The Most Important Lesson From College? Learning How to Take Care of Yourself

03/25/2015 09:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015

As a college student in her junior year, I am well-versed in the the many stresses faced by the modern day collegiate. In fact, I would say I am a little too familiar with the side-effects of attending a competitive, academically demanding institution: I felt so overwhelmed, anxious and mentally exhausted, that I got sick as a result. Twice.

Looking back at my sophomore year, I try not to shudder. But it's impossible not to, as vivid flashbacks quickly appear: When I was unable to get a full night's sleep because I was too busy thinking of what I would have to do the next day (and consequently waking up and immediately having a "to-do" list forming in my head), when I totally neglected my personal health and well-being (I wasn't eating right, I wasn't sleeping enough and forget about exercising), when I devoted way too much time to perfecting every single essay and actually completing every single reading (even when the majority of the students were skimming -- or skipping -- the same reading material), and being surrounded by students who, like me, were going 100 miles an hour and were not only pushing themselves for the top marks, but also applying to competitive internships and fellowships, while balancing their many extracurricular activities and campus jobs in their free time. There was no way I could keep up this pace and, after I got sick twice from such pressure, I knew I had to change my habits and mindset.

Self-care is a necessary function for our personal well-being. It means listening to your body, fulfilling what it needs (be it sleep, solitude, eating well or exercise). And yet, despite its importance, self-care is all too often neglected -- and even viewed as weakness. The concept of down-time, for example, at an always moving college might as well translate to lazy. How can one really relax and enjoy doing nothing, when everyone else can't shut up about how much work they have, or how many internships they are applying to? How can one fit in time for exercise or meaningful extracurriculars without feeling drained, especially when there are so many essays and projects to complete? These thoughts plagued me, and contributed to my mental and emotional exhaustion. While sick in bed, I had plenty of time to reflect on what I had done wrong and how I could change it. I knew I would have to begin implementing self-care and make a point to maintain and honor it, regardless of a hectic schedule.

As soon as I became aware of just how much I was suffering, I became much more tuned to listening to my body. I looked at my schedule and found where I could stop spending so much time and instead go for a run, which allowed my mind to relax and my body to feel good. I began to once again practice meditation in the mornings, right when I woke up. Sitting in silence and listening to my breathing resulted in being mindful in where I was and what I was doing. It centered me and calmed me and, whenever I felt stressed or anxious, all I had to do was breathe and find my center. I also took up a new extracurricular activity that I truly enjoyed, and this allowed me to juggle my academics better (I found that when I had too much free time, I would either spend it on Netflix or put way too much effort in assignments, which ended up draining me). I tried to give myself breaks: to read for pleasure, to watch a movie, to go out with dinner with friends, which lifted the monotony of my daily routine of class, gym, dinner, homework, sleep. I made a conscious effort to surround myself with positivity: with people who made me feel good, and, of course, those who didn't talk about how much work they had all the time.

Taking care of oneself is a learned act that requires purpose and patience. As a college student, I have had to develop tactics to successfully navigate being in a stressful environment. Ultimately, I've learned that taking care of yourself and listening to what your body needs is rule number one. My grades for my sophomore year were incredible, but they came at a cost: my well-being. I put too much pressure on myself to excel and in the end, I cracked. From such an experience, I learned that in the end, the only thing that really matters is if you are healthy and happy. Who cares what your GPA is when you feel miserable? Who cares how many high-profile internships you are applying to if you haven't gotten a good night's sleep in days? Unfortunately, at a demanding academic institution, you'll find the majority of students will take a high GPA and various internship offers, over their health and happiness. This is exactly why self-care is so important and needed, especially because the skills learned will prove invaluable long after graduation.