Sleepless nights, obscene amounts of coffee and ramen are often considered to be essential to the busy college lifestyle. Among the stress and exhaustion, an important activity sometimes forgotten from this list is self-care.
“Stress in college students seems to be the norm,” said Dr. Julia Kim-Cohen, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). “It’s almost abnormal for college students to not report feeling stressed.”
As a professor at UIC, Kim-Cohen notices this stress first hand. As the end of the semester draws near, she reports her students appearing tired, paying less attention to how they look and beginning to miss class. The consequences of ongoing stress vary. According to Kim-Cohen, the consequences of untreated, ongoing stress range from poor concentration and difficulty sleeping to suicidal thoughts and substance abuse.
“It can interfere with someone’s social functioning because they can be less pleasant to be around, especially if their stress is making them impatient and ill tempered,” Kim-Cohen said.
In a 2016 Mental Help survey of 1,000 college students, 30 percent reported feeling stressed for almost the entire semester. Twenty-eight percent of students reported feeling stressed between five and seven times each term. Finals and midterms were the top cause of stress, followed by graduation and the future.
Stress isn’t always a bad thing, though. Kim-Cohen notes that research shows some stress can improve performance. It all depends on how a person reacts to it.
“The bad things that can result from severe or prolonged stress are nothing to sneeze at, so it’s best to prevent physical and mental health problems before they onset,” Kim-Cohen said.
What is self-care?
“In a word, I would say self-care is self-compassion,” Kim-Cohen said. “When we see someone we care about who’s stressed and struggling, our impulse is to support them, to treat them kindly, to encourage them to rest, or to simply hug them—that’s compassion. So self-care would be treating oneself the same way.”
This means eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising, developing strong relationships and expressing your emotions. According to Google Trends, searches terms containing “self-care” in the U.S. have increased since May 2017. However, since the beginning of May, around the time of finals week for many college students, there has been a sharp drop in searches.
Aubree Smith, a recent graduate from DePaul University, practices self-care everyday.
“I’m a lot better of a person when I take care of myself,” Smith said.
Before graduating in March, Smith was the secretary of CHAARG, a women’s fitness group at DePaul. Smith also worked at the DePaul Center and was a full-time student. Even so, Smith found time for self-care. For her, self-care is flexible. Every day, she asks herself what she needs. On Monday she might need a nap, Tuesday a facial and Thursday a yoga session. Throughout the day, between class, work and CHAARG, she makes sure to fulfill that need. She admits it’s not always easy for her to make time for self-care. There are moments when Smith becomes overwhelmed by all the work she must complete.
“I have to step back and realize everything will work out,” Smith said. “If I don’t get it done tonight, I will get it done tomorrow night. My sanity is more important.”
Taking time for yourself
For Donyae Lewis, a graduate student at DePaul, self-care has been a huge part of his journey through college. Lewis is a team member at City Year Chicago, a tutor at DePaul’s Writing Center and a student leader at the DePaul Catholic Ministry. Also a singer, songwriter and poet, Lewis moves quickly between class, work and other activities. However, he recognizes the importance of taking time for himself and slowing down. There are days when he can’t do everything he loves to do and that’s okay.
“At first [self-care] was something I never did,” Lewis said. “I was doing things for other people and for the good of the world, but then I realized I had bottled up and repressed so much that I got to a breaking point and everything crashed. I realized, ‘Oh my God, you have been doing so much and not taking care of yourself.’”
Writing is an important part of Lewis’ self-care routine. When he is overwhelmed or is having a bad day, Lewis said he writes songs and poetry to process what he is feeling. He also makes note of what he is thankful for every day.
“Some days it’s not what I’m happy about but what I’m grateful to have,” Lewis said.
Making self-care a priority
With many commitments, it can be hard to find time to practice self-care. However, Lewis said communication with employers, colleagues, friends and family members makes it easier to put yourself first.
“I’m very honest especially with employers,” Lewis said. “I think I’ve told almost every employer now since being at DePaul that I go through mental health and I go through depression and anxiety.”
Lewis and Smith agree that self-care looks different from person to person and from day to day. Fitting in an hour-long yoga session might be difficult on a day full of classes, but taking five minutes to practice mindfulness is feasible. No matter the day’s schedule, though, if a longer break is necessary, it’s important to make space for it.
“Some people need a take care week,” Lewis said. “Some people need a take care day and some people need a take care minute. But take care of yourself always because at the end of the day you are your biggest fan, you are your biggest hero and you are your biggest savior. It takes a true self-care moment to realize that.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “ITSOK” to 741741.
To learn more about counseling services at DePaul University visit the student affairs website. To make an appointment you can call the Lincoln Park office at 773-325-7779 or the Loop Campus office at 312-362-6923.
You can also call the Illinois Warm Line at 866-359-7953 for peer and family mental health support from Monday through Friday during the work day. For more information about Chicago mental health resources, you can visit the NAMI Chicago’s website.