8 Ways to Sustain Health and Wellness as a College Student

Success at college means more than getting good grades. In between classes, students must learn to navigate all of life’s challenges, whether that’s eating right and getting enough exercise, dealing with limited finances, or coping with stress and anxiety. Wellness has many dimensions, and a person who is thriving in one area may be facing challenges somewhere else. 

A holistic approach to student well-being provides support for the whole person across eight pillars of health and wellness, as described by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in its workbook “Creating a Healthier Life: A Step-By-Step Guide To Wellness.” To thrive at college, students need support, guidance and resources in each of these areas: 

Physical Wellness
Mental Wellness
Spiritual Wellness
Intellectual Wellness
Social Wellness
Financial Wellness
Environmental Wellness
Occupational Wellness

The Eight Pillars of Student Health and Wellness

Physical Wellness

Physical wellness is more than just medical care for illness or injury. It includes a healthy diet, physical activity and sleep. It means taking care of your body, developing good habits and making positive choices that impact your overall physical health. Enduring jokes about “the freshman 15” reflect the reality that students, often on their own for the first time in their lives, don’t always make the best choices for maintaining their physical wellness. 

Physical wellness looks different for every person, and awareness of your body’s unique needs is the first step. 

  • Pay attention to how much you sleep; seven to nine hours is recommended for most adults. How do you feel if you get less? Or more? 
  • How do certain foods and beverages or substances like caffeine and alcohol make you feel an hour later? Or the next day?
  • Does a headache mean you’re feeling stressed, or are you getting sick? The student health center on campus can provide preventive care as well as treatment for illnesses or injuries.
  • Do you get the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each day? Activity has a wide range of benefits, whether you take advantage of your school’s fitness and recreation programs or you just take a walk across campus.  

Mental Wellness

College can be a particularly stressful time, with many complex situations and demands to negotiate. 

“Stress management techniques, calming strategies, coping skills and positive emotional practices set us up for our highest mental health potential,” says Dr. Andrew Kami, director of Psychological Counseling Services at Chapman University. “When these practices are aligned with our everyday lives, we can concentrate better, focus in a sharper manner and complete tasks in a way that represents our best selves.” 

Some students end up making unhealthy choices to help them deal with those stresses, such as substance use/abuse, overeating, binge watching or a social media obsession. Finding alternative ways to cope with stress, anxiety and depression is critical to your success as a student. 

  •  Mindfulness and self-care practices can help students alleviate some of these stresses while building resilience for the future. 
  • Identify your emotional support network — those people you can reach out to when things are difficult. Friends, family members, professors, advisors and counselors are all part of that support network. 
  • Practice gratitude as a way to connect with all that is positive in your life. 

Many students hesitate to reach out for professional psychological help when they are overwhelmed by anxiety, depression, substance abuse or other serious conditions. However, universities offer easy access to students who need help dealing with their problems, without judgment or penalties. Don’t wait until your mental health reaches a critical condition to seek the help you need dealing with your personal problems. 

Spiritual Wellness

While spirituality is often associated with religious practices, it’s important to evaluate your values, ethics and beliefs, regardless of any religious affiliation, as the foundation for building a values-based life. Being spiritually healthy means having a clear understanding of your purpose and direction in life, and making decisions guided by those values.

There are many different ways to explore your spiritual values and develop a sense of purpose and meaning in your life. 

  • Attend religious services on campus or in the community, and participate in faith-based organizations with your peers. Most colleges and universities provide support for a number of religious and spiritual traditions. 
  • Learn about religions other than your own, either through coursework or by attending services and getting to know the people in other communities. Practice acceptance of traditions that differ from your own. 
  • Practice meditation or mindful relaxation, either on your own or in a group setting. 
  • Spend time in nature, and explore your relationship with the natural world. 
  • Participate in volunteer activities that align with your principles and values. 

Intellectual Wellness 

Colleges and universities offer many resources for students who are challenged by academic demands. Professors, advisors and deans are all here to help you succeed and can help you connect with tutors and learning resources specific to your needs and interests. Did you know that 11% of college students have a learning disabilitySpecialized resources for students who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities are available, including diagnosis for students who have not been previously identified. 

