8 Things You Can Do Right Now to Downshift and De-stress

By Mia Nosanow, MA, LP

Mia Nosanow is the author of The College Student’s Guide to Mental Health and is a licensed psychologist and longtime college therapist who has spent the last twenty years counseling a diverse college student body. This article is excerpted from The College Student’s Guide to Mental Health, a comprehensive mental and emotional health manual designed specifically for college students and the loved ones and professionals who support them. It addresses challenging emotions, relationship-building prompts, and tools and actionable strategies to address common mental health struggles.

[Editor’s note: Stress is a part of life, regardless of age, but the healthiest, longest-lived people in the world in the world’s blue zones have daily routines that help them downshift, whether it is an afternoon nap, getting outside in the sunshine, or making time to meet up with friends. In recent years, mental health struggles, particularly among college students, have grown exponentially, with the number of students seeking mental health services increasing at five times the rate of enrollment, according to the Center for Collegiate Health. 

To address this growing need, psychologist and therapist Mia Nosanow has written this guide to be a resource for anyone dealing with the stress and pressure of today’s world.]

 

 “I feel really anxious and have a lot of negative self-talk….I’m scheduled from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., and I really have no time to myself, but everything I’m doing is really important and I don’t want to let go of any of it.”

“I just want to be with my friends all the time. I stay up too late, but then I have a hard time getting to sleep.”

“I feel empty and don’t find my activities to feel as meaningful to me as I’d like … but I don’t like to just sit around. I want my life to always be productive.”

“I watch TikTok or Netflix every afternoon after class because I’m worn out from class. But they don’t really help me feel better.”

“I work on homework every Friday and Saturday night. I’m scared I won’t get it all done if I ever slow down.”

Our 24/7 culture promotes being always on — no more bankers’ hours or Sabbath days — and it values the highest productivity, no matter the cost. We focus on multiple screens, rather than nature or other people, which creates sensory overload. The bar for what we perceive to be success is constantly going up, as is our fear of failure (a very strong feeling). We value “busy busy” and view taking time to just be with ourselves as a luxury. Our bodies have become accustomed to being in high-alert, fight-or-flight mode much of the time, which is designed to help us respond quickly in the face of life-threatening dangers, but the resulting stress takes a toll. At times it seems hard to know where we’re at on a deeper level.

How can we create some balance in our bodies? How can we shift out of fight-or-flight mode (which is related to the sympathetic nervous system) and into “rest-and-digest” mode (related to the parasympathetic nervous system)? The answer is simple: Slow down. Once we slow down and tell our bodies and minds that we are safe, we can replenish and connect with ourselves in a deeper way.

Why quiet time is a challenge

 It is no accident that, in general in society, stress and anxiety levels are rising as quiet time is falling. Our society has done a great job of teaching us how to move forward, work hard, and excel, but it hasn’t modeled how to recharge our batteries. This is true for our whole culture, not just college students. However, this has sparked a growing interest in all the ways we can slow down and foster mental and emotional wellness. In fact, talk about sustainability for humans mirrors the need for sustainability in our environment.

Students often scoff at the suggestion to slow down. Their schedules are packed — with far too much homework, extracurricular activities, part-time work, and social (or family) plans — and they argue it’s impossible to carve out time for daily (or weekly) periods of quiet time or “doing nothing.”

Further, students feel the cultural pressure to be productive and accomplished and not be seen as “lazy.” Just like everyone, they often struggle to accept the seeming paradox that occasionally slowing down actually enhances our ability to achieve all our goals.

 

Strategies

Value Quiet Time

If you doubt the value of taking some quiet time for yourself, try it out for a while. Experiment with the strategies and see for yourself. Our culture doesn’t necessarily support this idea, and people sometimes dismiss seemingly “unproductive” activities, so people sometimes need to discover the benefits for themselves. Once you do, I’m sure you will find that setting aside some quiet time for yourself on a daily basis will help you feel better and meet your goals, too.

Be Curious and Experiment

What qualifies as “quiet time” for one person might not work for someone else. Be curious and explore what works best for you; avoid being judgmental or assuming what you “should” do. As the strategies here make clear, quiet time doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing, though it could. Rather, it is anything and everything that refreshes body, mind, and spirit. Not only is every person different, but so is every day. Take a walk, read a book, practice an instrument, draw, meditate, talk to a friend — make time to do whatever feels good. That will be the right thing for you. 

[Related: 5 Scientifically-Proven Tips That Prevent Dementia]

Lose Yourself in Nature

We intuitively know that being outside enjoying nature — either by ourselves or with others — feels good and renews our energy. Connecting to nature just helps us feel more comfortable in our bodies. Scientific studies in ecopsychology, ecotherapy, or green therapy back this up. They show how nature benefits our general well-being and a host of mental health issues.

