. What’s important is that you do find what works for you, and implement it as often as you can. Your mental health is worth maintaining — believe it! And that work can start with the simplest steps.