Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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Exam Season: 3 Tips to Lower Your Body’s Stress Level

k-67-dsc045553442545-fon_1-id-68958-jpegAs I’m sure you’re all aware, exam season has commenced. I know from experience that in times of high stress and when exam dates loom, it’s tempting to forgo sleep and easy to forget to eat or hydrate. These are very unhealthy means of studying, and they only add to your stress.

To avoid high stress levels or illness this exam season, I would like to provide you with three tips to take care of your body and reduce your stress level when preparing for exams:

  1. Eat and Drink
    It’s one thing to eat and drink healthily on a regular basis, but during exam season, some students remain so focused on their studies that they forget to eat or drink something at all! Understandably, your focus is your studies, but I implore you to stay hydrated and fed.

    During periods of high stress, I sometimes set hourly alarms on my phone to remind myself to drink water. This may seem silly, but it’s easy to get lost in your head, especially while studying, and ignore what your body needs.

    As for what you eat, it may seem like you don’t have time to cook. You probably don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on take out over the next couple weeks, but you need to eat something. Before exam season is in full swing, pick up a few key items at the grocery store for simple meals, like cereal, salad, and sandwiches. Be sure you are incorporating some nutritious foods such as vegetables and protein. And always keep snacks in your bag, like apples or granola bars, in case you accidently skip a meal.

  2. Exercise
    I’m sure you’ve heard that exercise releases delightful hormones called endorphins, which trigger positive feelings to reduce stress and pain. Luckily, a simple 10-minute walk could be enough to produce several hours of stress relief.

    If you’re an extrovert and hours of secluded studying is worsening your stress, attend a group exercise lesson at your campus or preferred gym. Not only will you be getting exercise, but you’ll also benefit from the additional aspect of socialization, giving you a much-needed break between study sessions.

  3. Rest
    This might be the most difficult tip to follow, since it’s sort of a catch-22. Six to eight hours for a good night’s rest is a lot of time, but the longer you go without sleep in order to study the less you are likely to retain the information. Research shows that recalling information from one day to the next is easier after a night of sleep. However difficult it may be to rationalize, it is important to find a balance between study time and sleep time. You don’t want all of your efforts to be wasted by falling asleep during an exam.

It’s important to remember that you’re not alone in this; all of your fellow students are going through the exact same crazy time. Reach out to your friends and help each other stay sane and healthy during this and future exam seasons. If you require more structured support, reach out to a school counsellor or your Student Assistance Program to assist you with a study plan or exam accommodations. Good luck!

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Cheers to That: The Importance of Drinking Responsibly

Alcohol.jpegIf you’re one of the thousands of students who spent this past weekend celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on and off-campus, I hope you had a fun, safe, and enjoyable weekend. If, instead, you’re looking back on the weekend with regret, you may have learned that alcohol can have very serious negative effects, especially when binge drinking in public settings.

To binge drink means to consume multiple drinks on one occasion, and tragedies associated with binge drinking, especially for today’s youth, are all too real. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines suggest that women drink no more than 10 alcoholic beverages per week and that men drink no more than 15.

Although I encourage making the most of your post-secondary life, keep in mind the following potential risks of drinking in excess the next time you go out:

Drinking and Driving

According to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, it only takes one drink to reduce your reaction time while driving. Drinking alcohol can also result in decreased vision, reduced concentration, and inhibited judgement. Even the most skilled and confident drivers can’t keep these effects of alcohol at bay.

Not to mention the potential financial and legal consequences of driving under the influence. It’s illegal to drive with any alcohol in your system if you are under 21 years old. If you’re under 21 years old and you are caught with a blood alcohol content (BAC) above zero, your driver’s licence will be suspended and you can receive a fine of up to $500. Students have enough expenses as it is – impaired driving fines should not be one of them.

For those over the age of 21, the legal limit is technically 0.08, but fines and licence suspensions begin at 0.05.

As a post-secondary student you likely long for and revel in your independence, but if you’ve been drinking alcohol, ensure you have access to a designated driver, take public transit, or use a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft.

