Beating the back-to-school blues

The start of a new school year in college is often marked as a celebratory event. From Welcome Week festivities, to involvement fairs and, for many, the first real taste of independence as many embark on their first true journey away from home. 

Yet, the transition to campus can be overwhelming for both freshmen and returning students. While Sept. marks the beginning of the school year, it can also be a reminder of the rapidly impending reality of life after college for seniors and recent graduates. 

Whatever the reason, the onset of fall quarter brings on emotions, and not all are as glamorous as social media make them out to be.

One in three college students experience feelings of depression and anxiety during their time on campus, according to a recent study conducted by the Mayo Clinic

If not adequately acknowledged or treated, it is easy for homesickness, fear of missing out and general nervousness to feel overwhelming and out of control. 

Orson Morrison, associate director for clinical services at DePauluniversity counseling and psychological services, defines back-to-school blues as a response to changes within one’s environment. 

“Transition back to school during these particular times has been made more complex by our recent experiences living through the Covid-19 pandemic, our country’s reckoning with its legacy of systemic racism and colonialism and other issues such as gun violence and climate change,” Orson said. “These issues and others increase feelings of uncertainty and make transitions of all sorts more challenging and complex.”

Returning to campus is no small task, so it remains essential that individuals have a gauge of their own physical and emotional health. 

“Reflection and goal setting are other strategies that can help during periods of transition,” Orson said. “Taking time to pause, calm your thoughts and emotions and then ask yourself what you hope for during the year will help you approach the year with some goals and a sense of direction.”

Fortunately, this struggle is not one students must endure alone. 

Simons University junior Annamay Brown recounts the importance of keeping in touch with connections she has to home. 

“Talking to friends and family, on top of prioritizing activities that bring me joy like going to museums or being outside always help me stay grounded,” Brown said. 

With 98% of college students using social media regularly, it is unsurprising that students gain a warped perception of higher academics, such as instantly falling into a friend group or partying every night. 

Similarly, many students, such as Brown, find themselves combating a narrative that needs significant adjustments to their routine and setting to ease feelings of loneliness. 

“I think there are small things that can make a huge impact,” Brown said. “Even things as small as an event to look forward to or meeting a new person can drastically change how you feel and how you view your situation.”

However, sometimes the best coping mechanism for transitions can be acknowledging that nothing lasts forever. 

“As depressing as it sounds, what has helped me is knowing it’s temporary,” Brown said. “Knowing that I am going home for the summer or that I only have to be somewhere for a year helps me to see the bigger picture and feel less hopeless.”

DePaul psychology professor Ralph Erber suggests the power of undertaking mentally fulfilling tasks to counteract negative emotions. 

“We call it the mood absorption hypothesis, and basically it says that if you do something that requires a lot of thinking, whatever that might be – in our study we had people do math problems – that helps you overcome your feelings better than something that is a superficial type of distraction,” said Erber.

Although completing a math problem may not be the most desired way for an individual to improve their mood, there are thousands of substitutions for this area of thought engrossment. 

From working out to learning calligraphy or  taking up the art of origami, there is a inexpensive solution for every student looking to break the dismal pattern of their thoughts. 

“Oftentimes we just don’t know what to do,” Erber said. “We tend to think that when we are feeling sad and if we watch something on Netflix that’s funny that that’s going to take care of things. But that’s not true, it doesn’t take up enough cognitive energy to prevent thinking of mood congruent thoughts.”

While it may feel as if college will never get easier, or bouts of unfavorable emotions will never pass, transitions and their stress are temporary and life won’t always feel so overwhelming.

“The very simple advice I would have is to say, ‘don’t worry, keep busy and things will kind of go away,’” Erber said. 

Connect with Lilly Keller: @lillyraek | [email protected]