The Savvy Student’s Guide to Study Skills—Chapter Ten
- Stress Management
- Spirituality and Religion
- Beyond Self-Care
Emotional Intelligence (EI) can be viewed as the set of tools used to make sure you’re engaged in living, learning, and being with others in ways that are healthy and productive for both of you. Taken as a group, these skills have the potential to change the world; if all everyone did was engage in a little more Self-Awareness, the level of mindfulness in a typical high school or college would make learning at any institution more like their promotional videos.
But if EI can be thought of as a set of tools, where do we get the raw materials EI hones and nurtures? How do we develop the feelings we have, the beliefs we hold, our view of our self and the world? How do we take care of the key elements of who we are, especially when a new semester or a new learning environment places new demands on our workload or our attitude about ourselves or others? Are these transitions always fun and games? If not, what can we do to prepare for them?
The answer to this question is as individualized as our DNA, our family backgrounds, and our life experiences. It’s certainly true that part of who we are is what we eat, but it’s also partially a reflection of our values, the values of those around us, and our ability to interact with new ideas. There are many definitions of the goal of education, but part of learning always includes embracing the new, while holding on to some of the old. Let’s talk about the role some key players have in making sure we maintain the right balance of both.
Most of the ideas we’re going to discuss in this chapter fall under the general topic of stress management, or the ability to deal with issues and feelings that come up that try to keep us from our natural state of calm. Commonly used to describe how we’re feeling when there’s a lot going on
in our lives, stress management is actually something we should be practicing on a regular basis to avoid stress in the first place. That means there’s an element of stress management that’s similar to emotional intelligence; the first step in engaging in the practice involves a high level of self-awareness.
Two other general ideas about stress management should be kept in mind. First, stress is a pretty natural thing, especially in our world. School, sports, homework, family life, and time with friends are all competing for our time and our attention, and there’s only so much we can give of each of these—so when we run out of one or the other, choices are put at tension. These are external stressors, and when we end up making a choice that goes against our morals or values, that can be a source of internal stress. Getting rid of all stress may be a goal, but since you’re just starting to manage stress, know that it’s a pretty common challenge for all of us. Don’t let being stressed become another stresser to you.
Second, if you really do think all stress is bad, you may want to think again. The stress you hear when a fire alarm goes off is really your friend; so is the deadline for a term paper, if the resulting stress leads you to write the paper and turn it in on time; so is this, but don’t try this at home.
The idea of good stress may be new to you, but keep in mind that too much stress of any kind can limit your ability to live a healthy and productive life. This quiz can help you measure the amount of stress that’s in your life, and the ideas we’re discussing next can help you manage it.
Like all of the self-care techniques we’re going to discuss, it’s important to understand that the levels and kinds of techniques you use are unique to you. That’s definitely the case with exercise; while a friend may tell you they’ve discovered an exercise program that is the Best. Thing. Ever. for them. You’ll want to monitor your health and growth if you try out the same program, since the same exercises have a different effect on different bodies. If you have a doctor, talking about an exercise program with them is a must.
As you build the ideal exercise program for you, keep in mind:
Your current level of exercise
Many students set new exercise goals at the start of the school year. But if you’re also staring a training plan for your school sport, you might want to see how that impacts your health before you add more to it. This is very true for first-year college students, where walking from class to class could improve your level of fitness all by itself.
Your time commitment
The exercise goals you set depend in part on how much time you have—but don’t let the clock talk you out of exercising completely. There are many good reasons why you shouldn’t exercise daily, so listen to your body, and consider building an exercise plan that has some flexibility built into it.
There’s usually a good reason why people who’ve worked out for years look more fit that most people—it’s because they’ve worked out for years. Exercise may not give you the body of your dreams, but regular exercise is part of a plan for being healthy, staying focused, and living a complete life. (And if you’re really worried about having that dream body, maybe it’s time to reconsider that dream, for all the best reasons.)
