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  • Michael Krikorian

A Summer Between The Ears: Prioritizing Mental Health

As a veterinary student, the journey through rigorous coursework, clinical rotations, exams, studies, and stressors can be understandably overwhelming. The pressure to succeed and the constant demand for your time and attention can take a toll. This is why it's crucial to use the summer break to prioritize your mental well-being, so that you won’t be on your back foot, so-to-speak, when the next semester begins. Here are a handful of helpful strategies to help recharge and prepare the mind for the upcoming fall semester. It may all sound simple and basic, but we all need a reminder. 

1. All Part Of This Balanced Routine

Summer is the perfect time to establish a balanced routine that includes regular sleep, exercise, and healthy eating habits. Aim for at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night to help your body and mind recover from the stresses of the day and the academic year. You’ve no doubt heard, read, and probably laughed at this a thousand times before, because who has time for that! But sleep is your body and brain’s consolidation time. Bad sleep habits are easy to fall into but good habits pay off in spades in nearly every aspect of health. Additionally, incorporating physical activities is just as important for the body as sleep is for the brain. Taking regular walks, hikes, or swims has been proven to boost mood and energy levels. Always remember, a well-nourished body contributes to a well-nourished mind. Keep it simple. Eat well, play well, rest well. 

2. Remaining Calm

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques can significantly reduce stress and anxiety. Consider integrating practices such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation into your daily routine. Apps like Headspace or Calm can provide guided sessions that are easy to follow and can be done in just a few minutes each day. A relaxed and prepared mind is a ready mind.

3. Keeping Occupied

The demands of veterinary school often mean putting personal interests on the back burner. Use the summer to reconnect with hobbies and activities that bring you joy. Whether it's painting, gardening, playing an instrument, or reading for pleasure, engaging in activities you love can be incredibly rejuvenating. This is not only just to satisfy boredom, but it keeps you and your brain sharp.

4. Strengthen Your Support Network

Your support network plays a vital role in your mental health. Isolation for most, although appealing sometimes, can be a net negative. Spend quality time with people you enjoy like family and friends, and don't hesitate to reach out to them when you need emotional support. If you recognize that you are struggling in an area, maybe consider joining a support group for veterinary students or professionals where you can share experiences and coping strategies. Most schools have resources for you in this regard. 

5. Set Realistic Goals and Prioritize Yourself

Definitely another one you’ve heard your whole life, but they’ve been saying it for a reason. Setting realistic goals for the summer can give you a sense of accomplishment and purpose. Incorporate as goals building some of these other positive habits as we’ve mentioned if you don’t know where to start. As important as it is to look ahead and move forward, it's equally important to prioritize self-care in the moment. Create a self-care plan that includes activities and practices that make you feel good. This could be as simple as taking a long bath, enjoying a cup or glass of something while watching a movie, or indulging in your favorite dessert.

6. Stopping The Scroll

This one may need to be near or at the top of the list, as it is a very real problem for so many, and an alarmingly tough habit to break. How many times have we all started the scroll and then looked up and heard the spongebob narrator say “2 hours later” in our head? It’s hard. While it's satisfying in the short term to spend hours scrolling through social media, it’s no secret that excessive screen time can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety in the long term. Set boundaries for your digital consumption and take regular breaks from your devices. Don’t get down on yourself if you fall short. It’s something we are all going to have to keep working at. Just try and work to be a little better as much as you can.

7. Seek Professional Help If Needed

If you find yourself struggling despite your best efforts, please don't hesitate to seek professional help. Many universities offer counseling services for students, even during the summer break. A mental health professional can provide valuable support either virtually or in person and coping strategies tailored to your specific needs. This may be as accessible as it ever has been. If you don’t know where to start, as a friend. You are never alone!

8. Prepare For The Upcoming Semester Gradually

While we have covered how important it is to relax, setting aside time, and gradually preparing for the fall semester can help reduce anxiety about returning to school. You want to avoid that end of summer panic where you have that “uh oh” feeling of dread. Review your course materials, organize your notes, and set up a study schedule. This approach can help you feel more in control and ready to tackle the new challenges coming your way.

This all may seem easy, but if it was easy to do it all and keep it up, no one would need it. Truth is we ALL need to work to be better in all of these regards. Taking care of our mental health is not just beneficial; it's essential for our collective well-being and success as students and as people. Remember, self-care is not a luxury but a necessity, and in many aspects it takes work and discipline. But the payoff is vital and unmistakable. Any little bit makes a difference. Make it a priority this summer and beyond to keep making baby steps. Each one will be a bigger step than the last.

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