Mental Wellness is defined by the World Health Organization as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” It is not simply the absence of mental illness but rather a sustained and resilient emotional flourishing.
Mental wellness, like any other type of wellness, does not happen without intention and effort. If I want to be physically well I must ensure that I am getting sufficient sleep, eating a healthy diet, getting exercise, and am in an environment free of detrimental contaminants. If I want to be mentally well, I must ensure that I am getting sufficient mental rest, that I am digesting emotionally healthy self-talk, being mentally challenged in positive ways, and that I am in an environment free of toxic messages and chaos, including substance dependence or abuse.
The following continuum model from Positive Psychology.com demonstrates that mental wellness exists on its own continuum, whether or not you live with mental illness.
Just as with physical wellness, achieving mental wellness is not always within our control. Having an ongoing mental health diagnosis creates barriers to mental wellness in the same way a chronic physical illness limits one’s ability to achieve physical wellness. Still, Pursuing mental wellness is always possible.
Most of us do not work toward optimal mental well-being like we might toward physical well-being. We simply take our mental health for granted unless we are in or headed for a crisis. The word hygiene means “conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease”, so applying hygiene to mental wellness means practices that maintain mental health and prevents emotional crises. When we fail to practice good mental hygiene we are more vulnerable to changes in our environment and to more negative impacts from normal experiences of stress, disappointment, shame, anger, heartbreak and grief.
STRIVING FOR MENTAL WELLNESS
Mental wellness is a lifelong pursuit to strengthen our mental, emotional, social and psychological status. Just as you practice good oral hygiene to have healthy teeth and gums, practicing mental hygiene results in mental wellness. Because mental wellness is part of a holistic wellness ideal some of the mental hygiene strategies also promote physical and other types of wellness. Here are 10 mental hygiene strategies:
- Take breaks.
- Practice gratitude.
- Respect your social meter.
- Spend time in nature.
- Practice sleep hygiene.
- Avoid using alcohol and other mind-altering substances other than as prescribed.
- Elevate your heart rate and stretch each day.
- Minimize social toxins.
- Listen to music and watch shows that make you feel good.
- Be kind and help others.
College is like a marathon – not a series of sprints. Succeeding academically in multiple courses simultaneously while engaging socially and in co-curricular activities, and maybe even while working, taking care of a loved one, or other demands requires sustained effort. These demanding years will help you to develop endurance, but if you don’t pace yourself properly, just like a runner, you may run out of energy or get injured (metaphorically) and find yourself unable to finish the race. Most marathoners are trained to walk up to a minute for each mile they run. It’s not cheating. It’s a strategy that allows them to run 26.2 miles while avoiding injury and with better completion times than those who have to walk long stretches toward the end because they have nothing left. Think of each day as a segment of your marathon race. You may not feel like you need a break, but force yourself to take one knowing that at the end of the day your mind will thank you.
Mental breaks can take many forms. A break can be two minutes of silence when you shut off your screens and music and just focus on your breathing. You might do this each time you wash your hands, taking the time to breath and pay attention to how the water feels. The object is to slow down and give your mind a break, but don’t worry if you find thoughts invading your break. There are many free mindfulness and relaxation exercises available online, including this “12 days of mindfulness” collection from LinkedIn Learning and these mini meditations created by a SUNY New Paltz faculty member. The Music Therapy Club hosts a bi-weekly Drum Circle on campus. There is no experience necessary and they provide the drums and percussion instruments. Follow them on InstaGram @sunynpmusictherapy for dates.
Even on the rottenest of days you can find something to be grateful for, and finding the positive gets easier the more you practice. Maybe someone holds a door open for you. Maybe the sun is shining (or whatever your preferred weather conditions are). Maybe you are free from illness and pain. Maybe you are free from hunger. Training your brain to find, and be grateful, for what is going right helps your break release dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters responsible for making us feel good. To start, consider using a block of Post-It notes or other cards and try to fill as many as you can throughout the day. You can even leave them for others so your gratefulness can catch on. One student painted rocks with gratitude notes and left them around campus. You can also keep an ongoing gratitude journal. If you keep a gratitude log on your phone you have easy access to review it when you need a pick-me-up.