Another area where what’s best for you is very different from what’s best for everyone else, there are some general truths about nutrition everyone can start with, that are best summed up in this keen idea from nutrition guru Michael Pollan:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
A breakdown of this famous phrase can help you build regular eating patterns that are healthy (spoiler alert—“Eat food” means most of the stuff you buy from a vending machine is out of bounds as part of a regular diet.) Like a good exercise program, you might not be able to make the jump from a diet of daily cheeseburgers to something like this in one day, or even a month—but applying some of these ideas each day can have you well on your way to a diet that you like, and one that’s good for you.
Just like exercise, there are a couple of things to keep in mind as you start to consider how to shift your diet. First, know your body. Most everyone has seen this picture that represents a balanced meal—but you may need something different to maintain your body’s version of balanced. It’s wise to check with a doctor or dietician to see if you have any special needs in your diet—and no matter what you do, don’t start taking vitamin supplements without professional assistance.
Second, think ahead about the decisions you’ll make when eating in social situations. There are many foods that are part of family events and hanging out with friends that might not exactly make the Best Foods list of any nutrition website. For most people, it’s more than OK to eat those foods in small amounts, and it’s also OK not to eat them at all—but whatever choice you make, be happy with it. The new friends you make at college will probably be more than OK about your choice to have a salad, as long as you aren’t drooling over their chili cheese fries, or regretting your decision to eat greens.
True friends won’t judge you by what you eat (or drink); they’ll judge you by who you are, and by how much they like being with you. Being true to your best food choices is something they’ll respect, so do the best you can for today, and if you start to see yourself making a pattern of food choices that are consistently unhealthy, contact a nutritionist, the school dietician, or your doctor.
Drinking choices are closely related to eating choices, especially when it comes to caffeine and alcohol. While high energy drinks are certainly popular, most people still make coffee their source for caffeine, drinking more of the brown gold when deadlines are close, or when stress is high.
The benefits of a modest caffeinated jump in productivity from any source can come in handy, but there really can be too much of a good thing. This quiz isn’t scientific, but it can help you figure out if caffeine is causing more stress than it’s relieving, and what you should do about it. (And if you wonder about caffeine use socially, the number of caffeine-free products at your local coffee shop has exploded in the past few years. You’ll have no problem getting a drink that works for you.)
As this article points out, adults using a small amount of alcohol to relieve stress is a long-standing part of our society. But what if you aren’t an adult, and you find yourself around alcohol, especially if you’re in a situation where not drinking would likely increase your level of stress? There are three things to consider:
Not everyone is drinking. Really.
It’s hard to explain, but when your stress is high, it’s sometimes easy to jump to conclusions that just aren’t real. “The paper is due tomorrow and I haven’t started it, so I’m going to flunk” is a classic example. You still have a day, so you can still write a passing paper. All you have to do is start.
The same is true at a party that isn’t designed for drinking. Some people will drink; others won’t. Taking a close look at who’s doing what will show you that most of the loud people are drinking, but that doesn’t make them everyone—and it doesn’t make them the happiest. You still have a choice, and if you’re looking for some ways to make that decision stick, try these or these.
Drinking has consequences.
Just like anything else you do, drinking is a behavior that can leave an impression with people—and isn’t always good, especially if you can’t remember that you were drinking in the first place. The legal, physiological, social, and psychological costs of drinking are high at any age, but they are especially high for students who aren’t yet adults. These factors tend to increase your stress, not lower it.
Do something else.
No matter what your friends say, it’s impossible for everyone to be at a party. There are plenty of other ways to reduce your stress that don’t involve putting yourself at risk. Fitness centers are open on Friday and Saturday night; so are movie theaters and bowling alleys. If you need a safe way to let off some steam, there are better ways to do that than by partying—and if you find it hard to say no to drinking, it’s likely time to find someone to talk to about the long-term effects of your choice. This quiz can give you some answers.
