Being a student can be challenging. Whether you're in grade school or pursuing higher education, balancing your personal life with classes and homework is no easy task. Learning how to prioritize well-being and uphold healthy lifestyle habits are imperative for achieving peak mental performance. Neglecting these essential aspects may lead to excessive stress levels and eventual burnout, even among young school-aged children. [i]
While experiencing some level of stress is normal and can even motivate academic success, excessive stress can have negative effects on mental health, leading to conditions like depression and anxiety. Academic pressure is just one factor contributing to student stress levels; other factors include physical and mental health issues, social relationships, family dynamics (including as divorce), substance abuse, personal safety concerns, and peer pressure, among many others. It's crucial for students to be cognizant of these potential stressors and take proactive measures to address them to maintain overall wellbeing.
Various lifestyle factors greatly influence the body's ability to handle stress and the brain's capacity for learning, retaining information, and applying knowledge. Implementing the following lifestyle interventions can help students develop healthier stress coping strategies and enhance their memory, productivity, and focus inside and outside of the classroom.
1. Get enough sleep
Sleep deprivation has significant negative effects on various cognitive functions, including attention, memory, decision-making, and focus. It also impacts other aspects of life, including mood, behavior, immune system function, and metabolism. However, when you prioritize getting enough restful sleep, you can expect improvements in these cognitive functions as well as enhanced problem-solving skills and increased creativity. [ii] Sleep also plays a crucial role in consolidating information into your memory. [iii] Therefore, it is essential to prioritize a lifestyle that allows for sufficient sleep rather than relying on late nights and excessive caffeine consumption to meet your deadlines. Adequate sleep is non-negotiable for academic and professional success. Discover the recommended amount of sleep based on your age and explore our tips for improving your sleep quality.
2. Social support
Students with social connections in their lives tend to do better academically and experience less stress. [iv] Keeping in touch with healthy friends, joining clubs, and getting to know new faces will help create a crucial network of social support needed to foster self-worth, cope with stress, combat isolation, and promote psychological wellbeing. [v]
Keep in touch with your parents: Students with family support have been found to more effectively cope with difficult situations, experience reduced mental stress, and maintain mental health.[vi] Whether it’s dedicated quality time with your parents over a phone-free dinner or scheduling consistent phone calls while away at college, make keeping in touch with your parents a priority.
3. Create a practical routine
Establishing a practical routine is essential for maintaining optimal mental health. Whether it pertains to academics or everyday life, adhering to a routine helps you build consistency, develop purpose, foster self-control, and nurture discipline. We advise eating breakfast and dinner at consistent times while also adhering to a regular sleep schedule. Consider how you can organize classes, assignments, social engagements, and personal time within the remaining gaps. For more information on creating a practical routine, we recommend exploring these resources.
Work on time management: Developing time management skills during your high school years will lay a solid foundation for your future academic endeavors: if you know what’s coming, you can prepare accordingly. Safeguarding your dedicated study time, adhering to a practical weekday and weekend schedule, and creating a realistic to-do list are key strategies to keep up with your academic responsibilities before they become overwhelming.
Don’t procrastinate: Learning how to pace your homework and study time is a skill worth developing as young as possible. Utilizing a wall calendar with clearly marked deadlines can assist in planning out the necessary amount of time to complete tasks. Integrating assignments into your daily routine will prevent procrastination and ensure that academic responsibilities are not neglected, resulting in more manageable stress levels. By keeping sight of the overall picture, you can effectively prioritize tasks and make informed decisions.
4. Set boundaries
Feeling pressured to always participate in social activities can harm your schoolwork, relationships, and stress levels. It's okay to say no and prioritize your own needs. Practice saying no and you'll become more confident and graceful with practice. Remember, you control your future and should not let people-pleasing cause you unnecessary stress. Setting boundaries may be uncomfortable, but it's an important skill to work on as soon as possible.
5. Develop self-compassionate thinking
Have you ever noticed the silent self-talk in your head? If you find yourself engaging in critical self-talk and constantly judging yourself for every mistake, it's important to take notice. Your academic goals, relationship aspirations, and personal expectations can become twisted if you neglect your mental well-being. Prioritizing a healthy lifestyle and challenging distorted thoughts with rational thinking can help straighten out your misbeliefs. By practicing self-compassionate thinking and grace towards yourself, you will cultivate a more positive and fulfilling outlook on life.
6. Take time to exercise
Regular exercise provides many benefits for both the mind and the body. One key advantage of exercise is that it protects the body from the negative effects of stress by decreasing cortisol levels. It also boosts mood, increases life satisfaction, enhances quality of life, promotes positivity, and alleviates depression. [vii] Exercise has even been associated with improved academic performance, so you don’t want to skip out on this essential component for excelling in your studies. If finding time for longer workouts is challenging, fitting in shorter workout sessions or incorporating physical activity into your daily routine by parking farther from class and walking can still be beneficial. As a bonus, consider studying while exercising as it has been shown to enhance memory recall! [viii]
7. Eat well
To optimize your cognitive function and enhance your mood, it's essential to consider the impact of your diet. Fueling your mind with the right nutrients is crucial for optimal brain performance, especially during your studies. We suggest adopting a whole-food, plant-based diet that incorporates a colorful array of fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, whole grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts. This well-rounded diet supplies the brain with essential nutrients to achieve peak mental performance while avoiding arachidonic acid—a molecule present in animal products that can lead to inflammation throughout the body, including the brain.
