Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
The word in itself, with all the weight it carries, deserves space even on this page. I only arrived three weeks ago, and already I can feel the intensity of the University trying to creep through me like the beautiful yet insidious ivy that covers the historic walls of this city.
But it hasn’t (cue some combination of angelic music and the Rocky theme song).
Four years of practice and growth during my equally challenging undergraduate experience have prepared me well to separate myself from the pull of certain behaviors that can have a serious impact on mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Those behaviors are immediately visible here too, and I want to take this time to share them with you in the hope that you can stand tall and firm through the metaphorical, invisible currents of University that try to pull you in all directions and carry you far from shore until you are completely disoriented, feeling hopeless, alone, and lost. I hope my tips will leave you with two practical navigational tools to help you build resilience against the current.
1. Embed a non-work-related activity into your routine
Far too often I’ve seen friends pause their entire lives for an assignment. “Sleep? A waste of time. A walk? Inefficient. A coffee date? Useless.” This is what I would call the “reject-for-focus” approach, whereby students will reject anything and everything that doesn’t directly involve their work, with the belief that rejection can yield hyper-focus. Of course, there are moments when, due to time-sensitive work, we need to shut ourselves in isolation to finish an assignment. But the reality is that in University there are many assignments. And if you get into the habit of this approach with every assignment, by the time you’re finished with University you will have spent all your time in a library, or in your room.
Why does this matter?
On one of my first evenings here, during a presentation at an orientation dinner, a former doctoral student shared with us a wonderful piece of advice, which I think perfectly describes one of the reasons why the “reject-for-focus” approach is dangerous:
“If I could go back to the days when I was first starting my doctoral research, and give myself one piece of advice, it would be: Don’t spend so much time in the library. When you’re older, you won’t likely remember much of the details of your time studying — but you will remember the memories you made. Make the most of your time here by making memories that you could look back on in the future when your friends or your kids ask you about your time at Oxford.”
Shutting yourself away from the world when you’re feeling overwhelmed by work can, over time, lead you to shut down completely. And although perhaps you could be rewarded with good grades, you’re ultimately stunting your personal growth and potential to make lasting memories.
To avoid this, I suggest embedding non-work-related activities into your daily routine, even if it’s only for 5-10 minutes a day. Here are some of the most helpful activities I’ve heard of and experienced myself:
- Walks outside; listen to your favorite music, tune into a new podcast, or simply go headphone-less and take in the scenes of your University
- Exercise — even just stretching in your room, there are many wonderful benefits of exercise. See here, one of our many articles in Thrive Global on the benefits of exercise on productivity
- Arrange a coffee break with a friend
- Journal — a personal favorite of mine is bringing my journal to a new coffee shop to reflect on my day or write poetry.
Remember, time away is not necessarily time lost: It is time gained. Time away from work can restore your energy, boost your productivity, give you a renewed sense of purpose, and provide the space to listen to yourself and your body.
2. Don’t compare yourself to the people around you
When I was in high school, my sense of value in a classroom was built, in large part, from a look outward towards the people around me. The reality was that not many people studied, and even less actually cared about what they were studying. I, however, did care. And for this, I stood out; I was bullied, and as many people around that age usually are, I was labeled a “nerd.”
But while a look outward may have genuinely contributed to my sense of self-worth in a classroom, ultimately this is a problematic and unhealthy way of building confidence.
I learned this when I started my undergraduate and now graduate experiences. These environments are full of people who care just as much as I do about their work — impressive people whose work has led them to amazing professional experiences.
Among so many impressive people, it’s hard not to compare.
But as difficult a task it may seem, I believe that for your well-being, it is crucial that you try not to compare yourself to the people around you.
A look outwards to determine your self-worth in and outside the classroom can ultimately lead to detrimental consequences on your well-being. The truth is that there is always going to be someone smarter than you, with better grades or a cooler life story and professional experiences. But their experiences don’t make yours any less valuable, for theirs are entirely separate from yours. And getting caught up in the comparison competition, in trying to match other people’s experiences, is a dangerous habit as it can prevent you from listening to your own needs, your own passions: what makes you, you.
Say, for example, someone gets a better grade on an exam. Rather than comparing yourself to this person, it is important to remind yourself that the results of others don’t make yours lesser. Ask yourself, did you put in as much effort as you could to succeed? What could you do next time to change your approach? Could you ask this person for advice?
Sustainable confidence can truly only come from a look inwards towards yourself, and you can only listen to what is within you once you start tuning out of what is happening around you.
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More on Mental Health on Campus:
What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need
If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help
The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis