Thousands of California college students recently started fall classes. As they adjust to new schedules, workloads, and relationships, many face an increasing number of stressors in their lives.
Ten tips for starting a new semester
As therapists for college students, we teach young adults how to overcome college-related anxiety and manage other mental health concerns. We also work with parents who want to help their adult children complete school successfully.
Below, we provide our top tips for helping college students prepare for and adjust to a new semester. To set students up for academic success this fall, we recommend encouraging them to. . .
1. Shift their weekly schedule
Due to COVID lockdowns and summer break, many young adults turned to social media, video games, Netflix, etc., for entertainment this year. The mental stimulation and exposure to blue light associated with these diversions have disrupted many sleep schedules.
That’s why we always talk about the importance of structure when students ask us how to prepare for a new semester. Many returning students will need to adjust their routines to accommodate fall schedules. We recommend gradually transitioning to a school-friendly schedule to make the first day of classes less jarring. It takes time to get used to a new sleep schedule, so the earlier students start making adjustments, the better off they’ll be.
2. Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms
While caffeine can boost productivity in the short term, it can exacerbate anxiety down the road. Caffeine stimulates production of the stress chemical adrenaline, so anxiety-prone individuals should avoid it. Alcohol is another double-edged sword. While it seems to reduce anxiety for a time, it can worsen sleep quality and increase a person’s sensitivity to stress.
Overdependence on social media and video games can also become an issue for some students. The time spent on these activities reduces the time available for exercise and face-to-face connections, so it’s something to watch out for. Encouraging students to learn how to relieve college anxiety through healthier coping mechanisms can reduce their dependence on unhealthy ones.
3. Name their fears
Is your college student worried about their grades? Are they nervous about school policies related to COVID-19 or about catching the virus? It could be that they’re worried about the increased responsibility they’ll face. On the other hand, social anxiety may be causing them to ruminate about all the new people they’ll meet.
The simple act of identifying their fears can help anxious students reduce anxiety by putting some distance between themselves and their thoughts/feelings. If your child is comfortable talking openly with you, ask how they feel about starting a new semester. If they’re nervous about something, find out what it is and ask why they are feeling that way. You don’t need to find a solution—you just need to put a name to their fears.
4. Make any desired schedule changes ASAP
Many students aren’t aware of one of the most effective ways to overcome college anxiety: reducing their course load. Contrary to what many students believe, it’s usually possible to withdraw from a class within the first few weeks of starting it. Is your child overwhelmed by a heavy credit load? Are they having a hard time due to poor mental health? If so, they might consider reducing their credit load or otherwise adjusting their schedule this fall.
Most schools have specific dates by which students must withdraw from a class to receive a full refund and avoid negative GPA impacts. We recommend that any students considering a schedule change do so early in the semester and adhere to their school’s withdrawal policies.
5. Face their fears
Avoidance is a natural—but unhelpful—reaction to anxiety. Many students instinctively avoid anxiety-provoking situations, such as having to introduce themselves to new people. Many also have a habit of procrastinating on projects that stress them out.
As you can imagine, anxious students’ avoidant tendencies backfire in the long run. Avoidance shuts down communication, causes missed deadlines and leads to other problems. From a neuroscience perspective, avoidance also reinforces a person’s fears, making it even more challenging to face them.
6. Reframe unhelpful or inaccurate thoughts
The stress chemicals released by an anxious student’s brain change how they perceive the world. What they focus on, how they interpret situations, how they react to them—all of these are influenced by a person’s emotional state.
For example, an anxious student who gets a short email from their professor might assume that their professor doesn’t like them or is being rude. That student can reduce their anxiety by considering whether there might be other, more optimistic explanations to balance their perspective. Perhaps the professor was simply too busy to write long emails to students, or they were responding from their mobile phone.
7. Build social connections
Social connectedness is key to surviving college. Anxiety often leads people to withdraw inward, but avoiding social situations can worsen mental health issues. By connecting with fellow students going through similar struggles, your child can validate their difficulties and brainstorm solutions to common problems.
It isn’t easy to make new friends, but it can help students take advantage of existing social structures. If your child is attending college classes this fall, you can encourage them to find a study buddy or get to know their groupmates on class projects. They could also join a club or volunteer group that interests them.
8. Build relationships with professors and other mentors
The more support your student has at school, the more resilient they will be. Some of the most essential sources of support they can tap into are professors and teaching assistants. Students can access first-hand information about new careers, networking contacts, and employment opportunities by building those relationships.
There are many things students can do to improve their relationship with professors, including addressing them properly, visiting during office hours, and showing that they care about the class. Learn more about How To Build A Good Relationship With Your College Professor.
9. Ramp up self-care
Many students think self-care is optional, but it’s essential for countering anxiety. If your child says they don’t have time for self-care, ask whether they could reallocate some of their time from passive entertainment (Netflix, games, etc.) to more rejuvenating activities, such as walking or playing sports.
It’s okay if your child doesn’t have time for an extended vacation or money for an expensive gym membership. They can reap the benefits of self-care by ensuring their basic physical needs are met. That means eating healthy meals, staying active, and getting enough sleep. Your child can also try more advanced self-care techniques such as deep breathing exercises and mindfulness meditation. These strategies are proven to reduce anxiety and require very little time investment.
10. Get anxiety therapy
For some college students, getting professional support is the best thing they can do for their college success. Instead of struggling in isolation, they can work with a skilled, supportive person. As therapists for college students, we help emerging adults overcome college anxiety and prevent “failure to launch”. Send us a message or book a free 20 minute consultation with Dr. Barajas or Dr. Goldman to see how we can help.