Self Care

Note: The information in this module is not intended to be a substitute for medical or mental health treatment.

In addition to the professional treatment you receive for your mental illness (which may include medication and/or psychotherapy), the healthy living habits you develop and practice are equally important parts of managing your illness. Your lifestyle (including your eating habits, exercise patterns, sleep, recreational activities, social relationships and more) can have a significant impact on how you feel and function, and how well your mind and body respond to your mental health treatment plan.

Taking steps to develop a healthier lifestyle can reduce stress and improve your physical health, both of which can positively influence your mental health as well. Students with mental illnesses are at a higher risk for some unhealthy behaviors. You may find it challenging to make healthy choices and manage your stress effectively while in college.

General Self Care Tips:

  • Keep a regular wake and sleep schedule even if you aren’t taking classes.
  • Exercise and eat well.
  • Limit your alcohol consumption, which can often make psychiatric symptoms worse.
  • Make a plan to connect with support people nearby and to keep in touch with your campus supports.
  • Engage in an activity that provides the satisfaction of mastery unique from academic achievement.

University Health Service’s model for well-being uses a holistic approach to health by showing there are eight dimensions of health (spiritual, physical, emotional/mental, environmental, financial, occupational, social, and intellectual) that influence your overall well-being. To maintain good health, it’s important for you to feel balanced across these eight dimensions. The goal is not to be perfect in each of these dimensions, but to notice where you can grow when you feel unbalanced in life. The following is a guide to help you understand how different dimensions of well-being influence your mental health. Tips on how to grow in dimensions to promote good mental health are provided.


“For coping with stress and extreme emotions, I’ve found it helpful to first make sure I’m not biologically vulnerable. For example, I need to give high priority to getting sleep, eating healthy/enough, and exercising regularly. Then, my advice is to face fears head on, and remember that no emotion will last forever.” – UM Student 

Stress is anything that alters your natural balance. When stress is present, your body and your mind must attend to it in order to maintain balance. Your body reacts to stress by releasing hormones that help you cope with the situation. That in turn takes energy away from the other functions of your brain, like concentrating, or taking action.

Stress is a part of everyday life. There are many instances when stress can be helpful. A fire alarm is intended to cause the stress that alerts you to avoid danger. The stress created by a deadline to finish a paper can motivate you to finish the assignment on time. But when experienced in excess, stress has the opposite effect. It can harm our emotional and physical health, and limit our ability to function at home, in school, and within our relationships. The good news is that, since we are responsible for bringing about much of our own stress, we can also do much to manage stress by learning and practicing specific stress-reduction strategies.

See the managing stress section for more information.


“Learn that you’re not alone in this. Find your people keep them close and heal with them. Check in with yourself. Often. Know how much you can take on. Let go. Know when you need to be alone. You are loved.” – UM Student

Social well-being is defined as how you choose to define and connect with your community and the people around you. Environmental well-being reflects the impact your environment (home, school, city, planet) has on you and the impact you have on the environment.

Keys to Staying Socially Connected at U-M

  • Balance. As a college student, you have a lot going on. You may feel tempted to bury yourself in schoolwork rather than seeking out social activities. But remember, there is much to learn and experience in college that can’t be found in textbooks or research laboratories. Making social relationships a priority can help make college a fulfilling as well as an educational experience.
  • Participation. You may have signed up for various student organization email lists, but have never attended a meeting or participated in any of the activities. If you feel overbooked and are feeling overwhelmed, consider focusing on just one activity that you’re passionate about and commit fully to that one activity. Prioritizing and participating in activities that you’re passionate about will energize your body outside of school.
  • Quality over Quantity. There are many large social networks on-campus (e.g., fraternities/sororities, club sports, etc.). Some people feel very comfortable in these large networks and enjoy having the opportunity to meet many new friends. Others feel more comfortable among smaller groups of friends. If you fall into the latter group, you may worry about not having enough friends or not being popular enough. Remember, the number of friends you have is not nearly as important as the quality of your relationships. Having one or two close friends may be all you need to have a healthy social life.

