Chapter 16: Managing Your Mental (and Physical) Health
Learning Framework: Effective Strategies for College Success
Chapter 16: Managing your Mental (and Physical) Health
By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:
- Understand the three key indicators of mental health
- Explore practices for achieving and maintaining mental health in your life
- Differentiate between good stress and bad stress
- Identify sources and symptoms of stress
- Understand the impacts of chronic stress on physical and mental health
- Recognize and explore strategies for managing stress
Managing Your Mental Health
Managing Your Mental Health
DISCLAIMER: This chapter addresses mental health concerns and is intended for educational purposes. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental illness. ACC students in need of mental health services can request an appointment with a Mental Health Counselor. If you or someone you know is in crisis or struggling with suicidal thoughts, call 988 (National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline), chat 988lifeline.org, or text "HELLO" to the Crisis Text Line (741741).
Managing Your Mental Health
Knowing how to take care of your mental health when you’re in college is just as important as maintaining your physical health. In fact, there’s a strong link between the two: doctors are finding that positive mental health can actually improve your physical health. Mental health can be defined as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013). Having good mental health doesn’t necessarily mean being happy or successful all the time. Most people feel depressed, lonely, or anxious now and then. When such feelings or moods persist and interfere with a person’s ability to function normally, though, it may be a sign of a more serious mental health problem, and time to seek help.
Mental Health Indicators
There are several mental health indicators. Three categories that are useful to frame our mental health include:
- Emotional well-being: life satisfaction, happiness, cheerfulness, peacefulness.
- Psychological well-being: self-acceptance, personal growth including openness to new experiences, optimism, hopefulness, purpose in life, control of one’s environment, spirituality, self-direction, and positive relationships.
- Social well-being: social acceptance, belief in the potential of people and society as a whole, personal self-worth and usefulness to society, and a sense of community.
There are also some common-sense strategies that you can adopt to support and improve your emotional, psychological, and social health:
- Eat a balanced diet (see supplemental material)
- Get enough sleep (see supplemental material)
- Get regular physical activity (see supplemental material)
- Stay socially connected with friends and family
- Make healthy choices about alcohol and drugs
- Get help with persistent feelings of depression, loneliness, or anxiety.
Identifying and Managing Stress
As a student, you’re probably familiar with the experience of stress—a condition characterized by symptoms of physical or emotional tension. It may even feel like stress is a persistent fact of life. What you may not know is that it’s a natural response of the mind and body to a situation in which a person feels challenged, threatened, or anxious. Stress can be positive (the anticipation of preparing for a wedding) or negative (dealing with a natural disaster). While everyone experiences stress at times, a prolonged bout of it can affect your health and ability to cope with life. Your ability to manage stress, maintain healthy relationships, and rise to the demands of school and work all impact your health.
Good Stress? Bad Stress?
Although stress carries a negative connotation, at times it may be of benefit. Stress can motivate us to do things in our best interests, such as study for exams, visit the doctor regularly, exercise, and perform to the best of our ability at work. Indeed, Hans Selye (1974) pointed out that not all stress is harmful. He argued that stress can sometimes be a positive, motivating force that can improve the quality of our lives. This kind of stress, which Selye called eustress (from the Greek eu = “good”), is a good kind of stress associated with positive feelings, optimal health, and performance. A moderate amount of stress can be beneficial in challenging situations. For example, athletes may be motivated and energized by pregame stress, and students may experience similar beneficial stress before a major exam. Indeed, research shows that moderate stress can enhance both immediate and delayed recall of educational material (Hupbach & Fieman, 2012).
Increasing one’s level of stress will cause performance to change predictably. As shown in the Figure below, as stress increases, so do performance and general well-being (eustress); when stress levels reach an optimal level (the highest point of the curve), performance reaches its peak. A person at this stress level is colloquially at the top of their game, meaning they feel fully energized, focused, and can work with minimal effort and maximum efficiency. But when stress exceeds this optimal level, it is no longer a positive force – it becomes excessive and debilitating, or what Selye termed distress (from the Latin dis = “bad”). People who reach this level of stress feel burned out; they are fatigued, exhausted, and their performance begins to decline. If the stress remains excessive, health may begin to erode as well (Everly & Lating, 2002).
Good stress is stress in amounts small enough to help you meet daily challenges. It’s also a warning system that produces the fight-or-flight response, which increases blood pressure and heart rate so you can avoid a potentially life-threatening situation. Feeling stressed can be perfectly normal, especially during busy times. It can motivate you to focus on your work, but it can also become so overwhelming you can’t concentrate. It’s when stress is chronic (meaning you always feel stressed) that it starts to damage your body.
