How to Safely Readjust to College Life and Look After Your Mental Health

two women wearing masks and elbow bumping each other

Though the start of fall semester is upon us, university students might still be feeling anxious about returning to campus amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In countless summer emails, universities informed students of their plans for reopening, detailing an upcoming semester fraught with a multitude of changes students will face. Despite the best efforts of many universities’, however, some schools that have returned are already facing outbreaks. Readjusting to university, while plagued by this uncertainty and confusion, can feel daunting, if not dangerous.

If you’re unsure about how best to navigate a return to campus, while juggling new social etiquette, your mental health, and your studies, these suggestions should get you on track for a successful semester.

Readjusting to Campus

For those still deciding whether to return to campus, it’s unclear to know what to expect. Socializing will undoubtedly be very different without sports games, frat parties, club meetings, or regular face-to-face classes. How do you greet your friends after months apart? How does one even come across as friendly and outgoing from behind a mask? Will we forget how to socialize properly after all these months of quarantine? Eager hugs will likely be replaced with a hopeful wave from six feet apart. These are some of the conundrums spiraling through our heads as we pack our suitcases, book flights, or plan car rides back to campus.

Safely reconnecting with friends

After months of quarantine, it’s understandable that students are excited to reunite with their college friends. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that you still need to take precautions when hanging out — no matter how many cases are currently in your area. Wear a mask, keep your distance, wash your hands for 20 seconds, keep sanitizer and disinfecting wipes readily available and clean surfaces regularly.

That said, there are still plenty of ways to reconnect with college friends and have fun while remaining safe and sensible.

  1. Be wary of hugs — It might be hard, but restraining from greeting others with a hug can help you stay safe. Elbow bumps or foot taps are the new way to express that you’re happy to see someone.
  2. Be selective — The fewer people you hang out with (and the fewer people they hang out with), the lower your chance of infecting others, or catching the virus.
  3. Opt for outdoor activities — It is recommended to meet with friends outdoors to help minimize the spread of the virus. This can also make it easier to keep the six feet apart guideline. Here are a few bonus ideas for fun al fresco:
    • Consider meeting in the park for an art day “Drawing, coloring, and even doodling can help you to destress and reduce anxiety,” says Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S.
    • Plan a picnic at a nearby park or enjoy a take-out meal with friends — Not only is this a much safer alternative than indoor dining, but it can also feel like a more satisfying activity.
    • Go for a bike ride, or a hike, and explore the area outside your “college bubble” — Students are ordinarily so busy juggling club meetings, sports practices, studying, and wild nights out, that many often never make time to appreciate their surrounding environment, that is the neighborhood or city just outside of campus.
    • Host backyard hang-outs — If you live in a house off-campus, consider inviting friends to your backyard for a socially distanced happy hour. It might be a bit classier than the frat parties you’re used to, but will still be a lot of fun!
  4. Get on the same page — Be open with others about the precautions you’re taking and ask them to share their lifestyle with you, too. “It’s a little like those conversations that you have when you’re first dating somebody and you’re trying to negotiate exclusivity,” psychiatrist Dr. Mimi Winsberg told Insider. “You’re like, ‘OK, we’ll hang out together, but how many other people are you hanging out with so I know what I’m exposed to?’”

While there’s no way to absolutely guarantee that you won’t get infected — or infect someone else — it’s important to follow the necessary guidelines so you can enjoy time with friends while staying healthy. Hopefully these suggestions help you safely reconnect with friends!

