Tips & Tricks, Health Care, Gender & Identity, Life Stories, Advice, Life

Two simple steps for feeling sane in college and staying that way

Spring semester is coming and the only way to survive is with routine.

Trigger Warning: Mentions of an eating disorder and over-exercising. 

For many, the start of the new year brings with it the desire to start anew. It’s a great time to begin new goals and routines. In fact, popular media often makes it sound compulsive that our previously frazzled lives finally get into action with a turning of the calendar. It’s not surprising that many of us feel pressure to implement that meditation plan or meal prep or workout grind or self-care or social outing schedule we’ve had in the back of our minds for the last few months – maybe even all of the above!

Blame it on childhood perfectionism, an anxiety disorder, or Capricorn season, but it’s taken me a long time to learn that starting a new semester with new goals doesn’t have to mean that I have to adhere to them perfectly. I’ve rarely struggled with falling off the wagon; instead, I’ve clung desperately to the wagon as it was dragged over rocky terrain, ignoring all of the reasonable voices in my head telling me to just give it up.

For some of us, goal setting can be pretty unhealthy if it’s not done with a value-driven and balanced approach.  In my short life, I’ve whittled it down to two rules: First, “pre-goal,” acknowledge your values, and as you progress, take some time to reflect by yourself — as well as engage in some self-care.

1. Acknowledge your values

strong love yourself GIF by Rebecca Hendin
[Image Description: A gif of a woman with black hair and red sunglasses flexing her muscles. There is blue confetti falling around her.] Via Giphy
I spent my first two years of college committed to working out daily or near-daily, no matter what else was going on. I also hated working out and had a pretty unhealthy approach to it. I focused mostly on burning calories. (As it turns out, I’m now in recovery from an eating disorder!) Regardless, I didn’t want to be one of those people who got to college and got so swept up in fun I forgot my goals of becoming stronger, (hopefully) thinner, and One of Those Girls Who Loves Working Out.

Even working out for 40 minutes a day – which sounds like nothing to many fitness folks – can be a lot in a busy college schedule and what I remember most about these times is choosing to miss out on other things. I remember the second week of college, wheezing with bronchitis on the elliptical because I didn’t want to skip a day. I remember choosing to run on the treadmill instead of doing some last-minute cramming for a midterm because I knew it would calm me down more to have that workout in – and then getting a B that could have been an A. I remember eating a Luna Bar and jogging in the morning after drinking my first beer instead of going to “hangover brunch” with the people in my dorm because my goal was more important than making new friends.

This is when acknowledging your values comes in. It sounds very therapy, I know, but I  recommend listing them on paper. Yes, I didn’t want to give up, but if I’d made a list of what I truly valued at age 18, “performing well academically” and “making new friends” definitely would have outweighed “40 minutes on the elliptical no matter what.” Those no matter what goals – they’re almost never good. I had to step back and look years later to realize what was important to me – but if I’d given myself a few minutes at the time to reflect, I could have saved myself some trouble.

2. Reflect (by yourself)

sad emma stone GIF by La La Land
[Image Description: A gif of a red-headed woman wiping the steam from a mirror and looking at herself in it.] Via Giphy
Don’t keep doing something if it doesn’t feel good to you – and definitely keep doing something if it does. Personally, I’m not really into cutting out food groups unless it’s out of medical necessity, but I know tons of people for whom eliminating dairy or conscientiously limiting sugar has been a game-changer. But if you’re just avoiding bread because some blogger said to, it might not be for you.

Being alone with ourselves can be uncomfortable, but it allows us to see what goals work before plowing along. I believe that spending some time alone should be on pretty much everyone’s list of goals, whether you’re 20-something and single like me or married with kiddos (even though I recognize how much harder that could be!)

Don’t be fooled by the glamorous and glittery self-care that encompasses kale smoothies, pilates and bath bombs, especially considering how a lot of corporate-induced self-care is just a part of our capitalist system.  Most carry a message of “buy something to chill you out for, like, a minute and then prepare to go back to your job with slightly renewed energy.” Nope. Try to find something to do alone that actually fulfills you, regardless of if it’s Instagrammable. Running and pilates, documentaries and donuts, staring that the wall – they’re all totally valid, as long it actually recharges you. Because goals are a lot more pleasant when we want to do them.

I don’t know if this works for everyone, but it certainly works for me. I hope you have a great Spring semester with all of the kale smoothies and study dates your heart desires – as long as they keep feeling good.