What Chronic Stress Does to Your Body?
Do you find it difficult to concentrate or complete your work? Are you frequently sick? Do you have regular headaches? Are you more anxious, angry, or irritable than usual? Do you have trouble falling asleep or staying awake? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, you may be holding on to too much stress.
Stress that hangs around for weeks or months affects your ability to concentrate, makes you more accident-prone, increases your risk for heart disease, can weaken your immune system, disrupts your sleep, and can cause fatigue, depression, and anxiety (University of Maryland Medical Center.) You will have stress. Stress is inevitable. How you manage it can make all the difference.
Want to learn more about what stress does to your body? Read Stress Effects on the Body by the American Psychological Association.
There are many ways to manage stress. Take a look at some of the ideas in the Stress Toolkit figure below. Which ones have you tried? Which ones do you want to try? It’s helpful to have different tools for different situations. For example, a calming yoga pose in your bedroom and deep breathing in the classroom.
The most effective strategies for managing stress include taking care of yourself in the following ways:
- Maintain perspective. How do you view stressful situations and events (challenge or threat?) and what do you see as your options for coping (effective or ineffective?) impact your stress levels?
- Practice mindfulness, deep breathing, meditation, and gratitude. These are some of the most effective ways to manage stress and take care of your emotional health.
- Connect socially. When you feel stressed, it’s easy to isolate yourself. Try to resist this impulse and stay connected with others.
- Manage social media. Take a break from your phone, email, and social media.
- Find support. Seek help from a friend, family member, partner, counselor, doctor, or clergyperson. Having a sympathetic listening ear and talking about your problems and stress really can lighten the burden.
- Manage your time. Work on prioritizing and scheduling your commitments. This will help you feel in better control of your life which, in turn, will mean less stress. See Chapter 4 for more on time management.
- Take care of your health. Eat well, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. See the Supplemental Material: Managing Your Physical Health section of this chapter for more information on this.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol. They may seem to be a temporary fix to feel better, but in the long run, they can create more problems and add to your stress instead of taking it away.
One of the most important things you can do is to keep perspective on your stressors. When feeling stressed, ask yourself, on a scale of 1 to 100, how stressful a situation is this? Will you even remember this three years from now? When facing potential stressors, the way you view what you're experiencing can intensify your stress or minimize it.
A useful way to think about stress is to view it as a process whereby an individual perceives and responds to events that they appraise as overwhelming or threatening to their well-being (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). A critical element of this definition is that it emphasizes the importance of how we appraise—that is, judge—demanding or threatening events (often referred to as stressors); these appraisals, in turn, influence our reactions to such events. Two kinds of appraisals of a stressor are especially important in this regard: primary and secondary appraisals.
Primary appraisal involves judgment about the degree of potential harm or threat to well-being that a stressor might entail. A stressor would likely be appraised as a threat if one anticipates that it could lead to some kind of harm, loss, or other negative consequence; conversely, a stressor would likely be appraised as a challenge if one believes that it carries the potential for gain or personal growth. For example, a college student on the cusp of graduation may face the change as a threat or a challenge.
The perception of a threat triggers a secondary appraisal: judgment of the options available to cope with a stressor, as well as perceptions of how effective such options will be (Lyon, 2012). As you may recall from what you learned about self-efficacy in Chapter 2, an individual’s belief in their ability to complete a task is important (Bandura, 1994). A threat tends to be viewed as less catastrophic if one believes something can be done about it (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).
Review the figure below to help you understand Primary and Secondary Appraisal.
If a person appraises an event as harmful and believes that the demands imposed by the event exceed the available resources to manage or adapt to it, the person will subjectively experience a state of stress. In contrast, if one does not appraise the same event as harmful or threatening, they are unlikely to experience stress. According to this definition, environmental events trigger stress reactions by the way they are interpreted and the meanings they are assigned. In short, stress is largely in the eye of the beholder: it’s not so much what happens to you as it is how you respond (Selye, 1976).
Learn more about developing a healthier perspective on stress, by watching this supplemental video from TED Talk: How to Make Stress Your Friend.
“We can’t change the world, at least not quickly, but we can change our brains. By practicing mindfulness all of us have the capacity to develop a deeper sense of calm.”
- Rick Hanson, author of Resilient
When people hear mindfulness, they often think of meditation. While meditation is one method of mindfulness, there are others that may be simpler and easier for you to practice. Deep breathing helps lower stress and reduce anxiety, and it is simple yet very powerful. A daily mindful breathing practice has been shown to reduce test anxiety in college students (Levitin, 2018.) A 2-4-6-8 breathing pattern is a very useful tool that can be used to help bring a sense of calm and to help mild to moderate anxiety. It takes almost no time, requires no equipment, and can be done anywhere:
- Start by quickly exhaling any air in your lungs (to the count of 2).
