Going to Campus Mindfully: How to Plan for a Supported, Connected, Less Stressful Year
By Annie Midori Atherton
If you’re already feeling a little anxious about the new school year before classes have even started, “Take a breath—you’re not alone,” says Melissa Ruiz, MSW, who has worked in student services at several colleges. It’s natural to feel anxious during moments of transition, and heading off to campus is a big one.
Beginning a new school year can feel overwhelming at times, but it’s also exciting! It’s a chance to evaluate your priorities and set yourself up for a healthy, fulfilling experience.
Here are some ways to start planning now for a great school year.
Take Care of Yourself
You are about to head into a community full of new people, and the best way to do that with confidence is to know yourself. Start by brainstorming a consistent routine to stay focused and grounded.
Here are some options:
- If you love a cozy space to zone out, find a lounge or café with the best couch.
- If you know that a morning workout helps you manage stress, find out how early the gym opens and what morning classes they have.
- When transitioning between classes or activities, try to leave yourself enough time to enjoy a moment of respite before jumping into the next thing. It could be just sitting on a bench in the quad and taking some good, deep breaths.
- Carve out some time every week to talk to someone you trust and can be open with.
- Establish small rituals for yourself in the mornings and evenings that help you reset, such as writing in a journal, taking stock of your schedule and tasks, listening to music, or taking a walk outside.
One of the most powerful ways to take care of your mental health is to form meaningful connections at school.
“Sometimes when I meet with a student, they are so focused on doing well academically that they don’t put the effort into building connections,” says Tiffany O’Meara, PhD, Director of Outreach Services, Counseling and Psychological Services at UC San Diego. “Having friends that can provide support can help you to be successful in college.”
How to Find Your Community at College
“For some people, connection is easier to come by when a group of people are working toward a common goal,” says Ruiz. If that sounds like you, a great step to take is to look into what organized groups on campus—such as clubs, affinity groups, sports teams, or volunteer organizations—you might join.
Most schools have comprehensive lists of clubs and organizations on their website that you can look at even before you get to campus.
Other ways to make connections:
- See if your school has a campus “Student Center” in which students can find and connect with others.
- Attend any orientation programs or “welcome weeks” offered before classes start.
- Talk to staff in the Student Life or Student Activities office. They can often help you find social activities as well as information about internships, leadership roles, work-study programs, and more.
It may take trying out a few different groups to find the one that feels right to you, and it may take time to feel comfortable once you’ve joined one. But it’s worth it.
The important part is to find people who support one another and who you enjoy being around.
Look at the Big Picture of Mental Health
When people hear the term “mental health,” says Brandon Hadi, who graduated from the University of Washington in 2016 and co-founded a Seattle-based mental health nonprofit, “they often automatically assume that it refers to a mental health professional.”
While speaking with a mental health professional can be extremely valuable when you are really struggling, it is important to also remember things you can do to promote your mental health—like getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, engaging with others, mindfulness practices, etc.
Think of Therapy as a Tool
“College is a big transition with lots of changes, and some students have their first experiences with mental health symptoms while in college,” says O’Meara, “including anxiety, decreases in motivation, and social isolation.” Or, you may be coming to college with an already diagnosed mental health condition. No matter your starting point, “it’s important to understand what mental health resources your campus offers,” says O’Meara.
“New experiences are stressful,” says Ruiz, “and how stress manifests itself is different for everyone.”
“If you find you aren’t able to function as well or your symptoms are impacting your relationships or how you are doing academically, or you are just feeling really bothered by what you are feeling, it’s a good indication that you may benefit from counseling,” recommends O’Meara.
To find help, check in with your counseling office or a resident adviser to learn how to receive on-campus care. And if your current support can be done virtually, keep up with those appointments.
Check out NAMI and JED’s Mental Health Guide to College for more tips and advice.