1 Navigating Principles of Psychology

By Jeremy G. Stewart & Melissa Milanovic


Principles of Psychology (PSYC100) at Queen’s University is a course where we regularly hear that: a) students typically really enjoy the course, and b) students find the course challenging. The goal of this module is to provide an overview of some of the challenges of taking PSYC100 at Queen’s University and strategies to overcome them. In this chapter, we first describe what you know from experience: University life, in general, is at once exciting and demanding. The demands of University life provide the backdrop for the particular challenges that we think are most central to Principles of Psychology. We divide these challenges into those that have most to do with the academic content and those involving our emotional experiences while taking the course. We end by describing evidence-based strategies to overcome these academic and emotional challenges. We hope that this information will act as a reference or starting point to set you up for the best possible outcomes in this course.

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe factors that impact adjustment to post-secondary education, and that predict success.
  2. Understand that psychology is a broad science that integrates diverse approaches and methodologies that have their roots in other disciplines (e.g., Biology, Mathematics, Philosophy).
  3. Learn the scope of mental health problems faced by University students (including those enrolled in Principles of Psychology) and how that might affect working with course content.
  4. Define trigger warnings and describe the existing evidence for why they are not used in Principles of Psychology.
  5. Understand and use (where appropriate) strategies to overcome the academic challenges that this course may present.
  6. Understand and use (where appropriate) strategies to overcome the emotional challenges that this course may present.

University Life

Attending university is unquestionably a privilege. For many, their university years are a momentous period wherein their lives are enriched academically, socially, and emotionally. These years are rife with change; many people transition from late adolescence dependent on parents and/or other caregivers to adults entering the workforce to begin their careers. Along with excitement and opportunity, university life also brings a slew of normative demands and stressors. The approaches you take to navigating the academic and emotional challenges of this course, in particular, need to be weighed in the context of adjustment to university life in general.

There is now a large research literature on academic adjustment, defined as one’s ability to adequately cope with the demands of post-secondary education. The concept encompasses much more than doing well in courses; it also includes one’s motivation to learn, satisfaction with University life, and a sense of goals and purpose (e.g., Baker & Siryk, 1986). It also includes non-academic factors, particularly one’s social and emotional adaptation to University.

Not surprisingly, better academic adjustment predicts degree completion and academic achievement (Brady-Amoon & Fuentes, 2011; Gerdes & Mallinckrodt, 1994). That said, if you are in your first year (or even upper years), there are a number of challenges that you may be navigating that can impact your adjustment. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Loneliness. This state of mind may be attributed to separation from family, high school and/or hometown friends, and other important people in your life.
  • Financial stress. University is expensive and you may be faced with debt, the need to reduce expenses, and/or needing to increase income (e.g., through a part-time job).
  • Class format. Many university classes are large (each PSYC100 section has at least 400 students formally enrolled), somewhat impersonal, and have less structure than a typical high school classroom. This format creates many challenges, including opportunities for distraction.
  • Freedom. Most students have much more independence in university than they did before. With freedom and flexibility comes the need to regulate key aspects of your life, including sleep, diet, study schedule, and exercise.
  • Social opportunities. University involves meeting new people with experiences, beliefs, and passions that may substantially diverge from your own. This opportunity is exciting and leads to forming new peer groups and relationships. At the same time, there is a need to choose whether or not to engage in certain recreation activities, and more broadly, how to balance one’s work life and social life.
  • Personal and emotional problems. From a developmental perspective, the years during which many attend undergraduate university programs – between late adolescence and late 20s – are critical for developing personal values, beliefs, and goals, as well as intimate, trusting relationships (e.g., Erikson, 1963). Questioning one’s purpose, self-worth, relationships, etc. is normal. That said, doing so can also contribute to emotional turmoil and personal crises (more on personal and emotional challenges below).

In sum, the challenges of this Introductory Psychology course, or any course you might take, do not occur in a vacuum, but instead exist in the context of the many other demands that university life presents. This point is important to remember. We are not suggesting that PSYC100 is the only challenge in your life (we are sure that is far from true) and we do not believe that the strategies we suggest for navigating the course are “one size fits all”. We hope to shed light on some of the more common barriers, and provide a useful starting point for building a set of individualized skills and strategies.

The following video provides some general insights into university life, and ways to approach your studying.

Challenges in Principles of Psychology

At Queen’s University (and, we suspect, at many other institutions) Principles of Psychology is not a “bird course” (i.e., a course in which it is very easy to get a high grade). In fact, www.birdcourses.com rates the course a “C” for “birdiness” — their scale is the academic letter grade system, with F being the most difficult / least “birdy” course — based on input from students who have taken it in the past decade. Overall, we agree with this assessment – from our perspective, Principles of Psychology is one of the more rewarding and interesting courses offered at Queen’s. However, part of what makes it this way is also why it presents both academic and emotional challenges for students.

