Maintaining Mental and Physical Health While Studying in the United States

Pat Polise, RN.M.Ed., Nurse Consultant for LewerMark | 2-27-2019

Jocelyn Elders, a pediatrician, and former United States Surgeon General once said, “You can’t educate a child who isn’t healthy, and you can’t keep a child healthy who isn’t educated.”

Although you probably don’t consider yourself a “child” anymore, the quote relates to you as an international student studying here in America. It is easy to eat instant mac and cheese and hamburgers every day—especially if the foods you are used to in your home country are unavailable—but this can affect your physical and mental well-being while in school. Luckily, there are ways to stay healthy and resources available to you so that you can focus on what you came here for—your education.

You probably know what you should and should not eat to avoid becoming overweight, but food can affect more than just body weight. Let’s take a quick look at how your physical, mental, and emotional health are connected and how to balance and maintain all aspects of your health while you are in school.


How Unhealthy Food Affects Your Mood

We know that fast, processed foods seem like an easy solution while you are busy keeping up with class work, making friends and experiencing the culture in the U.S. However, eating an unhealthy diet for a long period of time can affect your ability to function socially and academically.

There is plenty of research linking an unhealthy diet to symptoms of depression over a long period of time. Studies show food can contribute to the development, prevention, and management of mental health issues, from mood swings to depression and anxiety disorders. A study about dietary patterns and depression risk states, “A dietary pattern characterized by high consumption of red and/or processed meat, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products… and low intakes of fruits and vegetables is associated with an increased risk of depression.”


Eating Healthy While Studying in the U.S.

If you eat unhealthy food on occasion you will not spiral into a deep depression, especially if you normally eat a healthy diet and exercise—so don’t worry if you ate a cheeseburger or pizza with your friends recently.

However, it is important to be aware of what you are eating on a regular basis and try to maintain a balanced diet. Here are some positive ways to maintain your diet as an international student:

  • Eat at set intervals throughout the day
  • Avoid refined sugars and processed foods
  • Eat more whole grains
  • Include protein at each meal
  • Eat a variety of foods
  • Eat plenty of vegetables (we know they can be expensive,
    but you can buy frozen if you are on a tight budget)
  • Include Omega-3 rich foods, like oily fish, in your diet
  • Reach and maintain a healthy weight
  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water
  • Avoid alcohol entirely or limit your consumption if over the age of 21
  • Get regular exercise


Maintaining Mental Balance

Maybe you already eat a healthy diet and exercise as often as you can, but you are still having trouble with the stress of school and feelings of loneliness or being homesick. Please know, you are not alone. There are things you can do to improve your state of mind and resources for you to use.


Maintain a Solid Sleep Schedule

Sleep is extremely important. It removes toxins and organizes your brain. A good night’s sleep of at least seven hours will make you more alert in class and less irritable the next day. You will find that you have a clearer head and can have better focus. You also will not become as easily frustrated when a challenging assignment or situation arises.

We know that it can be hard to avoid studying for a test until the late hours of the night, but try your best to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day as much as possible.


Avoid Isolating Yourself

Humans need interaction to survive. As an international student, you don’t have to take part in every activity the college has going on, but finding other students with similar interests through events and clubs is a great way to combat feelings of loneliness in a new country and start making friends.


Take Time to Breathe

Sometimes taking time to meditate for five to ten minutes or even taking a few deep breaths when you feel overwhelmed can make a world of difference when you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed. You can find guided meditation videos on Youtube if you want to incorporate into your routine.


Organize Your Thoughts

You have A LOT going on. Keeping track of everything you need to get done in a week or even a day can be very overwhelming. Take some time to make a schedule and a “to do list” that can help alleviate some of that stress because everything you have to do in the near future is right in front of you. You don’t have to write down every little thing; you may not even accomplish everything on your list and that is completely okay! The important thing is that you have everything down on paper.


Ask for Help When You Need It

Remember that you do not have to handle everything on your own, especially when it comes to your health. Your international student advisor is there to help you navigate this transition and wants you to thrive and succeed as a student while in school.

If you are feeling stressed out, lonely, or find that depression and anxiety are starting to affect your well-being, ask your advisor what resources are available to you. They can:

  1. Tell you what the next steps are to get you healthy
  2. Put you in contact with professional counseling services (if available)
  3. Help you understand your options when it comes to getting healthcare here in the U.S.


If your school does not provide health insurance plans to international students, feel free to share our ebook “Why Schools Should Provide International Students With Group Health Insurance” with your advisor.