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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“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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Dealing With An Empty Nest

While thousands of Canadian students are adjusting to their first few weeks of university or college, parents are facing a new challenge as well. For many, this is the first year their children have gone away to school and moved out of the family home. While seeing our children grow up and mature as adults is exciting for any parent, we can also be left with feelings of emptiness and sadness.

The first year of university or college symbolizes the beginning of adulthood for incoming freshmen, but it can feel like the end of an era for a lot of parents. The concept of ‘attachment’ is well documented in the work of John Bowlby, a psychiatrist who in the late 1950s, developed a theory of personality based around attachment. Bowlby defined attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings, one that is universal among all cultures’. Bowlby believed that attachment can be understood within an evolutionary context in that the caregiver provides safety and security for the infant. He believed that children have a universal need to seek close proximity with their caregiver when under stress or threatened.

Fast forward to 2016 and we find that when that close proximity to the family home is removed, like when our children go off to live at university or college, the impact is not only felt by the child, but also by the parents.  So what happens when the attachment between a parent and child is disengaged?

We start to feel what we commonly refer to now as ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’. The Mayo Clinic defines Empty Nest Syndrome as feelings of depression, sadness, and/or grief experienced by parents and caregivers after children come of age and leave their childhood homes. While the term “Empty Nest Syndrome” is relativity new in the mental health world, the sadness associated with children leaving home is not.

I recently read an article on the subject in The Washington Post, where author Michael Gearson wrote about his son, “He is experiencing the adjustments that come with beginnings. His life is starting for real. I have begun the long letting go.” Sometimes as parents, we focus on our children so much that we forget what life was ever like without them.

When my children left for university and college, I distinctly remember how quiet my home felt. Letting go of the role we’ve had for 18 plus years was a difficult adjustment. It felt like I had lost an extension of myself like a part of my identity had been taken away. In single-parent households, Empty Nest Syndrome can be especially difficult to handle, as children are often the parent’s primary companions.

Although I am a firm believer that a major role as parents is to teach our children to become independent so they are prepared to thrive without us, the adjustment for not only our children, but for parents, can be difficult.

The first few weeks of a quiet home without our children are always difficult As you settle in to your new life as an empty nester, here are some tips to get you through the initial transition:

  • Keep in touch. With modern technology, our loved ones are only ever a phone call or a Face Time away. While it’s important to give your children some space to grow, it’s comforting to know you can contact them anytime.
  • Develop new hobbies. With more free time, parents can participate in new activities or take interesting classes to give themselves more of an identity outside of being a parent.
  • Reach out. Friends and family members are sure to have gone through a similar experience, it’s important for parents to talk to someone about their feelings of loss. If feelings of sadness and loneliness persist, consider counselling or look into your company’s EAP.
  • Stay Positive. This new freedom allows parents to indulge in dreams they’ve been putting off for years, like taking that trip you’ve always talked about!

Letting go of your children is hard. As parents, it’s important to remember that while we might have a hard time dealing with their absence, our children are growing into the independent, educated, and well-rounded adults we always dreamed they’d become.

And just remember, whenever it feels like you miss your child too much, they’ll be home for Thanksgiving with a truckload of laundry for you.

 

 


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Campus life: Are you prepared?

As September draws closer, students all over Canada are preparing for their first year of university or college. Leaving home, new classes, new friends and new activities, it can be a lot to handle. While attending post-secondary school is an exciting chapter in anyone’s life, it can also be a transitional period for students experiencing it all for the first time.

 Student Life

Moving out on your own is exciting and full of opportunities, but at times it can be lonely. Clinical psychologist Dr. Christopher Thurber co-produced a study on homesickness in university students, and found that while all students miss something about home when they’re away, 5-10% of post-secondary students develop intense homesickness, which has an effect on behaviour.

