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No one told us that in March 2020, the world would stop.

Just as college students were studying for midterms, relaxing over spring break, traveling between different European cities while studying abroad, and preparing for life after graduation, something decided to hit the pause button. Or rather, the self-destruct button. Midterms were postponed. Spring break became indefinite but no longer relaxing. Flights were frantically booked back to the US. And life after graduation came a lot faster than anticipated, because all of a sudden, college was cancelled. No one told us that universities across America would shut down in a blink of an eye, but that’s exactly what happened.

The following months seemed apocalyptic. Campus sidewalks remained empty as we stayed inside our childhood homes and watched professors lecture to computer screens. A fear of the outdoors struck the nation as the days in quarantine turned into weeks, and weeks into months; although for many of us, such time might have felt like one, never-ending nightmare.

Then, things started to take a turn. Less people got sick. Restaurants opened outdoors. So did the beaches. Sports were back on. And all of a sudden, the government and school administrators were saying that we would go back to school in the fall.

One may assume that we would all be very excited to get back to campus and have at least some degree of normalcy. But the truth is, for many of us, the days ahead are scary.

We have questions… What might our new lives look like on campus? How will masks impact our ability to understand our professors? How can we keep ourselves safe in a concentrated environment, especially those of us who are most at-risk to COVID? Will we still be able to hang out with our friends and have a good time without fear? We also have fears… Of getting the virus, of giving it to others, of getting sent home if there’s another outbreak and only hanging out with our friends on Zoom again.

The coronavirus pandemic has given rise to an already stressed out population of college students. In June, a study that was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research shows that the coronavirus has caused a drastic increase in college students’ anxiety and depression. Researchers Andrew Campbell and Jeremy Hutkis told the Washington Post that this year, they saw an increase in college students’ anxiety and depression levels during spring break. Usually, spring break is the time that these commonalities decrease. Anxiety and depression levels only continued to climb as time in quarantine dragged on, as campuses limited their clinical therapy options due to laws that prevent psychologists from treating students/patients across state lines. So, given how the pandemic affected us the first time, it is understandable that we would be fearful things could again take a turn for the worse.

However, just because we are scared does not mean we can hit the pause button. The days ahead – and the uncertainty that they bring – are coming whether we like it or not. So the question is, how will we deal with such anxiety-inducing uncertainty?

The answer, like the answer to most complicated questions, is not simple. But there are a few tips we should acknowledge and take comfort in heading into this school year.

  • Tip #1: Understand that it is normal to feel how you are feeling. As previously stated, the coronavirus has caused an increase in anxiety and depression in many of us. Rather than seeing this fact as strictly a negative, use it to your advantage. Talk with friends and classmates about your anxieties and fears, because it is likely that they will reciprocate such feelings. Together, we can work on solutions to cope with these feelings, and take comfort in the knowledge that you have allies in the fight against anxiety.
  • Tip #2: Establish a schedule. One of the leading causes of mental health instability during the pandemic is an increase in sedentary behavior. Now that we are going back to school, we can do more to eliminate such an anxiety/depressive-inducing factor. Along with going to class, you can get involved with extracurricular activities (even if they are based online). The more activities you infuse your day with, the less time you spend focusing on your anxieties and fears. And make sure you continue to do whichever activities you enjoy doing on a consistent basis.
  • Tip #3: Don’t worry about the things that you can’t control. No one wants to hear that classes are going to be online, or that colleges may close again if there is another outbreak. Ultimately if these things happen there is nothing we can do about them, so spending time worrying about these overwhelming fears does nothing but cause anxiety. What we can and should do is focus on the things that are in our control: like wearing masks and adhering to social distancing guidelines. Hopefully, our small individual efforts will contribute to a positive group effect. Together, we can eliminate the issues that are too big for us to take on alone.
  • Tip #4: Exercise and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Exercise is a natural and productive way to reduce anxiety. It enhances your well-being by getting your endorphins flowing: chemicals built by the body to relieve stress and pain. Eating healthy is also great for mental health, as it will help you think more clearly, stay alert, and improve attention span (which could be very necessary this semester after such a long hiatus from academia).
  • Tip #5: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Campuses across the nation are making adjustments to their counseling centers to make appointments more accessible. If you don’t want to walk into a counseling center, there is a good chance your school has established tele-health options for you to meet with a counselor. But as stated in Tip #1, it is completely normal to feel anxious or depressed during this time, and the stigma of getting help is continuously being eliminated as more people realize how important mental health support truly is.

Yes. This pandemic has impacted us all. And it will continue to affect us. But if one thing is true, it is that during this time we have learned how to overcome adversity, and how to do so together. Even during these uncertain and tragic times, there are stories of hope and strength. It is important to remember that together, we can accomplish our goals. So the days ahead may be scary. But if we approach them together, we can conquer.

Written by Bradley Levin, contributing writer for graymatters’ blog