Academic Challenges

Psychology is a science. Perhaps the most common source of academic difficulties in Principles of Psychology stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what psychology is. Many find the degree to which topics like neuroanatomy, endocrinology, reproductive biology, genetics, statistics, and research methods (to name a few!) are emphasized in Principles of Psychology surprising. There is a misconception that knowledge of these topics is only relevant to “hard sciences” like Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, etc. While understandable, this view is an unhelpful, false dichotomy that we strive to debunk in this course.

The study of psychology is firmly grounded in empiricism and the scientific method. In order to understand and interpret research in psychology, it is critical to have a firm grasp of research design, hypothesis testing, and statistics. Further, one of the most exciting things about Psychology is that it is multi-disciplinary. Our thoughts and behaviors are complex, and to understand them, scientists must draw on theory and methods from diverse disciplines. One example of drawing on information from diverse fields is the National Institute of Mental Health’s influential Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) project. Launched in 2008, the RDoC framework has shaped how scientists study the causes and symptoms of mental illnesses. A core RDoC tenant is that mental illness must be classified and studied at multiple “units of analysis” (e.g., molecules, cells, brain circuits, behaviours). Guided by this comprehensive understanding of mental illness, scientists and clinicians have made breakthroughs in treatment and prevention.

What does all of this mean? The bottom line is that some of the content in Principles of Psychology will overlap (and even extend) material that you may see in courses in Biology, Chemistry, Statistics, Mathematics, and others. For instance, you will learn about the anatomy and physiology of structures involved in sensation and perception, and about the statistical properties of a normal curve. Learning content that overlaps with a range of other disciplines is undoubtedly a tall order for students to tackle, but the variability and multi-disciplinary nature of psychological science is what makes it a fascinating and rewarding area of study.

Psychology is very broad. Related to the point above, Principles of Psychology covers considerable ground in the 24 weeks allotted to lectures and labs. Topics touch on many of the major disciplines in psychology, including Sensation and Perception, Clinical Psychology, Neuroscience, Developmental Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology, Learning/Behavioural Psychology, and Cognitive Psychology. These areas of psychology are in and of themselves very broad (indeed, our department devotes several upper year courses to each) and include multiple sub-disciplines. The course also touches on the history of psychology, research methods, and statistics. So, a lot to accomplish in a short period of time!

One challenging aspect is learning and mastering a lot of information. The diversity of topics covered makes this learning tricky, as you might feel as though you are “shifting gears” frequently, rather than cruising seamlessly from one content area to the next. This challenge makes students more flexible, efficient, and altogether better learners, and this is one of the benefits of studying psychology. So the potential added layer of difficulty in the short-term is worthwhile in the long term! Second, lectures, readings, learning labs, and quizzes will emphasize common threads or connections among course topics. We have made an effort to have content build on itself wherever possible, and to demonstrate how very diverse areas of psychology share common basic principles and themes.

Multiple Methods of Learning. Especially in the blended version of Principles of Psychology (students attend lecture), the material is presented and learned in several formats. Relative to traditional models, this instructional approach improves performance and attendance, partly because students prefer blended courses to traditional courses (Stockwell et al., 2015). However, active engagement with course material (e.g., preparing for and participating in learning labs; completing quizzes; preparing for lecture by reviewing and annotating textbook readings) takes time. It also is harder than passively absorbing content by simply “showing up” for weekly lectures and labs. Making full use of the different ways of learning offered in Principles of Psychology may mean prioritizing them regularly from week-to-week.

Fully benefitting from the richness Principles of Psychology demands organization, scheduling, and planning ahead. University life is busy and presents opportunities and challenges that you will be juggling while enrolled in this course. AndPrinciples of Psychology is only one of the courses in which you are enrolled! Thus, in many ways, this course (and most others) asks you to reflect on what’s important to you and purposefully adjust your behavior so that it is in line with your priorities and goals. This reflection takes self-knowledge and maturity; it’s disarmingly difficult at times to act in a value-consistent manner. In fact, some psychotherapies aim to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in part by helping patients identify values and change behaviour in accordance with them (e.g., Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2011). Structuring your time (see “Strategies to Overcome Academic Challenges” below) is a great place to start. If nothing else, it can make a proverbial mountain look more like a molehill, and is a good way to set yourself up for success in this course.

Emotional Challenges

Principles of Psychology may be more emotionally taxing than many or all of your other courses. Generally, this response is because much of (but not all) of the content tackles human processes – how we perceive, think, feel, and behave. In short, the course content can be highly relatable, and you may make connections with what you’ve learned about yourself, your loved ones, and/or other important people in your life. In our experience, this relatability interacts with what students bring into the course. We can all probably think about significant hardships we’ve endured and moments in our lives that have tested us to our limits; we all bring our unique emotional histories. Here, we focus briefly on what we know about the mental health of university students and aspects of the course content that may be especially challenging for those with lived experience with mental illness.

