Dennis Relojo-Howell offers advice on how to stay safe – and sane – as universities tentatively open their doors.
After spending so much of their time at home in recent months, many university students are experiencing post-Covid anxiety on a level akin to agoraphobia.
The past two years have not been easy on many of us, and to protect our physical health we have had to isolate ourselves from the outside world. Social distancing measures and lockdowns were put in place to combat the physical dangers of the pandemic, but they have undoubtedly taken a significant toll on people’s mental health. Throughout this period, new routines were set, new habits were gained, and our personal space became ever more limited.
Although more than half of the population in countries such as the UK, Canada, Germany, and Spain have now been vaccinated, university students might be experiencing a form of ‘re-entry anxiety’. The first thing to say is: it’s not all in your head, and what you are experiencing is totally normal!
Starting from the autumn term of 2021–22, university students will step back into a slightly more sanitised ‘normal’ than what they were used to on campus. In my country, for example, the UK Government’s Department for Education lists a number of measures to be taken at higher education institutions, such as wearing masks, contact tracing, cleaning, ventilation, and so on.
Under these conditions, the returning student is constantly reminded of the pandemic and its risks; it might be difficult to adjust to this so-called ‘new normal’. So it is good to know that stress is a normal and perfectly understandable reaction to this difficult situation.
Here are some steps you might consider taking in order to manage your anxiety:
1) Embrace the ‘new you’ and help others who might feel as stressed as you.
After spending so much time indoors, you might realise you have changed – whether it’s your way of doing things, the leisure activities you enjoy, or the foods you prefer. When you are back on campus, embrace all these changes. Keep in mind that they can have positive effects on you, especially on a psychological level.
COVID-19 has served as a catalyst, enabling some people to grow as human beings. Indeed, psychologist Steven Taylor and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia contend that there might be a link between the post-Covid period and a psychological phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth.
The ‘good news’ is that the high level of stress you have been experiencing during the pandemic could lead to greater stress resilience and help you build healthier relationships with your peers at university.
Once you are aware of the changes you are going through, you can recognise others who might be experiencing a similarly high level of anxiety. You might spot them by their shy or withdrawn attitude, their unwillingness to go outside or to engage with the larger community. Talk to them and be honest; share the way you feel about being back on campus, about trying to adjust to the ‘new normal’, and let them share their experiences with you.
2) Don’t go cold turkey: keep doing what works for you.
As previously noted, there is a ‘new you’ now. It is likely that you gained some new habits during the isolation period. If getting out of your house, where you feel safe, makes you feel anxious and scared, try to focus on the positive effects of your new habits. If possible, try to keep these habits – at least some of them.
If family puzzles and board games make you feel good, try to turn this into a regular practice, even if it’s over Zoom. If you enjoyed morning walks or evening bike rides with your partner during the isolation period, try to make this happen on a regular basis. You don’t need to do it every day, but try to keep your new-found habits up twice a week or at least once a month.
That way, even though your schedule will be filled with on-campus lectures, exams or events, you will not feel like you are being dragged into a whole ‘different normal’ all of a sudden. You can still keep some of the more positive aspects that came with the isolation period; and you can adjust to life outside your home without rushing into it. All in all, you will feel that you have more control over what is going on with your life.
Experts have found that being kind to ourselves gives us some time to adjust to post-pandemic life. This is true for you too. Keeping some of the healthy habits you gained during the isolation period can actually help you adjust better to being back on campus and joining face-to-face classes. So, don’t rush the readjustment process. This will only cause you to feel more anxious and worried.
3) Try expressive writing.
Another way of giving yourself time to adjust to being back on campus can be doing a little preparation beforehand. Perhaps you missed your favourite lecturer, maybe you would like to see that ‘special person’ again so that you can finally ask them out, maybe you missed being offline, bonding with your classmates and getting through the exam period together.
If you experience a high level of anxiety and feel scared of going back to campus, none of these activities will be easy at the beginning. But think back to pre-Covid times and make a list of what you did then, remembering how good it felt when you were with your friends on campus, that impromptu coffee with them, or your favourite spot in the library. Write all this down and then look at the list when you’re feeling anxious to remind yourself of all the fun things you can get back to doing when you return. This will help you to be much more equipped to handle the stress and anxiety.
Writing by hand is best to get you off your laptop or tablet, so invest in a nice notebook (or just find a random one at the back of a drawer) and get scribbling.
Earlier studies revealed that expressive writing can help assuage psychological trauma and enhance our mood. Now, more recent studies suggest that this kind of writing also benefits physical health. There is even evidence which suggests that expressive writing can improve lung function in asthma, reduce disease severity in rheumatoid arthritis and even mitigate pain intensity in women with chronic pelvic pain. It also positively impacts social behaviours such as reduced absenteeism from work and faster employment following a job loss.
Mental health issues are, of course, difficult to deal with, but putting our feelings into words can usually help us unload stressors productively, which may, in turn, improve our psychological well-being.
So, don’t bottle up your emotions, grab a pen and start writing. Try it for a few days and find out for yourself the healing powers of expressive writing. (Though if the problem is more serious, or writing doesn’t solve it, then make sure you share your stress with someone you can trust. A problem shared …)
4) Make friends
Find others that are also finding it hard and use it as a bonding opportunity – making friends is good for you and for them, and strong friendships are forged in difficult times. But at the same time don’t feel you need to rush into things. It’s perfectly acceptable to gradually ease into socialising.
Going back to university is a daunting prospect, but everyone is in the same boat and there are plenty of things you can do to get back gradually into university life. Remember, you’re not alone in struggling with anxiety and trying to find a good balance in this ‘new normal’.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg.
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