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How post-secondary students can manage back-to-class anxiety this fall

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Written by Lindsay Smith

Many Ontario colleges and universities will be opening their doors to students this September, in person, for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while that news will be a relief for many graduating high-school seniors and second-year students, it doesn’t mean there isn’t anxiety and nervousness. Dr. Carolyn Boulos, youth psychiatrist at Sunnybrook, shares some insight into the unique challenges facing post-secondary students this year and how they can manage their anxiety.

Acknowledge what you’ve lost

Dr. Boulos says first- and second-year post-secondary students have missed a lot of the typical high school and college experiences such as sports and clubs, graduation, and frosh activities. This could create some mixed emotions about starting classes this year.

“Recognize that there is some grieving,” says Dr. Boulos. Lack of enthusiasm, boredom, as well as anxiety with starting back in person could indicate there are some feelings that need to be addressed.

“Think about how this year was different. What were the things you feel that you’ve missed, and then when [you’re] able to identify what [you’ve] missed, you can grieve it,” she says. “If you don’t know why you’re feeling like this, it’s hard to grieve.”

Remember what you’ve already been through

The pandemic continues to create a lot of uncertainty for post-secondary students heading into this school year, and that too can create anxiety. But Dr. Boulos says it can be helpful for students to remind themselves that uncertainty isn’t new.

“You’ve already gone through a lot of this uncertainty in the last 17, 18 months. You’ve managed it,” she says, pointing to adjusting to wearing masks in school, learning online, ending high school or starting post-secondary differently than they thought they would.

“Remember, you have rolled with it already, you’ve gone through these things, and you will adapt,” she says. “You know that it’s possible.”

Set expectations

Students can manage their anxiety around uncertainty by focusing on what they can control, Dr. Boulos says. She suggests, for example, setting expectations with roommates beforehand, and if you’ll be far away from your support system of family and friends, making plans ahead of time on how you’ll stay in touch. It’s also important to establish routines for exercise and sleep.

“Those things [you] can control. Everyone is going to be having uncertainty, so what you do is you work with what you can control,” Dr. Boulos says.

Anxiety in social situations

She also says there will be students who are facing social anxiety as they go back to in-person classes, and possibly events, for the first time in two years.

“Social anxiety’s going to be there, that’s to be expected,” she says.

She suggests students struggling with social anxiety focus on “gradual, repeated exposure.” Start small and build up. For example, if you have a social activity, you could attend for a short period of time. You can leave if it becomes overwhelming, but it’s important to keep trying.

“You can always go back to your residence. But then, try it again,” she says. “If you start avoiding, it may get worse.”

About the author

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Lindsay Smith