University Mental Health. In late 2014, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Mental Health International College Student (WMH-ICS) surveys were launched. The initial round of surveys were completed by over 14,000 first-year university students across 19 institutions in 8 countries. The scope and rigor of these surveys has already provided unparalleled insight into the mental health of university students and the impact mental illness has on adjustment and functioning.

The results are sobering. More than 1 in 3 (35.3%) of first year students reported at least one diagnosable mental illness (according to the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders [4th ed.]; DSM-IV; American Psychiatric Association, 1994) in their lifetimes. Among these, the most common were Major Depressive Disorder (21.2%) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (18.6%), mental illnesses characterized by low mood and/or a lack of pleasure and persistent, frequent anxiety, respectively. Although less common, alcohol and substance use disorders affected more than 1 in 5 students (Auerbach et al., 2018). Critically, more than 80% of these mental illnesses began prior to the start of university, and fewer than 1 in 5 students with at least one mental illness reported receiving even minimally adequate treatment in the year prior to being surveyed. Perhaps consequently, pre-matriculation mental illnesses are related to University attrition (Auerbach et al., 2016).

The WMH-ICS surveys also have shed light on how common suicidal thoughts and behaviors may be among incoming students. In their lifetimes, nearly one-third (32.7%) of students reported seriously thinking of killing themselves on purpose (i.e., suicidal ideation) while 17.5% (more than 1 in 6) reported having made a plan to die by suicide (e.g., what method they would use and where they would do it). Finally, before starting University, more than 1 in 25 students (4.3%) reported having done something to purposefully injure themselves with some intent to die by their own hands (i.e., a suicide attempt) (Mortier et al., 2018). Further, an additional 4.8% to 6.4% of students experienced first onsets of suicidal thoughts or behaviours during university annually (Mortier et al., 2016). That means that each year, we would expect approximately 1 in 5 students who had never experienced suicidal thoughts and behaviours in their lives to first report them in any given university year.

These are alarming statistics. It may not be surprising that the presence of mental illness(es) and/or suicidal thoughts and behaviours are associated with poorer academic performance (Bruffaerts et al., 2018; Mortier et al., 2015) and not completing one’s program of study (Auerbach et al., 2016). However, mental illness and suicide can impact our lives in indirect ways, even if we are not personally coping with these. Given how widespread these problems are, if we ourselves are not experiencing symptoms related to mental illness and/or suicidal thoughts and behaviours, someone we love and are very close to—a parent, sibling, partner, friend—certainly is.

There are two take-home points from this discussion. First, mental health problems are common. If you are coping with them, you certainly aren’t alone. Research suggests that mental illness reduces student academic success and adjustment in university overall, but very few people receive the treatment that might help. Accessing personal support systems and professional help will increase your ability to navigate university life (see strategies below as well). Second, your lived experiences with symptoms related to mental illness will provide a unique lens through which to view the material; it may also leave you open to strong and/or unexpected reactions to aspects of the course content. It’s impossible to predict what may be most jarring; nonetheless, below we turn to some notable parts of the course content that may be most emotionally challenging.

Course content. As much of the content of Principles of Psychology concerns the study of us – what we think and feel, how we act, and what we experience – parts of the material may resonate with you deeply. Indeed, we hope this is the case! The potential downside is you may come across content that you find challenging or activating.

Given the prevalence of mental illness and suicide in the general population, an obvious area in which you may face some tough course content is the Clinical Psychology section. This section will: give a broad overview of the history of mental illness; cover the symptoms, course, and causes of several psychiatric conditions; and discuss available treatments. Hearing about the specific symptoms of mental illnesses and the impacts these can have on people’s lives can remind us of our own personal experiences and/or what our loved ones have been through. In general, hearing about precursors to psychiatric symptoms – for example, child abuse, major traumatic events (e.g., being the victim of violence), and substance use – can be upsetting. Hearing about the hardships people face and the fundamental inequalities that can bring on and perpetuate mental illness can be moving. A challenge of this course, and this section in particular, is noticing how these things impact us, taking care of ourselves as needed, and using our experiences as fuel for our scholarship. These challenges are tricky to accomplish, and we provide some strategies that could prove helpful below.

The emotional challenges of the course content do not end necessarily with the Clinical Psychology section. For example, a major topic in Social Psychology concerns how people create “in groups” (others with whom one feels they have a lot in common) and “out groups” (others who share few of one’s broad characteristics and/or belies). Creating these dichotomies has an important evolutionary and interpersonal function. Nonetheless, our tendency to think in terms of “in groups” and “out groups” can contribute to stereotypes, bigotry, and hatred. Many of us and particularly those with lived experience of discrimination may find this difficult to discuss and learn about. As another example, a large and vibrant area of research in Developmental Psychology concerns how children form caring relationships with their parents, and how those relationships are fostered (or thwarted) by parenting practices over time. Learning about attachment styles (e.g., Bowlby, 1969) can be quite provocative depending on your experiences with being cared for and parented when you were young.

