The new year is finally here, and now is a great time to set intentions for the exciting months ahead. While many of your goals might be related to academics, work, and your professional life, it’s also important to set goals related to your personal mental health and wellness — and for many of us, that means practicing regular, intentional self-care. Whether you’re a college student gearing up for the new semester, a chapter advisor getting ready to plan a big virtual conference or a faculty member with a neverending to-do list, self-care is necessary.
Given the rising stress levels in the United States —which can be attributed to the ongoing pandemic, health risks upended routines, and more — self-care and stress reduction techniques matter more than ever before. And although “Self-care” is a buzzy term these days, the truth is, it can be tricky to know how to actually practice it in your everyday life — especially when you have multiple roles and responsibilities to juggle at once. Usually, the term “self-care” conjures up ideas of bubble baths, spa days, taking fancy tropical vacations, or unwinding on the couch after a long day. However, we all know our daily lives are jam-packed, and there is usually not a lot of time (or resources!) to take extended time away from school, work, family, and our multitude of responsibilities. So, what should you do?
If you’re short on time but are ready to incorporate more self-care into your life in 2022, here are 10 tangible ways to start. They may seem simple, but remember, a little goes a long way!
This is one of the most revolutionary self-care practices a person can implement, and it’s often one of the hardest! Setting boundaries is tricky, especially in college when you have dozens of classes, extracurriculars, events, and activities that you want to embrace. However, setting boundaries is necessary — whether it’s saying “no” to a party so you can get some extra sleep this weekend, or carving out 5 minutes a day for personal time if you’ve been on-the-go 24/7. Other ways to set boundaries include reducing social media time (especially if you get caught in the toxic “comparison trap”), stepping away from friendships and relationships that drain you, or committing to ending work or studying at a certain time each day.
Notice your breath.
Have you ever felt so stressed or overwhelmed that you felt like there was a weight on your chest, or even that you couldn’t breathe? In addition to markers like dizziness, stomach issues, sweating, and increased heart rate (among others), shallow breathing is one of the most common physiological responses to stress. If you notice that your breathing is shallow or that you’re having trouble calming down, practice some mindful breathing techniques. For example, try closing your eyes and counting backward from 10, without trying to hold or control the pace or depth of your breathing. Place one hand over the chest and one over the belly if you’re having trouble settling in.
Engage in movement, meditation, & mindfulness.
Personally, I believe these three M’s are the holy grail of self-care. Regular movement, meditation, and mindfulness can revolutionize your self-care routine, and the best part is, they are all surprisingly easy to practice — no matter how busy your schedule is! Movement might include taking a walk, going for a jog, practicing yoga or gentle stretches, taking the stairs in place of the elevator, or pausing for a 5-minute dance party in between virtual meetings. If you’re new to meditation, you can try an app like Insight Timer, Headspace, or Calm, or simply listen to your favorite song for a few minutes (yes, that counts!). And when it comes to mindfulness, it’s all about being aware of the present moment and not judging yourself for it.
Connect with a community.
People need other people, and no one should have to go through life alone. You may not think of community as being connected to self-care, but we can better care for ourselves when there are others supporting us wholeheartedly. Whether you’re feeling a bit stressed or simply craving connection, call a friend to grab a coffee, attend a support group on campus, or find a way to explore the idea of community — whether it’s joining an established team or campus organization, or simply making a new friend in the dining hall. If you’re feeling nervous, a great way to find a sense of community is to attend an extracurricular activity where you’ll meet people with a common interest, or go to a fitness class at the gym where you’ll naturally share space with others.
Write in a journal.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a “writer,” putting a pen to paper is one of the best self-care tools out there. Whether you opt for something like the Passion Planner, which helps you keep track of your goals and dreams (personal, professional, and creative), a technique like bullet journaling, or you simply take 5 minutes a day to list what you’re grateful for in your favorite journal, try writing to reduce stress and practice some mindful self-care. The key here is to not over-organize or plan your thoughts; simply write from the heart, and you may be surprised at what comes next.
Seek therapy, counseling, or coaching.
If there’s anything I could tell my college self, it’d be to seek therapy and/or coaching as soon as possible. Having a thoughtful, professional person in your corner during college and beyond is a total game-changer, for both your mental health and wellness to your personal development and beyond. Asking for help can be intimidating no matter what stage of life you’re in, but know that there doesn’t need to be anything “wrong” for you to seek support! To find a licensed therapist or mental health professional who aligns with your goals, check out PsychologyToday, BetterHelp, or TWLOHA’s Find Help Tool. If you have insurance, you can also use the search tool via your platform to get matched with a therapist (virtual or in-person) near you.
Commit to rest & sleep.
Quality, sustained sleep is hard to come by, but it’s one of the most important self-care practices out there! Although sleep is often neglected, it’s crucial to get ~8 hours of sleep a night if possible. If your schedule is pretty hectic like mine was in college, this might also mean taking short power naps during the day or going to bed a bit earlier on weekends. Don’t forget that to get quality sleep, you should also be mindful of caffeine intake, screen time before bed (and in the morning!), and your surroundings — after all, it’s really tough to sleep when you’re surrounded by textbooks and a messy room that spikes your stress levels.
Nourish your body.
For this self-care tip, I recommend using the motto “find what feels good” — whether it’s food and nutrition or movement and exercise. Rather than focusing on what society says you should do — or trying to adhere to an unrealistic standard — focusing on the basics of nourishing your body, and maintaining self-care will become a lot easier. For example, stay hydrated, have meals that make you feel good, and engage in activities you genuinely enjoy. Once your basic physical needs are met, it becomes a lot easier to tackle busy college days.
According to positive psychology research on “grateful recounting,” it turns out gratitude can actually have an effect on your long-term well-being and happiness. Although “gratitude” is another buzzy term these days, it’s important to say thank you to the people in your life who help make a difference, whether it’s your family, roommate, or a classmate who came through for you during a tough time.
Use your strengths.
One of the most powerful ways to practice self-care and reduce stress over the long term is by recognizing and harnessing your strengths in everyday life. Let’s say you’re great at singing and playing instruments, but it’s been a while since you sat down at the piano. Is there a mini keyboard you can get for your dorm room to help you exercise your musical strengths more? Or, let’s say you’re a brilliant writer who is great at humor. Are there comedies you can watch, shows you can attend, or stand-up marathons you can audition for that will enable you to lean into humor? Positive psychology research has found that using your strengths also has long-term effects on your mental health and well-being, so start using them today.
Try something new.
Last but not least, trying something new is a surefire way to reduce stress and practice self-care in the long-term. Sign up for a new extracurricular, learn a new skill, visit a new coffee shop on campus, or attend a workshop you normally wouldn’t go to. Sometimes, a change of scenery and learning something new can be exactly what you need to get you out of your head and into your body and spirit.
At the end of the day, self-care is all about finding what works for you — not anybody else. And if what you’re doing isn’t working, don’t be afraid to pivot and try something else! It can take a long time to build a regular wellness habit, and your self-care routine should realistically grow, shift, and evolve — just like your life does. Whether it’s scheduling a yoga session after a long day of classes or taking a quick, 3-minute stretch break between your Zoom calls, cultivate a system that works for you and doesn’t feel too out of reach. After a while, you’ll start to feel better in mind, body, and soul. Happy new year, and good luck!