- Breathing through your nose, inhale to the count of 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 6.
- Slowly exhale through your mouth to the count of 8.
- Start round two at Step 2, with an inhale through your nose to the count of 4, hold for 6, and exhale to 8.
- Repeat for three more rounds to relax your body and mind.
Dan Harris, a news reporter at ABC, fell into drug use and suffered a major panic attack on national television. Following this embarrassing period in his life, he learned to meditate and found that it made him calmer and more resilient. He’s now on a mission to make meditation approachable to everyone. Dan used to be a skeptic about meditation but now says that if he learned to meditate, anyone can learn to meditate! Dan reminds us that we ARE going to get lost, and our mind IS going to stray, and that’s ok. Simply notice when you’re lost and start over. Every time your mind strays and you start over, it is like a bicep curl for your brain. Start with 3 minutes and slowly work your way up to 15 or 20. Watch the video Dan Harris' Panic Attack (and Discovery of Meditation) to learn more about his experience. To help you get started with a meditation practice, visit the Mindfulness Meditations from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center for some helpful guides. There are also meditation apps including Insight Timer, CALM, and Headspace.
People often think that external factors bring us joy and happiness when it’s all related to internal work. According to UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, “Having an attitude of gratitude changes the molecular structure of the brain, and makes us healthier and happier. When you feel happiness, the central nervous system is affected. You are more peaceful, less reactive, and less resistant” (Lundstand, Smith, and Layton, 2010).
Numerous studies show that people who count their blessings tend to be happier and less depressed. In a UC Berkeley study, researchers recruited 300 people who were experiencing emotional or mental health challenges and randomly divided them into three groups. All three groups received counseling services. The first group also wrote a letter of gratitude every week for three weeks. The second group wrote about their thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. The third group received only counseling. The people in the group who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health for up to 12 weeks after the writing exercise ended.
This suggests that a healthy emotional self-care practice is to take note of good experiences or when you see something that makes you smile. Think about why the experience feels so good. According to Rick Hanson, author of Resilient, “Each day is strewn with little jewels. The idea is to see them and pick them up. When you notice something positive, stay with the feeling for 30 seconds. Feel the emotions in your whole body. Maybe your heart feels lighter or you’re smiling. The more you can deepen and lengthen positive experiences the longer those positivity neurons in your brain are firing—and the longer they fire the stronger the underlying neural networks become. Repeat that process a half dozen times a day and you’ll feel stronger, more stable and calmer within a few weeks.”
Relationships are key to happy and healthy lives. According to Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, people with the best health outcomes were people who “leaned into relationships, with family, with friends, with community.”
Research has shown that friends provide a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives and that having a healthy social life is important to staying physically and mentally healthy. In a meta-analysis of the research results from 148 studies of over 300,000 participants, researchers found that social relationships are important in improving our lifespan. Social support has been linked to lower blood pressure and better immune system functioning. The meta-analysis also showed that social support operates on a continuum: the greater the extent of the relationships, the lower the health risks” (Lundstand, Smith, and Layton, 2010).
The quality of relationships is important. What makes a relationship healthy? Relationships come in many forms: romantic partners, family, friends, coworkers, team members, and neighbors. Think of a relationship where you have mutual respect and trust, support each other in tough times, celebrate the good times, and communicate with ease and honesty. This is a healthy relationship. Do you have someone in mind? On the other hand, if communication is often tense or strained, confidences are broken, or you don’t feel listened to, appreciated, or valued, these are signs of an unhealthy relationship. Unhealthy relationships can have both immediate and longer-term health impacts. If you are unhappy in a relationship, try to improve the relationship, or end it.
Take a moment to assess the health of your relationships. Who are the people who make you smile, who boost your confidence, who truly listen when you need to talk, and who want only the best for you? Investing in these relationships is likely to make you happier and healthier.
Self-Care helps you bring your best self to relationships. Healthy relationships start with healthy individuals. Self-care includes taking good care of yourself and prioritizing your own needs. It involves activities that nurture and refuel you, such as taking a walk in the woods, reading a good book, going to a yoga class, attending a sporting event, or spending time with friends. Effective time management can also be a form of self-care as it reduces stress. When you take care of yourself, you will be able to bring your best self to your relationships.
An important dynamic you bring to any relationship is how you feel about yourself. Self-esteem refers to how much you like or “esteem” yourself—to what extent you believe you are a good and worthwhile person. Healthy self-esteem can significantly improve your relationships. While low self-esteem may not keep us from being in relationships, it can act as a barrier to healthy relationships.
