“Self-care” is a term that often appears in Buzzfeed articles trying to sell unnecessary products or social media posts endorsing self-serving behavior like skipping school or ghosting on plans. At times, I become frustrated at the use of the phrase as a catch-all rationalization for any behavior that may be gratifying in the short term but can have negative consequences in the long term. It seems to justify the stereotype of our generation as entitled children in adult bodies who prefer instant gratification over working toward a goal. Are silk robes and bath bombs really the solution to all of our problems?
However, when you strip away the capitalistic undertones and endorsements of laziness that often go hand-in-hand with talk of self-care, I do believe that a positive and worthwhile message can be extracted from the concept. And college students are perhaps the most salient demographic to receive that message.
According to movies and the nostalgic tall tales of middle-aged adults, college is supposed to be the best phase of life we will ever experience. Why wouldn’t it be? We are surrounded by academic and professional opportunities, new friends, extracurricular activities and parties. We are independent from the commands of parents but relatively immune to the career-driven pressures of adult life. Everything we could want or need is contained within a radius of a few miles. In many ways, we have it all.
Except when we don’t. An unfortunate undercurrent of the infamous “work hard, play hard” college lifestyle is that students often end up sacrificing their basic needs in order to “make the most” of their fleeting experience.
Priorities are difficult to discern once one becomes immersed in the daily rhythms of college life. Getting good grades is essential for job and grad school applications; part-time work is often essential for financial security; extracurriculars are essential for networking and bolstering a resume; partying and other social outlets are essential to accumulate the fun and memorable experiences that college is supposedly all about.
Once all of these things have been accomplished, there is little room to take care of the physical and mental needs that parents used to oversee. Before college, parents can ensure that their children have adequate nutrition, get to bed on time and stay away from drugs and alcohol to a reasonable degree. But once those children begin their higher education, they are faced with the task of managing those needs on their own along with a host of other challenges like an increased academic workload and endless social opportunities.
Being mindful of my physical and mental habits and aware of the resources available to me has helped me become much happier and satisfied overall with my experiences.
Like many students, I have struggled to balance the demands of college life ever since I first enrolled at UCSB. As a freshman, I was overwhelmed by the swiftness with which academic deadlines always seemed to be approaching and spent many nights hunched over my laptop and course readers until four or five in the morning. My meals consisted mainly of pasta and Cocoa Puffs, the result of being on my own for the first time with no parents to enforce healthy eating habits. By the time sophomore year rolled around, I had gotten used to the academic rigor of college but was blindsided by a wave of depression that left me lying in bed for long stretches of the day, unable to socialize or attend to my nutritional needs. My junior year brought a new set of challenges when I moved to an eight-person apartment in Isla Vista and was exposed to a seemingly endless supply of drugs, alcohol and parties to distract me from my personal and academic goals.
This account may seem daunting to incoming students, but I am bringing the difficult aspects of my college experience to your attention because I now know that there are so many ways I could have avoided them altogether or at least mitigated the damage. I believe that all college students should be made aware of the potential roadblocks that a university experience can present and the ways that they can care for their physical and mental well-being in order to minimize these challenges. While it does not usually include face masks or bath bombs, I have developed a self-care routine that has helped me immensely throughout the years.
Physical health is one of the most important things that often falls by the wayside when students first get to college. Resorting to quick, unhealthy options or skipping meals altogether used to be one of the first shortcuts I would take when faced with a busy schedule. However, there are many options for nutritious and filling meals both on and off campus if you are in a hurry or on a budget.
For freshmen students, a dining commons meal plan is the best option to have all your nutritional needs taken care of. All of the dining commons have salad bars and other healthy food options, and the dessert and cereal sections are always there if you do want to indulge in a junk food craving. I would also highly recommend weekend brunches; pajamas are completely acceptable and brunch is a great venue to kick back alone or with friends before you start grinding on your homework.