There are many possibilities for making nature a part of your day while at college. These can vary in intensity — from training with your varsity team outside for a couple of hours to going on a fifteen-minute walk before class. Whatever you choose, enjoying nature is a great way to relieve stress and increase your mental health. Try these:

  • Play with an animal; visit a local shelter, or see if your campus has a program where they bring in dogs for students to visit.
  • Visit water. This could take many forms: a local fountain, river, pond, or any body of water. Many people say the sound of water is very calming.
  • Take a leisurely walk or run outside (but not in a competitive way). Perhaps treat a slow walk as meditation. Try walking without headphones playing.
  • Pull weeds in a garden, walk barefoot in the grass, or otherwise get your hands and feet dirty. Join a campus gardening club. Touching the earth helps us feel grounded, and studies show that soil microbes help us feel better.
  • Take a few minutes to look up at the sky and take in the world with a feeling of wonder or awe.
  • Study outside when the weather permits, or sit by a window with a view outdoors.
  • Plan your route to class so you walk by gardens or through nature, and challenge yourself to use all five senses as you walk.
  • Plan a regular weekly or daily walk with a friend.
  • Find work in campus groundskeeping.
  • Participate in an outdoor intramural sport.
  • Sit under a tree, then give the tree a hug.

Engage in a Creative Activity

Creative pursuits that engage our mind and often our body have been shown to lower stress, increase positive feelings, and help activate a “flow state” similar to meditation. Pick any activity that appeals to you; experiment with things you don’t usually do. When done in a group, some of these activities also provide social benefits.

  • Read a book for pleasure. Yes, college students read a lot, but they rarely read books that they have chosen. For twenty minutes at night, read something that interests or engages you.
  • Read or write poetry.
  • Take up a handiwork project, such as knitting, crocheting, cross stitch, wood carving, or model building. Spending a few minutes a day creating something for yourself or as a gift for someone else can make a precious break from studying.
  • Sketch or draw, or color in a coloring book. Art isn’t just for art majors! Visual expression can open up a side of ourselves that is often neglected.
  • Model with clay or Play-Doh.
  • Solve a puzzle game, like Sudoku, or put together a jigsaw puzzle.
  • Sing or play a musical instrument. Quiet time doesn’t have to be quiet! Making music can create a sense of calm — but only if you play for enjoyment, not to be “perfect.”
  • Visit an art museum.
  • Listen to calming music.

Get Physical

Doing something kinetic can also be calming and qualify as “quiet time.” Many people benefit from activities involving movement. All the activities under “Lose Yourself in Nature,” above, are good choices. Or consider taking a yoga class or a slow martial arts, such as tai chi or qigong (which emphasize breathing).

Another idea is to treat an everyday activity like brewing and drinking a cup of herbal tea like a meditative slow movement. As you prepare the drink, use all your senses and savor the entire process, which can be centering and induce contentment.

Practice Your Faith or Spirituality

The practice of faith or spirituality is a traditional way to slow down and connect to something greater than ourselves. This can be a traditional religious faith or simply gratitude for being alive. 

  • Daily prayers, with yourself or others
  • Daily meditations
  • Daily study of sacred texts, words of wisdom, or devotional readings
  • Writing daily in a gratitude journal

Practice Mindfulness Meditation

Similar to spirituality, mindfulness meditation gives us the chance to “just be” and accept ourselves as we are in each given moment. Doing a sitting meditation provides numerous benefits: stress reduction, improved ability to concentrate, better sleep, slower reactivity to problems, and more self-acceptance, just to name a few.  

Learn “Instant” Calming Techniques

This might sound like a contradiction, but you can practice “quiet time” at any time, even during other activities. When you feel worked up or overwhelmed, learn strategies for finding calm and peace in the moment, wherever you are.

  • Press pause: Take one slow deep breath, filling your lungs from bottom to top. As you do, feel your ribs expand to the sides and the back. Hold your breath for just a moment before exhaling as slowly as you can.
  • Square breathing: Picture a square. Breathe in, counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs. Hold your breath for 4 seconds. Try to avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 seconds. Slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds. Repeat until you feel re-centered.

  • 5-4-3-2-1: This technique focuses mainly on the senses. Notice five things you can see right now, four things you can touch and feel, three things you can hear right now, two things you can smell, and end with one good thing you can think about yourself.
  • Cool or warm: Hold a bottle of cold water or a cup of warm tea in your hands. Take a drink and feel the coldness or warmth seep into your body. Take your time and experience the cold or warmth in your mouth.

 


Mia Nosanow, MA, LP is the author of The College Student’s Guide to Mental Health. She is a licensed psychologist and mental health therapist who specializes in college students. For twenty years, she worked as a mental health counselor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, seeing thousands of students for individual and group therapy. Visit her online at mianosanow.com.

Excerpted from the book The College Student’s Guide to Mental Health. Copyright © 2024 by Mia Nosanow, MA, LP. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.www.newworldlibrary.com

 

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