In our frenetic world, college students have experienced a larger-than-average amount of turmoil, uncertainty, and difficulty over the past several years.
The COVID-19 epidemic forced seismic changes to how college life worked and formatively shifted the ways college students existed and engaged with the college experience. Worse, this all happened practically overnight and, for many individuals, lasted multiple years.
As the pandemic’s effects have gradually lessened and things have begun to return to “normal,” fundamental differences will remain that college students, campuses, and administrations are still attempting to navigate. These changes and uncertainties can threaten college student wellness in significant ways.
Thankfully, all hope is not lost for wellness. Cultivating wellness has always taken a level of intentionality, even well before the pandemic. And while the college environment may look different or take some re-learning, it is more than possible for any college student to create wellness routines and practices that can withstand even our highly uncertain and quickly changing times.
Approaching Wellness as a Traditional Student vs. Online or Remote Student
It’s important to note that incorporating wellness as a college student will look different for students who are attending classes in person as opposed to students who are engaging with their degree program partly or fully online. Each format presents its own advantages and disadvantages when compared to the other.
Don’t worry, though — achieving a high level of personal wellness is fully possible whether you are a traditional or remote college student. It’s simply important to acknowledge and plan for the unique characteristics that each degree program type presents, and the resulting lifestyle differences they usually involve.
When involved in a traditional, in-person program, you will likely experience more physical activity during the course of your average week than you would in a virtual degree program. This happens naturally by simply needing to get to and from classes.
In-person programs also boost your average opportunities to be outside in nature (an important aspect of maintaining wellness), as well as your average amount of in-person interaction as you engage with classmates and professors in face-to-face settings. However, when completing in-person programs it can sometimes be more difficult to get adequate sleep per night, and also is more likely that quiet or alone time can be more difficult to sustain, which can be a detriment to some personality types or learning styles.
Conversely, an online or remote program can allow for a more flexible schedule and can often make it easier to get enough sleep per night and better control things like proper nutrition intake. It can streamline communication needs and often moves interpersonal interactions online or into written form, which can be ideal for some learners.
However, students in online programs need to be more intentional about engaging in adequate physical activity and movement on a regular basis. Online programs also often restrict natural room for relationships and interpersonal interactions, making it necessary to seek them out more proactively. For some personality types, this can feel isolating and stifling.
Understanding these differences and identifying what aspects of your wellness need extra attention or won’t be adequately met by the program format you’re engaged in is a huge part of maintaining strong wellness as a college student.
What is “Wellness?”
In order to effectively incorporate wellness into your life, you first need an adequate understanding of what wellness refers to. Put simply, wellness incorporates a few distinct areas of your individual life experience. These dimensions are highly interconnected and all influence each other in important ways.
Together, they comprise some of the primary arenas within which you experience yourself, your surroundings, and your world. With attention and intentionality, these different areas of your life can all be tailored in ways that allow you to experience them more fully and healthily.
Like monetary investments into a bank account, working on various aspects of your wellness invests in your overall health and quality of life. This practice can make a substantial difference in the way you live over time.
For college students, life’s expectations and pressures can create a uniquely demanding existence. These kinds of seasons make investing time and energy in wellness particularly important. Though this list isn’t comprehensive, here are a few core components of wellness that can help you better understand what’s involved in enhancing your overall wellness:
Your physical body is an important determinant of your wellness. The better your physical and biological systems operate, the more capable you will be of performing not just physical tasks but every area of your life.
Like any other embodied living creature, your physical self needs a few things to perform optimally. And conversely, when it is deprived of the basic resources it needs to perform, it is not only your physical health that will show signs of deprivation but other aspects of your personhood as well.
From obesity to decreased cognitive performance to developing mental health disorders, neglecting your body’s basic physical needs can cause a slew of problems over time.
Emotional and Mental Health
You’ll notice that the section above alluded to the connection between physical health and its mental or emotional implications. The converse is also true of this second element of wellness. Your emotional and mental health is a hugely important part of your living experience that takes care and investment the same way that your physical health does.
Emotional and mental health involves elements such as the levels and types of stress you experience in your day-to-day life, your ability to identify and process emotions and adverse experiences, and more. Strengthening your emotional and mental health can be accomplished through patterns of awareness and investment of time and energy. Like physical health, neglecting your emotional or mental health can result in not just emotional or mental problems, but in ailments that affect other areas of wellness.
Social Health and Relational Wellbeing
Whether you are a life-of-the-party extrovert, an I’d-rather-be-at-the-library introvert, or anywhere in between, humans are all social and relational beings. We all need different types and amounts of interpersonal relationships and connections to thrive. Your social interactions and quality of relationships, therefore, contribute significantly to your overall well-being and quality of life.
Just like the previous two wellness categories, strong social and relational health can contribute positively to other elements of your overall wellness. And similarly, problems in this area can bleed over into other parts of your wellness. This can include causing mental strain or illness and even physical ailments of varying kinds in severe cases of neglect, isolation, abuse, or relational problems.
There are a number of metrics you can use to think about how relationships touch your life and how they are contributing to (or, in some cases, hampering) your wellness. These will be explored in more detail further on in this post. For now, it’s important to recognize two truths: first, quality relationships are a vital part of your life experience. And second, that not all relationships are created equal.
It’s also important to have a way of weighing your various relationships against each other and understanding how different relationships fulfill different relational needs for you. Multiple frameworks exist for categorizing the various types of relationships in your life.
These usually help you place your relationships on some kind of scale from the most formative to the most casual. They might range from a significant other and/or your immediate family and closest friends all the way to casual acquaintances, classmates, or persons you may have only interacted with once or twice.
