Female college student practicing self-care by putting on a facial mask
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Best Self-Care Tips for College Students | Outlier

07.12.2023 • 5 min read

Daisy Hill


A guide to self-care at college—and why self-care is an essential skill to learn.

In This Article

  1. The Importance of Self-Care and Stress Reduction

  2. 9 Best Self-Care Tips

  3. The Self-Care Core

College is glorified as an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Everything is new, opportunities are everywhere, and freedom is a theme in your life.

On social media, it seems everyone is having an amazing time. But this isn't always the case. While this may be true for many, some students find college to be incredibly difficult.

College can be a challenging transition from high school or a former career. So it's essential to prioritize yourself through self-care.

The Importance of Self-Care and Stress Reduction

The World Health Organization defines self-care as "the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider."

Essentially, self-care is consciously protecting yourself against physical and mental illness. It's about taking care of your well-being.

Wearing a mask during a global pandemic or warming up before a workout are effective ways of protecting your physical health. Understanding stress and knowing the right self-care practices to reduce it are ways to protect your mental health.

How Are Stress & Self-Care Connected?

Stress occurs when the body activates the fight-or-flight response, a state of physiological stimulation. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase. Your body releases adrenaline and cortisol hormones.

It's a natural and historically beneficial response. (Run away from the lion!)

We need it to survive.

However, our bodies have not quite learned the difference between lions and college essay deadlines.

Regardless of the stressor, the response and the stress remain the same. Continued fight-or-flight responses and high stress levels can lead to increased burnout and general ill health.

Longer term or chronic stress increases the risk of health problems such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, a weakened immune system, and cardiovascular disease.

This is where self-care comes in.

Adopting and maintaining self-care practices is proven to reduce stress. Self-care engages the relaxation response, where nervous system functions return to normal, triggering a decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and hormone levels.

Self-care practices regulate the nervous system. Developing a healthy response—a more conscious response—to stress is a fundamental life skill. This practice helps teach your body when there really is a lion and when there’s not.

How Do I Practice Self-Care?

Practicing self-care seems easy, but it can be a real challenge.

College life has multiple stressful elements: deadlines, all-nighters, packed work and class schedules. It's no wonder self-care is becoming more and more essential in college.

Because it's challenging to adopt effective self-care strategies, you need to experiment and find practices that fit your interests, lifestyle, and personality.

Everyone needs different levels of self-care because everyone experiences different amounts of stress. Daily stressors at college might include taking too many classes or competing in collegiate sports.

For some, a quick walk in the park is enough to reset the system.

For others, a combination of meditating, journaling, spending time with friends and family, as well as attending therapy is the way forward.

There's no right or wrong answer to self-care. The best way to practice self-care is to listen to your own needs. When you enjoy a self-care activity, you will find you more easily develop healthy long-term habits.

Below are a few self-care tips to get you started.

9 Best Self-Care Tips

You can divide self-care tips into three main categories: body, mind, and connection. When you find stress starting to build, consider which category needs your attention and try the following tips:


1. Get enough sleep

Coffee or energy drinks are not a substitute for good sleep, no matter how many pages you need to read.

Your body (and your mind) need 6-8 hours of sleep to function properly.

To improve your sleeping habits, you could try developing a bedtime routine. Wind down by practicing gentle yoga or using a meditation app like Calm or Headspace.

Be sure to turn off electronics 30 minutes to calm your mind even more before your bedtime. It’s also important to organize your time so you finish your assignments during the day and can sleep at night.

2. Eat healthy

Nutrition is key to self-care.

Strive to add more fruits and vegetables into your diet, take a multivitamin, and drink more water. Try to avoid an excess of fried or fatty foods, sugary snacks, alcohol, and caffeine.

Find healthier alternatives where you can and experiment with cooking healthy meals if you have a kitchen.

3. Exercise

Whether at the campus gym or a fitness class in the city, physical exercise is a great stress reliever.

In the words of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, "Exercise releases endorphins, endorphins make you happy."

Even going for a walk around campus can be helpful. Take in your surroundings. Breathe the fresh air. Focus on your breath or think about putting one foot in front of the other.

4. Keep yourself clean

Nourish your skin, and wash away the stress. Brush your teeth, wash your face, shave, shower, moisturize. You can even go further and make a spa day out of it—maybe try a face mask.

It's amazing what a little soap and water can do for your mood.


1. Relax

Practice relaxation techniques: deep breathing, meditating, listening to music, or being mindful. Sometimes combining a few ideas will take you to a relaxing place.

Yoga is a great practice as it combines exercise, meditation, and community.

But relaxation can simply be pursuing any of your hobbies. Doing what you love helps you relax.

2. Take breaks

Your mind needs breaks from tasks. Driving, studying, reading, writing…your mind needs time to process it all.

Download a time management app and schedule your breaks. Make lunch plans with friends or listen to a podcast. FaceTime your mom while you treat yourself to Starbucks coffee. Or watch an episode of your favorite Netflix show.

3. Set goals

Short-term or long-term, small or big, goals help you feel accomplished.

Use the S.M.A.R.T. goals formula:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Attainable

  • Realistic

  • Timely

Share your goals with your family and friends to keep you accountable. Keep your goals where you can see them: on your computer, on your phone, on the door, or on your bathroom mirror.

Reward yourself whenever you accomplish a goal!


1. Get support from your existing relationships

Friends, family members, professors, and co-workers are all relationships you could lean on if you feel your mental health is suffering.

You're not just at college to study; you're there to build relationships and networks, to have a social life, and to grow as a person, too.

Get involved with campus activities to find your community and your people. Be sure to stay in touch with your loved ones, too. Homesickness is an actual sickness. It deserves some time and care.

2. Attend therapy

Sometimes you need more than self-care, and it's OK to admit this. If you're finding college too stressful and demanding, seek the help you need.

Look to professionals who can give you a proper diagnosis and treatment. Your college health center should be able to help, or you can look to your insurance to see what's possible.

The Self-Care Core

College life can take a lot out of you.

Wonderful opportunities can be overwhelming too. Be patient with yourself as you learn how to take care of yourself and your well-being.

Despite all the college pressures and responsibilities, learn to prioritize self-care. Even small changes to your everyday life can make a big impact in the long run. Remember, if it's not enough, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

The adage “It takes a village” is true when it comes to self-care and ensuring you will thrive in college.

About the Author

Bob Patterson is a former Director of Admissions at Stanford University, UNC Chapel Hill, and UC Berkeley; Daisy Hill is the co-author of Uni in the USA…and beyond published by the Good Schools Guide 2019. Together, they have established MyGuidED, a new educational tool for students looking to apply to university (launching 2023).

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