It’s the meme that makes university students nod their head in agreement, a triangle as old as time: Good grades, social life, enough sleep – you can only choose two. And although the joke often yields a few chuckles and eye rolls, it has become a damaging and hard-hitting reality.
According to a 2015 study, students identified the top three stressors that impact their academic success as stress (38%), sleep difficulties (26%), and anxiety (26%). In an age where these statistics seem to be ever-increasing, these numbers need to be taken seriously. For many, the answer lies in self-care.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, self-care is defined as “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress”.
A quick Google search suggests dozens of self-care tips: go cloud watching, splurge a little, have a self-date, plan a two-day holiday for next weekend. There are even self-care tips geared directly towards students: make sure your body gets six to eight hours of sleep each night, eat healthy and balanced meals Meditate and practice relaxation techniques. Heck yeah. Nailed it.
Clearly, I’m being facetious. On top of a full course load, I work two jobs, am part of one of the course unions on campus, volunteer on a monthly basis, and see my family and friends every once in a while, if I’m lucky. Like many students, I’m hinged to a barely-breathable budget. And also like many students, I struggle with my mental health.
So what does self-care look like for me?
From a personal standpoint, the seriousness of self-care may be overshadowed by its attached stigma. While so much of my future hinges on the importance of grades, it seems foolish – or even irresponsible – to make room for a bubble bath or hike up Knox Mountain. For some, the term “self-care” also elicits the feeling of mental wellness – or lack thereof. Because of this, students often minimize their need to focus on their wellbeing. Maybe they know someone who struggles with mental health, and they don’t want to be stigmatized under the same umbrella.
One UBCO student, who wished to remain anonymous, said:“While I outwardly am an advocate of mental wellness, and encourage others to speak freely about their mental health, I’m secretly afraid to be discriminated against. I’m afraid to be diagnosed because I don’t want to be seen only as a diagnosis. I’ve tried using several apps on my phone designed to reduce anxiety and depression, but I never seem to have the motivation to continually use them to see any real benefit.”
That leads to the question, what happens when the typically suggested self-care methods backfire?
“I got a yoga membership recently because I’ve heard a lot of information about the benefits of yoga and meditation for mental health,” another anonymous student began. “While going out to classes has created a community that I’m beginning to feel I belong to, every day at the end of class we have a shavasana where we essentially lie still and try to clear our minds. I feel like this could be beneficial for some people, and perhaps I just need to practice it more, but I constantly have anxious thoughts and feelings come flooding in. These anxious feelings will stay with me hours after the class has completed, and I’m at a loss for how I can stop them.”
For other students who require part-time or even full-time employment to afford being a student, the demands of coursework, extracurricular activities, and a job leave little time for much else.
When asked what their experiences with self-care included, another anonymous student replied: “Last semester, I was registered in six courses, and I worked fifteen hours a week. It got to the point where I was so overwhelmed with coursework I would swallow caffeine pills with black coffee just to stay up late enough to get my assignments done. I was averaging three and a half hours of sleep a night. Sometimes I skipped meals or ordered fast food because I didn’t have time to cook. But sure, why not use all my extensive free time to get a nice expensive pedicure to decrease my stress levels? Sounds great.”
And the stress doesn’t end once classes are over.
For some, it has only just begun: “I’m an alumna and I now work casually at my job. In addition to not having health benefits because I do not hold a permanent position, I also do not know when my next shift will be. I have constant anxiety that spikes in times of high stress. When things get especially busy in my life I feel like I can’t afford the time to set aside to look after my mental health. Between needing money for rent, utilities, food, credit card bills, and dealing with student loan repayments – what other choice do I have?”
According to the earlier 2015 study, “academic performance and stress exist in a cyclical relationship, whereby increasing stress can negatively impact academic performance, and poor performance then contributes to increased stress.”
So we can use the triangle metaphor all we want, but in reality it’s the circle we need to worry about. If you have the time, resources, and capacity for self-care, by all means, indulge- get that manicure, go to that super rad concert, spend a weekend getting lost in the woods.
Sometimes, however, self-care doesn’t equate to self-indulgence. It can mean making sure you have all your reading prepared for class the night before, so you don’t have to stress about it in the morning. Or maybe it’s spending the afternoon decompressing with a friend while re-watching Gilmore Girls. Or listening to the latest Drake album on the bus ride to school. But of course, these methods might be inaccessible too.
Maybe the triangle isn’t a triangle at all. At its core, self-care is about being responsible to yourself. The answer is never black and white.