Social Spaces at U-M

  • Residence Halls: Living in the residence hall can be a great way to meet and connect with new people. Even when you don’t feel like going out, you can use meal times in the cafeteria or hall activities as opportunities to engage with others. As a resident of a hall, you will be invited to join in on many events such as movie screenings, concerts, and sports events.
  • Student Organizations: Joining a student organization can help you connect with other students that share your interests. With a large student population, U-M has a student organization to match almost any interest. To find a group with similar interests as your own, visit Maize Pages, or attend Festifall or Northfest, large events held each year to showcase student groups on campus. Below are just a few student orgs focused on mental health:
  • Club sports: A great way to meet others with similar interests is to join a club sport or exercise class that you enjoy. In addition to meeting people, you will get the extra benefit of regular physical activity.
  • Club Sports at U-M
  • Group exercise classes on campus

A Word on Healthy Relationships:

Feeling connected and close to others is an important aspect of good mental health. Almost every college student feels stressed or overwhelmed at times. Supportive relationships help make these challenging times more manageable.

The symptoms of mental illnesses can make it difficult to start new relationships or to get the most out of existing relationships. For example, anxiety can lead to feelings of insecurity that others will not like you or are judging you negatively. Symptoms of depression such as irritability or a desire to isolate can get in the way of developing and maintaining satisfying and healthy relationships.

Although we may think we know how to distinguish between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one, creating and sustaining healthy relationships is not always simple. If you find yourself struggling with interpersonal issues, psychotherapy may be helpful.

When you find yourself experiencing relationship conflicts that may require the assistance of an outside person such as a mediator, the University has resources that can provide this assistance in certain situations:

  • For conflicts with your roommate, landlord or neighbors, contact University Housing. This is an excellent resource for assistance with housing conflicts for students who live on or off-campus. If you have any other questions about roommates, this can be a helpful guide — PDF update.
  • If you are living in off-campus housing, you can contact the Housing Information Office. Set up specifically for students living off-campus, this office can provide a mediator who will help you resolve conflicts with roommates, landlords, subletters, or neighbors.
  • The Office of Student Conflict Resolution (OSCR) provides assistance and consultation for any U-M student who believes their rights as a student have been violated.
  • Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC) provides healthy relationship workshops upon request.

Student support services:

  • Spectrum Center: U-M offers support for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer student community through the Spectrum Center. Visit the Spectrum Center website for information about services, events, and coming-out support groups.
  • Mentor programs: Joining a mentoring program is a great opportunity for students to get to know the campus and meet other students in similar situations through individual pairings, small groups, and large group meetings all over campus. There are several programs available for a variety of groups and schools such as nursing and kinesiology. Participation in these programs is available to incoming students, transfer students, upperclassmen, graduate students, and military veterans.
  • Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA) Students of color may benefit by connecting with students with similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds through social, intellectual, and cultural gatherings.

Additional Resources:

  • Check out Half of Us with ideas on how to connect specifically for those college-age


Many people find comfort and strength in their spiritual or religious beliefs. Reflecting on your personal values, ethics and beliefs through prayer, meditation, or other means can be a helpful addition to the professional help you are receiving as part of your treatment plan.

  • Check out the Trotter Multicultural Center for its many services focused on spiritual well being
  • Michigan offers a number of student organizations focused on spiritual well being. You can visit Maize Pages and filter by religious/spiritual to find the right one for you.
  • Spiritual and Religious Groups and Associations: Many spiritual and religious associations hold various events for their members including social activities. These activities can be an excellent way to stay connected to your faith while meeting others with similar beliefs. Visit The Association of Religious Counselors to learn more about the spiritual resources available to University of Michigan students.