Emotions

Drinking alcohol can enhance our emotions. This can be our extroversion, flirtatiousness, sense of humour, or – for a rare few – anger. Many drink to have fun, to feel good, to relieve stress; but a range of intense emotions such as spontaneity, sadness, anxiety, and anger can be exacerbated by alcohol.

Most people are to a certain extent risk-averse when sober. However, under the influence of alcohol, inhibitions are set free, and what we are left with are carefree revelers who no longer have the acuity to make sound decisions. Potential dangerous situations often are not taken seriously, such as partying on the 18th floor balcony of a high rise apartment, or at a swimming pool, by railroad tracks, in front of traffic, all of which are potential recipes for disaster.

Few would yell or take a swing at a friend or even a stranger while sober, but with alcohol in the system an accidental nudge could result in violence.

If you take a negative emotional turn while drinking alcohol, this may be caused by an underlying mental health concern. Consider making an appointment with a counsellor to discuss these negative feelings.

Sexual Misconduct

Perhaps the scariest of all risks of drinking is the increased risk of being sexually assaulted. Due to lowered inhibition, it’s very possible to be unaware when someone else is acting inappropriately, and a reduced reaction time can make it difficult to ward off unwanted advances.

If you hit it off with someone at a bar or party, be mindful of the other person’s alcohol intake. Under Canadian law, intoxication is considered a factor that affects a person’s ability to consent. Intimacy without consent changes the lives of both parties, forever. When in doubt, get their number and call them when you are both sober.

Always keep an eye on your drink. At large parties and cramped bars, it’s easy for someone to put something in the drinks of potential victims. Never leave your drink unattended.

Students often treat drinking with friends at house parties, at the local pub, or on St. Patrick’s Day as a right of passage or tradition, but it can and should be done with care. When drinking, keep these tips in mind: watch how much you drink, watch your emotional state while you drink, watch what goes into your drinks, and stay safe. If you’re concerned about your state when drinking alcohol, reach out to a trusted friend or family member, school counsellor, or Student
Assistance Program for help.

 

 


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“I’ve Graduated – Now What?” Tips on Dealing with the Graduation Blues

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 12.38.54 PMStressful exams, excessive coffee, possible home sickness and hefty loans – post-secondary education has been quite the ride for the last few years, but hopefully has, in theory, provided you with the exciting opportunities everyone says awaits you. Many students across the globe expect to obtain a respectable, decent-paying job in their field right after graduation, but is this expectation realistic nowadays?

Undoubtedly, many soon-to-be grads are concerned about what life looks like after graduation. Remember all that support when you left high school to transition to university or college? Those transition supports aren’t so readily available and obvious now that we’re getting ready to graduate from post-secondary school. These are stressful times, with many questioning where you will live (moving back in with parents? ) and how soon can you find a career-focused job (that you like!) to pay off your student loans…and this stress can take a toll on your mental health and the ability to cope.

I’ve been working with students for several years now and have outlined below some tips to help you avoid getting the graduation blues and better enjoy the next phase in your journey:

Talk It Out – Ask your school counselling centre for some referrals to affordable supports in your community. We all need some help as we head into this new world of wonders, and there are a variety of talk therapy and behavioural counselling options out there – change is hard, but asking for help doesn’t need to be. Good friends and family members, particularly ones who have “been there”, can be great supports as well. Discussing options for your future gets things out of your head and become actionable through steps towards your goals.

Freedom is Real – Make a plan for doing something you enjoy, and allow yourself to get excited about it. After all the pressure you’ve been under, give yourself time to adjust, whether it be a trip, shopping, or visiting your friends, get busy doing nothing. Allow yourself some time to just be free and relax, and don’t just sit around dwelling on what is not getting done right away.

