Feeling Uneasy After Returning to Campus? Experts Share Strategies For Overcoming Anxiety

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College campuses have officially reopened, and if the pressure surrounding this new phase of adulthood wasn’t enough, students are now having to navigate the challenges of attending school in the midst of a pandemic — often after months and months of remote learning. Needless to say, if you’re dealing with overwhelming anxiety and persistent worry about returning to campus, you’re not alone. What was once a huge milestone of leaving the nest and pursuing an exciting new career has been muddled with uncertainty. The good news is there are ways to alleviate some of those daunting worries and keep your spirits high. POPSUGAR spoke with mental health experts to help ensure your transition back into the classroom is as smooth as possible.

What Are Symptoms of Back-to-School Anxiety?

Symptoms of back-to-school anxiety may or may not be as obvious or clear on the surface. According to Adria Hagg, LCSW, this specific anxiety can manifest in different ways. “Symptoms of anxiety are often somatic and may unfold in both the mind and body. Some students have reported symptoms such as the inability to concentrate, shaking, sweating, rapid heartbeat, racing thoughts, restlessness, and insomnia,” Hagg told POPSUGAR. “Other students exhibit avoidance behaviors, heightened fears, or a reluctance to leave home.”

In addition to getting good grades or navigating your newfound independence, your personal safety may rank high on your list of concerns. If worries about your health and the safety precautions on campus are keeping you up at night, this may be a sign that you’re dealing with anxiety about in-person learning. Natasha Bryant, LCSW, explained how these anxious thoughts might sound: Are people going to be wearing masks in the classroom? What if someone gets COVID? How will I find out? What if I start feeling uncomfortable being in a room with so many people? “The worrying thoughts can cause heart racing, sleep disturbance, class avoidance, concentration difficulties, and loss of appetite,” Bryant said. If you identify with these symptoms, you’ll be relieved to know there are coping mechanisms that can help you keep your anxiety at bay.

How to Cope With Your Anxiety About Returning to Campus

As you assimilate to this new normal, remember that you’re not alone in having racing thoughts. Others share the same concerns. “It’s important to normalize uncomfortable emotions such as anxiety but not necessarily the thoughts that come with it,” Hagg explained. “In the moment, it is helpful to be present and say, ‘It’s OK, I am anxious right now,’ and then challenge any negative thoughts.” For example, the concerns that you won’t be able to make friends after so many months of remote learning or that you’re going to get sick despite taking precautions.

Accepting your anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with those thoughts. “Just because we think it does not make it true,” Hagg said. “Validating our emotions is important because it takes the shame out of what we are experiencing.” Making peace with your anxiety may seem overwhelming, but remember that it’s a constant work in progress. Once you can accept that you’re not the only one who feels this way, you can start to make meaningful changes.

1. Focus on what you can control.

Worries tend to reside in the unknown, including the actions and reactions of others. Recentering your thoughts to focus on what’s within your power can help you move forward with less worry. “Focusing on what one can control will increase feelings of hopefulness and decrease stress,” Bryant said. “For example, a student cannot control who wears masks and how information about COVID is released because they are not a decision-maker in those areas, but a student does have control over how they can keep themselves safe.” Taking ownership of your own actions and decisions can help you reclaim power.

2. Practice mindfulness each morning.

Your morning has the power to set the tone for the rest of the day, so be sure to implement healthy practices in your routine to help ease stress and anxiety. Bryant recommends starting the day with a mindfulness exercise to release yourself from worry and focus on the present. “The Anxiety Trap causes thinking to get stuck in the past or the future,” Bryant explained. “Mindfulness helps refocus on the now.” For just a few minutes each morning, try counting your breaths or paying attention to the sounds in the room, or while you’re in the shower, focus solely on the water pressure or temperature and the smells of your soap and shampoo.

3. Use imagery to ease anxiety.

Often when we worry, our minds create vivid images of what’s to come or what might be. Learning how to restructure your thoughts is a great way to minimize your persistent worries. When your mind starts to wander and you start creating images in your head, try to rewrite the script. “Take three to five minutes to sit quietly and imagine having a positive in-person learning experience. Imagine yourself in the classroom safely sitting in your seat, confidently asking questions and/or engaging in the class discussion, insightfully taking notes, and feeling peaceful,” Bryant said. This helps you gain control of your thoughts and brings the possibility of good experiences to the forefront.

4. Take up journaling or vlogging.

Let’s face it, the only way out is through. A crucial part of healing your anxious thoughts is finding ways to process them in a healthy way. “Worrying thoughts can lead to responses like avoidance because it is based on believing that the thought is true without testing the reality,” Bryant said. “When we assume the worst, many times the outcome isn’t as bad as we thought it would be.” When you can document your worries, you can work through them and refer back to them if those thoughts reemerge. “Journaling or vlogging about your experience will help process worrying thoughts and your actual experience. Through reflection, you will be able to defeat worrying thoughts,” Bryant explained.

The bottom line: you’re not alone. The transition back to campus doesn’t have to feel isolating. Adding healthy habits to your daily routine is a good first step in wrangling your anxious thoughts, but don’t forget, leaning on the support from your classmates, mentors, professors, and friends can also help steer you in the right direction.

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