Additional Resources:



There is strong evidence that regular physical activity has many potential benefits such as:

  • Reduced psychiatric symptoms
  • Reduced stress resulting from burning off stress chemicals such as adrenaline
  • Release of endorphins — chemicals that have a naturally relaxing and calming effect on the body
  • Improved memory
  • Increased energy
  • Improved sleep
  • Improved focus
  • Better regulation of mood
  • Weight loss
  • Increased sense of accomplishment and self-esteem
  • Distraction from negative thinking
  • Additional opportunities to meet others with similar interests

You may find the idea of exercising to be overwhelming. It is important to remember that when it comes to physical activity, anything is better than nothing! Start with whatever seems manageable. Even a ten minute walk can be helpful. You will likely be able to increase the amount and frequency of physical activity slowly as you start to feel better. Generally, doctors recommend about 20-30 minutes of exercise three to five times per week, but it’s a good idea to talk with your own health care provider to decide what’s right for you.

The most important thing to remember is to set a realistic and attainable goal. Keep it fun and simple! If you’re having trouble getting started or keeping your exercise consistent, check out these list of tips.


Mindful eating is a big part of any successful self-care plan. The foods we eat are directly linked with emotional, physical, and cognitive health. Eating a balanced diet gives your brain and your body the vitamins and minerals needed to stay well. However, healthy eating habits can be difficult to maintain, especially if you have a mental illness. You’re not alone if you lack the motivation to prepare meals or if you find yourself experiencing changes in your appetite as a result of your mental illness. You may even find yourself gaining weight as a side effect of your psychiatric medication. Make sure you discuss concerns about medication side effects or significant appetite changes with your healthcare provider

If you are a currently enrolled U-M student, you can make an appointment at the University Health Service Nutrition Clinic for free! Services include individual food-related counseling with a registered dietitian to discuss diet and disease, weight loss or weight gain, and establishing a healthy eating plan.

What you eat affects:

  • the brain neurochemistry that controls mood and response to stress
  • the way your brain and body interact
  • the higher brain functions that control learning, memory and intellectual functioning

Whether deciding what, when or how much to eat, the key is balance.

What am I eating now? Making changes to how you eat is simple, but not easy.  It requires patience. Since eating has both a physical and emotional component (providing comfort, familiarity, and even recreation), developing an achievable eating plan may be a particularly challenging part of your self-care plan. To start, document what you’re currently eating. The best way to see how you’re using food is to keep a food diary for one week, writing down what, when, and how much you’re eating. By also noting how you’re feeling at different points during the day in your food diary, you’ll get an even more complete picture of how your emotions and your eating behaviors may be interacting. If you prefer to make an online or mobile food diary, there are many options for that as well.

Tips for Healthy Eating: If you have a medical condition such as diabetes or food allergies, or other dietary restrictions including those related to taking certain psychiatric medications, you should follow your healthcare provider’s specific dietary recommendations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has 10 tips for healthy eating on their website. Some extra tips for college students:

  • Pack healthy snacks between classes, meetings, and social activities. Healthy snacks can help prevent you from getting too hungry, which can lead to overeating. This approach also feeds your brain a steady supply of glucose which helps to keep cravings at a minimum.
  • Keep a regular meal schedule. Eating on a regular schedule can also help prevent you from getting too hungry, help you to plan for healthier meals, and help you get a good night’s sleep. Here are some tips for developing a regular eating schedule:
    • Schedule your classes so that you allow yourself enough time each day to have lunch and dinner. Rushing between classes can often lead to unhealthy eating options and habits.
    • If you are working a long day, make sure you take your lunch or dinner break regardless of how busy you are. You are entitled to these breaks. Breaks can also help relieve stress by giving you some downtime from the busy environment.
    • Schedule a regular time to have dinner with your friends in the residence hall cafeteria. It always helps to have friends supporting these habits.
    • Take turns with your friends making inexpensive dinners at each other’s apartments/houses one or two times per week. his is also a great way to have a set time to catch up with them.
    • Late dinners can’t always be avoided. If you do go out to eat late at night, ask your server to wrap up half of your meal before you even get started. This can help to prevent overeating late at night which may affect your quality of sleep.
  • Don’t skip breakfast. Skipping breakfast is associated with reduced problem solving ability, lower energy and decreased motivation.
  • Look for the MHealthy logo. University dining locations will have the MHealthy logo to show the healthy eating options.
  • Try to include Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. Research suggests that Omega-3s play a role in many brain functions, from regulating mood to increasing cognitive abilities. Omega-3s can be found in fish including tuna and salmon, fish oil supplements, flax or chia seeds.
  • Remember that your beverage choices are as important as your food choices. Bring a reusable water bottle with you to class to stay hydrated throughout the day. Limit caffeinated beverages which can have a stimulating effect at first, only to be followed by a drop in energy level and mood.
  • Avoid alcohol which can act as a depressant and can interfere with your sleep patterns and some psychiatric medications.
  • Know that all carbohydrates are not created equal. Eat complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains to ensure maximum nutritional and digestive benefits with fewer “spikes” that can disrupt brain chemistry.
  • Limit fast food and junk food. Although convenient, high sugar and high fat meals can have a negative effect on mood.
  • Learn to listen to your body’s signals to know when to eat, and when to stop. Eat when you feel physical hunger.
  • Try to eat slowly and mindfully. It takes several minutes for your body to signal fullness.
  • Enjoy each bite and avoid overeating by stopping before you feel full.
  • Regulate your portion size. Many of us tend to underestimate the amount of food we eat and overestimate recommended portion sizes.
  • Don’t give up everything you enjoy. Give yourself permission to indulge on occasion.

A word about eating disorders:

Eating disorders are serious conditions that often require medical and psychological intervention.  Such conditions include binge eating disorder, compulsive eating, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa. These can be life-threatening conditions. The sooner treatment begins, the better.

Sleep: (from the National Institutes of Health)

College students are one of the most sleep-deprived populations. When you have to choose where to make cuts your life between academics and extracurriculars, you often choose to cut sleep. Research at Brown University has found that approximately 11% of students report good sleep, while 73% report sleep problems. You need sleep. Sleep deprivation has been linked to lower GPAs because sleep affects concentration, memory and your ability to learn. As a college student, there are many factors that may make maintaining a regular sleep schedule difficult, such as living in the residence hall, studying for exams, late classes, and socializing. Your daily habits and activities may affect how well you sleep. The demanding lives of undergraduate and graduate students can make it challenging to maintain healthy daily habits.

See the Sleep Section to find ways to get more sleep.

Additional Resources:

  • For information about eating disorder treatment for you or someone you care about, see Resources for Eating Disorders and Body Image.
  • If you struggle with eating problems but are unsure whether you fit into the definition of anyone eating disorder, clinicians at Counseling and Psychological Services or University Health Service can help you to assess your eating patterns and access support and treatment if needed.
  • There are a lot of healthy options in the residence hall dining rooms. Nutrition cards posted in the dining halls can help guide your food choices. See the Housing website to learn about residence hall nutrition services and nutrients in commonly served foods.
  • Visit the free Nutrition Clinic at the University Health System


Arrange For Ongoing Care:

  • Know that if you are not enrolled for Spring and Summer term classes, you may not be eligible for treatment at Counseling and Psychological Services during that time. Begin planning early so you don’t experience a break in care.
  • Talk to your current provider about making a plan for staying well during this time. They can help refer you to another clinician that can provide ongoing care.
  • If you will be traveling abroad, consider purchasing the U-M Travel Abroad Health Insurance Plan so you will still have access to care. It may be necessary to contact insurance agents while abroad, so keep all relevant names, phone numbers, and policy numbers in a safe place or saved somewhere on your phone.
  • If you will be seeing a new provider, arrange for a release of information so they can access records of your prior treatment. Your current provider can help you with this paperwork.
  • If you take psychiatric medication, talk to your current provider about managing your medication over the summer including arranging a prescription transfer to a pharmacy in your area.
  • If you’re traveling, take along copies of all prescriptions and the generic names of drugs. Keep medicines in the original labeled drugstore containers.

Additional Resources:



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