The key take away is that, more than many other courses, the content within Principles of Psychology may trigger strong feelings and reactions. We think that the strong emotions psychology may generate is a strength of psychology and something that can make it intrinsically fascinating. We also think that the potential for content to be provocative is something to keep in the back of your mind and watch in a very purposeful way (see more below).

Strategies for Successfully Navigating this Course

Strategies to Overcome Academic Challenges

The change from a high school to university course load can feel dramatic. Suddenly there are extensive readings to complete each week, assignments to stay on top of, and examinations to prepare for, across multiple courses. It can be easy to become overwhelmed with the amount of academic material to manage. The following are some strategies to help manage your academic demands to help facilitate your ability to manage your time effectively.

Scheduling your time. It is very helpful to get into the habit of creating a weekly schedule. This scheduling not only helps you to sort out what work you plan to focus on each week, and when, but also ensures you are scheduling balanced activities into your life outside of your academics. Having a schedule can lead you to be more productive with your time and manage feelings of being overwhelmed by all of the things you need to do each week.

The Student Academic Success Services at Queen’s University provides a helpful technique for generating a weekly schedule (http://sass.queensu.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Weekly-Schedule-Template-2019.docx.pdf) that helps you to make sure you are scheduling your time to include all of your fixed commitments (such as classes, appointments, and team meetings), health habits (such as eating, sleeping, exercise and relaxing), time for homework and everything else (including grocery shopping, laundry, and socializing).

Keeping focused. Do you get easily distracted? Perhaps when you sit down to do some work, your mind wanders to all the other things you need to do, such as “will I remember to text my friend later to hang out?” or “I have to remember to do that online quiz before tomorrow night”. Using a distraction pad to write down wandering thoughts and to-do items while you are working can help you to make sure you are not forgetting anything important, by writing them down for later. This practice also keeps you from getting distracted by going to do the task that has popped into your mind while working on something else.

Getting distracting thoughts out of your head by writing them down on paper can help you focus on the task at hand. You can then set a specific time each evening to review your distraction pad, at which time you can decide which items are insignificant and can be forgotten, and which items are important. You can then turn the important items into specific actions, and plan for when you will tackle them by slotting them into your weekly schedule.

Not only can your thoughts distract you from attending to your work, but electronic devices also can be very distracting. It is important that each time you sit down to complete a session of work, you decide if you need your digital device in order to do it. If you do not need it, consider leaving your phone or computer in another room, or at home if you plan to work somewhere outside of your home. If you do need your device, consider blocking unnecessary sites with digital applications, or schedule short breaks (e.g., 5-10 minutes) approximately every hour to check for notifications on social media. Of course, everyone’s attention span is different, so it is important that you find the limits of your attention for a particular task. Once you have figured out how long you can focus for on the particular activity or subject, you can break down your tasks into goals or chunks of work that you anticipate will take that long to complete.

Effective Studying. Finding a place to work. Where do you study most often? When you are sitting down to do your school work, consider your environment. Are you someone who needs a quiet space, or do you prefer to be around people and music? How distracted do you get by your phone and computer? Reflect on what the ideal work environment is for you, and plan to find a space that is most conducive to your own ability to focus when planning to do your coursework. You may not know what works best for you yet, and that is okay! Try out a few spaces (e.g., residence room, coffee shop, library cubicle, study rooms on campus) before making your decision.

Setting yourself up for success.  Before you start a session of work, set a goal for yourself. For example, I would like to read this week’s chapter for Psych 100 in the next 50 minutes. Set a time commitment to your goal, minimize distractions, and be sure to schedule yourself a break so that you can rest your mind before moving on to the next task.

The skills discussed so far take practice to develop, and they may be new skills for you. Now is a great time to connect with people who are trained to teach and develop good study habits. At Queen’s University, we have an entire team dedicated to helping students learn how to learn. The team is called Student Academic Success Services, or SASS for short.  SASS has a number of learning and writing resources to assist you with your academics, including free 1-on-1 appointments with learning strategists for Queen’s students (https://sass.queensu.ca/).

Strategies to Overcome Emotional Challenges

Forewarned is forearmed. Among the emotional challenges of Principles of Psychology is encountering material that could be upsetting to you. Upsetting content could be something you read in your textbook, read or watch online, or hear in lecture. Oftentimes course content that is most likely to affect us connects with some important experiences we have had, or that have happened to people we love, or both.

A deceptively simple strategy for addressing the emotional challenges of this course is looking well ahead in your syllabus. Doing so might allow you to identify, well in advance, topics that you might find difficult to learn and/or read about because of personal experiences. This approach would give you time to find out more about the content by asking your teaching assistants, instructors, or course coordinators (e.g., Undergraduate Chair in Psychology). Knowing what’s coming might allow you to prepare for certain topics. For instance, you might decide to review and practice some recommended coping skills (described below) and/or recruit a friend, partner, or other source of support to attend a lecture with you. Further, you might schedule activities that you find fun or distracting on days you know you will be encountering content you are likely to find distressing.

