Lifestyle

Mental Health Hygiene: Maintaining mental health in grad school

I started therapy this year after I came to terms that I was depressed again after moving back to Dallas.

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I originally wanted to start my career in Austin. I had found a job—which paid barely anything—and continued job hunting for a year before realizing that I needed to consider applying to graduate school. I needed to consider a new career path, one that would lead to a salary job. I learned last April that I got accepted into the University of Texas at Dallas. I was ecstatic! But, it also meant I had to leave my favorite city in Texas to move back into my parents’ house.

My first semester at school was an adjustment, but I liked it. I learned a lot and I made new friends. However, I realized after the first semester was over that I was depressed and did not want to admit that it was happening again. My friend Ray told me that I was going through a grieving process—my life in Austin was over—and I needed to move on. Sure, Austin isn’t going anywhere and most of my friends who live there will eventually move. But, who knows? Maybe I’ll move back to Austin someday. Or I’ll move out of Texas and head over to the West Coast. Nothing is set in stone. Change is in constant motion. The place that I am at now is a lot better than the place I was a year ago, that’s for sure.

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So, back to therapy. I went to weekly individual sessions and I learned from my therapist the concept of mental health hygiene. Think of it as a table: mental health hygiene requires four important, equally balanced legs—sleep, food, exercise, and social support. I knew about the importance of maintaining mental health, which is why I chose to go back to therapy. Like personal hygiene, we should maintain mental health hygiene as well.

Sleep

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This is a no-brainer. Ask yourself these questions: Are you getting at least 6-8 hours of sleep every night? Do you often find yourself crashing onto the bed? Are you often sleepy during the day? Have you slept well? Our immune system needs to recharge and if you are not getting ample amount of sleep, then you’re not doing yourself any favors in the long run. Start a consistent sleep schedule and try to stick to it. Since the spring semester has ended, I’ve gotten to bed by 11 p.m. and woke up around 7 or 8 a.m. Call me old or whatever, but I promise you’ll feel better in no time.

Food

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This refers to your appetite and diet. Are you eating more or less these days? If you notice a difference, is it due to stress? Have your food habits changed recently? Are you eating meals consistently? Have you had a nutritious diet that includes vegetables and fruits? “You are what you eat” is the saying we’ve all heard since we were little. Consider adjusting your diet so that you are eating healthier and your body is satisfied with the portions it receives. For me especially, if my meals don’t fill me up, I will most likely have to snack two hours later. Snacking all day does not help (if it does help, let me know what snacks you’re eating).

Exercise

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This refers to any type of physical activity. How active are you? Do you play sports? Or do something recreational like rock climbing or intramurals? Do you go to the gym? When was the last time you went on a walk around your neighborhood? Students like me usually find it difficult to keep up with a consistent exercising schedule, especially once you’re past the first two months of a semester. I started this year going to the gym at least three times a week. That slowly became two times, then one time, then zero times. And everyone’s preference for activity is different. I have a yoga mat and two dumbbells at home, but I would much rather go to the school gym and get on the elliptical for 30 minutes. The point is—attempt to squeeze in some physical activity every week. This can be turning your desk into a standing desk so that you are not sitting all day. This can be going on daily walks after dinner. This can be texting your friends to ask if they want to play tennis.

Social support

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This might vary depending on whether you consider yourself an introvert or extravert, but ask yourself these questions: When was the last time you saw your close friends? Have you had a call or Skype session with any of your long-distance friends lately? Are your friends understanding? What is your home life like? Do your parents support you in ways other than financially? Personally, I think the last time I hung out with my close friends was late February when we went out to brunch. Otherwise, I text my friends all the time. Everyone’s busy, but your closest friends and family will be the ones who remember to check in with you. How did your exam go? Are you almost done with school? Hold on to these precious people and take some time to get back in touch with them.

Whether you are in school does not matter. Everyone should consider maintaining mental health hygiene. From my current experience, I speak from adjusting to being in graduate school. I hope this advice helps!

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