HEART(H)WARMING: A Back to School Guide

By Larissa Pham

Here we are back at school again. It’s October now and your hands are starting to get cold, especially when you wake up in the morning, and you’re thinking about maybe turning the heat on—if you can remember how your radiator works—and the last hot gasps of summer have all since blown away with impending midterms breathing down your neck. (Seriously, how is it already October?) And you’re beginning to realize: there’s a lot going on here. Too much, maybe—

Let’s sort it out.

1. SPACE

I’m living in a shared house off campus this year,  and it more than anything has taught me the importance of space. Where you spend your time affects you emotionally, physically, mentally—being at school might keep us focused on what’s in our heads, but we’re still bodies moving around in the world, after all.

Make sure to seek out places you feel comfortable in. This can be physically comfortable—do you want good lighting in your library? Comfy chairs? Quiet? Noise? Or emotionally—do you want to be alone? Surrounded by friends? Figure out what you need in order to do the things you want to do, and look for spaces that will fit these criteria. My personal favorites are unused classrooms and empty lecture halls.

Closer to home—in fact, home itself—is of utmost importance, too. Bad lighting and uncomfortable temperatures are two things that wear heavy on us, if we ignore them. Make sure you’re taking care of both! Decorate your living space and find ways to make it a better place for you to exist in. Get some greenery, put up photos, posters, garlands, fairy lights—the semester might have already started, but it’s never too late to start making your place your own.

Lastly, make sure you have your own space. Not necessarily the place you sleep at night, but a place you can 100% feel is your own. This can be hard, especially in a dorm situation, but personal space is key for one’s general health. It doesn’t have to be your room—it could be the bathroom or the kitchen. A nook you like in the library, or the art studios, or the darkroom, even just a little corner of a building on campus that doesn’t have a proper name. It’s important to know you have a space where you can be yourself by yourself.

2. FOOD

I’m hungry right now. Are you hungry right now? Better question: when was the last time you ate something?

It’s far too easy to fall into bad eating habits during the school year, when we’re all running around and forget to take care of ourselves. But food is something we put into our bodies—it’s important! (Also, before I get carried away: Drink water! Lots!)

Everyone has their own particular eating habits and relationships to food. It’s helpful to consider your own eating patterns, taking note of your needs and trying to accommodate them. If you need to eat five or six times a day, don’t ignore it! If you feel so much more alive when you eat breakfast, try to do that! Figure out all your options for on campus dining, if you’re on a meal plan of any kind. There are often loopholes that offer flexibility. Check with your instructors to see if you’re allowed to eat in class—many a semester has been saved by the promise of a sandwich in seminar.

Lastly, this is something that often escapes our notice, but: consider the kinds of food you’re eating. Eat things that make you happy, that taste good, that fill you up. If you’re consistently cooking for yourself, be extra attentive to your body’s needs. If you crave something, it’s probably important. If you’re hungry, feed yourself. Remember: you’re a person who eats and breathes and lives. As tempting it is to be a floating brain, we’ve got to take care of ourselves! Which brings me to:

3. SLEEP

Full disclosure: I don’t sleep enough. But! I’m working on it. One thing I’m learning this year is that—as good as it might be to stay up and work, or talk to my housemates, as much as I fear missing out on something—there’s nothing quite like a full night of sleep. Sleep is good. It’s necessary. Some people only need four hours. Most of us need closer to eight. If you’re one of the latter, don’t pretend to be the former—though it might be sustainable for the first few weeks, by the time winter rolls around, without enough sleep you’ll be dead on your feet.

So how, as busy students, can we maximize our sleep time? The first, most obvious solution is to get to bed earlier. Do you really need to spend that last hour you’re up mindlessly clicking through Tumblr or Facebook? Think of all the great sleeping you could be doing! And if you’re doing work—at some point, your productivity will decrease to the extent that it’s probably best to get to bed. At that point, get thee to bed.

Ensure that the sleep you are getting is good sleep. If your room is too bright or noisy, scrounge up a sleep mask or earplugs—both are good, cheap investments that will save you a lot of grief. Nap if you have to, but be careful with your timing; naps taken after sunset generally end up turning into full-on “oh my god I thought I was going to wake up in 20 minutes!” and we all know how that goes. A full sleep cycle is an hour and a half long, so if you do find yourself having to portion off time for sleep, try to make it a multiple of 1.5 or 3 hours.

And listen, listen, listen to your body. Sometimes we are crabby or headachey or upset for no reason. Eat something, drink something, and remember that you are a person and you need your sleep.

4. LOVE

If we’re lucky, going back to school means leaving a lot of people we love and coming back to a lot of people we love. There are people we love as friends, people we love romantically, people who fall somewhere in between. Here are a few things I’ve found it useful to keep in mind at the beginning of the school year.

Remember: things will change. This is a vague statement, but it kind of works for everything. Once you leave for school, the people you’re surrounded with will change. Automatically! So it won’t be like the summer, and it might not even be like last year. It’ll be its own new animal. And that might be new and weird to get used to, but it’ll be okay, because—

People love you! Really. I mean it. Being back at school means being surrounded by a frenzy of papers and readings and lab and club activities and all that, and sometimes it might feel as though the people you love most are always the furthest away. But being busy doesn’t mean not being friends: it just means we all have to work a little harder to track down the folks we love. I promise. Even in this flurry of classes and midterms and all that—people love you.

A corollary to that: People will love you. If this is your first year at a new school and things are terrifying and you don’t feel as though you’ll ever be loved ever again, don’t freak out. Because these things take time, and we always need a few weeks or months or sometimes, even a season or two, to settle in and find ourselves in a new place. But you will make friends, and yes, you will love each other. It just takes time. Sometimes longer than we expect. Be gentle with yourself.

On the subject of romantic relationships: They’re hard. They’re especially hard at school, and they’re especially hard at the beginning of school—eyes big Love-crumbs, and the thrill of someone under you quite so new.  Thanks, e. e. cummings. I feel you there. It is hard, when faced with newness in so many ways. New year, new people, new beginnings, one might think. It’s tempting to be a little careless with yourself at the beginning of the school year. And for that, I’ve found that this is something very important to keep in mind: Know what you want, and know what you don’t want.

Knowing what you want—not what you think you want, but what you hardcore deep in your belly know is good for you and want—is so important, because then you can tell people that you want it! Then (sometimes) you can have it! Knowing what you don’t want is just as important—so that you can make sure that the people you love or might love or who want to love you don’t expect it.

If you know these two things and communicate them to people who are important everything will be happy and golden and wonderful and well.

—I’m just kidding, going back to school will still be hard. But it’s also exciting.

You’ll be okay. You’ll be far better than okay.

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Larissa Pham is a contributing writer to the Ellipses Project. She makes art, thinks about making art, and thinks about thinking about making art. She believes emotions and bodies are inherently valid. As a junior at Yale College, she is involved in the studio art, history of art, and psychology departments.