One definition of extrovert and introvert focuses on where you get your energy from. Extroverts come alive when they are around other people and feel energized from that experience. Introverts might be the life of the party, but the effort drains them and they need time alone or with someone they can be quiet with. Know your needs and respect them. Introverts may struggle with FOMO, and even extroverts have their limits.
It’s not always easy to find solitude on a college campus. The international symbol for “I want space” is to put in your ear buds. Consider exploring campus for more private nooks and crannies, like the Scholars’ Perch in the Student Union Building, or the couches in the lobby of HAB, to enjoy some quiet time. Taking a walk through or away from campus can also be a peaceful escape, and we are fortunate to be surrounded by beautiful places to explore (also see Spend time in nature).
Research has proven that interacting with nature has cognitive benefits. Natural light is a salve to your mind and body. You can enjoy the outdoors any time of year – The Norwegian idea of ‘friluftsliv’ is that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes, and you simply need to prepare to be able to enjoy the out of doors all year long. This attitude is important since the lack of light in the winter can affect your mood – it’s important to get some while the sun is up, even on cloudy days. But if you just can’t motivate yourself to actually be outside, there are benefits to looking outside (or even at a picture of outside!). Find a space near a window, such as in the Sojourner Truth Library, that offers natural light and a view of green space.
New Paltz offers an abundance of natural resources within walking distance from campus – and much more if you have transportation. Here are a few places to explore. (Are you directionally challenged? Here’s a tip: The Shawangunk Ridge, the mountain with the tower on top – known as Sky Top – is to the WEST of campus. So if the ridge is on your left you are facing North, South is behind you, and East – and the Hudson River – is to your right.)
- The Wallkill Valley Rail Trail – (0.9 miles west of campus, about a 17 minute walk) A flat, easy surface to walk or ride your bike that borders Water Street Market and the Wallkill River. Just walk West on Main Street until you reach the last crosswalk before the river. That’s where the trail crosses Main Street. The trail extends both directions and is 22.5 miles in total. In cold weather stop in the Mudd Puddle Coffee Roasters & Café in Water Street Market for a hot beverage to go – it makes a great hand warmer! In the summer you can rent kayaks just off the trail at The Sojourner Truth Park and enjoy the calm waters of the Wallkill River.
- The Millbrook Preserve – (1.1 miles NW of campus, about a 21 minute walk) Just walk north on Manheim (aka route 32) to access the red trail, which connects with others winding through this 134-acre woodland landscape that features a pond. This area is a bit more rugged than the Rail Trail and proper footwear and caution is recommended.
- Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary - (1.1 miles NW of campus, or about a 21 minute walk) Walk west on Main Street and turn right on Huguenot Street – the last street before the bridge. The first left is a parking lot that you will walk through, past the Gardens for Nutrition. The Sanctuary offers several trails through 56 acres, 1,300 feet of which is frontage on the Wallkill River. The Wildlife you’ll see here is primary fowl, with 140 species of birds here, 36 of which are on the Audubon list of conservation conc The trails can be rugged and proper footwear and caution is recommended.
- Historic Huguenot Street – (1.3 miles NW of campus, or about a 25 minute walk) Walk down a paved street along seven stone houses, a burial ground and church built by the Dutch settlers of New Paltz in the 1600-1700s, along with a replica of an Esopus Munsee wigwam. There are guided tours at a student discount (including haunted tours on October weekends), but you can walk through the street for free on your own.
- River to Ridge Trail - (1.4 miles west of campus, about a 27 minute walk) Walk west and cross the bridge over the Wallkill River. The River to Ridge Trail starts just past the bridge to the right and continues for 6 miles up to the Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park, but you can walk as much or as little as you see fit. The trail starts off flat but gradually gains elevation. Take it as slow as you need to.
- Walk around Campus – Campus can be very peaceful, especially in the early morning. Have you noticed how beautiful our grounds are? There’s a Campus Tree Walk to help you identify what’s growing on campus, and here’s a Campus Pollinator Plan that points out current and future meadow habitat sites and plants.
For more opportunities to explore New Paltz and the surrounding area, check out trips offered through Wellness and Recreation’s Outdoor Pursuits Program or the Outing Club. You can also use apps like AllTrails to explore on your own. Just be sure to tell someone where you are going and when you are expected back; take appropriate water, sunscreen and/or bug repellant as conditions require; use proper footwear and good judgement, especially around heights! Cell service can be spotty in the Hudson Valley. With appropriate precautions, there is much that can be explored safely in our beautiful area!
