How To Press On With Your Studies When You're Depressed


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Tuesday, October 25, 2022
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It can be hard to find the will to do anything when you’re depressed. Many of us may experience some form of depression or anxiety in our lives, whether due to prolonged periods of stress or other factors. If you’re feeling down while you’re studying, don’t give up! There are things that you can do to help stay focused on your studies while you manage your mental health. 

"Never give up on education," said Dr. Melanie Abts, Rio Salado College's Counseling Faculty Co-Chair. "You don't have to get straight A's, you just need to finish. Once you get your degree it never expires and no one can take it away from you."

Focus On Concentration

One of the reasons why depression and anxiety can have such a profoundly negative impact on studying is that they wreak havoc on your ability to concentrate. Research has found that depression impairs our mental processing speed, which involves our ability to take in and absorb information. Depression makes it harder for you to focus and also impacts your memory. Not only is it a greater challenge to stay on task, but what you learn has a harder time sticking.

There are strategies you can employ to mitigate these issues:

  • Honor your obligations. Do whatever you NEED to do before you study so you aren’t thinking about your personal to-do list. Walk your pets, feed your kids, make any phone calls you need to make - the goal is to, as much as you can, clear your “dance card” so it’s just you and your homework.
  • Eliminate distractions. Do whatever you can to make sure you can give your studies your full, undivided attention. If it's possible, study in quiet areas. Get noise-canceling headphones if you need to shut out the outside world. 
  • No browsing, no texting, no Tweeting. Unless you’re expecting an urgent call, set it to airplane mode. Don’t turn off your phone: you may need it as a timer/alarm (more on that later). If you’re logged in to social media sites or other time-wasting apps on your computer, log off of them before you study. There are also apps available that can temporarily block your access to the internet or restrict you to specific sites (like writing apps that only let you use your favorite writing program while they’re on). If you have a tendency to get distracted online you may want to consider implementing these safeguards to stay on track.
  • Keep things in the same place. A very simple but effective routine is to make sure that you keep all your important items in the same place. That doesn’t mean you should keep your notebooks, study materials, etc. in the exact same place together, but wherever you place these individual items, keep them there on a consistent basis. That might seem like a small thing but it’s not; depression can severely impact your memory and basic functioning. You can save yourself a lot of stress and anxiety just by keeping your keys on the exact same hook every day.

Get A Planner

Depression and anxiety can cause executive dysfunction. Executive function is a term we use to describe our cognitive skills, the mental processes that help us concentrate, absorb and retain information, multitask, and make and carry out plans. Executive dysfunction is when these processes get disrupted or overwhelmed by depression, anxiety, ADHD, or other illnesses. When you’re experiencing executive dysfunction you may find it much harder to complete simple tasks, which can lead to major procrastination

One way to help you get through a period of executive dysfunction is to get in the habit of maintaining a daily planner. Making to-do lists, setting a schedule to adhere to, and writing down commitments ahead of time will give you a guide to help you keep on task with your studies when you’re anxious. It’s easy to completely forget what you need to do when you’re depressed so having a record of it is very important.

While you can maintain a planner on your phone, it’s recommended you write as much of this down as you can because physically writing things done actually improves your ability to retain and recall that information later.

Manage Your Time

The cornerstone of any successful studying practice is time management. Consistently setting blocks of time aside in your day to focus on reading, studying, and practicing what you’ve learned is essential for successfully absorbing that information. Good time management becomes even more important during an anxious state, when overwhelming stress, executive dysfunction, and a need to focus on self-care/recovery can throw off your schedule entirely.

Studies have found that maintaining a steady, consistent routine can help people deal with episodes of depression. When you’re depressed, everything can feel unsettled and pointless. Having a regular habit to stick to can give you something to structure your time around and focus on. As much as you may be tempted to modify your study schedule when you’re feeling out of it, you should try to be consistent and stick with what you’re used to. 

You can even set up a system of rewards for yourself during this time. Feel like binging on ice cream and streaming shows? Save it as a treat for yourself AFTER you finish studying. A sense of accomplishment can help decrease symptoms of depression. Accomplishing your studies on schedule and learning new skills/information can lead to behavioral activation, a process in which your growing sense of capability and progress instills a positive mood and improves your sense of well-being.

As for the HOW to stay on schedule: all you need is a timer or alarm (you don’t even need a clock: most phones have built-in alarm functions). Set a time every study day and program it in advance. Let’s say 5 p.m. is your study hour,  when your phone goes off - even if you’ve lost track of time or forgotten to study - the sudden ringing will grab your attention. 

You can also set an alarm for the end of your studying periods so that way you don’t need to keep track of the time. You know how casinos don’t have clocks because they want you to not be aware of the passing of time and stay in the moment? That’s a useful approach to take with your studies. Set your alarms and follow them; don’t clock-watch while studying. As we mentioned earlier, your ability to focus diminishes while you’re anxious or depressed so you don’t want to split your focus. Even something as small as checking the time every few minutes can chip away at your attention and make it harder for anything to stick.

Take Breaks

Something to consider with your study alarms: program in a break or two during your sessions. Study breaks are very important! Think of your brain like a laptop or car engine - it can “overheat” from too much use. Your brain needs time to relax and process what it’s learned. That’s why stepping away for even five minutes after an hour of work is so important: it helps your mind reset itself.

Breaks are important because they also provide you an opportunity to get in some quick movement and exercise. Studying is a sedentary activity, so getting up to stretch, relax your muscles, and move around for a bit helps you stay healthy and can give your mood a much-needed jolt of energy.

This philosophy isn’t just applicable to studying. Spending a couple of hours on the couch reading for pleasure or watching a movie? Making a point to stop every 50-60 minutes to do some movement will do you a world of good. Depression encourages sedentary activity, so it’s important to make the effort to get up and move around, especially when you don’t feel like it.

Ask For Help

Don’t be afraid to ask your friends and family for help when you’re struggling.

“It is important to delegate tasks when you are feeling overwhelmed and depressed,” said Rio Salado Counselor Autumn Cardenez. “It is also important to delegate tasks when someone has very high-priority homework, work, and projects due. I highly recommend reaching out to family and friends with a simple request for help. A long explanation isn’t necessary: just a simple statement like ‘I have a lot of homework due along with my expectations at work. I would really appreciate you helping with the household chores this week.’ It’s also just as important to remember not everyone will do things like you do. If you delegate a task then let it go and step away.”

Self-Care Is Critical

Whether your depression is a chronic condition or something happening because of a recent life experience, it’s important to take time to take care of yourself. Seeing a professional is important; Rio Salado has counselors on hand who can help you take next steps to find resources that can help you deal with your depression or anxiety. You can also take measures on your home to give you some added relief. Beginning a meditation practice - something as simple as focusing on your breathing for a few minutes- can help briefly center yourself and potentially alleviate some of your symptoms.

While studying is crucial, it’s just as important to take time to enjoy yourself. Put time aside in your day to find joy where you can: be with people, do hobbies, eat foods you love, appreciate some art or music you love. Doing these things can be a welcome distraction from your depression. They may not get rid of those feelings but they can remind you of what’s good in your life, what’s constant, and what’s worth engaging with on a regular basis.

Need more study tips? Check out this playlist of student success tip videos made by our Advisement and Counseling teams! Here’s a few recommended videos to get you started:

Article by Austin Brietta