Community belonging is important for connection. What communities do you belong to? A group of classmates? A sports team? A spiritual community? A club or people you volunteer with? When you start seeing the social circles you connect to as communities and prioritize your time to develop more closeness with those communities, you will experience many physical, mental, and emotional health benefits.
According to a 2018 report from the American College Health Association, in a 12-month period, 63 percent of college students have felt very lonely. If you are feeling lonely or having a hard time making friends, know that the majority of people around you have also felt this way. Joining a group or a club of people who share your interests and passions is one of the best ways to make great friends and stay connected.
Manage Social Media
Psychological or behavioral dependence on social media platforms can result in significant impairment in an individual's function in various life domains over a prolonged period. This and other relationships between digital media use and mental health have been considerably researched, debated, and discussed among experts in several disciplines, and have generated controversy in medical, scientific, and technological communities. Research suggests that it affects women and girls more than boys and men and that it varies according to the social media platform used. Such disorders can be diagnosed when an individual engages in online activities at the cost of fulfilling daily responsibilities or pursuing other interests, and without regard for the negative consequences.
Problematic social media use can result in preoccupation and compulsion to excessively engage in social media platforms despite negative consequences. Problematic social media use is associated with mental health symptoms, such as anxiety and depression in children and young people.
Social media allows users to openly share their feelings, values, relationships, and thoughts. With the platform social media provides, users can freely express their emotions. However, not all is great with social media. It can also be used as a platform for discrimination and cyberbullying. Discrimination and cyberbullying are more prevalent online because people have more courage to write something bold rather than to say it in person. There is also a strong positive correlation between social anxiety and social media usage. The defining feature of social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.
The pros and cons of social media are heavily debated; although using social media can satisfy personal communication needs, those who use them at higher rates are shown to have higher levels of psychological distress.
Watch this supplemental video by Thomas Frank on How to Break Your Social Media Addiction.
Complete Section #2: ACTIVITY: Stress Management Plan
Mental Health Support
DISCLAIMER: This section briefly covers anxiety, depression, and suicidal behaviors. It concludes with information about readily available mental health supports and resources. It is intended for educational purposes. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental illness. ACC students in need of mental health services can request an appointment with a Mental Health Counselor. If you or someone you know is in crisis or struggling with suicidal thoughts, call 988 (National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline), chat 988lifeline.org, or text "HELLO" to the Crisis Text Line (741741).
Not surprisingly, many of the stress management approaches above are also recommended for supporting good mental health. If the approaches listed above are not enough and stress or other challenges are interfering with your mental health, reach out to college mental health counselors, therapists in the community, or national resources that are available 24/7.
According to a 2018 report from the American College Health Association, in a 12-month period, 63 percent of college students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety and 42 percent reported that they felt so depressed it was difficult to function.
People with anxiety disorders respond to certain objects or situations with fear and dread. They have physical reactions to those objects, such as rapid heartbeat and sweating. An anxiety disorder is diagnosed if a person has an inappropriate response to a situation, cannot control the response, and/or has an altered way of life due to anxiety.
Depression is a common but serious mood disorder that’s more than just a feeling of “being down in the dumps” or “blue” for a few days. It causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working. Here are some potential signs of depression:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight changes
People who contemplate suicide often experience a deep feeling of hopelessness. They often don’t feel they can cope with challenging life events. In the moment, they often cannot identify or access solutions to problems. Most survivors of suicide attempts go on to live wonderful, full lives.
These are some of the warning signs to help you determine if a friend or loved one is at risk for suicide, if someone you know is showing one or more of the following behaviors get help immediately. If you think someone is in immediate danger, do not leave them alone — stay there and call 988 or 911.
- Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
- Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or isolating themselves
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Extreme mood swings
Help is available all day, every day, for anyone who might be in crisis. Crisis centers provide invaluable support at the most critical times. If you or someone you know has warning signs of suicide, get help as soon as possible. Family and friends are often the first to recognize any warning signs and can help take the first step in finding treatment.
- Call 988 (National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline)
- Chat 988lifeline.org
- Text "HELLO" to the Crisis Text Line (741741)
- OK2TALK is a community for young adults struggling with mental health conditions that offers a safe place to talk
- ACC students in need of mental health services can request an appointment with a Mental Health Counselor
- Emotional well-being, psychological well-being, and social well-being are indicators of mental health.
- Stress can be a positive, motivating force that can improve the quality of our lives. This type of good stress is known as eustress and is associated with positive feelings, optimal health, and performance.
