Feeling Anxious About Going Back To School? Try This Mental Health Checklist

Clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist By Daniel Amen, M.D.
Clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist
Daniel Amen, MD, is a clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist, physician, professor and 10-time New York Times bestselling author. He is a double board-certified child and adult psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, Inc.
Woman Sitting Outdoors in Business Attire and a Face Mask Journaling

When you're heading back to college after summer break, it's common to feel nervous about the new school year. This year, however, there's a growing crisis of anxiety related to the pandemic among college students.

A report from Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium on 30,725 undergraduates from nine universities found that 39% of students reported generalized anxiety disorder. That's 1.5 times higher than in 2019. 

If your anxiety about college is spinning out of control, here's a mental health checklist that will help you calm your emotional brain and soothe anxiety:

1. Don't believe every single thought you have.

Your thoughts lie. They lie a lot. If you're filled with automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) like, "If we go back to school, I know we're all going to catch COVID and die," it will fuel anxiety.

Questioning your thoughts can reduce anxiety. Whenever you have an anxious thought, ask yourself if it's true, then talk back to the ANT to quell it.

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2. Pay attention to what you eat.

Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (think: salmon, tuna, and walnuts) have been found to calm anxiety. I also recommend asparagus, pumpkin seeds, and dark chocolate for their anti-anxiety properties.

3. Make sleep a priority to calm stress.

Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep at night—getting adequate sleep can not only keep your stress hormone (cortisol) levels in check, but it can also help support your immune system. If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep (which is especially common these days), consider natural sleep supplements, such as magnesium, GABA, and L-theanine.

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4. Have a plan to connect safely.

To calm fears about the threat of COVID-19, find ways to connect with your friends while maintaining physical distance. Try meeting up with friends in a safe space, ideally outdoors; grab a coffee or enjoy outdoor dining together; set up a virtual party over video chat; or even just find time to phone a loved one on a daily basis.

Social connection is crucial to our overall health and well-being, and finding ways to do so safely can have a majorly positive impact on your mental health.

5. It's OK if you're not OK.

Feeling some anxiety about being back at school is normal—so don't think you're alone in these emotions. However, if anxiety starts getting in the way of your ability to get through your daily life, that's when it's time to seek help from a professional.

Again, these are challenging times we're living in, and asking for a bit of assistance to get through it isn't a failure but rather a sign of strength.

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