Homesickness isn’t the only threat to first year students’ mental health. Students have to deal with a more demanding curriculum, adapt to new roommates, new classmates and learn how to take care of themselves for the first time ever. I remember the culture shock I experienced during my first few weeks of classes at York University, and that was back when university wasn’t as expensive, programs were less competitive, and moving away from home was not the thing to do!

Students who choose to live at home during post-secondary schooling are not exempt from mental health issues either. While staying home saves students and families from the financial burden of accommodation, it can be challenging to watch friends go off and start a new life while they remain at home with their parents who may still treat them as children.

Mental health issues in universities and colleges are not new. Why do you think Reading Week was introduced? It was created in the 1960s to allow students a reprieve from their demanding curriculum. Since then, mental health issues have grown exponentially. In 2011, Ryerson University’s centre for student development and counselling found that there was a 200% increase in students reporting a crisis situation. I was initially shocked by this statistic, but a Maclean’s report about mental health on campus provided some background on this issue. They found that more students are enrolling in school with previous mental health issues than ever before, and now these existing issues are being intensified.

We developed The Student Assistance Program (affectionately known as SAP) at Aspiria to augment what schools are currently providing to assist students seeking help with their mental heath on campus. Our goal is to help students thrive while at school and build resiliency skills to prepare them for graduation and the workforce

Attending college or university certainly has its challenges for students, but it’s important to remember that the experience is also exciting, rewarding, and will help shape who they become in life.

So how can we help students adjust to their 1st year of college or university ? Here are a number of tips for students on how to stay mentally well:

  • Parents should encourage their children to work summer jobs to create a sense of independence and responsibility they will carry with them to school.
  • If students are moving away for school, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the campus prior to starting classes. This will allow for less of a culture shock when school begins.
  • Join clubs and social groups. Clubs are a great way to meet friends and people who have similar interests. International students can find other students who have recently moved to their campus .
  • Seek help with the school’s counsellors or find out if a SAP is offered. These programs are in place to help students address their mental health issues and are always accessible.

 

1st year on campus can be a difficult adjustment for students. What additional strategies can you think of that can make the transition to campus life easier for students?


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Advice for Parents of New University and College Students

Moving to schoolAs we embark on the beginning of another school year, the majority of the focus is rightfully on the university and college students who are transitioning into a whole new phase of life as they enter post-secondary education. As September approached, I saw a great deal of literature that offered advice to the students about what to expect from their first hours, days, and weeks at school. I did not, however, see very much advice for the just as large population of parents of these new first-year students.

As a mental health professional and parent, I’ve collected a few nuggets of wisdom when it comes to supporting your child and new student in this transition.

Stay organized to avoid stress: Nothing is worse than being emotionally fragile and disorganized. Make sure you have the correct information and paperwork, and that you have made your to-do lists and shopping lists. This will help you feel prepared and armed to handle the exhaustive and emotional process of moving in your child and saying goodbye.

Encourage your child to try everything: The first couple of days at university and college are designed to appeal to a variety of needs and personalities that help students orient themselves with their new surroundings. While your child may not want to throw themselves into new activities or get-to-know-you games, encourage him or her to try everything that is offered in these first days so that they stay busy and occupied.

Know that homesickness and discomfort are normal: Remind your child that every student feels the same way: new, awkward, and uncomfortable, and this is completely normal! If your child calls you feeling homesick and sad, avoid rushing in to rescue them from these feelings, because they are an important part of acclimatizing to their new environment and learning valuable coping skills.

Make yourself aware of the resources: Your child has a lot on their mind when they arrive to school. They are trying to feel comfortable in their new space, trying to meet people and get oriented in their new home. It wouldn’t hurt for you to familiarize yourself with the resources available on campus and within the school’s housing and residence structure. This way, if and when you see your child struggling or uncomfortable, you can make recommendations and direct them to help.

Be prepared for them to make mistakes: As you probably know from your own experience as a young adult, your child is not perfect. They will make mistakes this year, and these mistakes will help them learn and grow into a better person. While you may be disappointed in certain decisions they make, be there for them and work through it together.