Although you may come across them in other courses, Principles of Psychology does not give trigger warnings for any course content. The reasons are both scientific and pedagogical. From a scientific standpoint, studies that have investigated the effects of trigger warnings are mixed, but the bottom line is they either have no impact or a slightly negative impact on overall student well-being. On the pedagogical side, the use of trigger warnings may lead to the avoidance of course material which impedes learning this material. Beyond course material, a more important learning opportunity also may be missed. Since trigger warnings may encourage avoidance of things that are upsetting, there are no opportunities to experience potential “triggers” and learn that you can cope, that the threat is not as bad as you thought, or that the intense emotional reaction you have does not last forever. Indeed, this principle of exposure to things that may be triggering or upsetting is a cornerstone of psychological treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety disorders (e.g., Abramowitz, Deacon, & Whiteside, 2019; Foa, Hembree, & Rothbaum, 2007). Further, avoidance is a key mechanism that drives the persistence and worsening of many mental health symptoms (e.g., Ottenbreit, Dobson, & Quigley, 2014). For the interested reader, Box 1 presents more information about trigger warnings and further rationale for why these are not used in Principles of Psychology.

Trigger Warnings

Trigger warnings are advance notifications at the start of a video, piece of writing, or, in educational contexts, a lecture or topic, that contains potentially distressing material. Trigger warnings involve a description of the potentially distressing content with the goal of providing the opportunity to prepare for or avoid this content. On the surface, if trigger warnings help people cope with challenging information, this might reduce negative reactions and ultimately protect mental health.

Our primary reason for not using trigger warnings is the lack of scientific evidence that they do what they are supposed to. If trigger warnings protected students from discomfort or distress, using them might have benefits that outweigh their psychological costs (see below). For instance, in a series of carefully designed experiments, Bridgland and colleagues (2019) gave some participants trigger warnings about a graphic photo and measured their levels of negative affect (e.g., adjectives like “distressed”) and anxiety before and after viewing the photo. Another group of participants did not receive any warning. In five separate studies, the groups (warned and unwarned) did not differ in their emotional reactions to graphic, upsetting content. This general effect – that trigger warnings do not impact emotional reactions to potentially upsetting content – has been replicated in studies using a graphic written passage (Bellet, Jones, & McNally, 2018) and videos (Sanson, Strange, & Garry, 2019). Sanson and colleagues (2019) summarize their series of six well designed studies as follows: “people who saw trigger warnings, compared to people who did not, judged material to be similarly negative, experienced similarly frequent intrusive thoughts and avoidance, and comprehended subsequent material similarly well.” Ultimately, trigger warnings are not helping to reduce or offset the things that they are supposed to (e.g., distress, intrusive memories), which raises questions about their appropriateness for educational contexts.

You may be thinking that, even if they are not overtly helpful, trigger warnings can’t hurt, so why not use them? Although “hurt” may be an exaggeration, there is emerging evidence that trigger warnings may have unintended negative consequences. The initial impetus for trigger warnings came out of clinical research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Briefly, some people with PTSD experience intense recollections (e.g., flashbacks; sensory experiences) of a traumatic event that are triggered by reminders of the trauma. Thus, it was thought warnings of these types of triggers might be helpful. However, critics of trigger warnings have long maintained that trigger warnings encourage avoidance (which fuels the persistence of symptoms and impedes learning coping strategies necessary for treatment) and increase the salience of trauma to an individual’s identity. The result is that PTSD symptoms worsen over time and people do not recover (McNally, 2014, 2016; Rosenthal et al., 2005). In line with these criticisms, studies have uncovered some of the negative side effects of trigger warnings. First, compared to the unwarned, those who receive trigger warnings report greater negative affect and anxiety before viewing the potentially distressing content (Bellet et al., 2018; Bridgland et al., 2019; Gainsburg & Earl, 2018). Second, people who receive trigger warnings avoid the content more (Bridgland et al., 2019; Gainsburg & Earl, 2018); in the context of a University course, this translates to missed learning opportunities in the absence of documented benefits. Finally, trigger warnings may affect people’s beliefs about their own resilience versus vulnerability. In one study, compared to unwarned participants, people who viewed trigger warnings rated themselves, and people in general, as more emotionally vulnerable following traumatic events (Bellet et al., 2018).

In balance, we think trigger warnings likely do very little to make tough content easier to consume. Further, we are concerned about the potential unintended side effects of such warnings. For those reasons, trigger warnings are not used in Principles of Psychology.

If not trigger warnings, then what?