College will be over before you know it, so it’s important to develop habits that will help you maintain your intellectual wellness throughout your life. Creative activity, being curious and open to learning new things, and challenging ourselves intellectually are all habits that will serve us throughout life. 

  • Attend lectures and performances regularly, both on campus and in the community. 
  • Explore a creative outlet — art, music, poetry and handicrafts provide balance to the intense analytical skills developed in the classroom. Or, if you’re majoring in something creative, explore science or social studies topics to add dimension to your creative work. 
  • Read a book that’s not on a syllabus.
  • Commit to being a lifelong learner. 

Social Wellness

College students living away from home for the first time may feel disconnected from their friends and family. A 2017 survey of nearly 48,000 college students reported that 64% said they had felt “very lonely” in the previous 12 months. Developing personal connections can make you stronger and more resilient, even in times of stress. 

“Personal connections don’t just mean your friends but the people you interact with regularly in classes, on the job or in social situations,” says Samantha Martinez, the outreach coordinator for Chapman’s Wellness Project. “Communities and social networks offer support and guidance, and help you to develop a sense of your own identity.”

  • Get involved in campus programs and activities to connect with like-minded people. Colleges and universities support numerous student organizations based on interests, identities, religious traditions and civic initiatives. 
  • Develop a diverse social network by learning about and accepting those who come from different backgrounds or who have different sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, life experience, etc. 
  • Maintain connections with people back home via phone calls, emails and text messages. 
  • Practice your communication skills. Learn how to ask for support and how to give support when someone else is in need. 
  • Understand your place and responsibility to the community on a local, national and global level.  

Financial Wellness

For many students, college is the first time they’ve ever had to manage money themselves. For others, just paying for college is a major financial obstacle and a potential source of worry. Some students struggle to make ends meet, and as many as 39% of college students experience food insecurity at some point. 

Wherever you fall on the spectrum of financial security, learning to manage your own finances is an essential part of your education. Learning to track your spending and stick to a budget are just the start of how you can start preparing for a financially healthy future. 

  • Make saving a habit — setting aside a little every month will make your transition after college easier. 
  • Take advantage of student discounts.
  • Learn how to keep organized records of your finances, including receipts, bills, bank statements and pay stubs.
  • Learn how to use credit responsibly. 
  • Learn how your college loans work, and when you will be expected to pay them back. 

Most colleges and universities have resources for students who are struggling financially, starting with the Financial Aid Office and the Dean of Students. Other resources available can include food pantries, equipment loans and connections with community organizations.

Environmental Wellness

Our surroundings have a powerful impact on our mood and stress levels. Awareness of our personal surroundings is just as important as taking care of our global environment. As a student, your control of your immediate environment can be limited, especially if you live in a dorm. But small changes to your living space and habits can help improve your mood as well as your success in school:

  • Add a plant to your room or workspace. 
  • Clean up — having a clean and organized room can make you feel more in control. 
  • Study outside if possible, or by a window with a pleasant view. 
  • Spend time outside, and develop an appreciation for the natural world around you.

“As you develop an appreciation for nature, you may find yourself dealing with additional anxiety about environmental issues,” says Mackenzie Kriger, sustainability manager at Chapman University. She recommends taking positive action in environmental causes to alleviate some of that anxiety, through personal actions like recycling or composting your refuse, or through participation in and support of environmental organizations that seek to achieve broad improvements. You will find many colleagues on your college campus working together to help make the community and the world a better, more sustainable place. 

Occupational Wellness 

Even though you are still a student, you are probably already thinking about your career after college. You may even have a part-time job or internship already. What does having a “good job” mean to you? Most of us hope to choose a profession that utilizes our particular skills and talents, and that provides a feeling of purpose, productivity and personal satisfaction. 

“It’s OK if you don’t know what your perfect career looks like yet,” says Franciska Castillo (MA ’17), director of Chapman University’s Career and Professional Development center. “Just because some of your peers seem to have it all figured out doesn’t mean you need to make a decision right away. College offers many opportunities to explore different career paths.”