Even a short deprivation of quality sleep leads to cognitive impairments and irritability. Regularly using caffeine to make up for a chronic lack of sleep is a vicious cycle. Poor sleep habits such as an irregular bedtime and naps can lead to insomnia. Here are a dozen sleep hygiene strategies:
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule as much as possible. That means (gasp) not sleeping in too much on the weekends.
- Avoid lengthy naps. Set an alarm for 30 minutes to allow for about 20 minutes of actual sleep. Then force yourself to get up and move. Lengthy naps can leave you feeling even more sluggish than before and interfere with your regular sleep cycles.
- Sleep when it’s dark if possible. Block out as much natural and artificial light as you can. Consider wearing an eye mask if needed.
- Eliminate loud noises by using a white noise app, fan, or wear comfortable ear plugs. If you use your phone as a clock be sure it is on Do Not Disturb and Night Mode (if you use a white noise app it may have a sleep mode that features a black screen with muted clock).
- Avoid spending time in bed. This one is tough when living in a residence hall, but save your bed for sleeping or resting. That will cue your mind to want to sleep in that spot in the same way you suddenly need to pee when you walk into a restroom.
- Get natural daylight and be physically active during the day, but avoid harsh lighting and exercise in the final hour before sleeping.
- Don’t eat a late heavy or spicy meal or a lot of sugar. Your body needs time to digest, and sugar can make your heart race. Avoid caffeine later in the day, and don’t rely on caffeine to make up for chronic sleep loss.
- Alcohol is a depressant that can make you feel sleepy but research shows that use of alcohol makes for a less restful night’s sleep once the effect wears off. NEVER ALLOW SOMEONE WHO IS PASSING OUT FROM ALCOHOL OR OTHER DRUGS “sleep it off” – THIS CAN BE FATAL. Call Campus Police at 845-257-2222 or 911 if you are off campus. Note: Our Good Samaritan policy means no one involved will get in trouble for calling for help when you someone needs
- Consistency is the key. Give yourself at least a 30 minute sleep runway and follow a routine. Shut off electronics (the blue light from screens stimulate your brain in a way that interferes with sleep) 30-60 minutes before going to sleep. Change into pajamas or different clothing. Wind down with a stretch, calm music and/or reading.
- Once you close your eyes, if you have trouble falling or staying asleep try an activity that focuses your brain so it can’t pay attention to thoughts that might make you anxious. Try the “Alphabet Anchor” exercise: Come up with a topic (e.g. Autumn, Animals, Vegetables, Cities, etc) and come up with a word related to that topic for each letter of the alphabet. If you find yourself getting distracted just keep pulling yourself back to whatever letter you were on.
- If after about 30 minutes you are still awake (quietly and with low light so as not to wake up your roommate) get up and stretch or read for 20 minutes and then try again.
- Prioritize sleep. College is full of good opportunities that you have to say no to. Be selective, and give yourself permission to occasionally miss out. When you experience FOMO, think FOMS: Fear of Missing Sleep. Reward yourself for adulting when you listen to your body and give it what it needs so you can live your best life the next day.
If you struggle with an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep and practicing sleep hygiene doesn’t help visit the Student Health Center for a medical assessment. Some medications and conditions can cause insomnia.
Mind-altering substances range from caffeine (see Practice Sleep Hygiene) to alcohol to narcotics and psychedelics to over the counter and prescription medications such as sleeping pills and opioids. These substances are chemicals that change the way our minds work. The effects can vary based on your weight, size and chemistry. Some individuals are genetically prone to addiction, and some substances, including sleeping pills, are inherently addictive. Drugs such as alcohol and marijuana can, while legal for those over 21, have harmful effects when used excessively and there is a proven causal link between substance abuse and mental illness. Even moderate use of mind-altering substances can interfere with mental wellness. Alcohol is a depressant, and if you are already sad or depressed alcohol lowers inhibition and increases the risk of suicide and self-harm.
If you struggle with substance abuse or dependence there are resources on and off campus available to you, including our Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention programs and the Psychological Counseling Center. College is a time that problematic substance-related behaviors can start, but also a time that help is most readily available. Take advantage of the support available to address issues and learn lifelong coping strategies.