There are ways to cope with potentially upsetting content that do not involve trigger warnings. Strategies that we recommend including:

  • Looking ahead at the syllabus
  • Reading keywords at the end of each chapter to see if content may be difficult
  • Connecting with a member of the instructional team if there is a specific area you are concerned about

If you know you will encounter information that may be distressing, some strategies for engaging with that content include:

  • Bringing a friend or family member to lecture on a day where content may be difficult
  • Planning light and fun activities following what may be a difficult lecture
  • Using coping and relaxation techniques, described below


Coping and Mental Hygiene. Coping means dedicating time and conscious effort to the management of your stress levels and problems that you are faced with. Stress can surface as a result of many factors, including homework, exams, work, volunteer positions, extracurricular activities, and problems in family and peer relations. When we are coping, we are utilizing techniques and engaging in activities that will help us minimize the effects of these stressors on our wellbeing.

A significant part of coping is recognizing the importance of mental hygiene. You are likely familiar with the term hygiene, which refers to practices we engage in that are important for maintaining our health and preventing diseases, such as showering and brushing our teeth. Mental hygiene follows the same general principle, referring to practices we engage in that are important for maintaining our mental health and preventing psychological conditions such as burnout and mental illness.

In this module we will discuss some coping skills that you can use to facilitate mental hygiene and manage your own wellness.

Self-care. You have likely heard of the term self-care. What does it mean to you?

True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from – Brianna Wiest

Self-care tends to get a reputation in society and the media as simply being the act of taking a bubble bath or eating chocolate to reward oneself. However, self-care is actually multi-faceted, consisting of all of the activities needed to promote and maintain your health, across multiple domains. It is about developing for yourself a life that you feel you can manage, enjoy, and not need to escape from. Self-care activities are not just physical activities, but also mental, emotional, and spiritual. These activities include nutrition, sleep, hygiene, exercise, time with family and friends, as well as time alone and leisure. To engage in self-care is to deliberately choose activities that are nourishing, restorative, and that strengthen your connections with others.

One of the things that makes self-care tricky is that there are many different areas. If you’re spending all your time and energy on your physical health and school, you may find you’re not getting enough social time! Similarly, if you are staying up really late every night of the week to spend time with friends, the exhaustion is going to catch up with you. An important part of engaging in self-care is finding what activities are restorative for you and being sure to schedule them into your week so that your schedule is well-balanced.

Our culture tends to reward people who deal with their stress by working harder and faster to produce more in a shorter time. You might feel compelled to do this, by engaging in cramming sessions to pump out work, and cutting out healthy habits in favour of freeing up more time to focus on studies. However, this behaviour can have a negative effect on your physical and mental health, which can result in burnout, which is a state of physical, mental and emotional collapse caused by overwork or stress.

Our bodies are equipped with something called the fight or flight system, which is activated when we are under stress. This response consists of a series of biochemical changes that prepare our bodies to deal with threat or danger. Primitive people needed rapid bursts in energy to fight or flee from predators such as saber-toothed tigers. This response can help us in threatening situations today, such as having to respond quickly to a car that cuts you off on the highway. However, not only can this system become activated when we are faced with serious dangers in our environment, but it also can activate when we are under a great deal of stress and feeling overwhelmed. Luckily, our bodies are also equipped with a relaxation response which can counter the activation of our fight/flight response.

Take a moment to consider how you relax. Some people enjoy down time, for example, reading an enjoyable book. Others might prefer scheduling time with friends, perhaps going out to dinner or seeing a movie. Some people relax through exercise or yoga. We are all different and what helps one person to relax won’t necessarily be what best helps another. It is important to find out what relaxing activities help you to unwind, and to be sure to make time for these activities throughout the week to help maintain mental wellness.

The following are some techniques you can try out, which can help you to manage your stress levels and overcome emotional challenges. These techniques are drawn from evidence-based therapy protocols (e.g., Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Beck, 1979, Beck, 2011; Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, Linehan, 2015; Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2011). These psychological therapies have been extensively researched, and are used to improve individuals’ well-being across multiple mental and physical health problems.

Deep breathing. Breathing is a fundamental necessity of life that we can often take for granted. Certain breathing patterns can contribute to feelings of anxiety, panic attacks, low mood, muscle tension and fatigue. When we’re anxious or stressed out, our breathing tends to become rapid and shallow. In contrast, when we are relaxed, our breathing is much deeper and slower. A technique that can help manage your stress levels, is to engage in deep breathing. This form of breathing has been found to be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and improving feelings of relaxation. When you recognize that you are breathing in a quick and shallow way, consciously make the choice to engage in slower breathing for a few minutes. For each breath, focus on inhaling air deep into the lungs through your nose as the abdomen expands. After holding this breath for a few moments, exhale the air out of your mouth, noticing your abdomen contracting. The process of deep breathing signals to your body that it is safe to relax and activates your relaxation response.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Maybe you have noticed when you are in a stressful situation or feeling overwhelmed that there is a tightening in your body. Perhaps you feel it in your shoulders, or back, or maybe you get headaches. When we are stressed, we hold tightness in our muscles and this sends signals to our brain that we are stressed out. Not only can this negatively affect how our bodies feel, but it can also influence our mood and our thoughts that we have. A good way to relax our mind, is to deliberately relax our body, taking purposeful steps to relax our muscles. Using the technique of progressive muscle relaxation, you go through each muscle group in your body, one by one, tensing the muscle groups and holding that tension for a several seconds, followed by releasing the tension in the muscle group. This relaxing of our tension sends feedback to our brain that we are feeling calm and relaxed.

