6 Ways to Cope with Going Back to School for Post-Secondary Students
Going back to school is far from normal this year. With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, post-secondary school students are faced with having to complete their studies primarily online, which, for many, is a devastating and unfathomable way to learn. If you are a college or university student (or even a highschool student!) and are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and worried about the Fall semester, then this article is for you.
No one has all the answers yet as we navigate this new territory together, but here are 6 ways you can cope with going back to school amidst the global pandemic.
1. Change Your Mindset
Effective coping starts with a healthy mindset. When we are in situations that are out of our control, it is helpful to move to a place of acceptance, which basically means taking things for what they are without trying to change or protest it. Acceptance does not mean you support or like the circumstances, nor does it mean you are giving up or admitting defeat. Acceptance is an active process that allows you to make room for the discomfort; to allow yourself to move forward with your life, despite the unwanted circumstances.
Acceptance does not mean you agree with the circumstances or are giving up
Many students have likely grappled with the return to school plans; “How am I supposed to study online?”, “This isn’t fair, I’m getting ripped off!”, “Why can’t we all go back in-person?”, “When am I going to see my friends?”. Whatever thoughts and feelings you have about going back to school are completely natural and valid. But this is our new reality and struggling with unwanted and difficult thoughts and feelings about the situation is not going to help you get through it.
Instead, try acknowledging that this is painful and move forward with your life in whatever way is going to be helpful. You are entitled to feel angry, upset, scared, hopeless, and stressed but that doesn't mean you have to let those feelings stand in the way of your life.
You may not be able to control the government's plans for post-secondary education, but you can control how you deal with it. The next 5 tips focus on concrete things you can do to effectively manage the stress of going back to school.
2. Focus on What You Can Control
As I mentioned, no one has all the answers yet and it's possible we won't for a long time. There is a looming and anxiety-provoking element of not knowing. That fear of the unknown is the essence of anxiety, and it can be a scary place to be.
This intolerance for uncertainty fuels worry and perpetuates anxiety. However, worrying has a purpose; it is essentially a way to try and exert control over an unknown situation. For example, worrying about the future and imagining ways it might be like is the mind's way of trying to predict, and therefore control, what your school life will be like. The reality is, we are not fortune-tellers; we do not know what the future has in store (and that is the scary part!), but spending time worrying about it gets us nowhere and ultimately takes away from things we could be doing now.
Acceptance plays a key role here. Try to accept the fact that you cannot control everything, acknowledge the fear and stress it induces, remember to breathe, and take effective action in the present moment. After all, the only thing we can control in life is ourselves, right here, right now.
3. Practice Self-Care
This piece of advice may seem like a no-brainer, but it is worth mentioning because it is essentially the foundation for a healthy and stable self. We are not invincible- the more stress we add to our plates, the harder it becomes to carry, and the higher the risk of spilling or dropping our stuff altogether.
Self-care looks very different for many people. The key thing to consider is that there are several domains of self-care that need to be addressed: Physical, Mental, Emotional, Spiritual, Social, Practical, and Professional. All are important, so try to incorporate anything you can into your daily, weekly, or monthly routine that will help you relax and recharge to be better equipped to face the stress of day-to-day life.
If you are looking for some self-care inspiration, check out this article detailing several self-care ideas you can implement into your daily routine.
4. Get Organized
This school year will be vastly different from any other new school year you have faced before. Whether it is trying to do work from home or learning through online lectures, you will have to adjust to the new set of academic expectations and processes set out by your school. This won't be easy, but with some self-determination and solid stress-management skills, you will be well on your way to adapting to whatever changes you are faced with.
Creating a schedule and routine will be of utmost importance. If you were someone who needed to physically attend a class for accountability and productivity, this may be one of the biggest hurdles for you. Invest in a daily planner or calendar to schedule your daily responsibilities and make sure that you are setting realistic, manageable, and attainable daily goals. Now is not the time to set high expectations for yourself; you want to take it slow and set yourself up for success!
One time-management tool I like to recommend students is called the Urgency vs. Importance matrix (see a version here), which helps prioritize tasks and clearly outline what you need to do now, and what can wait. Often times, students find themselves overwhelmed with the various projects and deadlines they have on the go and don't know where to start. It is also common to put self-care lower on the priority list as people find they have "no time" to take care of themselves amidst the chaos of school, which ultimately makes the seemingly never endless to-do list harder to tackle. So be sure to schedule in some much needed time for self-care!
For other helpful tips to get organized, check out my blog post on ways to increase productivity.
5. Stay Connected
The social aspect of school is arguably one of the biggest things students look forward to each year. Whether you were excited to grab a cup of coffee with your friend on campus, meet up with your study group, or hangout with your roommates after a long week of school, socializing this year is affected in some way or another.
Even if you are an introvert by nature, the lack of social interaction will begin to take a toll on your mental health because you are human, and humans need connection to thrive. Again, use your schedule to your advantage to pencil in time for friends and family each week so that you are not isolated during this new adjustment.
Also, the type of social interaction you engage in may differ from previous school years, so get creative and try to recreate your "normal" social life as best as possible. And remember, be gentle with yourself as you figure out how to balance your new social life this year. Sitting in class with your peers makes it easy to get those daily chats in, but you may not have that ability now, so socializing may take more effort than usual.
6. Seek Help
You are not in this alone. Thousands of other students across the province are dealing with these changes as well. As an extension to my previous tip, connecting with peers for other first-hand advice on how to cope with these new circumstances will be an invaluable tool for you. This is new for everyone and so there is an element of "trial and error" or "live and learn". At the very least, bonding with your peers who are going through the same situation can help decrease loneliness and give you the added strength and encouragement to get through this.
Of course, sometimes life just gets too much and we need to seek help outside of our inner circle of family and friends. Perhaps you have other things going on in your life that are making coping even harder or just need some outside perspective. Whatever the challenge, counselling can help you learn more stress management and coping skills to effectively handle back to school this year.