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How to Care for your Mental Health While Still Succeeding in School

A young woman with light skin and brown hair lays horizontally across a bed with white covers. She wears a white tank top and a blue sweater and holds a book above her face that she reads. Behind her on the bed pillows is a small brown dog.

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

When I was in high school, I had this misconception that maintaining my academic excellence and keeping good mental health were mutually exclusive.

I couldn’t do one without compromising on the other. I often put my academics before my mental health, spending that one extra hour studying for a test or pulling an all nighter to study for an upcoming final.

I skipped hangouts with my friends in hopes of finishing the biology assignment that our teacher had assigned to us. I skipped family movie nights because I had studied for a test instead.

Looking back on my high school experiences now, I can’t help but question: Was it really worth it? Was it really worth sacrificing sleep because I wanted to get one point higher on the next test? Was it really worth a mental breakdown just because I wanted to complete an extra credit assignment? Was it really worth skipping out on the things that I truly enjoyed just so that I could spend a few extra minutes on school?

As a college student reflecting on my answers to the last few questions I can say that the answer isn’t a firm “yes,” but it’s not “no,” either.

I’ve learned that it is, in fact, possible to do both. It is possible to focus on your academics while maintaining steady mental health. The trick is in knowing how.

After a few extra years of schooling, I’ve finally figured out some tips and tricks that work for me when I’m struggling to balance my mental health and my academics.

Not all of these might work for you as is it differs from person to person, but I hope you’ll find at least one of these tricks to be helpful in helping you balance your mental health and your academic life.

1. Have a schedule

My first step to making sure that you can maintain your mental health while also succeeding academically is to create a schedule.

It’s important to set aside time not only for finishing your homework and studying for your tests but also for doing things that you genuinely enjoy. Make sure to schedule in some time on both weekdays and weekends to hang out with your friends or your family.

Schedule in some time for self-care, whether that means watching your favorite movie, binging a TV show, or even eating some ridiculously good junk food every once in a while. I’ve found that when I consciously schedule in time for things that I enjoy, it makes it more likely that I’ll actually get to doing those things.

Without it set in writing, it’s often easy to skimp on things that you would  otherwise enjoy in favor of feeding your academic drive. It’s important to remember that maintaining your mental health is often just as — if not more — important than getting good grades on a transcript.

Setting a proper schedule can help you stick to that mindset. Google Calendar is a great application that allows you to schedule all your day’s “events” during the time when you want to schedule them in.

Believe it or not, consciously taking the time to write down and plan out your day can make a huge difference in terms of time management and getting everything done. Try it out!

3 Ways to Manage a Busy Schedule

2. Try meditating

This is a tip that I would’ve probably laughed at in high school. To me, meditation seemed like a boring activity.

It seemed stupid to sit in a dark room and breathe deeply. It was actually a mobile application that convinced me to start incorporating it into my daily routine. 

Although it was hard at first, now that I’ve started meditating, I’ve realized that there’s so much more to the practice than just sitting in a room and breathing. It’s a way to increase your focus, boost your productivity, and calm your nerves so that your academic load doesn’t take such a big toll on your health.

Meditation has been scientifically proven to change the structure of your brain and to increase the release of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and norepinephrine, that are essential for happiness.

By strengthening the connections between good neurons and weakening the connections in the parts of your brain responsible for negative emotion, meditating can significantly improve your mood.

You might be asking yourself, how exactly do I take that first initiative to start? There’s multiple ways, actually.

One of the easiest might be downloading a mediation app like Headspace or watching some YouTube videos on meditation for beginners. There are many guided meditation videos out there that will walk you through the process step-by-step.

Of course,  if you’re looking for a less structured and more flexible way to go about it, I’ll detail a few exercises here. 

One of the most simple meditation exercises is called equal breathing. Turn off the lights in your room, light a candle, and clear your mind.

In this exercise you simply breathe in for 4 to 8 seconds and breathe out for the exact same amount of time. This exercise is unbelievably helpful in calming you down, especially before sleeping or right when you get up in the morning.

If you repeat the equal breathing technique 5 to 10 times, it can have a huge impact on your mental health. 

A second similar—but differently purposed—technique is called unequal breathing. This type of meditation is most often used to improve focus, especially before taking a big exam or undertaking something that requires a lot of attention.

For this exercise, you may choose to breathe in for 4 to 8 seconds, but this time, try breathing out for double the amount of time that you breathe in for.

Repeating this exercise a couple of times should help increase your focus and make it easier to do well on longer exams and tasks. 

These are just a few of the many ways that exist to engage the practice of meditation. Although it may seem silly or useless at first, try it out – after all, you have nothing to lose!

3. Understand the significance of your endeavors

My third and final tip is to understand the significance of high school in the larger scheme of things. Many times when you’re in high school, it can seem like every test, quiz, and assignment is much more important than it actually is!

The reality is that high school is just one of the steps on the larger pathway towards your future career. One test will not dictate your future, one final will not make or break your career, and one missed assignment will not turn your world upside down.

When I was in high school, I made the mistake of living with the mindset that everything I did mattered. I thought that every single mistake I made would count against me.

I thought every single point I missed would add up to make a difference. As a sophomore in college now, I realize how foolish that mindset was.

High school is supposed to be a time where you can live relatively stress-free. It’s a time when you don’t have to worry about paying the bills, about keeping a steady income, or about supporting a family.

Take it as what it is and learn to enjoy the experience while it lasts. There will be a time later in life when your decisions have bigger implications.

Learn to recognize that high school is not that time. In fact, it’s a precursor to the real world that prepares you to be an adult without the actual responsibility of being one.

Remember, over-stressing about every little thing will likely end up doing more harm than good. Take it from me, a girl who learned that the hard way.

As I said before, not all three of these tips are guaranteed to work for you. There might be some that work better and some that don’t work at all. 

Try a few of them, if not all of them, whenever you have the time. You may find they will help you in balancing your mental health with your academic life and in making sure that you can achieve both without having to compromise on either.

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Author: Anisha Holla

Anisha Holla graduated as the valedictorian of her high school, and has since been named a National Merit Scholar, a National AP Scholar and a Coca-Cola Scholar. She is currently one of 20 Eugene McDermott Scholars at the University of Texas at Dallas, where she studies Psychology on the pre-med track. She loves to play her piano, flute and guitar; and one of her favorite hobbies is trying out new food places in the area. Holla is fluent in Spanish, Hindi and Kannada, and newly conversational in Mandarin. After graduation, she plans to either pursue a career in psychiatry or an MBA .