Visualization. Have you ever heard people say “go to your happy place”? This saying may be a reference to a technique called visualization. Research (e.g., Rossman, 2000) shows that focusing the imagination in a positive way can result in a state of ease, mood regulation, and can have a relaxing effect (e.g., imagining a place where you feel calm and safe). Some people do this on their own by really imagining what this place looks like, feels like, and smells like. Some people prefer to be guided to a calm place with an audio track.

Grounding. Grounding is a set of simple strategies to help detach from emotional pain, such as sadness, anger, or anxiety. When you are feeling overwhelmed with emotion, it can be helpful to find a way to detach so that you can gain control of your feelings and cope. Grounding focuses on distraction strategies that help you cope with intense emotions and anchor you to the present moment. There are several ways that you can ground yourself, and it can be done any time, any place, and anywhere. When engaging in grounding, you want to focus on the present moment, rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.

Mental Grounding

  • – Describe your environment in detail using all of your senses. Describe what you see in the room, hear, taste, and smell. What is the temperature? What objects do you see, and what textures do you feel? For example: I am in the lecture hall. I see three brown walls, one in front and two to either side. I see a professor and she is pacing back and forth. The temperature is cool. I feel the armrests on my chair, and the pen in my hand.
  • – Play a categories game with yourself. Try to think of as many “types of animals”, “cars”, “TV shows”, “sports” as you can.
  • – Describe an everyday activity in great detail. For example, describing a meal that you cook (e.g., first I boil the water, then I put salt in it, then I pour the pasta noodles in, and while that is cooking I sauté vegetables and add them to tomato sauce)
  • – Use humour. Think of something funny, like a joke or a funny clip from a TV show that you enjoyed.
  • – Say a coping statement, such as I can handle this, I will be okay, I will get through this.

Physical Grounding

  • – Grab tightly the arm rests of your chair
  • – Touch objects around you for the tactile sensation, such as writing utensils, your clothing, or items in your pocket.
  • – Walk slowly, noticing each footstep that you take and how your foot curves as you bring it down to meet contact with the ground.
  • – Eat something and describe the flavour and texture of the bite to yourself as you hold the item of food in your mouth.

Planned exercise. Physical activity, in addition to having significant health benefit, is often recommended for emotional wellbeing as a technique for managing stress levels. Indeed, research has found that college students who exercised at least 3 days per week were less likely to report poor mental health and perceived stress than students who did not (Vankim & Nelson, 2013). Multiple studies indicate that physical activity improves mood and reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression (Rethorst et al., 2009; Rimer et al., 2012; Trivedi et al., 2011; Ross & Hayes, 1988; Stephens, 1988).

The Athletics and Recreation Centre (ARC) at Queen’s University offers a wide array of fitness opportunities to become active throughout the year, from fitness equipment, to swimming, gymnasiums, racquet courts and more (https://rec.gogaelsgo.com/sports/2013/7/26/Fac-Serv_0726133714.aspx)

Cultural, Diversity and Faith-based resources.

Culture influences our experience in many ways and can have a significant impact on our mental health, playing a role in how we relate to others, manage our emotions, and experience and express psychological distress (Roberts & Burleson, 2013). Queen’s University has several resources and spaces for individuals seeking cultural and spiritual connection:

Healthy eating. Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet is not only important for physical health, but also emotional and mental health. Negative affect (e.g., anxiety, frustration, sadness, boredom, depression, fatigue, stress) has been related to food consumption in order to distract oneself from, or cope with, it. The foods consumed are often the “comfort foods” with high sugar and fats, that can provide immediate satisfaction and may even manage mood in the short term; however, leading to greater preference for indulgent foods over healthy foods (Gardner et al., 2014). Research also shows that unhealthy dietary patterns are related to poorer mental health in youth (O’Neil et al., 2014).  Better overall diet quality and lower intake of simple carbohydrates and processed foods are related to lower depressive symptoms (Jacka et al., 2011; Mikolajczyk, Ansari, & Maxwell, 2009, Christensen & Somers, 1996; Quehl et al., 2017).  Canada’s Food Guide 2019 (https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/) is a great resource that provides tips and recipes for maintaining a healthy, balanced diet.