Activity that elevates your heart rate 50% (use 220 beats per minute minus your age) for 30 minutes each day (or 150 minutes a week) has numerous benefits, including improving circulation, lowering blood pressure, decreasing risk of type 2 diabetes, and helping you live longer (!). Additionally, it elevates your mood and reduces stress and depression after only five minutes and over time can even alleviate long-term depression. Aerobic exercise “pumps more oxygen to the brain, aids the release of hormones which provide an excellent environment for the growth of brain cells, and promotes brain plasticity by stimulating growth of new connections between cells”. Elevate your heart rate daily, but do so early on if you can; elevating your heart rate too close to bedtime can interfere with your ability to fall asleep.
Stretching allows your body to recover from the aerobic activity or strength training. Stretching helps to maintain flexibility, increases range of motion and reduces pain and the risk of injury. Stretching is a great part of a sleep hygiene routine that can be done just before bedtime. Try dimming the lights, putting on relaxing music, and pairing stretching with a mindfulness meditation. Apps such as Headspace offer mindful stretching routines.
While mental wellness provides you with resilience to cope with challenging situations, it cannot be achieved in an environment that bombards you with negative messages and chaos. If you are in a toxic relationship with a partner, parents, friends or others, minimize or end the relationship and get support. The Psychological Counseling Center can help you work through complicated or toxic relationships, but if you are experiencing violence or feel threatened physically it is imperative you take immediate steps to protect yourself: Call UPD at 845-257-2222 or 911 off-campus, and/or contact the Title IX Coordinator, the Crime Victim Advocate, Dean of Students or Student Conduct Office.
Seek out social interactions that are positive and make you feel good about yourself. Building healthy, nurturing and supportive relationships through genuine connections to those around you is critical to mental wellness. Take time to see your loved ones in person or by video regularly. Research has shown that a video or phone conversation results in more positive outcomes than texting. Limit time on social media, which can induce FOMO and social discontent. As the philosopher Montesquieu said “If one only wished to be happy, this could be easily accomplished; but we wish to be happier than other people, and this is always difficult, for we believe others to be happier than they are.”
Building new relationships at college takes time and it can be lonely until you make new connections as this video demonstrates. Consider joining an organization, attending a program, participating in group exercise, volunteering, or ask someone in your class to grab a bit together (chances are, they are looking for friends too!).
Just as surrounding yourself with negative people is problematic, exposing your brain to negative messages from music and movies can bring you down. Music is a powerful therapeutic tool (we have an entire graduate program focused on it!). There is an undeniable power for music to influence our mood. Exercising to the right music can help you achieve better goals. Music that gives you the chills releases cortisol, which helps regulate stress, along with dopamine, which is a mood elevating hormone. Conversely, listening to sad or angry music can be cathartic, but over time can induce negative emotions.
The brain has trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction, which is why a horror movie can induce a sympathetic “flight or fight” response (racing heart, shallow breathing, feeling cold, etc). Exposing your brain to consistent negative social situations through Netflix or YouTube can cause your mind to believe that is your reality.
In this world when you can be anything – be kind! Especially to yourself. When we are feeling stressed, angry or sad, it’s easy to pass those feelings along to others by reacting harshly to slights or inconveniences; sort of like when a slap on the back wouldn’t normally bother you but if you have a sunburn it really hurts. Take a breath and break the cycle. When you’re able to be even more generous, practice random acts of kindness and see how that impacts your mood. Research has demonstrated that people who volunteer once a month report better mental health, including being more satisfied with their lives, than those who volunteered less frequently or not at all. And people who start off lower levels of well-being see an even bigger benefit from helping others. Helping others can give us a sense of purpose that is intrinsically rewarding, and also strengthens our connection to others (and volunteering with animals has different rewards). You can also build new skills, including leadership development, which can clarify and enable career goals.
To volunteer on or near campus, check out opportunities through the Center for Student Engagement Volunteer and Civic Engagement programs. You can also use Engage to search for and join a student organization with a focus on service, such as Circle K International. In the community, you can join the New Paltz Rotary Club. Religiously-affiliated organizations on and off campus also tend to be active in service.