Another part of your life that can take a hit when you become a serious student is sleep. If you’re in high school or college, there’s a good chance you’ll need anywhere from 7-9 hours of sleep every night—and that doesn’t include this kind of sleep.
Classes, studying, sports, and friends might make it hard to find that many hours to sleep every night, but we’re talking sleep here—so doing without is a pretty rough road to travel. These tips can help you build a healthy set of sleep habits – and if you sleep in on weekends, it might be time to reconsider your sleep schedule.
Another part of sleep most students don’t consider is the role too much sleep could play in your life. That sleeping student we see in this video may be dozing off because it’s early in the morning, or because she’s bored with what’s being discussed. But what if this class were held at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and it was her favorite class of all time? It doesn’t happen often, but just like stress can make it hard to fall asleep, it can also make it hard to stay awake. Learning to use sleep to reduce stress is part of an overall relaxation plan. Make sure you get the amount that’s right for you.
Chances are you have more than one friend who will tell you that the best way for them to handle their stress is by playing video games—and in some respects, they’re right. If someone sees video games as fun and challenging, playing can provide the excitement, joy, creativity, and problem-solving skills that can reduce stress and help students re-center, just like time at the gym.
But just like every form of stress relief has its limits, it’s important to keep an eye on the amount of gaming students participate in, and the kinds of games they play. There’s no clear limit of gaming hours per week for every student—especially since some studies show that gaming improves vision and related skills—but too much time on a screen can throw study time and friend time out of whack, and that isn’t good. In addition, some studies suggest that violent video games can have a negative effect on the world outlook of gamers who spend too much time playing them. These results are inconsistent, but if the goal is to use a video game to reduce stress, it might be easier to reach that goal if you’re focusing less on saving the world, and more on helping this fellow drive safely.
Video games are only one way to spend time away from our studies that can decrease stress and increase our abilities, and our awareness of the world. From camping to collecting, people spend part of their days doing something that interests them that doesn’t directly improve their grades or earn money—and yet, they wouldn’t see their lives as complete if they stopped doing it.
The benefits of a hobby are as diverse as hobbies themselves. Many people who camp appreciate the chance to be away from the noise of the city and the buzzing of their cellphone, while others will join a softball team to stay connected to friends they went to high school with, but don’t see all that often. One friend who had a job that required a lot of long-range planning loved to garden, because he said gardening gave him the chance to start a task and finish it the same day. Another student who was an engineering major took up drawing, because it gave him the chance to express his creative side, where not everything had to be so precise.
Hobbies are a great way to meet new friends, stay connected to old friends, open up avenues of creativity, and improve the quality of the world around us—especially if your hobby is satellite spotting, and you run into this fellow. A list of hobbies can be found here, and you can try this quiz to see what hobbies might be right for you.
Spirituality and Religion
Some students get to high school or college and find themselves wondering about their purpose in life, or the origins of life itself. For many students, this interest is based on a need to find peace in their day-to-day life. Knowing the purpose of life, and the role they play in fulfilling that purpose, gives them focus, understanding, and joy as few other things can.
For these students, exploration of the ideas of spirituality and religion are a key part of creating and maintaining balance in their lives. Some students may use this time to deepen their understanding of the religion that was part of their childhood; others may use this time to explore other answers to life’s biggest questions that weren’t part of their home life.
It’s easy to think that no one is practicing religion, but just like the idea that everyone is drinking, this assumption isn’t true. As many as two-thirds of young people are engaged in some kind of practice they consider to be religious or spiritual, and their reasons for participating are as diverse as there are people. From feeling more connected to themselves, to feeling more connected to others, to feeling more connected with the powers of the universe, many young people are involved in independent spiritual study, community-based religious activities, and social activism, all in the interest of staying true to themselves, and understanding more about themselves and the world.
