Written by therapist Pete Marlow
The store shelves have been filled up for a while with school supplies and the ads are all over promoting back-to-school season. I was never a fan of the schooling part of my undergrad experience, so this time never, “sparked joy,” for me. I would dread having to go sit in a classroom and listen to a lecture and would put off getting myself into a routine that set me up to be successful as I just didn’t want to be there. That’s just my experience though. There are so many other reasons students could be feeling anxious about going back to school. This could be the first time your school is back in-person after COVID and you’re worried you won’t know how to act properly in typical social situations you encounter. You could be going off to college for your first semester and leaving a strong support system at home. Even if none of these are true for you, college is normally just a high-stress environment with papers due, exams to study for, and figuring out your identity, just to name a few challenges. College is the first time you’re truly navigating life as an adult and it’s stressful. Here are a few things I hope are helpful that I wish someone had told me way back when I was in school.
Tools To Manage Back-To-School Anxiety
Identify stress triggers. This can be done by keeping a log of stress triggers you notice. Example triggers include social situations, upcoming exams, relationship issues, and negative self-talk, to name a few. Once you know all of these triggers, then you can begin to figure out how to avoid them or figure out ways to reduce their effect on you in the future.
Self-care. When we get stressed, self-care is often what gets thrown to the wayside quickest because we think whatever is causing the stress is more important in the moment. This involves regular exercise, eating healthy, and taking time to participate in activities you enjoy. Making time for this stuff has a lasting effect on your mental health.
Mindfulness and grounding exercises. These are simple practices that you can do for as short a time as a few minutes that help you get back to the present moment. When you’re anxious, you’re not really in the present moment, but you’re in, “anxiety land,” which can feel like reality. Doing these practices regularly deepen your ability to be more at peace throughout the day. Mindfulness exercises include deep breathing, which can look like focusing on where in your body you feel the stress and imagining you are pushing out the anxiety from that part of your body as you exhale. Meditating on something or someone you are grateful for is a helpful way to have something to gently pull your attention back to. Grounding exercises include naming all the movies of one of your favorite actors or taking time to stop and observe the different objects around you whether you’re inside or outside.
Consistent journaling. I often suggest this to clients as it can act as a secondary counselor in-between sessions. Taking time during your day to process everything happening in your life will help you gain perspective and can be very cathartic.
Managing Your Heavy Workload
The best thing to do before you even get back to campus is create a schedule for yourself. When are you in class? When do you have to go to your job? When can you regularly fit study time in? There’s nothing glamorous about it, but this can save you some pain moving forward. Once you’re back in classes and you have study time built into your schedule, make sure to prioritize what tasks are most important for you to get done during your study time for the day. Also, don’t forget self-care! Taking regular 5 minute breaks as you study can give your brain a much needed rest. Longer breaks during the day should also be incorporated where you can have time to exercise, read, listen to music, play video games, or whatever helps you recharge.
Your professor assigning a paper or some other time-consuming task can seem overwhelming. When you feel overwhelmed, you may have a greater desire to procrastinate. But don’t fall into the trap! There’s an easy way to not feel daunted. You can break that big assignment down into several different pieces and work on each piece separately one at a time. It’s better to have some work to do consistently for a few days instead of ruining a few days by being anxious about starting the assignment, waiting until the last minute, and rushing to finish it.
Practice self-compassion and don’t expect perfection, since it isn’t attainable.
There is always room for improvement, but it’s important to appreciate the job well done. After that, you can look at ways you could improve your performance next time. It can be helpful to imagine one of your friends is frustrated by a lower grade than they expected and thinking about what you would say to them. Odds are that it’s a lot nicer than what you say to yourself. Show that type of compassion to yourself.
Heading back to school can feel intimidating. Planning ahead now can help you in the long run and give you confidence stepping back on campus. If this post struck a chord with you and you think you could use some help putting these practices into place, contact a counselor at Optimum Joy today! We would love to help guide you.