Do the Right Thing – So what’s the next step? Sure, it’s easy to just enroll in the Master’s program to put off leaving your safe hub, or taking an internship that pays less than nothing to get some “practical” experience. Stop putting off the inevitable, and just be true to yourself about what job you accept or whether the extra education is worth the extra debt. This is the time to check out what’s out there and not grab the easiest thing. Fear of drifting around is scary, but grabbing the first available option can exacerbate your mental health issues if it’s not the right one, so stick to your guns.

This Is Where You’re At – Accepting that university or college is coming to an end, and you don’t know what comes next, not really, is ok. Typically we spend about 16 straight years in schooling being told to some degree what we can and cannot do, so it’s no wonder we come out not knowing exactly what we are supposed to do. Accept that this is where you are. The power of now. This is a normal stage that most of us go through so allow yourself to readjust and focus on what you need to do for your next journey in the big open world.

With graduation coming up – how are you feeling? Do you have a support system in place for post-graduation? I look forward to hearing from you!


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Succeeding through the next few weeks at school

k-159-chim-5169As the school semester comes to an end, final exam preparations will soon begin for many students. This usually involves long days at the library, and perhaps, some coffee to keep you alert. The time and focus that academic success entails, combined with the intense pressure students feel in order to succeed, can lead to stress and exhaustion.

If you’re a student of an Ontario college, you may be experiencing stress caused by a different circumstance: the faculty strike you’ve just experienced. No matter what type of post-secondary educational institution you study at, this time of year can no doubt have an impact on your mental health. For this reason, I have outlined some tips to assist you prepare for the next few weeks before winter break.

For all students, whether you are preparing for final exams, or you have been affected by the Ontario college strike, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Prioritize your diet and sleep schedule. It’s always important to remember that eating healthy meals and getting plenty of sleep are proven to improve one’s mental health. During your studying, proper diet and sleep will ensure that you are alert and attentive, and this will improve the quality of your studying, mood, and hopefully your grades!
  • Go out less, but still see your friends. While it’s best to decrease the amount of social events you go to, it’s still important to spend time with friends and family. Making time for others will serve as a distraction, and a good change of pace. Even if it’s just eating a meal or walking home together, your friends will balance out the stress of exams, and really help you improve your mood.
  • Be aware of resources and help on campus. At almost every campus, there are counsellors, wellness centres, and hotlines to call. If you feel low or vulnerable, it’s important to be heard, and these resources are specifically meant for students. Lastly, remember that your grades don’t define your worth, but your mental health should always be valued.

Ultimately, the exam period before winter break will be manageable and less stressful if you stick with good habits, and reach out to friends and support when needed. You’ll find that help is always available, and if combined with hard work, you’re sure to do well on your exams. Good luck!


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How Creativity Improves Mental Health and Wellness

creativityMany students notice that the creativity they once had diminishes as they begin post-secondary education. It seems our schools of higher learning teach students to follow the rules, learn, memorize and repeat, conform, and measure their performance by taking standardized tests. Creativity is squeezed out as the pressure to excel on exams becomes the driving force. This, however, is counterintuitive to future demands in the workforce and the mental health and wellness of our students.

A 2010 IBM study, as reported in the Newsweek article “Creativity is the New Black”, reported that not only will creativity play a critical role in the future success of a corporation, but creativity is also regarded as a core competency for those in a leadership role. Unfortunately, education is killing the creativity of our students and leaving many of them anxiety-ridden and stressed out. What are we doing to improve the mental health and wellness of our students?

Tapping into your creativity for improved mental health and wellness

I wanted to share with you the many positive benefits creative expression has in maintaining wellness, whether through art, music, reading, writing, crafts, colouring, knitting, sewing, pottery, gardening, or dancing. Creative expression can:

  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Increase positive emotions
  • Decrease depressive symptoms
  • Reduce distress and negative emotions
  • Boost the immune system
  • Increase self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment
  • Improve concentration and focus
  • Increase happiness

How does creativity improve mental health and wellness?

