School can be demanding. When you aren’t gearing up for a final exam in English, you’re plugging away at an assignment in History. When you aren’t racing to meet the OUAC deadlines for university applications, you’re racing toward three other deadlines for end-of-semester. Sometimes, it can feel like a spinning plates act – a nerve-wracking attempt to keep everything from crashing down.
We recently came across a study from the University of California Berkeley about the effects of stress on the human body. Essentially, the study concluded that your body needs a certain amount of stress to stay alert and focused (perhaps harking back to humans’ time in the wild, when we needed to be vigilant about lurking predators). However, the study notes that a funny thing happens when that stress lasts too long or feels too acute; the stress starts having the opposite effect on our brains. We can’t focus. We clam up. And our cognitive mental performance takes a steep nosedive.
The study underlines what we already know intuitively: too much stress is bad for mental health and harmful to a student’s academic performance. Ideally, we want to hit that sweet spot of stress, where we feel its motivating effects without its long-term impact on mental health.
And that’s exactly where this article aims to situate you. You’ve heard of “work-life balance,” the ability to strike a harmony between one’s professional and personal obligations. Well, this is “study-life balance.” In this article, we discuss how to contextualize school within the grander scheme of your life – how to mitigate its stresses, manage its peaks and valleys, and come out the other end feeling like the confident student we know you are.
Let’s all breathe together and start striving for balance!
Create a Schedule
At numerous points on this blog, we’ve advocated for effective time management. Often, we tout its benefits within the context of academic performance, making the case that managing your schedule and staying productive boil down to time management.
But time management can also be a potent tool in mitigating stress and creating study-life balance. Without a schedule, you’re more likely to slip into a cycle of procrastination and cramming, which can do a number of your cortisol levels (the primary stress hormone). It can be tough to strike a balance because you’re never really clear where studies end and personal life begins.
A schedule provides definition and delineation. It tells you exactly what you should be doing, when you should be doing it. And once you’ve fulfilled your scheduled work for the day, you’re free to relax in whatever way you see fit – whether it’s a pick-up basketball game or listening to music.
We recommend keeping an ongoing list of your required readings, upcoming assignments and important deadlines. From these endpoints, you can reverse engineer a scheduled timeline that keeps you on track.
Leave Room for Breaks and Recuperation in Your Schedule
There’s a common misconception that a schedule has to be all business – that it’s a strict outline of your obligations, with no wiggle room for relaxation or pleasure. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Part of effective time management is understanding your body and mind’s natural limits. Few people can work eight hours straight without feeling the pressing effects of fatigue and stress, which negatively impact performance. Even billionaire CEOs understand that you need to schedule ample breaks to keep the whole system running at peak capacity.
As you go into granular, hour-to-hour detail in your schedule, pencil in opportunities for relaxation. Some experts maintain that the sweet spot for study breaks is every 50 to 90 minutes, and that those breaks should last between 10 and 25 minutes. These intervals give your brain the opportunity to (figuratively) take a breath, absorb the information you learned and prepare for the next round of studying.
Likewise, online students should work long periods of recuperation into their schedule. Students at traditional brick-and-mortar schools have the weekend to recuperate. As an online student, your schedule is more flexible than that, but you should follow the same basic principle of allowing yourself a couple of days of uninterrupted, unstructured free time.
Create a Quiet, Clear and Dedicated Study Space
Here again, we defer to research studies – this time to explain the connection between clutter and stress. A recent study in Current Psychology found that clutter causes stress by overloading our brains with excess stimuli. In other words, when your desk is strewn with papers, clothes are heaped on the ground, and noise filtering in through the windows, your brain attempts to decode everything it’s sensing at once – getting frustrated when it can’t.
The takeaway here is crystal clear: create a quiet, clear and dedicated study space. Think of it as a small investment in a relaxing study atmosphere. As you create your schedule, pencil in 10 to 15 minutes at the start of each day to declutter. There’s no need for an intensive deep clean; just a bit of tidying up before you hit the digital books.
Understandably, not every student has access to a quiet location – especially not in a big city like Toronto. If that’s the case, consider investing in noise-cancelling headphones or find a “white noise” playlist on Spotify to stream through your existing headphones. The low din of the white noise should help tune out distracting ambient noises, creating a calmer study environment as you complete your Ontario high school credits online.
Listen to Your Body’s Essential Needs
Over the past couple of decades, researchers have become increasingly interested in what’s known as the mind-body connection. Per the Neurology Centre of Toronto: “Our mental and conscious states, including our emotions and behaviours, may have the ability to significantly influence our physical health outcomes, and reciprocally, our bodily health can impact our mental wellbeing. This is referred to as the ‘mind-body connection’…”
Basically, your brain and body aren’t as separate as medical researchers once thought. They share an intimate level of interconnectedness, and caring for one means caring for the other.
