Five Things You Can Do to Improve Your Mental Health This Semester
As the end of the semester rapidly approaches, stress levels are ramping up within the graduate student community. With pressing deadlines and a multitude of responsibilities, it is understandable to feel a little anxious and overwhelmed. Yet, if those feelings are starting to diminish your quality of life, maybe your mental health needs a little boost. Don’t worry! For today’s blog post, we consulted Concordia Health Services’ health promotion specialist – Gaby Szabo – to provide you with five simple, scientifically-proven strategies to improve your psychological well-being!
Why mental health is important
Let’s start by dissecting the concept of good mental health. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines it as “a state of psychological well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” Szabo explains that good mental health is extremely important for graduate students – “Health is arguably your greatest resource. So any effort put into promoting your mental health will give you good results, because it will help you achieve your goals.” Those students who take care of their mental health are able to cope effectively with difficult situations, have better academic and career performance, and enjoy satisfying and lasting social relationships.
How to improve your mental health in graduate school
There are many ways to boost your psychological well-being as a Concordia graduate student. Here are five effective, yet simple strategies:
1. Engage in healthy behaviours
Following a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, and exercising on a regular basis are scientifically-proven ways to protect your mental health. For example, Szabo says that exercise lowers your stress by reducing levels of the body's stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. If you don’t have enough time to go to the gym, perhaps you can make a simple change in your routine such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or riding your bike to school.
2. Build awareness of your values
Have you ever felt like you haven’t accomplished enough at the end of the day? As Szabo cautions, this may happen when the choices you make during the day are not aligned with your true values and goals. To avoid such problems, identify your priorities and make sure your everyday decisions are aligned with them. So, the next time you are wondering whether you should add an additional task to your busy schedule, ask yourself: Is this how I want to spend my limited time resources? Similarly, the next time you think of skipping a healthy behavior, such as sleep or exercise – make sure the replacement activity is truly more important than your health. Being constantly aware of your values will help you make wiser and more satisfying choices. After all, “every time we say ‘yes’ to something, we have to say ‘no’ to something else,” reminds us Szabo.
3. Take advantage of the available resources
Concordia University has excellent resources on mental health, physical health, and academic excellence. Here are Szabo’s recommendations:
- Health Services’ Mental Health page offers plenty of useful advice on improving your mental health.
- The Counseling and Psychological Services has useful mental health workshops, as well as opportunities for counseling sessions with a therapist.
- Concordia's Multi-faith and Spirituality Centre provides a community for students, resources for faith and spiritual practice, relaxation workshops, as well as spaces to study or relax.
- Concordia’s Student Success Centre has workshops, lots of different handouts with useful information, and one-on-one appointments with learning specialists.
- GradProSkills offers variety of workshops on professional, academic, and personal skills that can increase your confidence and reduce your stress levels. For example, you can take Szabo’s workshop – GPWL905 - The Healthy Mind: Taking Care of your Mental Health in Grad School – and further deepen your mental health knowledge.
4. Cultivate a healthy social network
Having high-quality social relationships is linked to improved mental health. If you are new to the city, there are many ways to make friends at Concordia – you can join a student club, attend various events and workshops, or take up a volunteer position. If you are a little shy or you want to brush up on your interpersonal skills, don’t worry: Concordia’s Counseling and Psychological Services can help you! You can also sign up for various handy GradProSkills communication workshops such as GPSC420 - Communicate Effectively.
5. Take strategic breaks
Szabo explains that any sustained, high-level performance should be followed by intentional, effective, strategic recovery. This is the concept of oscillation. For example, if you are conducting an experiment or writing a research paper – work for an hour and then, take a short break. This will allow your mind to recuperate. Yet, be careful, as not all breaks are created equal. Watching Netflix, for example, is not particularly useful in helping your brain recover. Instead, “do what has been shown effective,” advises Szabo, “such as eating healthy food, exercising, talking and connecting with people.” There is nothing wrong with watching your favourite Netflix TV show, but if you only have limited time to relax, choose a strategy that is scientifically-proven such as the ones found on the Relaxation Strategies page of the Health Services’ Mental Health website.
It is never too late to start investing in your mental health. By following the five simple tips provided in this blog post, you can improve your mood, your social support system, academic performance, and ultimately – your quality of life. Yet, “if you feel that you are not coping by yourself, come see us,” encourages Szabo, “don’t wait!” Why not start taking care of your mental health today? By the way, have you eaten your daily portion of vegetables?
Additional resources recommended by Szabo
- Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Meter will allow you to see how your mental health is doing.
- The Acorn Stash is one of many websites that have good information on building self-awareness.
- Mindtools’ Values article is a good overview of how to figure out your core values, so you can decide how to spend your time more wisely.