Anxiety, Overwhelm, Burnout – oh my!

Feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or burnt out at this time of the semester is a common experience, and it can lead people to disengage from the things that matter most to them. When we feel overwhelmed, disengaging can be a way to avoid feeling like a failure (“I didn’t actually care”) or to feel like we have some control over the situation (“I’m opting out”).

Disengaging can seem like a solution in the moment, but it can have negative consequences in the long run. Instead of disengaging, it’s important to find strategies that can help us manage our overwhelm and stay engaged:

  • Make a to-do list and prioritize tasks. Break larger projects into smaller, more manageable steps.
  • Take breaks and practice self-care activities such as movement, meditation, or spending time with friends and family.
  • Set realistic expectations for yourself and avoid comparing your progress to others.
  • Use time-management techniques such as the Pomodoro technique, where you work for a set amount of time followed by a short break.
  • Get enough sleep and eat an array of yummy foods.
  • Reach out to professors, advisors, or other supportive services if needed.
  • Stay organized and use tools such as calendars and reminders to help manage deadlines.
  • Remember to celebrate accomplishments, even small ones, and give yourself credit for what you’ve achieved.

While the end of a college semester can be a challenging time, it is possible to overcome the anxiety, burnout, and overwhelm that often come with it. By employing these strategies, seeking support from those around you, staying engaged and focusing on what you can control, you can successfully navigate the end of the semester and emerge ready for whatever challenges lie ahead. Remember, taking care of yourself is just as important as academic success, and finding a balance between the two is the best strategy for long-term success.

Staying on Track

We are in it, y’all. That end of semester crunch of projects, papers and exams. Last week, we heard from Dr. Sarah Reives-Houston from the School of Social Work’s Behavioral Health Springboard. A few of our favorite tips that she shared:

  • Focus on things within your control: A big part of feeling healthy comes from agency, or feeling like we are able to control our situation.
    • Many of our stressors come from worrying about things outside of our control – the outcome of our efforts (e.g. grades), the future, the past, how others take care of themselves, what happens around us, and the opinions and actions of other people.
    • Acknowledging that these are out of our control can shift the meaning we attribute to that stressor. Acknowledgement doesn’t get rid of the impact – we may still feel upset by how others act, for example – but it can give those situations less power.
    • Be a thermostat. Thermometers react to the temperatures around them. Choose your own temperature! Be a thermostat – you select your temperature. 
  • Remember the fairy and the lion: Imagine a situation where you are being chased by a lion who clearly wants to eat you, but a fairy arrives on the scene who magically makes the lion disappear. Your eyes would see that the lion is gone, but your body won’t respond as quickly – all of your stress responses will continue.
    • To build resilience, we have to mitigate the psychological and physiological responses to stressors, and that usually means activities that require paying attention to sensations and thoughts.
    • There are so many options – deep breathing, physical activity, laughing, being creative, doing a visualization exercise, spending time with loved ones or a pet. You want to find an activity that helps your body and mind recognize that you are safe and connected. 
  • You and us: What happens on campus impacts you individually; what’s going on with you individually impacts how you engage with your family, campus, and community.
    • Resilience and wellness involves both personal accountability and collective responsibility. 
    • As we all work towards slow progress of shifting the culture on campus, there are things you can do right now to support yourself and your friends. Study together and hold each other accountable. Celebrate each other’s efforts. Invite friends to be active with you. Share yummy food. Encourage sleep. Listen. Be authentic. 

Dr. Reives-Houston had many additional helpful insights to share, and you can watch the presentation or review live tweets (there are 2 threads) from the seminar. 

Mindful Munching

Using Intuitive Eating Strategies for End-of-Semester Success

Scenes from Polk Place on March 22, 2023, on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

As the end of the semester approaches, many of us become caught up in the stress of exams, papers, and deadlines. Amidst all the chaos, it’s important to take care of ourselves, especially when it comes to our eating habits.

Intuitive eating can be helpful all the time – and especially when stressed. Mindful eating involves paying attention to our bodies’ hunger and fullness cues, as well as our emotions and the physical sensations of eating.