- Distress occurs when stress is excessive and debilitating. People experiencing distress feel burned out; they are fatigued, exhausted, and their performance begins to decline.
- Chronic stress affects your ability to concentrate and manage your emotions, makes you more accident-prone, increases your risk for heart disease, can weaken your immune system, disrupt your sleep, and can cause fatigue, depression, and anxiety.
- It’s important to learn and use a variety of healthy stress management strategies to stay mentally and physically healthy.
- Most people feel depressed, lonely, or anxious now and then. If these symptoms persist, engage in practices to restore mental health and emotional balance in your life and seek help if necessary.
ACTIVITY: Stress Management Plan
My Stress Management Plan
1. My Key Symptoms of Stress (List physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual symptoms)
2. My Key Sources of Stress (Consider internal, external, academic, job, interpersonal, and social sources of stress)
3. What THREE Actions can you apply to help manage stress? Be detailed on what these actions are and how they may alleviate the symptoms or sources of your stress.
4. How can you improve the care of your physical health? What are you currently doing to care for your physical health?
5. You deserve self-care. What is a self-care activity you can do for yourself this week?
Supplemental Material: Managing Your Physical Health
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Identify the six components of the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate
- Differentiate between the health effects of consuming whole foods versus processed and fast foods
- Understand the benefits of staying well hydrated and the signs of dehydration
- Recognize the benefits to physical and mental health from staying physically active
- Distinguish the three main types of exercise and understand how much of each type we need per week for optimal health benefits
- Identify the benefits of getting sufficient quantity and quality of sleep each night and how insufficient sleep can negatively affect our physical and mental health
- Discover steps one can take to improve sleep quality and quantity
Managing Your Physical Health
“Healthy eating is a way of life, so it’s important to establish routines that are simple, realistic, and ultimately livable.” – Horace
While it’s not the only thing that contributes to great health, what you eat makes a huge difference. We have 37 trillion cells in our bodies. The only way they function optimally is with good nutrition. As a college student, you may be tempted to stop for fast food on your way to school or work. The downside of fast food is that it is often loaded with sugar, salt, or both. In addition, it is often low in essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Here at Austin Community College, you and your family can receive groceries at no cost through ACC's partnerships with Central Texas Food Bank's (CTFB) mobile food distributions and other community partner food access opportunities. ACC-hosted food access events will be updated on this schedule. Apply for ongoing federal benefits like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Women, Infants & Children (WIC) with the help of ACC's trained Student Advocacy Center specialists or schedule an appointment with CTFB. (Spanish language link: Apoyo con SNAP aplicación por CTFB.) Check ACC’s Food Access Calendar for help finding food when you need it, and where you need it.
Healthy Eating Plate
Nutritionists at Harvard University created The Healthy Eating Plate, which is based on what they consider to be the best available science. Half the plate is vegetables and fruit. Aim for eight servings of veggies or fruits a day, more veggies than fruits. The plate also includes whole grains, healthy protein, healthy plant oils, and water.
Healthy eating also includes choosing organic fruits and vegetables when possible. By choosing organic, you help lower the number of toxins your body encounters (since conventional fruits and vegetables are often sprayed with pesticides). When shopping for groceries, the Dirty Dozen List provided by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a good guide on which produce is most important to eat organic, as these are the fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residue. The EWG also compiles a Clean 15 list of the vegetables and fruits with the least amount of pesticides.
Watch this supplemental video by Foodie on What is a Healthy Eating Plate.
Whole Foods vs. Processed Foods
The average American eats 62 percent of their daily calories from processed foods. (Adams, n.d.) For your body to be as healthy as possible, it’s important to include a lot of whole foods in your diet.
Whole foods supply the needed vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fiber that are essential to good health. Commercially prepared and fast foods are often lacking nutrients and often contain inordinate amounts of sugar, salt, and saturated and trans fats, all of which are associated with the development of diseases such as atherosclerosis, heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes, and other illnesses (Klees, 2022).
Examples of whole foods include the following:
- Vegetables: Carrots, broccoli, kale, avocados, cauliflower, spinach, peppers
- Fruits: Apples, bananas, blueberries, strawberries, grapes, melons, peaches
- Grains: Brown rice, oatmeal, barley, buckwheat, quinoa, millet
- Beans: Black, pinto, kidney, black-eyed peas, chickpeas
Minimize non-whole foods. These are foods that have been processed, such as cookies, hot dogs, chips, pasta, deli meat, and ice cream. Even seemingly healthy foods like yogurt, granola, and protein bars may be highly processed and should be checked for added sugar and other unhealthy ingredients.
