How to Relax in College

A student recently to told me that college stress is such a serious problem that several students she knows have had breakdowns. While the pandemic clearly isn’t helping anyone’s mental health, extreme stress related to school was a problem long before covid-19 appeared.

Today I’m sharing some anxiety management techniques I developed while I was earning my Duke PhD. Burnout, stress, and overwhelm were daily struggles I faced, and I’d like to help other students complete their degrees with a more peaceful mind and heart.

If you have read my other articles, you know what I’m about to say:

This blog is not a substitute for appropriate medical care. Make sure to see your primary care doctor, LCSW, psychologist or psychiatrist to discuss the treatments that are available to you. As always, if you are having a psychiatric emergency (including thoughts of self-harm, suicide, or harming others), call your local emergency number or go to your local emergency department. There is always help available.

Appropriate medical care can also involve behavioral interventions. There is evidence that human brains are capable of neuroplasticity (adapting based on new experiences), and that even if you have mood problems or severe trauma exposure, accumulating positive experiences can help your brain recover. Calming activities can also increase our resilience to stress.

Here some of my favorite calming activities to support mental health.

Have a hot drink in the morning, look out the window, and watch people or nature

This is the kind of activity that seems like it would never work, and it seemed too simple to have any real effect for people with serious mood problems. However, when I decided to try it, I felt relieved. I think the real value is that I gave myself permission not to be working.

There’s also some evidence that our brains need time in the default mode network, which refers to time when we are not actively solving problems. The default mode network is activated when we allow our minds to wander – for example, while showering or taking a walk. Modern humans spend much less time in the default mode network because we are generally overscheduled.

I’m not arguing that tea is a magic cure for mental health problems. I’m saying that if you’ve been overwhelmed with commitments and stress, even five minutes to yourself can feel comforting. Just sitting in one spot doesn’t seem to help me, but the combination of a cup of tea and time looking out the window seemed just active enough to allow my brain to wander.

Lately I’ve been drinking a teaspoon of matcha mixed into a mug of hot water. I am not a matcha specialist by any means, and the matcha I can afford is definitely not ceremonial grade. That being said, you’re not going to hell if you have some culinary grade matcha in the morning.

I love that matcha has a reputation for antioxidants and cancer prevention, and if I’m 100% honest, it’s a pretty shade of green. If you are already a coffee drinker, you won’t find the bitterness of affordable matcha to be offensive. It also goes well with something sweet.

If you can’t tolerate caffeine or prefer to avoid it, I’m very much a fan of making tea from whole rose buds. The brand I originally bought is not available any more, but when my roses run out, I’ll be restocking with rose tea by Frontier Co-op. I buy other products from Frontier Co-op and have been happy with freshness and quality.

I admit that I’m pretty charmed by the idea of making tea with rose buds (though there are bits and pieces that do get broken in transportation). The real benefit of rose tea is the lovely yet natural fragrance of fresh roses. It’s very calming.

I also buy mint tea in bulk from Frontier Co-op. It has a potent mint fragrance and still smells great a few years after I bought it (I purchased it in February of 2016, and I still have plenty of great-smelling tea in December 2020!).

Diffuse some essential oils and listen to music.

I have always been super skeptical of essential oils, and I’m definitely not someone who believes that essential oils will cure everything (they are definitely not a replacement for modern medicine).

That being said, emotional wellbeing is about incorporating enjoyable things each day, and there is also a small body of research on the effects of essential oils, mood, and sleep.

Lately, I’ve been enjoying lavender and clary sage essential oil at night to help with severe long-standing insomnia. Medical research indicates that lavender actually does help people relax and sleep, but I will admit that as a music PhD, evaluating the quality of medical studies is not my expertise. Still, I like to read medical research when it’s available and relevant to me. I use NOW Foods brand essential oils because I find them to be a dependable company that makes reasonably affordable and good quality products.

If you’d like to try, you can buy lavender essential oil and clary sage essential oil separately and then mix them in the diffuser. I usually do about 6 drops of lavender and 3 or 4 drops of clary sage, since I find the clary sage to be a bit stronger. I chose clary sage because I stumbled on some information that suggested it is useful for chronic pain, and I had gotten fairly desperate with nearly daily severe migraine pain. If you want to try the same combination, clary sage is not the same as regular sage.

Once you turn on your diffuser and the fragrance is wafting through the room, try to focus on the smell and nothing else. This is a good way to help turn off thoughts about school or other stressors.

Read a book

If you need a suggestion, Thich Nhat Hanh’s “True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart” is a really comforting and beautiful read (it’s also incredibly affordable). I accidentally came across this book in a New York City museum bookstore after a breakup from hell, and this book meant a lot to me. It’s an easy and straightforward read about what it means to take care of yourself emotionally and how to care for your relationships with others. After experiencing a relationship that was unhealthy, this book helped me learn what healthy love looks like.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a monk, poet, and peace activist who was exiled from his native Vietnam. He now runs monasteries all over the world.

Watch an amazing film

If you’re not sure what to watch, Red Cliff (赤壁) and Chungking Express (重庆森林) are two of my favorite films.

Red Cliff (赤壁) is an epic war film that was a massive hit in China. If you buy this one, get the international version if you can read subtitles comfortably (double check that it says “International version: Parts 1 and 2” before you order).

The English version seems like it would be the right choice for English speakers. However, the production team cut so much content that the English version is literally half the length or the original. With such amazing actors, the film really loses something when it’s overdubbed.

