I recently went to the Wellness Center’s event on self-care, the “Self-Care Fair,” in which several groups from campus (Residence Life, the campus pastors, Boe House, GLOW and others) presented thoughts and reflections on how to promote self-care and mental health.
I was surprised by how many differing ideas of self-care there were at the event. Based on the booths, self-care could mean taking a bath, lighting a candle, writing something positive about yourself, reading a book or even eating something “unhealthy” guilt-free. This kind of variance can be a little confusing, and I noticed that a number of suggestions generated by students had little to do with actual mental health practices. Many of us understand self-care as consumption: buy this candle, use this face mask, purchase new clothes. I love candles and face masks, but do I qualify them as self-care? Not really. Here, I present some ideas for self-care, tailored to St. Olaf as I’ve experienced it, that go beyond simply pampering.
First, I’ve learned the necessity of explicitly scheduling time for yourself to not do work. This seems straightforward, but I’ve heard myself and many of my friends talk about that guilty feeling that creeps up when you’re watching Netflix as tomorrow’s paper draft sits on your desk. This work-guilt ruins whatever sense of relaxation you were trying to create. I’ve found that decisively making time for non-work activity is liberating. I can decide to chill for an hour with the knowledge that I will eventually return to my work after that hour, and thus I’m more mindful, present and happy while I’m taking time for myself.
Next, while the small residential campus has numerous benefits, with time it can become overfamiliar and isolating. Even going into downtown Northfield, Oles can’t avoid seeing each other in common locations like Goodbye Blue Monday, The Hideaway or Imminent Brewing. Thus, a change in environment can be a form of self-care. I find that I’m refreshed when I’m away from Northfield, and it can be a good grounding reminder that college life is not my entire life. Wrapped up constantly in studying, an ever-present social life and concerns about the future, it can be restorative to simply see people who aren’t St. Olaf students.
My final suggestion is to feel comfortable setting boundaries. Setting boundaries for yourself, between your friends and roommates or with family can be incredibly difficult, and this suggestion can vary wildly depending on what is most relevant for you. For example, I feel that one of the most difficult things about living at St. Olaf is the lack of privacy. Unless you have a single, your only private space is also a shared space. Performing for other people every second of four years can be pretty exhausting, and acknowledging this exhaustion is in itself a form of self-care. Take time to consider your exhaustion and what boundaries for yourself or others might attend to it in a reasonable way.
It’s no secret that St. Olaf’s culture cultivates stress and pressure on its students. According to the Wellness Center statistics, almost 95 percent of us have felt overwhelmed in the last year. That’s significant. By working on self-care for ourselves and each other in meaningful, intentional ways, we can work against this pressure and its normalization of mental distress, seeing care not as pampering, but rather as an adaptive strategy in difficult times.