Here are some tips for incorporating mindful eating into your routine during the end of semester crunch:

  • Listen to your body: When you’re hungry, eat. When you’re full, stop. It sounds simple, but it’s easy to get caught up in the rush of things and forget to pay attention to our bodies’ signals. Try to take a few deep breaths before eating to help you tune in to your hunger and fullness levels.
  • Eat mindfully: Instead of scarfing down your meal, eating your snack while scrolling through your phone, or simultaneously eating and working on an assignment, take the time to savor each bite. Pay attention to the flavors, textures, and smells of your food. This can help you feel more satisfied and reduce the urge to overeat.
  • Embrace flexibility: Intuitive eating is all about listening to your body’s needs, so don’t be afraid to switch things up if your hunger levels or preferences change. If you’re craving something sweet or salty, honor that craving and enjoy it mindfully.
  • Check in: When you notice yourself reaching for food, ask yourself “What am I hungry for?” When physically hungry, food is ideal. When stressed, sad, bored or feeling some other emotion, there might be another strategy you can use such as physical movement, going outside, talking to a friend, or doing something creative. Food can be comforting, and using it in that capacity is also ok. Pay special attention to the comforting sensations of taste, smell, temperature, and texture in those moments. 

The end of the semester is a busy time, but taking care of yourself is as important as acing that final exam. Try incorporating some mindful/intuitive eating practices into your routine, and notice how they make you feel.

Branching Out: How Nature Can Help You Flourish at UNC

One powerful tool for prioritize mental health and well-being is spending time in nature. The known benefits for college students are plentiful; being in nature…

  • Reduces stress and anxiety
  • Improves mood and cognitive function
  • Boosts the immune system
  • Improves sleep quality 

Even brief periods of time outdoors can have big benefits. Here are some ideas to get more nature in your day-to-day life:

  • Take a walk in the arboretum or Battle Park.
  • Study or meditate outside.
  • Participate in outdoor recreational activities like biking, disc golf, hiking, or paddling.
  • Attend outdoor yoga classes or nature walks.

Learn more about our favorite nature spots on and near campus and then, go enjoy outside! (pro tip: Don’t feel comfortable adventuring on your own? Check out Carolina Adventures Expeditions! They provide gear, guides and routes for some epic outdoor adventures.)

  • Battle Park – Located on the east side of campus and downhill from the Coker Arboretum with hiking and trail running options. The park symbolizes the important connection between nature and art at UNC. Download a trail map.
  • Mason Farm Biological Reserve – Hiking, trail running, and bird watching available. Located 2 miles (3 minutes by car) from UNC. It is south east of the Botanical Gardens and Totten Center. 
  • Bolin Creek, Sewell School, and Carolina North– Mountain biking, hiking and trail running available. Located 7 miles or 15 minutes by car from UNC in Carrboro and Chapel Hill.
  • Duke Forest – Hiking, trail running, fishing, horseback riding and mountain biking available. Located 10 miles or 20 minutes by car from UNC. 
  • Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area – Hiking, trail running, fishing, camping and picknicking available. Located 15 miles or 25 minutes by car from UNC. The Occoneechee Mountain summit is the highest point in Orange Country with 190 acres of land and nearly 3 miles of trails.No fees are charged for the use of this park’s facilities. 
  • William B. Umstead State Park – Boating, Fishing, Horseback Riding, Hiking, Trail Running, Camping, Picnicking, Cycling available. Located 20 miles or 25 minutes by car from UNC. Park includes shelters, campsites, canoes, and kayaks that can be reserved for a reasonable fee.
  • Eno River State Park – Hiking, Trail running, Camping, Fishing, and Canoeing available. Located 20 miles or 30 minutes from UNC. A great place to rock hop up the lovely river. 
  • Haw River – Fishing, Canoeing, Swimming, Horseback riding, and Paddling available. Located 25 miles or 30 minutes driving from NC. Bonus – visit the Haw River Ballroom after a day of play for some live music.

Zzz Your Way to A’s: Why Sleep is the Ultimate Study Buddy

Sleep is crucial to achieve academic success, improving memory and cognitive function, regulating mood and reducing stress levels. Adequate sleep also benefits physical health by reducing the risk of heart disease, allowing your body to fuel itself with more nutrient-dense foods (as opposed to quick energy foods craved by tired people), and boosting the immune system.

To get more restful sleep:

  • Set consistent bedtimes and wake-up times: Keeping a consistent sleep schedule helps regulate the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends, can help you feel more rested and alert throughout the day.
  • Create a sleep-conducive environment: Make your sleeping space comfortable and relaxing. Most of us benefit from comfortable bedding and a cool and dark room. Consider using earplugs, white noise machines, or blackout curtains to reduce noise and light disturbances.
  • Avoid substances: Caffeine is a stimulant that can keep you awake, so it’s best to avoid it several hours before bed. Alcohol may help you fall asleep initially, but it can disrupt your sleep later in the night, leading to poor quality sleep. Cannabis and cannabinoids may help you fall asleep faster, but can disrupt your REM sleep, leading to feelings of grogginess and fatigue the next day.1 It’s best to avoid using them as a sleep aid, especially on a regular basis, although more research is needed to fully understand their effects on sleep. 
  • Manage stress: College can be a stressful time, and stress can disrupt your sleep patterns. Try to manage stress through exercise, meditation, or other relaxation techniques. Get support with underlying mental health concerns that may be contributing to your stress levels.
  • Prioritize sleep over other activities: It can be tempting to stay up late studying or socializing, but getting enough sleep should be a top priority. Naps aren’t nearly as effective as sleeping through the night. Make sure you have enough time for sleep; avoid staying up late to cram for exams, finish assignments, or hang with your friends. 

