Ease Back to School Anxiety for College Students

Written by Rachel H.

August 29, 2022

If you’re heading back to campus soon and feeling nervous about it, first know that you are not alone. Transitions can be tough, especially for folks who struggle with anxious thoughts and feelings and tend to go to the “worst case scenarios” when thinking about what lies ahead. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been living even more in a world of unknowns and uncertainties than ever, and many college students are struggling with anxiety and its often-times-accomplice depression. 

In addition to the already-present stresses of college life: academic pressure, social challenges, worry about what happens post-college to name a few – the impact of social isolation, challenges of virtual classes especially for those who are neurodiverse, worry over one’s health and the health of friends/families – can still be felt.

The first step to taming the anxiety is to name it, and know that it’s a completely natural reaction to the ongoing global stress of the past 2.5 years, as well as personal struggles and challenges you might be experiencing. 

While there is much that is outside of our control, there are plenty of action and mindset shifts we can take to aid in easing any anxiety that’s coming up as you transition from summer mode to back to school.

Let Go of the Pressure

It can be helpful to start by looking at how the expectations of others and/or yourself might be impacting you. Do you feel a lot of pressure around “making the most” out of your college experience or maintaining perfect grades? 

Get curious about the messages you are getting (or have gotten) from caregivers, teachers, etc., throughout your life, and ask yourself if they are beliefs that you want to continue to carry within you. If your internal dialogue is sounding more like a drill sergeant or bully, see if you can shift the self-talk to what a supportive coach or guide might say (if you can’t think of anything, ask yourself: “what might I tell a friend who’s having similar harsh thoughts about themselves?”)

Tend to Your Mind and Body 

With the pressures of academics and keeping up with extracurriculars and social circles, care of our minds and bodies can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Things like getting enough sleep, joyful movement (my preferred term over “exercise”), and taking time for rest and relaxation can have a direct impact on how anxious we feel on a day-to-day basis. 

It might feel like you don’t have the time to add “one more thing” into your day, but remember these don’t have to be big changes. Just going for a short walk or trying a five-minute breathing or mindfulness exercise (I often recommend the app “insight timer”) can go a long way to helping you regroup, reset, and come back to whatever it is you’re working on.

Differentiate between “real problem” and “hypothetical” worry

“Real problem” worries are issues that you are faced with “right now” (such as a school assignment that is past due), while “hypothetical” worries project into the future about what might happen (for example: “what if I fail out of school?”).

Real problem worries are things we can take action on right now: for example, if your assigment is late, there are steps you can take such as reaching out to your professor to ask for an extension. Hypothetical worries are often in the realm of worst case scenarios.

If you find yourself caught in a thought loop around a hypothetical worry, try taking a step back by noticing that you’re having a thought that’s causing you emotional distress. See if you can send yourself some compassion for this very human experience, and perhaps visualize the thought floating away like a cloud in the sky.

Get Intentional About Your Support System

Times of high stress and anxiety can offer an opportunity to look at your current relationships and ask yourself if they feel more draining or are adding to the stress levels rather than feeling supportive. Try to prioritize spending time with people who validate your feelings and offer support and encouragement. 

If you’re feeling lonely or looking to make new connections with more like-minded people, it might be helpful to consider extracurricular activities, support groups and/or clubs on and off campus that capture your interest.

Talk to Someone

Most colleges and universities have built-in mental health support such as a counseling center, so looking into what’s available to you as a student can be a good first step. If the counseling center has a waitlist, you can ask if they have a list of referrals for local off-campus mental health services. 

I love helping college students find more external and internal support systems around managing anxiety and other overwhelming feelings. If you’re interested in scheduling a free fifteen minute phone or zoom consultation, you can do that here.

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