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Understanding the relationship between mental health and studying

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Quizlet is proud to partner with real students to showcase authentic voices on our blog. This guest post is by Trevor Mahoney, a Finance and Management Information Systems major at Santa Clara University.

We’ve all been there. You have multiple tests and projects piling up and it feels as if you are drowning in work. To make matters worse, your teachers just keep assigning homework and there is no end in sight. Trust me when I say you’re not alone.

As students, school presents us with a number of daily stressors. It can be easy for these stressors to accumulate over time and culminate in a late-night existential crisis at the library or wherever you do your studying. Understanding the relationship between mental health and studying is important for any student. This can lead to better mental care and healthier study habits as a whole.

What even is the relationship?

There is a direct relationship between mental health and studying, and it has more than one face.

First and foremost, mental health issues are a serious problem among students in the United States. Chadron State College referenced a study from the National Alliance on Mental Illness that covers the common mental health problems college students face.

Some of the more notable statistics were as follows:

  • 75% of lifetime cases of mental health conditions begin by age 24.
  • More than 40% of college students have felt more than an average amount of stress within the past 12 months.
  • 64% of young adults who are no longer in college are not attending college because of a mental health-related reason.
  • An American College Health Association report from 2019 found that students cited depression and anxiety as two of the top impediments to their performance in school.

While these values were pulled from a study of college students, the problem is much broader. Students in high school, even middle school in some cases, can feel overloaded with the work they have to do. This can result in higher stress and anxiety levels. Not only this, but after completing that work, more work gets assigned with little to no rest.

Unfortunately, a number of schools across the country do not have the proper resources needed to tackle mental health problems among students. While the exact cause of mental health issues among students can vary, studying has the potential to be a major contributor.

student-studying.jpgImage by janeb13 from Pixabay

Spending so much time on school and feeling stressed all the time is not just bad for your mental health. It can also affect your cortisol level, which is related to your mental health.

A study found that cortisol spikes in the bodies of young adults when they suffer an academic setback. While it can return to normal levels for some, that isn’t the case for everyone.

Many students don’t have faith that better studying can produce better results. Some believe that the level of intelligence you bring to the table is all you have, and it is these people whose cortisol levels stay high throughout their academic years. This can lead to long-term mental health issues such as depression.

But even students who are confident in their intelligence can find college and university a jarring experience coming out of high school. Many are shocked to find that their stellar high school GPAs don’t translate to automatic success at college. This setback can lead some students to feel added stress.

The first few months of college are key in that either you learn the best practices for studying or you don’t. If you don’t manage to pick up those study skills, you’re far more likely to feel higher levels of stress, which can lead to worse mental health as a whole. From experience, I know how frustrating it can be to study for hours just to fail an exam anyway. This probably happened because of studying in the wrong way, but it’s all too easy to feel helpless.

Your study habits can directly affect your mental health in either a positive or negative direction. In all honesty, I’ve had more than one late night in my university’s library, cursing myself for waiting to start a big assignment until a day before it was due. Again.

It isn’t that I procrastinate on purpose, but rather that I have countless things on my plate at any given time that are all of equal importance. No matter how good your study habits, there are always bound to be stressful days. Employing healthy habits, however, is a great first step towards improving both your mental health and academic performance.

Healthy ways to study effectively

students-studying-effectively.jpgImage by StockSnap from Pixabay

Being aware of the relationship between mental health and studying is one thing. Employing awesome strategies to improve your studying and freeing your mind of stress is another. It’s incredibly important that you do so, though, as your grades and overall wellbeing may suffer if you don’t.

As I’ve said, it is frustrating to spend a long time studying for a test just to come up short. However, bad study habits are usually to blame, and fixing them can lead to better academic performance.

To that end, here are some of the most effective study tips that can help promote better mental health:

1. Plan out your studying

I think every student is guilty of procrastination to some degree. You see on the clock that it’s the middle of the afternoon and you assume that you have hours until that 11:59 PM due date. So, you decide to watch a little bit of TV to relax and maybe even take a nap. Next thing you know, it’s 11:30 and you’re pulling your hair out with no idea how to do your assignment.

Sound familiar?

There is no shame in procrastinating, but it certainly isn’t something you should be doing on a daily basis. It’s always best to plan out your studying in small chunks and stick to a schedule. Holding yourself accountable in your studies is far easier when you have an actual regimen to follow.

For scheduling purposes, I would personally recommend Google Calendar or a good old-fashioned notebook. You’re looking for an accountability system that will keep you on track, and you don’t need all the bells and whistles that come with some apps. Just create a calendar and stick to your personal schedule.

2. Start with difficult assignments first

Once you have resolved to sit down at your desk and finally open your books, the best way to study is to start with your most difficult assignment. Think about the most frustrating task you have on your plate and get it out of the way while you still have energy.

After all, there’s nothing more demoralizing than thinking you’ve almost finished your work, only to find out that the final assignment will take multiple hours to complete. Save yourself the headache and lack of sleep by tackling your most dreaded assignments first.

3. Remove any distractions

Did you know that a 2017 study found that college students unlock their phones 50 times a day and check their phones, on average, every 15 minutes? The same study also found that the average young adult finds it extremely difficult to study for just 15 minutes at a time and will spend five of those minutes distracted when forced to do so.

Part of me feels personally attacked and called out by those statistics, but the research isn’t wrong. When my phone sits on the desk next to me, it’s just a temptation waiting to take my attention away from what I should be doing. It’s well known that some people become anxious when separated from their smartphones, so studying would naturally cause that anxiousness when the phone is not in use.

Train your mind to become comfortable with the idea that your phone should not be a part of your dedicated study time. Doing this will allow you to reduce your device’s hold over your mind and restore some level of focus to your studying. I know it can be difficult to do this on your own, so try to have a friend or family member hold you accountable and take away your distractions if you cannot do so yourself.

4. Take breaks to restore mental energy

One of the best and most overlooked study strategies is taking breaks. It sounds counterintuitive, I know, but effective study breaks are instrumental to healthy study habits. The key word there is effective.

There’s a major difference between taking a 10-minute study break and a 45-minute Xbox study break. MIT posted a report suggesting one-hour study blocks are the healthiest for students. That is, dedicate 50 minutes to your tasks and reward yourself with a 10-minute break.

In all honesty, studying for almost an hour straight is difficult for anyone. We have friends and family who may be bothering us at any given point in time, especially with remote learning going on, so it can be difficult to actually stay focused for that long.

My suggestion, and personal preference, would be to take it in intervals. Start by trying to dedicate yourself to 30-minute study blocks and breaking for 5 minutes. Get your oh-so-needed social media fix and then dive back into your material. If you feel comfortable with that interval, then bump it up. The best way to improve your mental health when studying is to focus on where your comfort level is.

Succeeding as a student

Learning to study effectively as a student is all about understanding the balance between studying and mental health. Being stressed in school is completely natural and millions of students, including myself, understand the struggle. How we respond to that stress and what we do to resolve it determines how successful we will be in our studying.

You already have a lot on your plate with midterms, projects, and other various assignments. Don’t compound the problem by letting your stress control your life. Use some of the above study strategies to build healthy habits that will help turn your grades around.

Trevor Mahoney is wrapping up his last year at Santa Clara University where he studies Finance and Management Information Systems. He has been an avid reader his whole life, which evolved into a passion for writing while he studied abroad in New Zealand last year. He is currently searching for a post-college job and hopes to work at the intersection of business and technology.


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