Remember, if you snooze, you don’t lose – you win a higher-functioning brain and improved health.  

Resilience is How You Recharge: Spring Break Edition

Resilience is often misunderstood. A lot of people think of football players when they think of resilience – able to take a hit, pick themselves up off the turf, and go for another play. Well-meaning students trying to celebrate resilience might support each other staying up until 3am trying to finish a paper. Overwork and exhaustion are the opposite of resilience. When we go to class or work exhausted, we don’t have the cognitive resources to do well, we have lower self-control, and we are often all up in our feels. 

A resilient person is a well-rested one. Resilience is adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or stress. It means rebounding from difficult experiences.

A resilient person tries really hard, then stops to rest, then tries again.

The more time a person spends in their performance zone, they more time they need in the recovery zone. So the more imbalanced we become due to overworking, the more benefit we get from activities that allow us to return to a state of balance. In other words, the value of a recovery period rises in proportion to the amount of work required of us. 

Most people assume that if you stop doing a task, say you put down your Bio Chem homework, your brain will naturally recover. When you start again the next morning, you’ll have your energy back. But have you ever spent time in bed unable to fall asleep because your brain is thinking about all the things you need to do? That’s one example of resting but in a way that can still leave you feeling exhausted. Rest and recovery are not the same thing. Stopping does not equal recovering.

Recover a bit this week 

Internal recovery is the short periods of relaxation that take place throughout our day through short scheduled or unscheduled breaks, shifting our attention, or changing to other tasks when the mental or physical resources required for task completion are depleted.

External recovery refers to actions that take place outside of scheduled work – so evenings, weekends, holidays, vacations. If after your day you lie around and get riled up by news you read on your phone or stress about the paper you have due on Monday, your brain hasn’t received a break from high mental arousal. Our brains need rest as much as our bodies.

External recovery means taking time to do things that are fun, enjoyable, and help you feel good. 

  • Explore new places
  • Go outside
  • Move your body
  • Remember the things you loved when you had more time to play; do more of them
  • Unplug
  • Get good sleep 
  • Eat yummy, nourishing food
  • Spend time with people who support and love you
  • Experience awe

The best person to know how you best recharge is YOU. Take time to recharge effectively and you’ll be better equipped to face whatever challenges come your way. 

Navigating conflict

It’s bound to happen while you’re in college. Some reminders for when you’re in conflict with someone:

  • Communicate respectfully: When conflicts arise, communicate respectfully and listen actively to the other person’s perspective. Avoid using accusatory language and try to approach the situation with an open mind.
  • Seek common ground: Look for areas of agreement or compromise that can help resolve the conflict. Even if you don’t agree on everything, finding common ground can help you move forward in a positive direction.
  • Take responsibility: If you’ve played a role in the conflict, it’s important to take responsibility for your actions and apologize if necessary. Acknowledging your mistakes can help de-escalate the situation and build trust with the other person.
  • Consider mediation: If the conflict is particularly complex or difficult to resolve, consider seeking the help of a neutral third party, such as a counselor or mediator. They can help facilitate a constructive conversation and find solutions that work for everyone involved.
  • Take care of yourself: Conflict can be stressful and emotionally draining. It’s important to take care of yourself during this time by practicing self-care activities, such as exercising, meditating, or talking with a trusted friend. Remember, you’re not alone and there are resources available to help you through difficult situations.

Failing Forward

All of us receive feedback at some point in our academic lives that make us feel like a failure. Whether that’s an actual failing grade, a lower grade than we desired, mean-spirited academic feedback, or something else – these types of critiques can be tough to handle.