A starter list of religions and religious beliefs provides a small look into the many ways religion can be pursued, and many colleges and communities have lists of local religious organizations and youth groups that meet on a regular basis.
One practice that has religious roots that’s being practiced by more and more people is yoga. Developed as long as 10,000 years ago, Yoga came to the United States and other Western countries about 80 years ago, and has become popular as an exercise program that increases flexibility, reduces physical injury, and includes a breathing regimen that can improve cardiovascular health. Many athletes add yoga to the training schedule for their sport because yoga makes them more flexible and alert.
A simple online search of the kinds of yoga available shows that there are many ways to practice yoga. Slow flow yoga allows students to become familiar with yoga poses by holding them for longer periods of time. This gives new students plenty of time to learn the poses, but it also requires them to hold them for longer periods of time—and that can be a challenge. Fast yoga offers many of the benefits of muscle toning in a shorter period of time, but it offers less time to understand all of the parts of a specific position, and some students consider it to be more work. No matter what the pace, there are also instructors who will include religious elements of yoga in their instruction, while others will teach it as a toning and exercise class.
The popularity of yoga has made it more accessible than ever in community education programs at high schools, in college fitness centers, and in local fitness centers. Students of yoga stress that finding the right teacher is important, so if you don’t find a yogi who’s right for you right away, keep looking. You’ll be a pro at this in no time.
Some yoga classes include references to the religious roots of the practice, while others do not—and there is another set of classes that don’t include any exercises at all, but instead focus only on the meditation component that’s part of traditional yoga. Introduced in the United States about fifty years ago, meditation is offered in a number of different ways, with some offering connections to ancient Eastern religions. Most US meditation practices emphasize stress reduction and mindfulness, without making any references to religious components. This version of meditation is a natural crossover with many programs designed to improve Emotional Intelligence.
Looking for the meditation program that may be right for you begins with the answers to some basic questions:
What are your goals for meditation?
Most people meditate to reduce stress, and nothing more. If you have additional goals, you may need to spend more time looking for the right program.
Is the religious part of meditation of interest to you?
If so, you may want to start your search for a meditation technique by inquiring in local houses of religious worship.
Does it fit your values?
Even some secular versions of meditation may include a core set of principles that might not meet up with yours. If that’s the case, keep looking.
Does it fit your lifestyle?
Some meditation programs call for daily practice that might run up against the other commitments in your life. A stress reducer that causes more friction in your life isn’t really doing its job. Make sure you have the time, energy, and desire to commit to making your meditation choice work.
The activities and programs described here are designed for students to add to their lives with the goals of leading happy, healthy, balanced lives. If you’re working with a doctor to keep in good health, it’s always a good idea to seek their advice before taking on a new exercise, diet, or nutrition plan. This is especially true if the way you heard about the program is from social media, where the program is promoted as the latest “hot” innovation.
Some students who embrace one or more of these self-care techniques are disappointed to see that they create little if any change, even after several months of participation. Lack of change may, in some cases, have a physiological basis (your exercise program may need to demand more from you, or you may need a further change in diet) but in other cases, the issue may be one of control, where your worries about school just won’t let you sleep, or your concerns about a particular relationship may lead you to overeat.
Just like any other subject we’d like to learn more about, it isn’t uncommon to seek the advice of others when we want to learn more about ourselves. While we best know the life we’re living, we may not always know why we make the choices we do, or why things aren’t working out the way we’d like. Knowing when to seek professional assistance is an important part of self-care, and most schools and colleges have resources available for students to get the support they need to find the answers to any self-help questions they are seeking.
That last point can’t be emphasized enough. While social media offers us a number of resources aimed at meeting our needs, there comes a point when someone else needs to help us make strong choices about taking care of ourselves—and there are just too many online “helpers” out there whose training and motivations aren’t going to help you get there. When the time comes to seek advice, make sure it’s coming from someone who knows what they’re talking about. You’re just too important to risk listening to advice that’s anything but top notch.