Five tips to help you manage anxiety when returning or starting university amid the COVID-19 pandemic

For the thousands of students across the UK who are going to university this month, life couldn’t look more different to the students of 2019. With a global pandemic still lurking, many of the usual Freshers and welcome-back get-togethers are now being hosted online, if at all, significantly altering many student's first experiences of living independently.

For you, a 2020 student leaving home and entering this next chapter of your life, this can be both daunting and exciting. A chance to spread your wings, learn to stand on your own two feet and start carving out your path with something you’re highly passionate about.

But it can also be highly anxiety inducing; with the fear of the unknown, homesickness, a new city, housemates and a new way of learning, plus the threat of COVID-19 that can cast a shadow across this new experience, it’s understandable that you might be feeling a mix of emotions. But support is available and there are plenty of practises you can try at home to prepare yourself.

If you’re struggling with feelings of anxiety, stress and worry, we’ve rounded up five tips to help you comfortably prepare and transition to university life.

1. Prepare a coping method

Coping methods such as breathing techniques, meditation and mindfulness can help you manage stressful situations before and when they arise and physically calm you. Slowing the breath can actually enhance feelings of safety by influencing the autonomic nervous system.

In the lead up to university, start tuning into your breath: find a quiet, comfortable spot that you feel safe in and listen to your breathing. This might be the first time you’ve ever paid attention to the natural breath, so simply observe how fast, slow, deep or shallow you breathe. At times of stress and anxiety, our breathing is fast and shallow, so try slowing this down. Inhale for a count of five and exhale out for seven. Repeat for approximately eight rounds.

You can also practise mantra breathwork by welcoming comforting feelings to the body, and expelling uncomfortable ones. Breathe in and repeat silently, “Calm and tranquility,” and breathe out repeating, “Anxiety and stress.”

Try Happiful's guided meditation for calm and peace

2. Understand what makes you uncomfortable

Going to university at this current time is going to be unlike any other year, so it's helpful to understand beforehand, what situations you are comfortable with in relation to coronavirus.

If you’re going to be living in a shared house, think of some of the practises you can adopt to ensure the level of hygiene is one that you’re comfortable with. If you’re going into your first year, it could help chatting to second or third years who may have experience with shared houses or university halls. Join your university’s Facebook group if they have one or connect through their student union.

3. Practice being uncomfortable

If there are specific situations that you know make you feel anxious and you’re going to be faced with at university, practice getting comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. If crowds of people aren’t your thing, try building up a bank of experiences that you mastered and felt safe in, that you can tap into.

In the weeks leading up to your start date, slowly integrate yourself with larger crowds so you get used to being around more people. You could try going to the park one day, the coffee shop the next, working your way up to a gathering or busy shopping centre.

4. Speak to your university

Many UK universities have adopted the sunflower lanyard scheme which can be vital for students struggling with a hidden disability such as mental health. Students and staff alike who may need additional support are encouraged to wear a sunflower lanyard around their necks on campus, a sign that discreetly indicates the individual may need more time or assistance.

The lanyard scheme, now in operation at most UK airports, supermarkets and railway stations caters for individuals who have disabilities such as autism, chronic pain, hearing or visual impairment and anxiety. Get in touch with your university’s student support office for more information.

5. Share your worry

It can be easy to bury your feelings when everyone around you is seemingly excited and confident at the thought of university. But often, friends can be feeling the same worry as you but may struggle to find the words. Sharing your concerns with a friend or family member enhances your support network and allows for some sense of relief in feelings of overwhelm. It might encourage others to share their feelings too, and lighten their load.

Ensure that person is a trusted close individual you feel comfortable with. That way you have a friendly confidante when you need to chat once university has begun, as do they.

Finding support

University can at times be the most challenging, and yet the most enjoyable. If you are struggling with feelings of anxiety and stress, Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity has plenty of information and resources available on their website. They also offer support services including peer support groups.

If you’d like to talk to an impartial, qualified individual, get in touch with a therapist through Counselling Directory for professional listening support.