Try not to smother them: This time in your child’s life is crucial to their development into a self-sufficient and responsible young adult. Give them the space they need to discover who they truly are and what makes them happy.

The first few weeks of this transition will be hard for both you and your child, but this is what you’ve worked so hard for – a child who is capable and responsible. Trust that they can take on the world, and know that even though you may not always be physically with them or actively guiding them, you are still the biggest influence in their life.

Remember that everyone is different, and no two parents will handle the situation the same. That being said, how are you managing during the first days of the transition? Share your experience with me below.


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Part 3 of 3: Our Call to Action

your_not_aloneZiggy Marley once said, “I believe we are all connected to other people. I am connected to people who are suffering. We all are.”

One of the biggest obstacles to strong mental health is the overwhelming sense of loneliness felt by our university and college-aged students. As I mentioned in the previous instalments of this 3-part blog series, while our students are more “connected” to the world via social media and their mobile devices, these same students are feeling crippling loneliness and a general lack of coping skills in their lives, as they often have not developed an identity separate from their parents or a strong sense of independence.

Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut and now-celebrity is always asked if he was lonely in space. His response was that you can be hundreds of thousands miles away from Earth and feel connected to people and the universe, and, at the same time, you can also be living in the centre of a metropolitan city and feel like the loneliest person in the world. A myth endures, which allows us to assume university and college students living away from home could never be lonely in dorms with thousands of other students “partying” all the time. However, they could very well be the loneliest people on Earth.

As parents, teachers, counsellors, siblings and peers of this demographic, what can we do to better support our students? We are beginning to understand the prevalence of mental health issues in Canada and how our current resources are exhausted from the increased demand. It could take years for the health care system to implement a structure that places mental health as a higher priority, so what are the steps we can take at a grassroots level to help students and the greater community now?

Below, you will find a list of collaborations and ideas that are already being set in motion by influential Canadian industries. And you might ask yourself, how can I, as one person, make any sort of impact? Like anything, if you look to hard at the big picture, beginning the process of finding a solution can seem too overwhelming. So I’ve included ways you can support these overarching goals in your community, your workplace or even in your home.

Collaboration: Recently, the Mental Health Commission of Canada embarked on a two-day conference with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police because, more and more the police force has become first responders in mental health crises. This partnership speaks to the new understanding that working together is the only way to move forward when a problem has as many touch points in society as mental health does.

In your own environments, encourage similar collaboration with mental health as your frame of reference. This can be achieved in different ways, from a professor-student-staff initiative within the university setting or organizing representatives from various departments in your workplace to avoid working in silos.

Education: The ultimate purpose of collaboration is to educate one another and to share resources. Every Canadian stakeholder is focused on the goal to improve the accessibility and support of those who suffer from mental health issues, from the health industry, to the government, to the education system. Each has valuable information to share and ways to support people suffering from mental illness.

Seek education on how to engage someone with a mental illness, learn to look for warning signs and changes and encourage others to do the same. We are often afraid of what we don’t understand, which is why we might feel like we wouldn’t know how to address someone who is suffering. With education behind you, you can feel confident in supporting someone through a difficult time.

Connectedness: A sense of belonging and a strong personal network are tools that help people with mental health issues feel less alone in their situation. As a society, we value individualism and privacy, but perhaps the pursuit of these ideas have moved us too far away from the strength gained from an environment based on community values. Universities and colleges have placed a greater focus on connecting students with their peers, providing forums to reach out in and raising awareness of the resources that are available.

Engage in conversation with people in your life and seek to understand their perspective. Find ways to stay present in face-to-face experiences, despite the temptation to “connect” via your devices and various social networks. Learn to notice small changes in behaviour, attitude and performance in those around you and don’t be afraid to ask someone how they are doing. You might be the only person who has shown them that kind of care in a while.

How else can we support our students as they learn to cope with the pressures of university? Where do you think the changes need to begin – At the top with governments and health care, or at the bottom within our homes, schools and communities, or both? I look forward to your comments below!