RSI Student Self-Care Toolkit

This toolkit was created by the RSGSU Mental Health Committee in collaboration with RSI students who participated in the May-June 2020 Self-Care Challenge. 

It is a “living” document, meaning that it is continually updated with new content. It currently reflects self-care practice in the context of COVID-19 physical distancing. 

If you have any resources/tips etc. to share, please send them to rsgsu.mentalhealthcommittee@gmail.com and we will add them to this document – thank you! 

You can also join the #healthwellness channel on RSGSU’s Slack – a virtual space where we discuss all things health and wellness. To be added to RSGSU’s Slack, email stephanie.scodras@mail.utoronto.ca – we look forward to seeing you there! 

Introduction

Hi there! Welcome and thanks for checking out this Self-Care Toolkit

Grad school is hard, and it continually challenges your mental health – but you’re not alone. According to the RSGSU Mental Health Committee’s 2019 survey, most RSI students have experienced mental health challenges as a result of grad school, with the top five stressors being: (1) finances; (2) career planning; (3) imposter syndrome; (4) comparison to peers; and (5) poor work-life balance. These stressors are also reflected in the results from the U of T Presidential and Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health (the Task Force) 2019 Outreach and Engagement activities.  

The Task Force highlights the importance of thinking about mental health as a continuum (see model below). This model reminds us that mental health isn’t binary, that we all experience mental health challenges from time to time, and importantly, that there are actions to take  specific to each phase of the continuum.   

As this model points out, self-care is an action that is important at each phase of the continuum – especially in the “Reacting” and “Injured” phases. 

What is “self-care”? 

Let’s start with what self-care is not: (1) self-care is not selfish (remember – you can’t pour from an empty cup); (2) self-care is not restricted to those who are experiencing mental health problems (it’s for everyone); (3) self-care is not pseudoscience (it’s evidence-based and draws from rehabilitation sciences research); (4) self-care is not a waste of time (it aims to increase your productivity); and (5) self-care is not the only solution (it’s only one piece of good mental health care – others can include peer support, counselling, and medication).  

Self-care is: taking the time to do things that make you feel better.  

The purpose of this toolkit and associated #healthwellness Slack channel is to help RSI students practice self-care, develop healthy habits and coping skills, and build the necessary resilience to succeed in grad school.  

We breakdown FIVE PILLARS OF SELF-CARE: EAT/DRINK, SLEEP, CONNECT, MOVE, & RELAX. For each pillar, we include: (1) a brief blurb about the pillar’s importance to health and well-being; and (2) offer some practical ideas/tips/tools to help you set personalized goals relevant to that pillar.  

We encourage you to share your experience with self-care and mental health by joining the RSGSU #healthwellness Slack channel!  

Eat/Drink

You are what you eat. This pillar challenges us to improve our eating and drinking habits.  

Baycrest’s evidence-based Brain Health Food Guide tells us that good nutrition is about balancemoderation, and variety. This guideline also highlights the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet (which includes a lot of vegetables, fruits, essential B vitamins, Omega-3s, vitamin D, and healthy proteins) – suggesting that it reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, and mild cognitive impairment.  

In a recent issue of Elemental (U of T’s Mental Health Magazine), a Registered Dietitian from CAMH was interviewed, and she also spoke about how a Mediterranean-style diet reduces the risk of mental health conditions, like depression. Beyond nutritional benefits, this Registered Dietitian encourages readers to think about food and cooking as a way of connecting with others and enjoying a pleasurable experience (p8-9).  

One way to find greater pleasure in eating is to focus on sensation and being mindful. During a Mindful Moments session at RSI, Laurie Coleman (U of T Health and Wellness Counsellor) shared her favourite chocolate meditation  – it’s amazing how much better the chocolate ends up tasting!  

Tired of the same old recipes? Need inspiration? One recipe website we love is Healthyish  – what are your go-to websites for recipes? Let us know in the #healthwellness Slack channel! 

Keeping these ideas in mind, we challenge you to complete the following EAT/DRINK Goal Sheet:

Sleep

Sleep is essential to health. This pillar challenges us to improve our sleep habits.  

Sleep is critical to immune function, metabolism, memory, learning, and mood regulation, but it can be easily disrupted during times of stress.  

A good first step to getting sleep back on track is to create a comfortable sleeping environment.  You can try adjusting the room temperature (keeping the room cooler), removing distracting noise and lights, and making sure you have a comfortable mattress and pillows.  Some other helpful hints to promote a better sleep include maintaining a regular sleep-wake schedule, developing a pre-sleep routine, exercising regularly (but avoiding strenuous exercise two to three hours before bed), reducing blue light exposure at night, avoiding too many liquids or heavy meals two hours before bedtime, avoiding caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol four to six hours before bedtime; and allowing time to relax and clear your mind before going to sleep (see resources below for more strategies).  