If we can reframe failure, it can serve as an opportunity to learn and inform future actions and decisions. Consider these ideas before generalizing that negative academic feedback into a feeling about yourself:

  • Grades are an instrument of an educational system that quantifies learning using a “standard” measurement for a widely diverse population of students, and grades require that learning happens in a certain amount of time. These are not essential values for educating nor learning.
  • Receiving a low grade or negative feedback happens at one moment in time. It does not change the past, nor predict the future.
  • “Failure” is not indicative of intelligence, know-how, or worth. In fact, all grades are only useful for characterizing your work on a single assignment or exam in a brief moment of your life.
  • A low grade doesn’t necessarily equate to the effort you put into an assignment, project or test…but it might (if this rubs you the wrong way, please be sure to read the next bullet point).
  • College courses are designed to take up a lot of time. If you’re stretched by life’s circumstances and challenges, a low grade is likely a sign that you’re investing time into something more important instead.
  • Receiving a low grade can feel like we’ve “wasted” our time and effort. Another choice is to explore what happened and to decide if making some changes are worth it.
  • Receiving a low grade can feel terrible. Feeling terrible does not mean that you are terrible.
  • Most people who receive a low grade also graduate.

Once you’ve reframed the situation, think about what happened. Look at the situation objectively and consider what you could have done differently. How can you improve moving forward? Who can you reach out to for help? This could include seeking out resources like those at the Learning Center, using TA or Professor office hours, or working with a study group.

Be kind to yourself. Feeling like a failure hurts, but remember that everyone fails at some point. Treat yourself with compassion and use this as a stepping stone to greater success.

Spring Cleaning

The Mental Benefits of Decluttering

The flowers are popping, the quad is full – it’s spring at Carolina. Use the energy of spring to do some spring cleaning of your space and your life.

“Clutter isn’t just the stuff on the floor. It’s anything that gets between you and the life you want to be living.” – Peter Walsh

The environment around us influences our ability to complete tasks and our overall mental health. One study from the University of Connecticut, showed that by removing or controlling clutter, you boost your mood, sharpen your focus, energize you to be productive, and relieve anxiety.

 And yet, it can feel difficult to let go of things. A study at Yale showed the same areas of our brain light up when we get rid of things as when we burn our tongues or stub our toes. Getting rid of things is pain. Another study showed that just holding or touching an item can cause emotional attachment. So of course it’s difficult to donate an item or throw it away – you feel invested and connected to it! Here are a few tips:

  • Start small. Think of one small area that you can go through today like your junk drawer or the back of your closet before moving to larger areas. This helps build momentum and prevents feeling overwhelmed.
  • Declutter it! Sort items into categories like “Keep,” “donate,” “sell,” and “discard.” Questions to ask yourself:Is this item useful or does it bring me joy? If you have multiple items that serve the same purpose, consider keeping only the one you use most or brings you the most joy. Have I used it or worn it in the past year? Would it be hard to replace if I needed it again? Does it fit with my vision for the life I want to lead?
  • Keep going. Write out a list of the areas you want to declutter and tackle one small space each day or once a week. 
  • Consider various forms of clutter. Think about your calendar, the number of windows and tabs open on your laptop, and your phone notifications. Be ruthless! Close those tabs, turn off unnecessary notifications, and say no to (or postpone) commitments that just don’t fit. 
  • Keep things tidy. Set up systems for yourself to regularly declutter. If you bring something new into your space, get rid of something to help prevent clutter from building up over time. Use storage solutions to keep remaining items organized and easily accessible.

Life is stressful enough without spending hours cleaning and straightening. Work to keep clutter manageable and do what works best for you! By decluttering regularly and intentionally, you can create a more peaceful and organized space for yourself. 

Meditation’s role in Health and Well-Being

Campus scenes on October 26, 2022, on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

There’s no magic potion to health and well-being, but if there was, meditation would be in it. Meditation is a powerful tool that improves both physical and mental health. It reduces stress and anxiety, calms the mind, improves focus and brain power, increases productivity and efficiency, increases relaxation, improves sleep quality, increases self-awareness, improves emotional regulation, increases resilience, positively impacts the immune system, and increases compassion and empathy. Talk about magic, right? 

Here’s a quick guide to start meditating:

  • Be patient with yourself. There is no “right” way to meditate. Simply focus on being present in the moment and cultivating calm awareness. 
  • Find a comfortable and quiet space, ideally one free of distractions, where you can sit comfortably for a few minutes. UNC Diversity and Inclusion has a list of campus meditation spaces.
  • Focus on your breath. Notice the sensations of air moving in and out of your body. 
  • Let thoughts pass by like leaves floating down a stream. Notice them, and let them drift away. 
  • Start with a few minutes of time, and increase the length of time with practice.
  • Don’t worry if your mind wanders, that’s normal! Just bring your thoughts back to your breath or the stream. 
  • Practice a few minutes a day. You can meditate while you brush your teeth, do the dishes, or walk in nature. You can meditate before you go to bed at night, or after you eat breakfast in the morning. 

With the known benefits of meditation, we should all be doing it more! Consider joining a meditation group or club to support yourself in practicing more.