Other frameworks categorize relationships by type, such as emotional, intellectual, familial, professional, and more. However, your personal relationship range may look, understanding how different relationships serve distinct purposes is important to understand in order to achieve strong social and relational well-being.
Tips to Incorporate Wellness Into Your College Experience
Now that we’ve briefly explored different aspects of wellness and how they fit together, it’s time to share some practical tips for incorporating elements of wellness into your rituals and routines. Here are a few strategies for kickstarting your wellness journey during your college career.
Commit to some kind of regular physical activity or exercise
A hugely beneficial way of contributing meaningfully to your physical wellbeing is by incorporating movement into your weekly schedule. Many people mistakenly assume that the only way to achieve adequate physical exercise is by getting a gym membership and lifting weights or using ellipticals several tortuous times a week. This is far from the truth.
From dance classes to take on a dog-walking gig to getting a Nintendo Wii, the possibilities for creatively adding movement into your life are nearly endless. Even on a college student’s budget, you can find ample ways of engaging in movement that can be not only enjoyable but affordable.
YouTube yoga videos by yourself or on your dorm floor? A weekly basketball game with friends at the rec center? Joining the ping pong club? There are creative and enjoyable opportunities available to anyone who is willing to put themselves out there and find one. And in addition, incorporating some kind of group or relational physical activity into your routine acts like a two-for-one wellness boost by also creating additional opportunities for positive social interactions and relationships.
Prioritize a Few Basic Health Needs
Your diet doesn’t have to be an ironclad endeavor. You don’t need to commit to an 8 pm bedtime. Your baseline physical condition can be greatly enhanced with small tweaks over time. Making your physical body happy by committing to small, gradual changes can create hugely substantial benefits — and can be much more sustainable than trying to implement intense rules for yourself that you cannot keep up with after a week’s time.
Rather than a carrots-and-celery diet a week before spring break, why not think about committing to only eating desserts on the weekends or making sure you get at least eight hours of sleep two nights a week to start? These small changes can add up over time and significantly increase your overall physical health. You can even look into sustainable eating habits that focus on healthy food choices, local impact and healing the environment.
Also mentioned in this tip is monitoring stress levels. This can impact not only your physical but your emotional and mental health. Once a weekend or month for this semester, what if you put it in your calendar to take an hour to assess how stressed you’ve been feeling and do something soothing or enjoyable? This kind of “stress reset” can do wonders for your emotional health and help you maintain optimal performance in every area of your life.
Do a Relationship Audit
As mentioned above, relationships can come in a broad range of types, seasons, and qualities. Positive, healthy relationships can greatly enhance your life and wellness. Conversely, unhealthy relationships can create stress, lower your wellness, and, in severe cases, threaten your emotional, mental, and physical health.
Periodically, it’s important to take a close look at the people that surround you and influence you. These include everything from your closest relationships to your most casual ones. To assess your relationships and especially the ones that are the closest to you or that you spend the most time around, try asking yourself these questions.
Do you feel safe and seen? Do you have room to share your thoughts, feelings, and ideas without criticism or judgment? Can you share feedback and know you’ll be heard? Can you receive feedback without feeling hurt or betrayed? Can you ask for what you want or need without fear of being ignored or experiencing negative repercussions? Do you have people in your life you know you can rely on or ask for help if you need it? Do you enjoy spending time with the people in your life? Are you encouraged by your relationships to be your best self and are you able to reciprocate?
If you aren’t able to answer positively to some or all of these questions, it is ok to reconsider how much time you’d like to spend with or around people who are imposing a negative or difficult influence in your life. Obviously, this is a nuanced and complex journey that deserves more explanation than can be dedicated to it in this post.
Difficult family, significant other, or friend relationships can require careful navigation and sometimes even external support like a therapist or other interventions in extreme cases. However, simply engaging more thoughtfully in how you approach and maintain your relationships can often help you create significant improvements in your overall wellness over time.
Workshop Your Productivity and Performance
As alluded to above while discussing the differences between in-person and online degree programs, each of us operate differently and need different things to achieve optimal learning and engagement. This is one reason that different program formats exist — to allow individuals to choose between different program structures and styles based on how they naturally learn best.
Hopefully, you’ve ended up in a program format that already allows you to lean into your personal strengths. However, the opportunity to tailor your rhythms, study habits, lifestyle, and more extend far beyond choosing between a traditional vs. remote program.
There are many ways to go about optimizing your lifestyle to achieve higher performance and better well-being. One example is to pay attention to what time(s) during the day you are best at performing different types of tasks.
Do you struggle to accomplish your homework when you start at 8 pm, but find that you’re able to fly through your assignments when you start early and with a cup of coffee? Try scheduling your week so that you utilize that learning by planning opportunities to do homework in the mornings as much as possible. Do you find that you enjoy classes more if you’ve worked out beforehand? Try lining up your workout days with your heaviest class days.
Optimizing your life in this way is an ongoing process. It can be as simple as remaining curious and keeping track of your experiences in some way. Some individuals jot down their observations in a journal. Some keep a spreadsheet. Some write sticky notes. Some reflect back on a week or a month at a time, while others plan simple experiments for themselves a week or month’s time in advance. However you engage best with this process, the only thing you need to start optimizing your life and your processes is the intentionality to do it.
This is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
If this post seems a bit overwhelming, don’t let it be. Well-being is a lifelong journey. Pursuing higher levels of wellness actually works much better in small, gradual changes that can be implemented without causing too much change or difference at a time. Wellness happens in stages and sometimes needs to happen in seasons.
Especially as a college student, don’t get too discouraged if you have to let your sleep commitment slide a little bit during finals week or can’t spend as much time as you’d like at the gym. Incorporating small aspects of wellness in sustainable ways over time will create a strong wellness foundation that can carry you not just through your college career but well into your adult life and beyond.
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