What You Drink
What is your go-to drink when you are thirsty? Soda? Juice? Coffee? How about water? Most of your blood and every cell in your body is composed of water. In fact, water makes up 60 to 80 percent of our entire body mass, so when we don’t consume enough water, all kinds of complications can occur. Proper hydration is key to overall health and well-being. By the time you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated. Dehydration is when your body does not have as much water and fluids as it needs. Researchers at Virginia Polytechnic discovered that mild dehydration (as little as losing 1 to 2 percent of body water) can impair cognitive performance (Riebl, 2013).
Water increases energy and relieves fatigue, promotes weight loss, flushes toxins, improves skin complexion, improves digestion, and is a natural headache remedy (your brain is 76 percent water). Headaches, migraines, and back pains are commonly caused by dehydration. Your body will also let you know it needs water by messaging through muscle cramps, achy joints, constipation, dry skin, and of course a dry mouth.
One of the best habits you can develop is to drink a large glass of water first thing in the morning. Your body becomes a little dehydrated as you sleep. Drinking water first thing in the morning allows your body to rehydrate, which helps with digestion. It also helps to eliminate the toxins your liver processed while you slept.
Watch this supplemental video by ActiveBeat on 8 Benefits of Staying Hydrated.
Staying hydrated is important to keep your body healthy, energized, and running properly. As a general guideline, aim to drink eight glasses of water a day, although a more helpful guide is to drink half your body weight in ounces (for example, if you weigh 150 lb, try to drink 75 oz of water a day). One of the best ways to remind yourself to drink throughout the day is to buy a reusable bottle and bring it everywhere you go. There are two reasons to use a refillable water bottle instead of a plastic bottle:
- Your own health. Most plastic water bottles have a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA), which is added to plastics to make them more durable and pliable. BPA is known to disrupt hormones.
- The health of the planet. Do you know that every time you drink from a plastic water bottle and casually toss it in the trash, it can stay on the planet for approximately 450 years? (Wright et al, 2018) Even when you recycle, the complex nature of recycling doesn’t guarantee your plastic bottle will make it through the process. Americans purchase about 50 billion water bottles per year, averaging 13 bottles a month for each of us. By using a reusable water bottle, you can save an average of 156 plastic bottles annually (Earth Day, 2022).
“But I don’t like the taste of water!” It may take time, but eventually, you will. Add a little more each day, and eventually your body will feel so fantastic fully hydrated that you will have water cravings. In the meantime, you can add lemon, lime, berries, watermelon, cucumbers, or whatever taste you enjoy that will add a little healthy flavor to the water.
While water is undeniably the healthiest beverage you can drink, it is unrealistic to assume that is all you will drink. Be careful to minimize your soda intake, as most sodas are loaded with sugar or artificial sweeteners (which can be even worse than sugar). And unless you are squeezing your own fruit juice, you are also likely drinking a lot of sugar. Many fruit juices sold in supermarkets contain only a small percentage of real fruit juice and have added sugar and other unhealthy sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup. A 12-oz glass of orange juice can contain up to 9 teaspoons of sugar, about the same as a 12-oz can of Coke! Hot or cold herbal teas are a wonderful addition to your diet.
Exercise and Physical Fitness
Exercise is good for both body and mind. Indeed, physical activity is almost essential for good health and student success.
The physical benefits of regular exercise include the following:
- Improved fitness for the whole body, not just the muscles
- Greater cardiovascular fitness and reduced disease risk
- Increased physical endurance
- Stronger immune system, providing more resistance to disease
- Lower cholesterol levels, reducing the risks of cardiovascular disease
- Lowered risk of developing diabetes
- Weight maintenance or loss
- Lowering the risk of premature death
- Slowing or reversing the decline of muscle mass, bone density, and strength with aging
- Reducing the stiffness and loss of balance that can accompany aging
- Lowering the risk of developing type 2 diabetes
- Increasing sensitivity to insulin for individuals with type 1 or type 2 diabetes
Perhaps more important to students are the mental and psychological benefits:
- Stress reduction
- Improved mood, with less anxiety and depression
- Improved cognitive functioning and ability to focus mentally
- Better sleep
- Feeling better about oneself
For all of these reasons, it’s important for college students to regularly exercise or engage in physical activity. Like good nutrition and getting enough sleep, exercise is a key habit that contributes to overall wellness that promotes college success. The following supplemental video, Exercise and the Brain by WellCast, explains why and challenges you to give it a try.
