Foundations for Creating Emotional & Mental Safety
New beginnings are just the best, aren’t they? The idea that you can start something completely fresh, that you can be completely fresh – I mean that’s why New Year’s resolutions are so popular … New Year, New You! But when you’re entering a new transition like moving to a new city, making new friends, starting at a new school i.e. beginning college, well that type of transition is inevitably met with a myriad of emotions. There is excitement mixed with some nervousness, the daydreaming of possibilities, and what feels like an onslaught of choices that seem to determine the “make or break” of the new beginning. But with the good there can be bad. You might find anxiety, unsureness, and the grief of letting go of the old. This mixture of feelings can become overwhelming, even all-consuming at times. But, in those times where you’re cycling between the good feelings and the feelings that make you want to throw up, you should still be able to have a sense of safety in your emotional and mental well-being.
When we talk about going to college for the first time or heading back to your campus for another year, we often jump into how to be physically safe – don’t walk alone at night, call a friend or campus police on the way to your car, practice safe sex, don’t do drugs, don’t overconsume alcohol, etc. These are all incredibly important notes, even for life after college, but have you ever considered how to create a safe emotional, mental space for yourself? The kind that you feel back in the town you grew up in, at home with your family. I want to recognize that not everyone has felt a sense of safety in their town or with their family and college is the first opportunity to have it – these tips are for you too. Here are some foundational tools to help you create safety and security in your space – whether that space is your chapter, another organization, your campus, or just life in general.
Take care of your basic, human needs.
You’ve probably heard this before, but it bears repeating because if you’re not doing these 3 things to take care of your body then you aren’t going to have the energy to be successful in college. Remember that energy begets energy.
- Move your body 30 minutes a day. This could be actively working out, running, hiking, or walking. I don’t care how you move it, it just needs to get done. Whichever way you choose to move/exercise, this should be in addition to you walking around campus to go to class. These 30 minutes should be time that you’ve set aside to focus only on this movement/exercise. This will be the very first thing that you try to ditch when your schedule gets packed and you start to feel stressed, but it’s probably the most important thing to keep on your plate to help you cope. Daily physical activity will help you focus, be more productive, and overall just make you happier – Reese Witherspoon was serious when she said exercise gives you endorphins and endorphins make you happy.
- Drink water! If you eat in the dining hall, you are about to have unlimited access to all the soda, juice, and power drinks that your heart desires, and there is no adult around to tell you to that you’ve consumed too much caffeine or sugar – newsflash – you are now the adult! So try to limit the sugary drinks and drink the amount of water your body needs. It’s more than one glass a day. Google it if you need to. Water will help you create energy, power your brain, boosts your immune system, and a whole host of other things. Pro tip: Get a giant water bottle to carry around campus with you, add fruit if you need some flavor, and download a free water tracking app to your phone.
- All-nighters and college are synonymous at this point, but they don’t have to be and shouldn’t be. No all-nighter will help you ace a test, and waiting until the last minute to finish a project won’t help you get a better grade. Sleeping for 8-10 hours a night will help your physical body repair itself, increase your learning and memory, keep your immune system functioning, maintain lower stress levels, and help your brain regulate your moods. College students are often at risk of having mental health issues, and a lack of sleep is a contributing factor of those issues spiraling out of control.
Find your campus counseling center and set up an appointment.
You might feel as though you don’t need to see a counselor right now – after all you just got to campus, moved into your new room, made new friends, joined an organization, you’re eating all the free pizza; you are living your BEST life! However, there may be a point when you need to see a counselor, and for many people, there is a lot of misunderstanding, shame, and anxiety around seeking this kind of help. It will be a lot easier for you to use the counseling services when you are in a place of calm because when you enter into chaos, going to counseling will feel like one more thing that you have to work through and it will be easy to talk yourself out of making the appointment. Plus, if you go while you’re feeling good, you will have already gotten through the nerves, you’ll know which building or room to go to, and you’ll know what to expect. Most college campuses have free counseling services available to students so you should take advantage of this resource at the very beginning.
If you’ve never been to counseling before, your first meeting is typically a consultation where you and the counselor get to know each other. From there, your counselor will ask you what you want to talk about or work on for your meetings and you can decide together how often you should be going to counseling. If you don’t currently have anything that you want to address, you can simply tell your counselor that you’re there for preventative measures so that you can cope with all that college brings as it comes and not wait until you’re overwhelmed.
If you don’t click with the first counselor you meet with, that’s okay, schedule an appointment with another one in the office. It is perfectly normal to test out counselors to find the best fit for you. Also, be sure to ask for what you need – actually that’s a good life tip, write that down on a post-it and put it in a place where you’ll see it every day. If you thrive on tough love, tell your counselor that. If you’re struggling with your academics, tell your counselor. They can help you find methods and resources to relieve any worry you have.
Create your feel good routine.
Yes, this is also known as self-care, but before you role eyes and move onto the next paragraph, hear me out. Self-care is largely talked about in the frame of binging Netflix, spa days, and an excuse to “treat yo’ self.” Your self-care should include the things that bring immense happiness and relaxation, which is different for everyone. Reading, hiking, a phone call with your favorite person, listening to podcasts, or trying out a new hobby are all great forms of self-care. The point is to create time for yourself at least once a week, every week, to indulge in whatever makes you feel good. Just like moving your body every day, you should actually put this in your schedule. Write it down in your planner, calendar, or set a phone reminder and take 1-2 hours to do something for you. This may include extending an invite for friends to join you, or it may be a solo gig, you decide. But you need this in a scheduled routine so that you can take a step back, have some fun, get refocused, and refreshed so that you can be a successful college student, chapter leader, campus leader, friend, child, sibling, human.
Know your support system.
Determine who the people are in your life that you can turn to for support, encouragement, and empathy. These are the people who will listen to you without judgment, they won’t try to one up you or jump in to try and fix things for you. This could be your parents, siblings, best friends, chapter advisor, academic advisor, RA, or a favorite professor. Maintain those relationships, and when you need the support, reach out to your key players and ask for what you need. Successfully navigating life requires a solid support system; a community of people you can rely on. Nobody gets to where they’re going without some support from others.
Those first few weeks of college will feel like a blur. There will be so many things coming at you, you will be operating in a habitual routine before you know it, whether it was a conscious effort or not. To set yourself up for success, try these foundational tips in the very beginning. You will figure out what works for you, when and how often to do it, where it works, and you’ll adjust as needed. Let these be your “go-to” when you’re feeling unsure, lonely, worried, happy, overjoyed, overly confident, or lacking in confidence. Once you have created a baseline of what makes you feel safe and secure, you can expand from there. These are by no means the be-all-end-all for creating emotional and mental safety, but they are a really good place to start. And, we all have to start somewhere.
Brittany Ankeny-Dooley currently works remotely as the Assistant Director of Educational Programs for Delta Sigma Phi Fraternity. Brittany lives in Fort Worth, Texas with her husband, David, and their spectacular dog, Henry. She credits her time as an undergraduate sorority member and experience as an AFLV intern with guiding her to her passion and place in working with college students. Brittany holds a bachelor’s degree in public relations from Missouri State University (Go Bears!) and a master’s degree in higher education from the University of North Texas. She is a member of Alpha Sigma Alpha Sorority in which she is still actively involved and currently volunteers as an NPC Area Advisor.