Mental Health Tips for University Students
By Halifax Psychologist Brad Peters
Well, it’s that time of year again when Halifax is bustling with university students – approximately 30,000 within the greater metro area alone! University life can be stressful, and students would be wise to take care of their psychological health. With that in mind, here are some ‘tips’ to anticipate and deal with psychological obstacles that may present themselves during the academic year:
1. Anticipate and Avoid Procrastination
You intend to spend the evening studying, and then find yourself watching movies, playing videogames, chatting with a friend, or doing something other than what you should be doing. The distractions are subtle but predictable: you sit down to write a paper … “wait, I’m kind of hungry first” … you get something to eat … you feel tired … “wait, what’s that on T.V.?” … you rationalize that you can put it off for another day, and so you do. That is, until it is too late. At this point panic sets in and you end up missing a deadline or handing-in a less than optimal effort.
Is this you? If so, you may have a personality prone to procrastination. The first step is to recognize it as such, identify it as the enemy, and find ways of outflanking it. You want to find ways of avoiding avoidance.
Reflect on this question: How is procrastination working for you? In most cases it serves a purpose. To illustrate this point, consider an individual who (consciously or unconsciously) places excessively high expectations on him/herself. Giving something undivided attention and effort comes with a lot of pressure for this person; failure to live up to his/her own expectations can come at the price of a severe self-esteem hit.
Procrastination is sometimes a sneaky way to preserve self-esteem….if the result of one’s efforts shows little payoff, one can always rationalize (usually unconsciously), that “It wasn’t my best try – I’m capable of much more.” To be sure, it is still a disappointment, but at least it can be dismissed as a lack of effort, not a lack of ability. This type of procrastinator puts so much stock in ability because their self-worth is unfortunately tethered to it. In cases like this, one simple tip involves committing to approximately 75% full effort and no more; sometimes (temporarily) giving up on doing “your absolute best” can shake things up and break the cycle of procrastination.
Any long-term strategy for combating procrastination will ultimately involve uncovering its cause. Spend some time noticing what happens in your body ‘just before’ you have the urge to get off-task. Do you feel fidgety, anxious, on-edge? If there is no rational cause for your procrastination, what is your body telling you? This kind of work is quite difficult to do on your own, so working with a psychologist can be extremely beneficial.
2. Check your Ego at the Door
Students who have ‘perfectionist’ traits are likely to suffer from performance anxiety of some kind or another. They constantly feel like they are being held under the microscope – even if only by their own evaluative standards. Remember that university is about learning: you are not expected to know everything going into the course, and you are certainly not expected to regurgitate things verbatim from a textbook, or immediately understand complex concepts discussed within the classroom. Give yourself a break; give yourself permission to make mistakes. As an undergraduate professor, I seldom miss the opportunity to mention my own mistakes and blunders – it’s okay to have some humility about ourselves.
Perfectionists become extremely anxious at the thought of making a mistake or appearing ‘stupid.’ This anxiety is problematic because it induces the release of cortisol and other stress hormones that have a negative effect on working memory, memory consolidation and retrieval. The end result is poor performance – and in this situation, feeling worse.
One tip to deal with this is engaging in some self-directed graded exposure (to the anxiety and the underlying feelings). In other words, try speaking out in class … if you are really brave, express a half-formulated thought without worrying so much about it needing to be ‘perfect.’ Confront the anxiety that comes up around it (don’t avoid it), and you will start to relieve some of the hold it has on you.
3. Manage Test Anxiety
Test-taking can be extremely stressful; the difference between a good and a bad grade (or sometimes even a pass-fail for the course) hinges on our performance. We also know that anxiety makes it hard to think – preventing us from giving our optimal performance. So get good at managing that anxiety.
It’s been said that the best defense [against anxiety] is a good offense, so in this case we mean ensuring that you put the time in to prepare for the test. When a boxer (or MMA fighter) prepares for a match, they put in months of hard work so that they can walk into the ring feeling like they did all they could; the harder their effort, the less anxiety going into it. Some of these lessons easily translate to academics – if you put in a solid routine of hard work, you should be able to take it easy come test time… the hard work was already done by studying 25 minutes a day, not waiting two days before test time to cram.
Another way to manage test anxiety is to identify and confront its source. It is technically incorrect to say that the ‘test’ makes a person anxious – the test is just an objective task – it is what the test represents that causes anxiety; what it means for that individual. So, for example, the person may quickly engage in cognitive catastrophizing: “if I don’t pass … I won’t get an A” … “If I don’t get an A, it means [insert gut intuition or thought here].” Try to confront those fears head-on. Even if passing-failing a course hinges on your performance, try imagining living with the worst case scenario….it will go a long way to quenching that anxiety, which will help your performance.
4. General Well Being
There are many general strategies to encouraging optimal mental health when in university. Here is a short list:
- Get regular exercise (helps disperse tension/anxiety)
- Develop good eating and sleeping habits early
- Avoid drug and alcohol abuse (they are often unconscious crutches)
- Take time to enjoy other aspects of life (e.g. hobbies, friends, extracurricular activities)
- Ensure that you have others you can talk to about distressing feelings
- Get professional help when required.
So those are some tips that should help our Halifax students maintain a healthy state of mind while in university. Of course some issues are more complex and can only be understood by taking into account the context of the individual person and their life situation – in this regard, psychologists are there to help.