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Many students recognize the importance of emphasizing physical fitness and healthful eating to maintain their busy schedules, but what about their emotional health?
The skills and resources people have for overcoming challenges and supporting themselves and others are sometimes overlooked, in favor of focusing on symptoms of depression and anxiety. While it’s important to recognize signs of distress in yourself and your peers, building resilience is essential to making it through stressful periods.
What Is Emotional Well-being?
When asked in a recent Student Health 101 survey how they recognize emotional health, the more than 1,000 students offered many signs. The most common was the ability to treat people kindly and offer support to others. Seventy-two percent said their biggest emotional strength is having compassion.
- Optimism, balance, and keeping things in perspective
- Forgiving, patient, and expressive
- Open-minded and non-judgmental
- Attuned to their moods
- Willing to seek help
Emotional wellness isn’t simply feeling happy. It’s normal to sometimes feel sad, frustrated, angry, disappointed, or lonely. In fact, your mental health is in good shape if you feel a wide range of emotions and express them productively. During periods of stress and uncertainty, you’re emotionally well if you exhibit resilience: like a new rubber band, you can stretch, but you’ll bounce back.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), resilience is the ability to:
- Make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out
- Feel confident in your strengths and abilities
- Communicate and demonstrate problem-solving skills
- Manage strong feelings and impulses
The APA states, “Resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. It involves thoughts and actions that [anyone] can learn and develop.”
The ability to apply your strengths during stressful periods depends on many factors, including brain chemistry, past and present experiences, and support available. Christian R., a sophomore at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, explains that he sometimes feels overloaded, especially around exams. “Trying to study a ton of information can be overwhelming.” To counteract those feelings, Christian calls upon his competencies. “[I] try to not take everything on at once. I relax my mind, and go into tests knowing that I prepared.”
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s counseling center Web site states, “[The] goal is not to eliminate stress but to learn how to manage and use it.’”
How to Take Care of Yourself and Counteract Emotional Strain
- Visualize what you want, rather than focusing on fears and worst-case scenarios.
- Understand that change is a normal part of life.
- Recognize that you can’t change the fact that stressful or disappointing things will happen. But you can adjust how you cope with them.
- Focus on realistic goals and regularly do something, even if it’s small, to move toward those goals.
- Find ways to build self-confidence and a belief in your ability to solve problems.
- Cultivate gratitude.
- Do things that make you feel grounded. Write about your experiences; talk with a trusted friend, family member, or mentor; meditate or pray; spend time outdoors or with animals. These activities can help you build connections and restore your sense of hope.
- Do things that bring you pleasure. Balance time for work with time for play.
- Smoking, alcohol, and other drug use may help you relax in the moment, but ultimately they contribute to a cycle of long-term challenges, leading to ongoing distress.
- Seek support when necessary. There are times when you need not only to talk with a friend or try to manage things on your own, but also the perspective of a professional.
While supporting other people is one sign of emotional well-being, so is your ability to care for yourself. Just like the body, emotions require regular care and maintenance. “An analogy is an overheating vehicle that needs coolant to continue functioning well. That is an entirely normal process,” states Dr. Lee Keyes, executive director of the Counseling Center at the University of Alabama. The following can help you develop and maintain your emotional health:
Building and strengthening your support network is perhaps the most important way to enhance resilience. Friends and loved ones provide support, perspective, and release when things get stressful.
Focus on the Positive
Emotional health isn’t “Pollyanna” positivity or cheerfully sweeping things under the rug. Rather, it is feeling hopeful and motivated to resolve problems.
Take Care of Your Body
Activity, a balanced diet, sufficient sleep, and otherwise attending to your physical needs help your mind thrive.
Take Care of Your Spirit
Find activities that bring you contentment and peace: prayer or meditation, outdoor time, artistic endeavors.
Focus on Helping
Service to others can foster your strengths, build your self-esteem, and allow you to step away from daily concerns.
The ability to adapt to changes will serve you well when things are tough.
How Do You Know If You’re Emotionally Healthy?
- Are active with friends and family
- Express feelings in a positive manner
- Are not critical of other people or themselves
- Handle hardships in a rational way
- Are able to talk freely about problems
- Sleep well at night
- Manage emotions in a productive way, rather than destructive
- Have a well-balanced emotional range
- Don’t hold things in
- Go out and do things with other people
- Work hard toward goals
- Support friends and family
- Use the resources available for support and coping methods
When Challenges Arise
If you feel yourself wearing out—the rubber band isn’t bouncing back so well—tune in to how you feel. Is it challenging to do what you need and want to do? Do you feel overwhelmed, dejected, or like you’re at a breaking point? If you are missing classes or assignments and avoiding activities you used to enjoy, there is no shame in asking for help. Everyone needs a place to gain perspective sometimes.
Sadness is a normal response to stress. It differs from depression in that sadness fades as time passes and solutions are found.
“The bottom line is knowing when [you] can no longer handle the pressure alone and need to seek professional help. [Depression is] marked by subjective distress so intense it gets in the way of basic functions,” Dr. Keyes says.
More Signs of Depression
- Increased anxiety or irritability
- Feeling worthless or hopeless
- Withdrawal from other people
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Changes in weight, eating habits, or sleeping patterns
These symptoms are signs that your coping mechanisms are maxed out. But don’t despair: with support, this can be overcome. Campus professionals are equipped to lend an unbiased ear, help you cope with stress, or make referrals to other services. Strict rules of confidentiality mean your situation won’t be discussed unless you give permission (or are in immediate danger of hurting yourself or someone else). Contact your campus health or counseling service, student life staff, or a resource listed at the end of this article.
Emotional well-being can be developed. By building your strengths, your mental “rubber band” will be able to stretch and accommodate life’s ups and downs.
- Identify your emotional strengths
- Cultivate resilience, flexibility, and other coping skills
- Supporting others is not only a sign of emotional health, but also a great way to bolster yourself when things are tough.
- Find the activities and people that bring you joy and peace.
- Look out for signs of intense stress in yourself and those you care about.
- Reach out for help if you’re struggling. There is no shame in needing support.
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