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Five ways I Sustained Mental Health Through University and Career Searching, by Justin Andrews

Oct 13, 2021 08:00 PM

 In another article, I wrote of student habits and tasks that help with career searching, including habits relating to mental health upkeep. Now obviously there are tons of resources on mental health (check the website of your postsecondary institution), but I want to look at specific practices that might be useful for students dealing with stressful studies and stressful job hunting.

Most of my friends and family embrace the nerdy, bookish side of life; for better or worse, profs and doctors and masters abound in my circles. Even my wife is currently mid-PhD. I’ve heard long conversations on, How do you stay healthy amid all the deadlines, applications, reading, late nights, etc.? How do you stay healthy amid the daunting business of building a meaningful career? Naturally, every answer is different, but I’ve gathered a few habits that have helped my journey.

           1. Cooking at dusk. Every weeknight, I (attempt to) cook a nice supper (or bake a dessert, if my tooth is sweet). It works several small miracles. First, it generates energy during the day, something to look forward to and work toward (who doesn’t like to relax with a delightful lil’ bite?). Second, it changes up my day. When I sit on my butt staring at a screen for hours, lost in my head, there’s nothing like using my body to unwind, turning off my thoughts and creating something with my hands. Schoolwork and career searching rarely wraps up in a day, but cooking a delicious supper does (hopefully), and man, it’s satisfying to have that sense of completion and accomplishment. Cooking in the evening helps me shut off work frustrations and brings me back to the moment, to my body. We are, after all, embodied minds; a little fine onion chopping might refresh your brain. (And I haven’t even started on the wonders of ingredient shopping or trying a new recipe.)

2. Weekend indulgence. Too often, when I’m able to set my own work/break schedules at my own work/break locations, nasty gluttonous habits creep in. While some weeks call for Wednesday Whisky or Tuesday Takeout, too much indulgence numbs me. The days blur; my health declines. It’s that cycle of relieving stress with quick fixes that eventually create more stress. While “working for the weekend” is unhealthy in some job contexts, there’s something to learn from the setup. Weekend drinking or feasting or gaming gives me something to work toward. It breaks up the week. Life’s sensual pleasures are all the sweeter and therefore more refreshing, effective. As mentioned above, striving for a kind of “mind/body harmony” can work wonders—and it’s the same with feasting and fasting.

3. At-home workout. We all know the importance of exercise for, well, everything. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll research an awesome routine, keep at it for a week, and then let it dissipate into the underworld of good intentions. During my studies, I often got sidetracked or “in the zone” only to find that I had 45 minutes to workout between class and band practice. On good days, I would quickly pack my bag, scurry to the gym, and blast out a half-hearted workout while leaving enough time to shower, change, and commute to practice. On bad days, I skipped the workout. Thankfully, as I began job hunting, I learned that I could shut my computer, spread the yoga mat, and do a YouTube workout in twenty-five minutes. Instead of sporadic gym sessions, I was able to get daily exercise—brief as it was—and thus maintain much better mental health. Sometimes it’s necessary to start small and simple before tackling ambitious routines. Even a walk around the block helps!

4. Out-of-home workouts. On the flip side, at-home workouts can make me feel cooped up. Sometimes going for a walk or making the journey to the gym will refresh my mind. Sometimes the only way to leave work is to leave the workspace. See new things, be present to new environments, engage with other beings—it may revitalize you, lift you from stagnant, muddy feelings. And it may remind you that there are larger contexts, other worlds outside of your own, that will sustain you.

5. Get a vase of flowers. Or a framed picture or a nice mug. An environment that looks like a trashcan will make me feel like a trashcan. An aesthetically pleasing space flows into my mental space. Objects and plants aren’t neutral; they act upon us all the time. A single daisy may, depending on the person, embody a host of memories and associations. Marie Kondo knows how a clean, minimalist space improves your wellbeing. Similarly, a space filled with a bit of beauty can relax, inspire, and sustain you during stressful work.

These tips won’t work for everybody, of course. And good mental health is obviously more than checking off a list of simple dos and don’ts. I find it helpful, however, to consider what overlooked habits will eventually disturb my mental health when at a different time of my life they wouldn’t. For me, surviving the pressures of student life and career building requires this attentiveness.