Thirty-nine percent of Canadian post-secondary students experience some degree of food insecurity, which ranges from worry about running out of food and having limited food selection, to missing meals, reducing food intake, or going without food for an entire day or longer due to lack of money for food. Queen’s University provides the Swipe it Forward program, for short-term meal support (https://dining.queensu.ca/swipeitforward/). The Queen’s University Student Government (AMS) offers a confidential and non-judgmental food bank service to members of the university community (https://myams.org/team-details/food-centre/)

Using Resources. If you find something in Principles of Psychology, or any course, to be very distressing (e.g., a discussion of mental health symptoms that you recognize in yourself) seeking help and support is also a very useful part of coping and mental hygiene. The staff (teaching assistants, course coordinator, and instructors) involved in Principles of Psychology can be good points of contact, especially for connecting you with University-based supports and accommodations (where relevant). If you are concerned about your mental health, here are some additional contacts that you might find useful:

Your family doctor

Book an appointment with your doctor. They can offer advice or refer you to other more specific services to get help. If you do not have a family doctor in Kingston or the surrounding area, Queen’s University Student Wellness Services has a team of doctors and other health professionals: (http://queensu.ca/studentwellness/health-services).

University Counselling Service

The Counselling Service at Queen’s University can help you to address personal or emotional problems that may be interfering with having a positive experience at Queen’s and reaching academic and personal success. This service offers a free and confidential service. The Counselling Service is not only for those with a diagnosis. It can be contacted for any reason: (http://queensu.ca/studentwellness/counselling-services)

Additional Counselling Services and Information Sources

Resolve Counselling (previously k3c) in Kingston: https://www.resolvecounselling.org/

Sexual Assault Centre Kingston: http://sackingston.com/

Teens Health (information resource): http://www.teenshealth.org/

Telephone Lines

24-hour crisis line in the Kingston area: 613-544-4229

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (https://kidshelpphone.ca/)

Telephone Aid Line Kingston (TALK) line: 613-544-1771 (http://www.telephoneaidlinekingston.com/)

Good2Talk (specific for post-secondary students): 1-866-925-5454 (https://good2talk.ca/)


If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts and think that you might be unable to keep yourself safe, visit Kingston General Hospital Emergency Department or call 911.

 Resources for Relaxation and Coping

BREATHE 2 RELAXBreathe2Relax includes breathing exercises to help you cope and relax

MINDSHIFTMindshift teaches you how to relax and cope with anxiety

VIRTUAL HOPE BOXVirtual Hope Box helps you with coping, relaxation, distraction, and positive thinking

THINKFULLThinkFull teaches you to cope with stress, solve problems, and live well

FLOWY – Flowy is a game that makes breathing fun, which can help with anxiety

 Websites and Free Downloads:

  1. AnxietyBCYouth :http://youth.anxietybc.com/don%E2%80%99t-tell-me-relax
    1. Audio files for mental vacation: http://youth.anxietybc.com/mental-vacations
    2. Visualization for confidence-building: http://youth.anxietybc.com/confidence-builders
  2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation For Management of Anxiety and Stress (Long Version WITH Music): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6053dnI4Rxg&feature=youtu.be
  3. McGill University Audio Files for Relaxation: https://www.mcgill.ca/counselling/getstarted/relax-meditate
  4. The benefits of exercising and how to start: http://youth.anxietybc.com/being-active-facts

Resources for Time Management

EVERNOTECapture, organize, and share notes from anywhere (computer or phone)

2DoTask manager that allows you to enter in your thoughts and ideas before you forget

30/30A task manager that allows you to set up a list of tasks, and a length of time for each of them. It uses a timer to tell you when to move on to the next task 

Websites and Free Downloads

  1. Remember the milk https://www.rememberthemilk.com/app/#all

An online to-do list and task manager (can be accessed by phone and computer)

  1. Google Calendar https://calendar.google.com/calendar

Online scheduling system, allows you to set reminders for scheduled events

  1. Joe’s Goals http://www.joesgoals.com

Online tool to keep track of your goals

  1. Self-control https://selfcontrolapp.com

Blocks access to distracting websites for a set period of time that you choose – while still allowing you access to the internet (for Macintosh computers)

  1. Freedom https://freedom.to

Website blocker to improve focus and productivity.

  1. RescueTime https://www.rescuetime.com

Shows you how you spend your time on your computer and provides tools to help you be more productive.

  1. The Pomodoro Technique https://cirillocompany.de/pages/pomodoro-technique

Use a timer to keep yourself on track, both for your working sessions and for your breaks

Free online timer at https://tomato-timer.com

  1. Anki https://apps.ankiweb.net

Create your own cue cards to help studying

  1. Dropbox https://www.dropbox.com

Helpful for working on team projects, and keeps all your files in one place that can be accessed from anywhere with internet (computers, phones)

  1. Student Academic Success Services at Queen’s University http://sass.queensu.ca/

Access time management templates, strategies, and tools


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