How to come across as your best self behind a mask

You might think that wearing a mask is uncomfortable or feels unnatural, but as we now know, it’s one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself and others from this virus. Many are worried that by covering half their face they may come off as cold and unkind, especially when trying to make new friends, or meeting classmates for the first time. Understandably, some might even feel a level of social anxiety when interacting with a mask. Rest assured that you can use your body language to your advantage and improve your social interactions while wearing a mask.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Keep smiling! — Others can recognize your smile even behind a face mask. Your smile shows up in your eyes as much as your mouth. Additionally, as Ursula Hess, a facial expression and emotion researcher at Humboldt University of Berlin told Scientific American, smiling changes the shape of your mouth and causes your voice to sound brighter to others.
  2. Make eye contact — Eye contact is such a powerful tool. It helps deepen relationships, making others feel recognized and understood and shows that people can trust you. Eye contact is especially important in this tumultuous time and forges deeper bonds.
  3. Take off your sunglasses — As mentioned above, eye contact is one of the most important elements of positive interactions, especially when the rest of your face is covered by a mask. Wearing sunglasses with a mask blocks off nearly all your emotions from others.
  4. Pay attention to your posture — Don’t cover yourself up by crossing your arms or holding your throat. If you do this while engaging in conversation, you could come off as unapproachable. Instead, keep your arms open and your face unobscured when you speak to someone, and try tilting your head to the side to show that you’re really listening. Keeping your head straight on your shoulders tends to command attention.

Keeping your mental health in check

Apart from the changes to socializing, it’s important to remember the fragility of our mental health. As you navigate the “new normal” back at college, know that you might be feeling a variety of emotions. This transition will definitely require some time and patience to get used to; experiencing fear, anxiety, and sadness are all valid emotions. Rest assured that you won’t be the only one feeling this way. It’s more important than ever to continue caring for yourself and your mental health in this trying time — here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Structure your day — Having a daily routine is so important, even if you are only participating in remote learning. Wake up, workout, shower, make breakfast, study, see a friend, whatever! But try and keep to a schedule and be sure to fit in breaks away from the screen into your day. When you organize your tasks and outline your goals, you make it easier to accomplish what you set out to do. Catchings says, “You are taking classes online, so you can manage your time any way you want. You are now your boss. Take advantage of this opportunity by learning to break down goals into tasks, manage your time wisely, and practice self-care.”
  • Get enough sleep — Sleep is integral for both your mental and physical health, your body needs it to function properly. You should aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep a day.
  • Stay fit — Exercising 20 to 30 minutes daily can significantly lower anxiety levels. It also increases your endorphin and serotonin levels, helping you to feel happier. Working out will help you boost your immune system and make it easier for you to fight off illness, definitely a benefit during a global pandemic.
  • Spend time outdoors — Don’t underestimate the power of nature. Research shows that spending more time outdoors can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression levels.
  • Eat well — What you eat greatly impacts your overall mood, make sure you’re feeding yourself healthy, nourishing meals three times a day. Eat whole, unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables to keep you feeling well. Specific foods such as almonds, spinach, oranges, and ginger will also strengthen your immune system.
  • Focus on mood-boosting activities — Talkspace therapist Catherine Richardson LPC recommends that you “Find an activity that gives you life and brings you joy. Sometimes we all need a distraction. Talk to a friend that tells good jokes. Go for a run with your dog. Write a handwritten note to an elderly family member.” Richardson also notes that it’s a great time to “look outside of yourself by serving others, whether that is bringing a meal to an isolated family or volunteering your time at a drive in food bank.”
  • Shift your outlook — If you find yourself sinking into a slump, you have the power to try and alter your thought processes. “Identify negative thinking patterns that may be contributing to your depressed mood and identify some positive affirmations to replace them with,” says Richardson.
  • Get support — “You may need some support during this time, and it can come from classmates, professors, friends, family, or mental health professionals. Do not be afraid or hesitant to ask for help,” says Catchings. Most universities are making their mental health resources available remotely. Do some research and see what your college is offering. If they don’t have suitable options, or their therapists don’t meet your needs, you might want to consider online therapy with Talkspace.

Keeping it in Perspective

Right now your next semester of college can feel like the be-all and end-all, but know that whatever happens, we will get past this. It’s about making the most of the situation in the moment. You have overcome various changes in life and you will overcome this too!

At the end of the day, the most important thing to focus on right now is staying healthy. If you’re still experiencing anxiety about returning to college, or having difficulty readjusting to the changes, speaking to a licensed online therapist is a convenient and affordable way to help reduce these anxieties. Know that you aren’t alone.

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