If you run out of meal swipes or are not inspired by the dining commons menu of the day, there are several restaurants in the UCen on campus that provide alternatives if you have some extra money to spend. While the line at Panda Express is often the longest, Root 217 is right next door and has delicious healthy options like fish tacos and pita wraps. For any students who are on a budget, the A.S. Food Bank, also in the UCen, provides snacks and meals completely free of charge.
Living in my own apartment with no meal plan made it difficult for me to manage my nutrition, but it was not impossible once I figured out the most efficient ways to feed myself. The Trader Joe’s frozen section became my best friend; if I can find time on the weekends to go grocery shopping, I always stock up on healthy frozen foods like fish burgers and vegetable stir fry that I can heat up quickly and have a full meal ready to go. If I run out of food or simply want a meal that tastes better than something I can prepare myself, I head to one of I.V.’s many restaurants, like Silvergreens, South Coast Deli or Hana Kitchen.
In addition to eating complete meals that did not consist solely of cereal and mac and cheese, getting exercise was another aspect of self-care that I struggled with in the beginning of college. While some of my more motivated friends would go to the Rec Cen on campus to work out, I was taking the bus to campus every day and getting no forms of physical activity other than walking between classes. One of the best solutions to this exercise dilemma for me was ditching the bus in favor of walking or biking to school. I also recently started doing yoga in my room with the help of YouTube tutorials, which was a great way to get some more exercise without having to leave my apartment.
Mental health is another critical part of self-care, especially for college students. Heavy course loads, lack of sleep, partying and the added strain of a job or extracurriculars are enough to make anyone feel stressed out, even those who aren’t diagnosed with a mental illness. It may seem obvious, but one of the most helpful ways to deal with any mental or emotional issues you experience in college is to voice your feelings to those around you. I always feel a huge weight lifted when I confide in my roommates or friends if I’m feeling depressed or simply overworked. Outward appearances, especially on social media, may have you convinced that you are the only person who is feeling overwhelmed in the seemingly utopian world of college. However, you will be surprised to learn when you start a conversation about it that most people have felt this way at one point or another.
Don’t be afraid to share these concerns with your professors as well. Physical illnesses aren’t the only legitimate cause for a decline in academic performance; stress, depression, anxiety or just plain exhaustion can leave you feeling unable to complete assignments that would normally be manageable. I used to feel terrified every time I considered approaching a professor to discuss these issues, but I have only been met with support and kind advice every time I shared my honest concerns. Most professors are happy to give helpful guidance or even an extension on an assignment if you need it.
One of the most helpful ways to deal with any mental or emotional issues you experience in college is to voice your feelings to those around you.
Another tip for mental well-being is to not let the party scene become your only social outlet. I’m not discouraging it altogether; this is college, after all. I’ve experienced my fair share of excessive partying in I.V., and while it is still something I enjoy doing, I have found that too much of it can drain my mental reserves and leave me feeling isolated. Partying is much more fun if you balance it with other social activities that allow you to talk and make meaningful connection with the people you meet in college. This could be anything from going to the beach, grabbing food in I.V., shopping on State Street or even just catching up with your roommates about their days. Finding the right balance in my social life between parties and these “wholesome” outings made me feel more in touch with my close friends, in addition to having crazy stories about DP and the bars downtown.
If you are able to balance your social life and confide in those around you but still feel like something is off, the university offers resources to help students who suffer from mental illness or are going through a particularly difficult time. Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is a center on campus that specializes in mental health for students. Although they often have long wait times to see a counselor, it is worth going because they can provide you with other resources as well and act as a starting point to figure out what you need. When I went to CAPS for the first time, they directed me to programs that would help with the specific problems I was experiencing and helped me find a private therapist in Santa Barbara whose services were covered by my family’s insurance plan.
Although I still feel overwhelmed by college life sometimes, being mindful of my physical and mental habits and aware of the resources available to me has helped me become much happier and satisfied overall with my experiences. Learning how to care for myself both mentally and physically has been one of the biggest lessons I have learned since being away from my parents. More so, practicing self-care has allowed me to enjoy the college experience to the fullest extent. It has indeed been the best phase of my life so far.
Laurel Rinehart believes that self-care is a key ingredient of the college experience.