Going back to school after three months of summer is one of the most anxiety-provoking times of the year for me personally. Back in high school, I remember feeling a mix of emotions about going back to school: part of me was excited to start exercising my brain again and begin learning new, exciting things every day while the other part of me was incredibly anxious to see people I hadn’t seen for three whole months and interact with them on a daily basis. Once I started college, I became a whole lot less excited to return to school and a whole lot more anxious. I’m still not entirely sure why this is the case, but I think it has something to do with the fact that when going back to college, not only are you re-familiarizing yourself with an academic environment, but you’re also—in most people’s cases—packing up your entire life and moving hours away.
I’ve been back at college for about three weeks already and I can say with certainty that the worst part about coming back to school is the anticipation anxiety itself. This year, as well as in previous years, I would always spend way too much time contemplating every possible thing that could go wrong when moving in. Some years, my anxiety would get so bad that I would lay in bed all day just thinking about how horrible the year was going to be. But the result has always been the same: I come back to college, maybe a few things happen that make me slightly uncomfortable, but it’s never nearly as bad as I imagine it’s going to be. In fact, some good things even happen. The thing is, a lot of us with anxiety tend to overlook the positives and zero in on the negatives, which makes certain things seem a whole lot worse than they actually are. In technical terms, this type of thinking is referred to as catastrophizing and it’s actually quite common in those with anxiety.
Psychologists typically suggest to cope with catastrophic thoughts by challenging these negative beliefs and asking questions such as “How likely is it that this is actually going to happen?” For me, simply mentally challenging my thoughts isn’t enough. It helps in the moment, but I would always circle back to the same negative thoughts over and over again. What does help, however, is physically writing down everything I’m worried about and writing out solutions to each thing. Even though I often realize that my thoughts are irrational, there’s still a genuine part of me that thinks that the worst is actually going to happen.
Whenever I find myself unable to talk myself out of such thoughts, I simply write down the exact steps that I would take if this hypothetical anxiety-inducing situation were to occur. For coming back to school, for example, one thing that worries me is the first day of class when many professors make us go around the room and introduce ourselves. Being the center of attention makes me incredibly nervous and when I have to speak in such situations, my mind often goes blank and my voice shakes. So, a common fear that I have about going back to school and introducing myself to the class is that I’ll forget my name, my major, and any other relevant facts about myself. Logically, I realize how irrational this sounds and I also know that I’m catastrophizing. However, simply knowing this doesn’t always help. So instead, I’ll write down what I would do if I did happen to forget everything about myself. This typically includes something like “I’ll write down my name, major, and other relevant facts on a sheet of paper, bring it to class, and take it out if I need it.” I have never once actually needed to take out this sheet of paper during class, but simply knowing that it’s there if I need it helps a great deal.
Overall, it’s important to remember that of course, everything will not be perfect, but there will be plenty of good times too. The anticipation anxiety with regards to going back to school can be overwhelming at times, but finding ways to minimize this anxiety and focus on the present can help you feel more comfortable. College, in general, is a difficult time, even for people who aren’t struggling with their mental health. Papers, exams, presentations, part-time jobs, and other responsibilities already take up a great deal of time. Having anxiety or other mental health issues, however, often makes these tasks significantly more difficult to manage. Anxiety will always play a role in my daily life, but I’ve found that things go a lot more smoothly when I’m able to take a moment to myself away from my responsibilities, acknowledge the fact that my anxiety exists, and be proactive about how to manage it.
By: Kristine Watral, Anxiety In Teens Contributor