The average person has 60,000 thoughts per day and 95% of them are exactly the same, day in and day out (Cleveland Clinic). Immersing yourself in a creative activity produces an almost meditative state where your mind is so engrossed in what you’re doing that you temporarily forget all of your troubles and worries. The goal is no different from meditation, mindfulness, or yoga: in order to find calm, peace, and happiness in one’s life, the focus needs to be on one’s inner self (not external stimuli). This can be achieved only by becoming disciplined in an activity (eg. creativity) that will naturally lessen the importance and therefore impact of those thousands of thoughts we experience everyday. Neuroscientists have been studying many forms of creativity and finding that activities like cooking, drawing, photography, art, music, cake decorating and even doing crossword puzzles are beneficial to your health. When we are being creative, our brains release dopamine, which is a natural anti-depressant. Creativity usually takes concentration and it can lead to the feeling of a natural high. Participating in creative activities may even help to alleviate depression.

The latest trend in stress relief is the adult colouring book

Adult colouring books are all the rage. They’re so popular now that there are even monthly colouring clubs. They’re inexpensive, fun, remind us of childhood, require no particular skill and they provide instant relaxation. They’ve become so mainstream that they can be purchased everywhere from Amazon to dollar stores.

Research shows that creative practices improve depression, anxiety and coping skills while enhancing quality of life and significantly reducing stress – all vital for mental health and wellness. And the beauty of creativity is that anyone can practice it – why not start today?

Are we doing enough to encourage our students to exercise their creativity?


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Good Mood Food: How to Eat Your Way to Better Mental Health

There’s no doubt about it – life at College and University can be tough. With exams to study for, papers to finish, and deadlines to meet, it’s far too easy to put healthy eating on the backburner. This is unfortunate, as our diet has a huge impact on our happiness levels. Considering the rising rate of mental health issues on school campuses, it’s becoming more important than ever for students to focus on eating healthy.

In celebration of National Nutrition Month this March, I’ve outlined 4 simple ways that you can boost your mood through the foods you eat.

Add More Omega-3 Fatty Acids

What’s your go-to snack that gets you through all those late night study sessions? If you’re like many students, chances are it’s one that’s packed with trans and saturated fats.

The average North American diet is much higher in trans and saturated fats and is lacking in the essential omega-3 fatty acids. This is troubling, as studies have shown that high levels of these fats can actually lead to depression. The good news is, research tells us that omega-3 fatty acids have a mood-stabilizing effect that can in fact reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.

How can you add more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet? Great options include oily fish such as salmon, trout, and anchovies. If fish isn’t quite your cup of tea, try leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale.

Choose Foods High in Antioxidants

I have some great news for you chocolate lovers: eating foods that are high in antioxidants is a great way to maintain positive mental health and wellbeing.

Antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene help minimize molecules in the body known as “free radicals”. Free radicals are detrimental to our mental health, and they are one of the leading causes of major depression. The silver lining? It has been proven that antioxidants help to fight these molecules, reducing symptoms of depression and improving our overall mental health.

On top of dark chocolate, foods that are rich in these mood-boosting antioxidants include tomatoes, blueberries, cranberries, artichoke, and kidney beans.

Increase your Vitamin B12 Intake

How many nights have you stayed up late studying only to find yourself feeling a little bit down the next day?

I like to think of vitamin B12 as a “miracle” vitamin when it comes to perking up and improving your mood.

Research has found that those who have vitamin B12 deficiencies have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and irritability. Vitamin B12 reduces these feelings by producing a chemical called ‘dopamine’ in the body. Dopamine is an essential chemical that helps to regulate our emotional response, boost our happiness levels, and improve our mood altogether.

To add more vitamin B12 to your diet, try eating more fish, beef, eggs, cheese, and milk.

Go for the Good Bacteria

Did you know that not all bacteria are bad bacteria? It’s true – eating foods that are high in ‘probiotic’ bacteria is a great way to improve your mental health.

Studies have confirmed that probiotics reduce inflammation as well as increase serotonin production within the body. This is great for your mental health, as inflammation causes higher levels of depression and stress, while serotonin helps boost your happiness levels. By consuming probiotics, you are effectively giving your body a natural antidepressant.