Supplements* to improve focus, memory, and attention:
Calm enhances mood and resilience in the face of stressful events (2 capsules/daily)
L-tyrosine improves focus and attention (1,000 mg once or twice daily, as needed)
Omega-3 is an anti-inflammatory nutrient that can boost memory and improve cognitive processing. Aim to eat 3,000 mg/daily: ground flax and chia seeds, walnuts, edamame, pecans, avocados, and blueberries or through supplementation (3-4 capsules daily with food).
NAC can improve learning and memory functions (600-1200 mg/daily)
Brain can improve stress control, focus, memory, and rational thinking (up to 3 capsules daily)
Citicoline improves memory performance
Rhodiola Rosea boosts focus and energy
*Consult your healthcare provider before adding any new supplements or medications to your regime is recommended. For children, please consult your doctor first before taking a supplement.
8. Abstain from harmful substances
It's well-established that students should completely avoid alcohol, drugs, and cannabis. Research shows that marijuana impairs cognitive functions, including problem-solving, memory recall, and behavioral control, so it's best to avoid it.[ix] Consuming caffeine has also been found to cause anxiety and irritability, so reducing or eliminating it can be helpful as well. The bottom line is that abstaining from substances that inhibit the brain's frontal lobe improves your chances of academic success.
9. Go screen free
Decreasing screen time has been shown to have a positive impact on focus. The common overuse of digital screens not only overstimulates individuals but also impairs attention, hampers academic performance, disturbs sleep patterns, and increases the risk of depression. Although screens are often used for educational purposes, we strongly advise disconnecting from both smartphones and entertainment screens to prioritize mental and physical well-being. It is recommended to limit personal screen time to no more than an hour per day for tasks such as checking emails. Additionally, completely disconnecting from social media, entertainment television (i.e. shows, movies, and streaming services), pornography, and gaming can greatly benefit overall health and focus.
10. Stay connected to your faith
To the believer, faith is integral to coping with stress. Christians find solace and inner strength through prayer, reflecting on Scripture, and connecting with others who share their beliefs. Cultivating faith has been shown to have positive effects on both physical and mental well-being, including increased happiness, optimism, sense of purpose, self-esteem, and decreased risk of depression, anxiety, and suicide (x). We understand that balancing academic and social pressures can make it difficult to prioritize church attendance or personal devotions. But we encourage you to stay connected to your faith as it not only offers immediate rewards but also helps build resilience and brings lasting peace throughout life by placing trust in a personal Savior.
Achieving a healthy balance between school and personal growth can be challenging. That makes it crucial to prioritize your mental wellbeing and lay the foundation for academic success at a young age. Instead of assuming that you will figure it all out in college or once you enter the workforce, challenge yourself to make practical changes now. By doing so, you will provide your brain with the best opportunity for optimal mental performance. Remember to regularly check in on your mental health and remember that seeking help is nothing to be ashamed of. What changes are you going to make as you make set your mind up for success?
Learn more about peak mental performance in Optimize Your Brain Online!
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[i] Sofianopoulou, K., Bacopoulou, F., Vlachakis, D., et al. (2021). Stress Management in Elementary School Students: a Pilot Randomised Controlled Trial. EMBnet.journal, 26, e976.
[ii] Paller, K. A., Creery, J. D., & Schechtman, E. (2021). Memory and Sleep: How Sleep Cognition Can Change the Waking Mind for the Better. Annual review of psychology, 72, 123–150.
[iii] Ashworth, A., Hill, C. M., Karmiloff-Smith, et al. (2014). Sleep enhances memory consolidation in children. Journal of sleep research, 23(3), 302–308.
[iv] Mackinnon S. P. (2012). Perceived social support and academic achievement: cross-lagged panel and bivariate growth curve analyses. Journal of youth and adolescence, 41(4), 474–485.
[v] Evans, M., & Fisher, E. B. (2022). Social Isolation and Mental Health: The Role of Nondirective and Directive Social Support. Community mental health journal, 58(1), 20–40.
[vi] Mai, Y., Wu, Y. J., & Huang, Y. (2021). What Type of Social Support Is Important for Student Resilience During COVID-19? A Latent Profile Analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 646145.
[vii] Mandolesi, Laura et al. "Effects Of Physical Exercise On Cognitive Functioning And Wellbeing: Biological And Psychological Benefits". Frontiers In Psychology, vol 9, 2018. Frontiers Media SA.
[viii] Zabriskie, H. A., & Heath, E. M. (2019). Effectiveness of Studying When Coupled with Exercise-Induced Arousal. International journal of exercise science, 12(5), 979–988.
[ix] Crean, R. D., Crane, N. A., & Mason, B. J. (2011). An evidence based review of acute and long-term effects of cannabis use on executive cognitive functions. Journal of Addiction Medicine, 5(1), 1–8
[x] Koenig H. G. (2012). Religion, spirituality, and health: the research and clinical implications. ISRN psychiatry, 2012, 278730.