Finding the sleep strategies that resonate with you and making just a few small changes can make a big difference in your sleep quality.  

Keep this in mind as we challenge you to complete the following SLEEP Goal Sheet.

If you’re interested in learning more about the impact of sleep on cognitive and physical performance, Matthew Walker’s “Why We Sleep” is a great read; you can also check out the author’s videos on how to improve sleep and busting sleep myths

Connect

Stay connected. This pillar focuses on social connection, which is especially important as we deal with the restrictions of social distancing.  

The Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) Social Connection is the Cure article tells us that being socially connected has positive effects on mental and physical health. Social connection reduces stress and gives a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging. Before the pandemic, we had built-in ways to connect. Whether at school, at work, at events, or even when running errands. But now, our social interactions are no longer built into our daily lives – leaving many of us feeling isolated and lonely. Because of this, we need to be more deliberate and creative about the activities we engage in that promote social connection.  

CMHA’s Your Social Distancing Survival Guide and Vice’s 57 Things to Do with Friends While Social Distancing Beyond ‘Catching Up’ give great tips for connecting with others during this difficult time.  

To help promote social connection, we’ve created the Social Connect-Four Challenge to help inspire you to participate in meaningful social activities. Want to challenge your fellow RSI students? Let us know you’re interested in the #healthwellness Slack channel and we will come up with activities! 

Move

Do what moves you. This pillar challenges us to find ways of boosting our levels of physical activity, while staying home, safe, and physically distant from others.  

These current restrictions present a challenge by themselves; however, not keeping physically active can have negative effects on our overall health and well-being.  

Physical activity and relaxation techniques can be valuable tools to help you remain calm and continue to protect your health during this time. Not only does exercise have positive physical health benefits, but it has been shown to also improve self-esteem, self-efficacy, psychological well-being, and cognitive functioning, while alleviating the negative effects of anxiety, stress, and depression. Research has shown that any level of exercise is better than none, and can contribute to a longer, healthier and happier life.  

For both preventative and curative reasons, Toronto Rehab – UHN states that exercise is the best medicine. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week or combination of both. These recommendations can still be achieved during quarantine!  

Here are some tips from the WHO on how to stay active and reduce sedentary behaviour while at home during quarantine: 

Take short active breaks during the day. When you’re taking a break from working, consider doing some home-based exercises such as jumping jacks, high knees, squats, planks, pacing around the house, or a quick 5 minute stretch!   

Follow an online exercise class. Take advantage of free online classes and do it with friends to make it more fun and keep each other accountable! 

Youtube:

Instagram:

Other:

Walk/Run. Walking around the house or on the spot can help you remain active. If you have a phone call – choose walking instead of sitting! Or opt for a walk outside for some fresh air! If you choose to go for a run – try using one of these running apps to track your activity or join running programs and challenges with friends!    

Running apps: 

Stand up. Reduce sedentary time by standing up whenever possible – ideally interrupt sitting and reclining time every 30 min! If you’re using the Pomodoro time-management technique, use those 5-minute breaks to stand up and move!   

Other Resources: 

Think about which activities would make the most sense for you and complete the MOVE Goal Sheet

Relax

Relax, you deserve it. This pillar is all about relaxation. Relaxation is a state of being free from the past and future and is about focusing on the present moment.   

Relaxation is important to incorporate into your daily routine. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), relaxation can help to improve your mental health by treating a number of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.  

If better mental health isn’t enough of an incentive, scientists have found that relaxation can also improve your physical health by lowering blood pressure, reducing heart rate and improving digestion. Relaxation also enhances your well-being by developing positive attitudes that contribute to a more satisfying life.  

There are various techniques for relaxation, and everyone has their favorites. However, all relaxation techniques have one thing in common, which is refocusing your attention on something calming and increasing awareness of your own body.  

Some of the popular techniques include: (1) Deep breathing: Filling up your lungs with air to encourage full oxygen exchange; (2) Meditation: Resting the mind and promoting positive body awareness; (3) VisualizationConnecting to visual images and physical sensation to calm the physical body; and (4) Yoga: Combining body postures with breathing exercises.  

If you’re interested in learning more about relaxation, check out the resources below and try completing our RELAX Goal Sheet

Resources: 

Conclusion

Self-care is a crucial practice for life in grad school and beyond.  

Not only does it promote your health and well-being, it also boots your productivity levels, therefore helping you function at your best.  

As students in rehabilitation sciences, we need to be champions of self-care.  

So, let’s chat in #healthwellness on Slack to support each other in reaching self-care goals and advocate for the importance of mental health initiatives!