If you’re looking to add more depression-fighting probiotics to your diet, try making yogurt your snack of choice.

As a post-grad many, many, many years ago, I understand how busy your days on campus can get. It’s often much easier to choose quick, “on-the-go” snacks than to make a wholesome, nutritious meal. But if improving your mental health and wellbeing is something you value, consider taking that extra time. You’ll feel a whole lot better about it – inside and out.

To learn more about how you can improve your mental health through your diet, check out our Online and Telephonic Nutritional Service through your Student or Employee Assistance Program.


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Adderall: When a Study Hack Becomes a Drug Problem

studyI recently wrote a blog about the Fentanyl crisis affecting Canadians today. This week, I want to discuss another drug crisis impacting Canadian youth: Adderall abuse. Adderall is a prescription drug used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children and adults, but the drug has gained popularity among post-secondary students who use the medication as a “study drug”. When used for its intended purposes, Adderall helps increase one’s ability to focus. When people who do not suffer from ADHD use the drug, they experience laser-sharp concentration, making it a popular study tool for stressed students. According to the American Journal of College Health, 76% of students will be offered the prescription drug throughout their four years of university, and about 30% will accept it.

Back when I was in university, Adderall was not used as a study drug, and if it was, it definitely wasn’t discussed as openly as it is today. When we began offering our SAP services, I was shocked to learn just how prevalent the use of Adderall is on many campuses today. As some schools are in the middle of midterms, and others are preparing for final projects and exams, I thought I would write this blog to educate students on the dangers of this quick fix study trick.

People who have used the drug for studying purposes report feeling focused and motivated to complete their work. Spending hours in the library studying for an exam can be mind numbing, but because Adderall was designed to lengthen your attention span, students find it easier to get through their workload.

Adderall is one of the most addictive prescription drugs on the market. When a student uses it and receives a great mark on a paper or exam, it can be difficult not to resort back to the method that helped them achieve it. A lot of students carry the mantra, “I’ll just use it this once to get through this tough exam period”, but if a student is relying on Adderall for their brain power, what’s to stop them from using it in the working world as well?

Adderall can affect your body in a number of ways. Short–term, students who take Adderall experience feelings of nervousness, nausea and agitation. Since the drug maintains your focus, it also reduces your appetite. Consequently, students often miss important meals after taking the drug. Abuse of the drug has been linked to eating disorders and other associated mental health issues.

After taking excessive amounts of Adderall over a period of time, your body begins to depend on it, just like any other drug. Suddenly it can be difficult to accomplish daily tasks without popping a few pills first. As mentioned in my previous blog about Fentanyl, people often begin abusing one drug and move on to more powerful substances to get a more intensified high. Last year, the Toronto Star published an article discussing the link between Adderall use and suicide.

So how is it so easy for students to get their hands on this drug? It is estimated that only 1 in 20 children in Canada have ADHD, but that doesn’t stop students desperate to improve their grades. A quick Google search can expose hundreds of articles with titles like, “How to trick your doctor into prescribing you Adderall”. Faking symptoms of ADHD can lead doctors to a misdiagnosis, and students can walk away with a powerful prescription. Students who have received prescriptions are known to sell the drug to their peers for up to $25 a pill.

Have you or a loved one recently started using Adderall to combat school stress? Here are my tips on how you can deal with the problem now:

  1. Get organized without the use of prescription medication. Talk to your teachers if you are feeling stressed, and surround yourself with positive people who want to help you succeed.
  2. If you are experiencing physical symptoms from Adderall use, talk to a medical professional. Talking about drug use can be difficult, but living with an addiction is harder.
  3. Talk to your campus mental health or SAP provider for assistance on managing drug use and stress levels. They have the tools to assist you through an Adderall dependency, or managing the challenges of schoolwork.

There is no denying that post-secondary life is difficult. I remember staying up late to finish papers and stressing over exams for hours, I was always a crammer. While taking Adderall might seem like a short-term solution to your stress, working hard to get a good grade is a lot more rewarding.