You know that you’ll suffer physical effects if you eat poorly, miss out on sleep, overdose on caffeine or drink too much alcohol, but are you looking out for behaviors that compromise your psychological well-being, too? You may be unknowingly compromising your mental health with your habits. Here are seven risky behaviors you should avoid to protect your mind.
1. Drinking too much caffeine
Maybe you think you need to drink all four of those cups of coffee to keep you awake, but it turns out that having too much caffeine can have a negative effect on your mental health.
“Coffee, tea, soft drinks and energy drinks all contain caffeine, which some people use to boost energy levels,” says nutritionist Patty James. “However, in large quantities, caffeine can increase…symptoms of depression and sleep problems.”
She says up to 300 milligrams of caffeine a day is okay (about the equivalent of one and a half cups of coffee, or four to six cups of black tea—green tea is less caffeinated, so you can drink more of it), but once you start feeling jittery and restless, you are over-caffeinated.
To cut back on your caffeine intake, you can gradually decrease the amount you drink per day and examine your diet for other sources of caffeine, such as chocolate, pain relievers and energy drinks. You can also try to boost your energy more naturally, such as by catching up on sleep or hitting the gym.
2. Pulling all-nighters
Pulling all-nighters isn’t necessary for anyone on a regular basis, and it’s bad for your health even if you do it only every once in a while. It’s best to plan out your homework schedule in advance and split work up among different days rather than try to do a big assignment in one night.
Colin Espie, sleep expert and co-founder of Sleepio, an immersive online sleep improvement course, says that a lack of sleep will affect your emotional processing and mood.
Sympathetic to the amount of activities and responsibilities collegiettes are expected to juggle, Espie offers suggestions for time management at the end of the day. “Put the day to bed,” he says. “Whether you are worrying about an upcoming test or planning an event in the distant future, these kinds of thoughts often require concentrated attention, which is why they are best dealt with during the day, when you’re awake!”
He also recommends taking 60 to 90 minutes to wind down before going to bed. “Avoid doing any work or any intense activity and take some time to relax before you start your bedtime routine,” he says. You could wind down by reading a book, listening to music or taking a bath.
3. Not eating enough
Regularly bypassing meals by using stress, lack of time, “no appetite” or anything else as an excuse can be extremely detrimental to your well-being, both physically and mentally. Rachel, a senior at UCLA, says skipping meals has affected her mood in the past.
“I was being really snappy with my friends and family,” she says. “I didn’t realize until way later that my mood was correlated with whether or not I made time to eat full meals.”
Skipping out on full meals makes you feel physically weaker and more tired, but it can also affect your mental health.
“Skipping meals, especially breakfast, leads to low blood sugar and can causes low mood, irritability and fatigue,” James says. “If you feel hungry between meals, you may need to include a healthy snack such as nuts and seeds [or] fruits and vegetables.”
One way to make sure you’re eating enough is prepping meals when you’re less busy (such as on the weekend) to make up for the little time you have during the week. For example, you can prepare overnight oats on a Sunday night so that you have breakfast ready to go on Monday morning to start your week off right. If you feel as though you aren’t getting enough nutritious food to eat, be sure to see your school’s health center, which will be able to direct you to a doctor or nutritionist to help you readjust your diet.
4. Staying in unhealthy friendships
Though it may seem obvious to avoid people who bring you down, it’s surprising how often collegiettes find themselves in friendships (and relationships) that make them stressed, anxious or upset.
Irene S. Levine, psychologist and creator of The Friendship blog, says being in passive-aggressive, angry or jealous friendships can be detrimental to your self-esteem.
She says you can tell if you’re in an unhealthy friendship if it’s imbalanced—one person is more invested in the relationship than the other. “The other person may be unreliable, unpredictable, untrustworthy, negative [or] self-involved,” she says.
Levine notes that while all relationships involve give and take, if a relationship is characterized by one-sidedness, it can’t be very gratifying. As a method of detaching yourself from a negative friend, she suggests hanging out with him or her less often and for shorter amounts of time or only seeing him or her as part of a group.
If this doesn’t work, Levine says, you should take responsibility for ending the friendship. “You can simply say you need more time for yourself,” she says.
Erica*, a sophomore at UCLA, became great friends with a girl right after she moved to college. Over time, she discovered the girl was “jealous and needy,” and Erica felt as though she was putting much more into the relationship than she was receiving.
She eventually ended the friendship, which she says was both relieving and difficult. “My advice is to choose your friends wisely and not trust the first person who comes your way,” she says. “Building strong friendships in college is a process!”
5. Spending too much time online
We all know how funny those Jimmy Fallon videos are, how easy it is to lose track of time on Facebook and how warm and fuzzy Upworthy makes us feel—but spending too much time online can affect your mental health.
“I used to get really down when I would spend a lot of time on Facebook and see my friends looking like they were having more fun than me,” says Juliette*, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin.
A 2013 study led by a University of Michigan psychologist found that time spent on Facebook is directly correlated to happiness; the more time you spend on Facebook, the more likely you are to be unhappy.
Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist, says that it’s easy to waste time and lose self-esteem due to too much time spent on social media. She cautions collegiettes against spending too much time online, noting that this leads to “social comparison, tracking old flames… and subsequently also getting distracted from [your] work.”
Of course, Facebook and other social media platforms are great for keeping in touch with friends and staying up to date with current events (and some good-natured Facebook stalking), but once you feel yourself beginning to get frustrated or sad because of what you’re seeing—or not seeing—happen on your feed, it’s probably time to shut off the computer or put down your phone for a while.
6. Having unsafe sex
Durvasula says having unsafe sex can lead to significant psychological stress, noting that the unintended physical consequences such as pregnancy or STIs “can generate tremendous stress, fear, anxiety [and] shame for women.”
Sarah*, a sophomore at McGill University, experienced incredible anxiety when she had sex without a condom and spent the next month worrying about being pregnant. “It was a really stupid thing for me to do,” she says. “Even though I didn’t end up pregnant, I was an emotional wreck for the month that I thought I might be.”
Do yourself a favor and don’t take any unnecessary chances with your sexual health—it could affect you both physically and mentally, and it isn’t worth the risk.
“[College] is a time for experimentation, But keep it safe through condom use,” Durvasula says.
7. Binge drinking
You may have already experienced the unfortunate physical effects of drinking too much alcohol, and it’s safe to say you’re probably not a fan of spending your night with your head bent over the toilet bowl—but did you know how much binge drinking affects your mental health?
For women, binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks every two hours. Dr. Kim Dennis, CEO and medical director of Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, says that “drinking more than one alcoholic beverage a day is too much for a college woman.”
In the short term, alcohol can make you feel tired or sedated, Dennis explains. “This can lead to disorientation, confusion, blackouts or passing out,” she says. “Longer-term mental health effects of drinking include depression (it is a depressant!) and worsened anxiety (rebound anxiety when you are not drinking alcohol).”
What can you do to cut down on your alcohol consumption? “Seek non-drinking social activities—sports, arts and crafts, attending musical or theatrical performances without drinking,” Dennis suggests. We have a list of seven fun things to do that don’t involve drinking to get you started. Dennis adds that if you think you have a problem with drinking, you should seek help from a professional counselor or attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which she says provide a very open environment for college students.
You probably think about maintaining your physical health on a regular basis, but remember that your mental well-being deserves your attention, too. While staying mentally healthy is an ongoing, lifelong process, our tips should help you hit the ground running!
*Names have been changed.