As a busy college student, you may be thinking, I know this, but I don’t have time! I have classes and work and a full life! What you may not know is that—precisely because you have such a demanding, possibly stressful schedule—now is the perfect time to make exercise a regular part of your life. Getting into an effective exercise routine now will not only make it easier to build healthy habits that you can take with you into your life after college, but it can help you be a more successful student, too. As you’ll see in the section on brain health, below, exercise is a powerful tool for improving one’s mental health and memory—both of which are especially important when you’re in school.
The good news is that most people can improve their health and quality of life through a modest increase in daily activity. You don’t have to join a gym, spend a lot of money, or even do the same activity every time—just going for a walk or choosing to take the stairs can make a difference.
What Type and How Much Exercise to Do
Physical fitness is a state of well-being that gives you sufficient energy to perform daily physical activities without getting overly tired or winded. It also means being in good enough shape to handle unexpected emergencies involving physical demands—that is, if someone said, “Run for your life!” or you had to rush over and prevent a child from falling, you’d be able to do it. There are many forms of exercise—dancing, rock climbing, walking, jogging, yoga, bike riding, you name it—that can help you become physically fit. The major types are described below.
Aerobic exercise increases your heart rate, works your muscles, and raises your breathing rate. For most people, it’s best to aim for at least 150 minutes per week of low-intensity activities such as walking, or at least 75 minutes per week of high-intensity activities such as running, spread out throughout the week (Office of Disease Prevention, 2021). If you haven’t been very active recently, you can start with five or ten minutes a day and work up to more time each week. Or, split up your activity for the day: try a brisk ten-minute walk after each meal.
Strength training helps build strong bones and muscles and makes everyday chores like carrying heavy backpacks or grocery bags easier. Do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week. (Office of Disease Prevention, 2021) When you have more muscle mass, you burn more calories, even at rest. You could join a strength training class or lift weights at home.
Flexibility exercises, also called stretching, help keep your joints flexible and reduce your risk of injury during other activities. A good time for flexibility exercise is after cardio or strength exercise when your muscles are warm. Do stretching at least 2-3 times a week. You’ll get even more benefits by stretching daily. Hold each stretch for 10-30 seconds, and repeat for a total of 60 seconds for each major muscle group. Check to see if your college offers yoga, stretching, and/or Pilates classes, and give one a try (Garber, et al, 2011).
In addition to formal exercise, there are many opportunities to be active throughout the day. Being active helps burn calories. The more you move around, the more energy you will have. You can increase your activity level by walking or bicycling instead of driving when possible, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, doing some house or yard work every day, or by parking a little farther from your destination.
Watch this supplemental video from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion for some tips on how to get motivated to exercise.
If you still aren’t persuaded, check out this slightly longer but excellent TEDx Talk, which describes how aerobic exercise can improve your cognitive functioning, memory, and creativity:
A great night’s sleep begins the minute you wake up. The choices you make throughout the day impact how quickly you fall asleep, whether you sleep soundly, and whether your body can complete the cycle of critical functions that only happen while you sleep. With sufficient sleep, it is easier to learn, remember what you learned, and have the necessary energy to make the most of your college experience. Without sufficient sleep, it is harder to learn, remember what you learned, and have the energy to make the most of your college experience. It’s that simple.
What Happens When We Sleep?
Sleep is a time when our bodies are quite busy repairing and detoxifying. While we sleep, we fix damaged tissue, toxins are processed and eliminated, hormones essential for growth and appetite control are released and restocked, and energy is restored. Sleep is essential for a healthy immune system. How many colds do you catch a year? How often do you get the flu? If you are often sick, you do not have a healthy immune system, and sleep deprivation may be a key culprit.
A review of hundreds of sleep studies concluded that most adults need around eight hours of sleep to maintain good health. Some people may be able to function quite well on seven, and others may need closer to nine, but as a general rule, most people need a solid eight hours of sleep each night. And when it comes to sleep, both quantity and quality are important. A healthy amount of sleep has the following benefits:
- Improves your mood during the day
- Improves your memory and learning abilities
- Gives you more energy
- Strengthens your immune system
- Promotes wellness of body, mind, and spirit
Sleep helps you think more clearly, have quicker reflexes, and focus better. “The fact is, when we look at well-rested people, they’re operating at a different level than people trying to get by on one or two hours less nightly sleep,” says Dr. Merrill Mitler, a sleep expert and neuroscientist at NIH.
In contrast, not getting enough sleep over time can lead to a wide range of health issues and student problems. Sleep deprivation can have the following consequences:
- Affects mental health and contributes to stress and feelings of anxiety, depression, and general unhappiness
- Causes sleepiness, difficulty paying attention in class, and ineffective studying
- Weakens the immune system, making it more likely to catch colds and other infections
- Increases risk of heart attack and stroke
- Impairs cognitive function. Even one night of sleeping less than six hours can impact your ability to think clearly the next day.
