11 Tips for Anyone Feeling Anxious About This School YearWhether you’re heading to college or high school, bookmark this.
Raise your hand if going back to school fills you with ~complex~ emotions. Whether you’re going to high school or college or even grad school, there’s the thrill of getting new supplies, seeing your crush again, learning all the things, and escaping your strict parents (even if just for a few hours). The possibilities are endless! But there’s also the way the horrors persist (bullies, early morning routines, P.E., you know the type), making campus feel like hell on earth—or pretty close to it. Regardless of what school stress scenarios are swirling in your mind, there’s no denying this yearly transition from summer fun to hauling ass down the hallways can be a lot.
That’s because going back to school (no matter how many times you’ve done it) is a stressor, says licensed clinical psychologist Amy Mezulis, PhD. That’s not necessarily a negative thing, though. “Stressors are anything that requires your mind, body, and emotions to adjust to it. Starting school is a stressor, even if you're excited by it,” Dr. Mezulis says.
Luckily, there are some things you can do to take control of your year—even if you’re kinda dreading it. We asked a mix of therapists and people who have just been there and struggled through that to give us their best advice for making it to next summer.
1. Notice your mental health red flags.
“Before school starts, and as you continue through the school year, take a good look at how stress shows up for you. Do you tend to withdraw and stop doing your homework? Do you get really anxious, act out, get irritable, or does your sleep get disrupted?
Then, create a coping plan, because it’s always easier to manage our mental health when our symptoms start to flare up than when we're in full crisis. Ask yourself, ‘What is it that I know works for me?’ For example, your coping plan might include things like getting enough sleep, eating well, getting regular physical activity, following a schedule, and taking medications regularly. It can also include soothing activities like going for a long walk or taking a bath.” —Amy Mezulis, PhD, clinical psychologist
2. Keep a list of relaxation techniques to tap into.
“I'm a big fan of using quick coping skills before, during, and after a known or expected stressful event, like going back to school. Some of my favorites: taking some deep breaths, looking at where your feet are and focusing on being in that place right now, drinking water to cool down, and using visualization—closing your eyes and imagining yourself in a calm, safe place so your body starts to respond as though you’re really there at that moment. Another skill is self-encouragement and reminding yourself that feelings don't last forever. So if I'm feeling anxious, remembering that I haven't always felt anxious, and that I won't always feel this anxious, is helpful.” —therapist Mallory Grimste, LCSW
3. Find your people.
“I was bullied in high school—both in real life and online. To deal with the day-to-day struggles, I sought out safe spaces. While I wasn’t a big theater kid, I did enjoy acting, and it felt safe to be around those kids. So, I took drama class and auditioned for plays. It brought some kind of balance to my day where I didn’t need to be so on guard. Also, I took a broadcast journalism class where I could learn new skills and, again, be around other like-minded kids. Those classes really helped me get through high school.” —Keegan C., 29
4. Think about what you value the most.
“Going back to school, you're faced with the reality that everybody might be doing their own thing, and that might look totally different from what you’re into. Oftentimes people fall into the comparison trap. To avoid that, try to set your expectations for your future on the core of who you are and what you want to do. At the same time, remember that figuring this out is a very individual process, and only you know what feels best. Try to accept yourself for who you are without basing your decisions on other people’s expectations.” —therapist and Uprooted Academy founder Tiffany Green, LPC, M.Ed, NCC
5. Find a school-life balance.
“My first few years of college were the first time I experienced anxiety and depression. I dedicated my life to excelling in school, but I didn’t make my mental health a priority at the time. When I finally got into a mental health routine, I discovered things that helped me get through tough times. When I had to be alone to recharge my energy, simply taking a bath and doing breathing exercises helped me stay calm. Sipping my kava tea while relaxing in my pajamas or going to get a massage helped me feel more grounded. The biggest thing though was spending time with my friend's dog. Just being near their dog was therapeutic and really helped me feel joy again.” —Sophia V., 29
6. Put yourself out there.
“For me, the hardest part of navigating school as a marginalized person is the lack of community. You want to be surrounded by people who not only tolerate you, but respect you and relate to how you feel. I personally feel like I lucked out in grade school and college because I found a group of friends that were queer and also POC, so I felt like I could relate to them. My advice would be to actively pursue that sense of community. Whether it’s outside of school or within, you will most likely be able to find someone you can find some solidarity in if you take the steps to put yourself out there.” —Adriana R., 20
7. Take care of yourself, even if that means missing out.
“Don’t think that you have to be everyone’s friend, or the cool kid, or join a clique. Go your own way. Surround yourself with positive influences and stay on top of your mental health, whether that's keeping your appointments or taking your meds on time (and not saying, ‘Screw it, it’s Saturday. I’m gonna go party and then just take my meds on Monday.’). Nope. Terrible idea. If you have to do something out of your comfort zone to be ‘cool’ or part of a group, it’s not worth it. Focus on taking care of your well-being. You only have one body and one mind, and nobody else is gonna do it for you. You have to learn to take care of yourself, stay on top of everything, and not be afraid to ask for help when you need it.” —Patryk T., 28
8. Keep a visual calendar.
“As someone with ADHD, OCD, and general anxiety, chronic overwhelm often results in severe burnout for me. To manage that, I learned to diligently block off time for the important stuff on a calendar. For me, that was a Google Calendar, but others might like to physically doodle in a cute planner. Visually planning can help you map out your limited time and avoid getting overwhelmed by trying to manage it all in your head. I found that blocking off time (and sticking to it) gave me the structure I needed to avoid overwhelm. I could easily look at my calendar and say, ‘Hm, I have a big project due on Tuesday, so I can plan to get coffee with a new friend on Thursday instead, once I’m more mentally available.’” —Emily E., 30
9. Take baby steps.
“It’s easy to get caught in a catastrophizing cycle, thinking of all the worst case scenarios when we're already feeling stressed out or overwhelmed with schoolwork or life in general. But focusing on one thing at a time can be grounding and clear your head, which makes it easier to feel motivated and get stuff done. Creating a mini to-do list or a ‘do this first’ list of one to three tasks is a good start.” —therapist Mallory Grimste, LCSW
10. Stay connected.
“For college folks, have a plan to stay in touch with your family, friends from home, or anyone who has a deep understanding of who you are. This can help you feel more supported and understood when you’re surrounded by new, unfamiliar people. So carve out time by putting a FaceTime catch-up on your calendar. This sense of connection and feeling like you are taking a mental break also relaxes our nervous system, which helps you to feel calm and comforted.” —therapist and Uprooted Academy founder Tiffany Green, LPC, M.Ed, NCC
11. Ask for what you need.
“If you're someone who has an emotional, behavioral, or learning condition that impacts your ability to perform in school and you have an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), 504 plan, or any kind of accommodation on record at the school, don't assume that your teacher has read it or really understands it. Go talk to them. If there's anything on paper, I strongly recommend a person-to-person interaction so the teacher has a sense of who you really are, not just what's written. Tell them in your own words what it is that you’re asking for in terms of accommodations and how they can support you because teachers genuinely want to do that.” —Amy Mezulis, PhD, clinical psychologist
Quotes have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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