Chungking Express (重庆森林) is a Hong Kong film made by Wong Kar-Wai. This was the film that made him internationally famous. It is oddly structured in two seemingly unrelated halves, so you’ll have to abandon your Hollywood expectations for this one. It’s an art film and quirky love story about two policemen and their attempts at finding love. For those who are fans, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung are super young in this film.

If you have PTSD, you might wish to check out the parental advisory for these movies on IMDB before watching (click “More” in the top menus, and then click “Parental Advisory”). Chungking Express has some upsetting moments in the first 10 minutes or so, but after that, should be pretty approachable for most viewers.

Bake cookies

If you just moved and don’t have a pan, you’ll want to buy one that is called a half sheet pan, baking pan, or jelly roll pan (because you can also use them to make rolled up cakes). It’s confusing because you’d think you would need a full size pan for a normal oven. The full size ones are actually for commercial ovens and won’t fit if you use them at home.

I’ve been baking most of my life and would recommend an uncoated commercial style pan (keep in mind you will not want to buy the largest commercial size if you have a normal oven). I’ve linked to the correct size pan for baking cookies in a normal oven, but double check the size before you order. They’ll be approximately 12×17 or 13×18 inches, depending on the brand.

If you buy one pan, you’ll need to bake your cookies in more batches. I always do this and it’s fine. The recipe makes 5 dozen (five batches of twelve cookies). If you are not a patient person and want to save time, get two pans, because you can bake more cookies at once. You can also make your cookies a little larger, but be aware that it will affect baking time.

For the last tip, make sure to take your cookies out of the oven a little before they look completely done to make sure your cookies are gooey and soft inside. The heat from the pan continues to cook them once you remove them from the oven.

If you want a traditional American chocolate chip cookie, use the Nestlé Toll House recipe or the New York Times recipe. They’re both famous. I’ve only tried the Toll House recipe because it’s what I grew up with and it works.

For the actual cookie, I recommend buying a different brand of chocolate, both for flavor and because Nestlé has made some truly egregious human rights mistakes. I finally caved and bought 11 pounds of bitter chocolate made by the respected Belgian chocolatier, Callebaut. I found that it tends to shatter when chopped and probably isn’t ideal for chocolate chip cookies. At my house, that chocolate will mostly end up inside really intense dark hot chocolate 😊

Be aware that you’ll need to chop it if you buy a huge chocolate brick. If you’re not up for chopping or if you aren’t confident using a chef’s knife yet, you might like to buy Callebaut callets instead. Callets are a little different from chocolate chips, since callets are made for melting, but since high quality bulk chocolate chips are a little hard to find, I think callets are an excellent substitute.

The Nestlé recipe I have recommended doesn’t call for coarse salt like the photo above, but if you’d like to add some, flaky Maldon salt is a great bet. I once tasted this salt at my cousin’s home and thought it had a very clean taste and nice texture. It’s fancy as far as salt is concerned, for sure. Apparently I’m a salt nerd, what can I say? You’ll want to sprinkle a little bit before baking to make sure it sticks to the cookie.

Lastly, if this is your first time making cookies, remember that pan is going to be hot. Make sure to buy some oven mitts if you don’t own any. I like them because it protects much more of my hands and arms compared to a pot holder or towel. I don’t have a specific brand I’m in love with, so just sort by customer reviews and find one that a lot of people like.

Make hot chocolate

The endorphins are real! Chocolate makes me so happy. Really dark chocolate has magnesium and iron. Between the minerals and the comforting taste, it really does make me feel better.

I like to use A2 milk since it bothers my stomach less than regular milk. If you don’t tolerate dairy well, a good quality natural soymilk is a great choice for cocoa. I buy mine at the local Asian mart, which carries a brand with no chemicals.

The 70% Callebaut that I bought is bitter and is ideal for serious chocolate lovers. 60% or 53.7% dark chocolate is a little milder. If you’re not a fan of bitter chocolate, you can try milk chocolate (31.7%).

If you buy giant blocks in bulk, it will need to be chopped or smashed (possibly with a hammer?). If you’re not up for that, you might like to try Callebaut callets instead. Callets are like chocolate chips in a standard size and made for melting.

Try lying on an acupressure mat

You might also want to play some calming music at the same time. The way this mat works is that it stings a little bit when you lie on it, and the slight amount of mild pain helps release endocannabinoids, which are your body’s innate pain-killing and relaxation chemicals.

Putting the mat on the floor and using it without a shirt is the most intense way to get benefits. You can make the stinging sensation more tolerable by wearing a shirt, placing the mat on a soft surface like a bed, or both.

In case you are wondering why anyone would want the equivalent of a plastic bed of nails, the reason is that it’s effective for pain and mood. I have really severe chronic pain and this sometimes helps me when my medication doesn’t. These endocannabinoids can also help encourage a state of mental and physical relaxation.

Just a heads up – while the mat is generally safe for people with normal connective tissue, you should probably avoid it if you have any disorder that causes fragile connective tissue (certain types of Ehler’s Danlos, etc.) or if you take medication that causes fragile skin. If you have any doubts, please ask your doctor. Once again, as a reminder, I am not a medical doctor and this website is not a substitute for medical advice.

If you found these suggestions helpful but need a little more help, especially during the darker days of winter, you might like to read my article on seasonal depression as well.

Take a hot bath

This one is very Gwyneth Paltrow (not going to lie, I got the idea from her). But a hot bath in winter feels great, especially with magnesium salts. I sometimes use hot baths to cope with chronic pain, and I do think magnesium salts help with relaxing your muscles. Skip the salts if you have any scrapes or cuts, because salt is not going to feel so nice.

What are your favorite ways to relax?