- Increases risk of accidents. Sleep deprivation slows your reaction time, which increases your risk of accidents. You are three times more likely to be in a car crash if you are tired. According to the American Sleep Foundation,
- Increases risk for weight gain and obesity. Sleep helps balance your appetite by regulating hormones that play a role in helping you feel full after a meal.
- Increases risk of cancer.
- Increases emotional intensity. The part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions, your amygdala, can be 60 percent more reactive when you've slept poorly, resulting in increased emotional intensity.
“Loss of sleep impairs your higher levels of reasoning, problem-solving, and attention to detail,” Mitler explains. Tired people tend to be less productive at work and school. They’re at a much higher risk for traffic accidents. Lack of sleep also influences your mood, which can affect how you interact with others. A sleep deficit over time can even put you at greater risk of developing depression.
For more information on the advantages and health risks of sleep watch this supplemental video, a TED Talk called Sleep is Your Superpower by Matt Walker, Ph.D., Director of the Sleep Center at the University of California at Berkeley.
Tips to Improve the Quality of Your Sleep
Set a schedule
Go to bed at a set time each night and get up at the same time each morning. Disrupting this schedule may lead to insomnia. “Sleeping in” on weekends also makes it harder to wake up early on Monday morning because it resets your sleep cycles for a later awakening. If possible, wake up with the sun, or use very bright lights in the morning. Sunlight helps the body’s internal biological clock reset itself each day. Sleep experts recommend exposure to an hour of morning sunlight for people having problems falling asleep.
Sleep in a cool, quiet, dark room.
Create a sleeping environment that is comfortable and conducive to sleep. If you can control the temperature in your room, keep it cool in the evening. Exposure to bright light suppresses our body’s ability to make melatonin, so keep the room as dark as possible. Even the tiniest bit of light in the room (like from a clock radio LCD screen) can disrupt your internal clock and your production of melatonin, which will interfere with your sleep. A sleep mask may help eliminate light, and earplugs can help reduce noise.
Avoid blue light at night, such as from cell phones and computer screens and bluish LED bulbs.
There is growing evidence that short-wavelength (blue spectrum) light affects hormonal secretion, thermoregulation, sleep, and alertness. A recent study found that short-wavelength light before bedtime affects circadian rhythm and evening sleepiness, and has further effects on sleep physiology and alertness in the morning. Using a blue light filter on your electronic devices in the evening partially reduces these negative effects (Hohn et al, 2021).
Avoid eating late, using nicotine, and drinking alcohol or caffeine close to bedtime.
It is best to finish eating at least two hours before bedtime and avoid caffeine after lunch. It’s important to finish eating hours before bedtime so your body can heal and detoxify and it is not spending the first few hours of sleep digesting a heavy meal. While not everyone is affected in the same way, caffeine hangs around for a long time in most bodies. Although alcohol will make you drowsy, the effect is short-lived and you will often wake up several hours later, unable to fall back to sleep. Alcohol can also keep you from entering the deeper stages of sleep, where your body does most of the repair and healing. Smokers tend to sleep very lightly and often wake up in the early morning due to nicotine withdrawal.
Start to wind down an hour before bed.
There are great apps to help with relaxation, stress release, and falling asleep. Or you can simply practice the 2-4-6-8 breathing pattern explained in the first part of the chapter.
Don’t lie in bed awake.
If you can’t get to sleep, don’t just lie in bed. Do something else, like reading or listening to music, until you feel tired. Avoid screens, though: watching TV, and being on the computer or a smartphone are too stimulating and will make you more wakeful.
One of the biggest benefits of exercise is its effect on sleep. A study from Stanford University found that 16 weeks in a moderate-intensity exercise program allowed people to fall asleep about 15 minutes faster and sleep about 45 minutes longer. Walking, yoga, swimming, strength training, jumping rope—whatever it is, find an exercise you like and make sure to move your body every day.
Improve your diet.
Low fiber and high saturated fat and sugar intake are associated with lighter, less restorative sleep with more wake time during the night. Processed food full of chemicals will make your body work extra hard during the night to remove the toxins and leave less time for healing and repair.
- The Harvard Healthy Eating Plate describes how much we should consume each day of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy proteins, healthy oils, and water.
- Consuming whole foods versus processed and fast foods provides many benefits for our physical health.
- Staying well hydrated is essential for our overall health and well-being.
- Regular physical activity provides many benefits for our physical and mental health.
- Getting adequate sleep provides many benefits for our mental and physical health and there are a variety of steps we can take to improve our sleep quality and quantity.
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