Ask Abby: starting a new school year in the age of COVID-19

Graphic by Haley Morkert.


Full disclosure: I am not a licensed therapist. Honestly, I am not licensed in anything whatsoever. I’m just a gal with lots of opinions who enjoys giving unsolicited advice to almost anyone around me. So, if this is adverse advice, you can’t sue me or my place of work. Sorry!

“So, school is about to start. In the age of COVID-19, everything is different and I don’t know where to start academically, let alone with my mental health. How do I stay healthy mentally when I’m so afraid for my physical health?” — Loyal Reader

I hear you from deep in my soul. From someone that struggles with increased anxiety in the beginning of “normal” school years, starting this academic year feels like a massive hurdle. Almost everything in our world has changed in the last six months because of COVID-19, and a lot of people are in your same boat. Some people may even be experiencing anxiety for the first time.

However, we’re going to work together to make it through. When it comes to academics, don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether it’s from your professors, a classmate or a tutor. Learning looks different these days, and there’s nothing wrong with needing time for adjustment.

Learning via Zoom presents its own set of challenges for many of us, and virtual classrooms may not quite allow us to learn in the same ways we have before. Be flexible and give yourself a break. Try out different learning techniques and different ways of using your time, but remember that we’re all in a season of change and we should extend the same courtesy and patience to ourselves as we are to others. 

Staying healthy physically through our eating habits and exercise may have taken a back seat these past few months while we’ve been inside and by ourselves. For some people, on the other hand, it may have become a top priority because it’s something to focus on that isn’t the news or statistics. 

For myself, I know that when I get anxious or uncertain about my life, my focus on physical health is the first thing to go. I tend to cocoon in my bed, eat foods that are comforting in the moment but have no nutritional value for my body, and withdraw from most of my healthy daily habits. However, feeling physically unwell can negatively impact your mental space, especially when we are facing a global pandemic.

Going outside and moving your body is one of the best ways to quickly help your mental health. Breathing fresh air, feeling a bit of sunshine and sweating a teensy bit may help to put everything into perspective. Remember, if you’re going anywhere with other people around, wear your mask for the safety of both yourself and others.

Eating healthy foods can also help us both physically and mentally. Healthy foods don’t have to be things that fitspo accounts on Instagram tell us we have to eat, and they don’t have to be boring or restrictive. If you find something that you like to eat that makes your body feel good and your brain feel happy, eat that!

With your feel-good foods, try to drink as much water as you can. While it can sometimes feel tedious, hydration helps our immune systems as well as making our brains feel alert, awake and empowered!

Usually, as school begins, my sleep schedule ends. However, this can have a huge impact on our mental health and our ability to manage anxiety about academic-related things. Pulling all-nighters and never sleeping may be a common theme in the media about college students, but it can be harmful to our productivity and sense of accomplishment. Get your rest. A lot has changed and your body deserves a chance to process it all.

Staying mentally healthy has been difficult in recent months without our typical social interactions. Spending time with those you love has been limited, and only seeing half of peoples’ faces, especially not seeing smiles, can make you feel pretty lonely. 

To combat loneliness, try to connect with people you care about. Go for socially distanced walks via Zoom, plan days where you Facetime and do activities you enjoy, and call people that you miss. I know I talk constantly about the magic of Facetime, but being able to see people’s whole face without the fear of spreading germs is truly superior. 

As school is starting, make sure to take time for yourself.  Spend time thinking about the things that you enjoy, things that make you feel calm and that spark joy. Then, make sure you pencil them into your schedule so you don’t skip them. Personally, I know that I have to put certain activities on my calendar so I actually do them, even though I know I’ll feel like a much better human after doing them.

School may be a phenomenal distraction for some people, but for others it may just add to the stress of living through a time of massive change. Be honest with yourself when you need down time, and give yourself permission to do things that make you feel happy and calm.

While there has been a massive focus on personal responsibility these days, it is important to remember that you can only control what you do. As wonderful as it would be to be able to force everyone to wear a mask and do what’s best for everyone, the only person you can truly hold accountable is yourself. If you are doing everything you can do to keep yourself and others safe, you are doing your best. Let go of what others are doing, as hard as that may sound. 

It’s completely understandable for people to be anxious right now. No one blames you! The future is uncertain for everyone, but especially for those of us who are in college. We are already in a phase of change and growth, and current changes have added to that exponentially. Whether you’re a senior getting ready for the next parts of your life, a first-year starting an entirely new journey, or anyone anywhere in between, it’s normal to be anxious and stressed. All we can do is work together, take care of ourselves and one another and do our best to learn along the way.

It’s always okay to need extra help, but right now it’s especially important to ask for help when you need it. Therapy can be incredibly helpful, and there is no shame in asking an expert to lend a listening ear. They have the tools to help you, and will help to give you the tools to help yourself. If you don’t know where to start, Butler Counseling and Consultation Services is a great place. 

If you need some extra support, don’t be afraid to reach out. People love you and want to be there for you.

We will be okay.

You are valuable, valid and loved, 


If you have a question that you’d like to see discussed in Ask Abby, feel free to contact me via email, carrier pigeon or telepathy. 



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