Therefore, if you want to balance your studies and mental health, you need to listen to your body’s essential needs. Here, we’re referring to three needs in particular: diet, sleep and physical activity.
Sleep, diet and exercise each influence mental health in their own way. (There’s a mountain of evidence in each case, but sadly, this article is too short to get into the particular mechanisms behind each). Suffice it to say, experts recommend getting the following:
- Consistent, sufficient sleep: Experts recommend eight to 10 hours of sleep a night for high school-aged students. Sleep experts also emphasize the importance of consistency, urging people to aim for a similar bedtime and wake-up time.
- A varied diet with ample fruits and vegetables: “You are what you eat” may not be a scientific adage, but it holds some water. Diet plays a critical role in overall wellbeing, with most experts recommending a varied diet (to cover all those lovely micronutrients) with an emphasis on fresh fruits and veggies.
- Exercise according to your abilities: Countless studies draw a clear line between exercise and a lowered stress response. Even minor bursts of physical activity release endorphins (the feel-good hormone) and lower cortisol levels. Make some time in your online school schedule to lace up your running shoes, roll out your yoga mat or even throw a ball around with friends.
Please note that your schedule should never be so rigid that it fails to accommodate the three needs above. If you’re exhausted, take a cat nap. Likewise, if you’re starving, don’t wait until your next allotted break to eat something – your physical needs should always come first!
Make Room for Meditation and Mindfulness
Meditation and mindfulness are buzzy concepts in the wellness industry, but don’t let their glossy popularity fool you into thinking they’re a passing fad. Mindfulness and meditation can work wonders on your mental health.
Mindfulness teaches you to view your thoughts, behaviours and impulses at a critical remove, taking each passing worry and examining it for what it really is – your brain creating a problem. Over time, frequent mindful meditation may help you become a calmer, more focused person. But as with any natural intervention, it may not be enough if you suffer through mental health issues. (Below, we’ll discuss talking to professionals).
Not sure how to get started with meditation? Find a quiet spot and comfortable seat, and read through this short guide on mindful meditating.
Go Easy on Yourself: Positive Self-Talk and Gratitude Journals
It’s natural to be hard on yourself – it demonstrates that you care enough to critically self-evaluate. However, occasionally our self-talk strays too far away from self-motivation – and too far into plain meanness.
Be careful how you talk to yourself. You are the person you talk to the most, so try to be an encouraging friend! Instead of admonishing yourself for making a mistake in an oral presentation, congratulate yourself for putting yourself out there. Instead of kicking yourself for receiving a suboptimal grade, remind yourself that you have the potential to succeed – there’s always next time.
Consider starting a “gratitude journal,” a physical or digital notebook in which you can write something you are thankful for each day. It doesn’t have to be anything big or “important”; it could be that you’re thankful for how a new pair of glasses makes you look. But the simple, repetitive act of positive self-talk should, over time, help you to view yourself empathetically.
Whether you have full time or part time enrollment at OES, try to schedule in a morning slot for positive self-talk. It can make a lot of difference in balancing the ups and downs of a school career with mental health.
Talk to Your Teachers and Make Use of Tutors
Sometimes, we get frustrated when we don’t immediately understand something. “Why is my brain not allowing me to get this?” we might ask. It’s important to note that everyone learns differently – a critical fact that we at OES take very seriously. Our self-paced learning courses are designed intentionally so that all types of learners (fast learners, slower learners, visual learners, reading/writing learners, etc.) feel supported and accommodated.
That said, don’t get frustrated if you don’t understand something. Certainly, do not let it impact your mental health. Our knowledgeable teachers and round-the-clock tutors are there to help you through it. Make an appointment to talk to your teacher or schedule a tutoring session. Our guess is that you’ll understand it eventually – just take your time. It’s one of the many reasons students enroll in an accessible online high school.
Talk to Professionals
Lastly, we want to impress upon you the importance of seeking professional help if you are seriously struggling. There is only so much a blog article like this one can do in the face of a mental health crisis. If you are experiencing an underlying issue, there may be no amount of scheduling or sufficient sleep to address it.
Talk to your parents/loved ones about therapy, counselling or a doctor’s visit. (And for all the loved ones reading this, you can talk to your students if they seem to be struggling). Often, it takes several people with your best interests at heart to make it through a trying mental health experience. The first step is reaching out for help.
Hopefully, this article helps you on your journey toward finding balance. As educators, our chief goal has always been the enrichment and ongoing happiness of our students. Follow the tips above to help mitigate stress and manage your time, and remember that you can always seek help if you are struggling. Enjoy your holidays. And here’s to a fruitful, relaxing and instructive new year semester!