Managing the Return to Campus – Part II

Navigating the New Social Environment & the Changing Learning Environment

masked student huddled on classroom stairs looking depressed or overwhelmed.

This is the second of three segments focused on issues associated with returning to campus after the pandemic. This segment focuses on navigating the new social environment and the changing learning environment. There are five skills shared in this segment. Part I of the Return to Campus materials focuses on coping with lost opportunities and milestones while Part III focuses on returning to a campus that feels unsafe and managing COVID-19 concerns.

Navigating the new social environment

Many of us have been socially isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The social interactions we did have were often virtual or at a physical distance. Returning to in-person social interactions may be stressful for a number of reasons:

  • We may not feel comfortable interacting face-to-face with others.
  • We may find that our social network has shrunk and feel anxious about making new friends.
  • We may feel that we have lost some of our social skills while we were isolated.

In this section, we focus on three skills that can help us deal with challenging social situations.

Skill 1: Face your social fears

It’s common to feel anxious about socializing. These feelings affect everyone differently. Common anxieties include:

  • Fear that we will do something awkward when meeting someone new.
  • Concern that other people will judge us negatively.
  • Demonstration of a serious pattern of fear and avoidance that prevents us from being around others.

The most effective way to manage social anxiety is putting our fears to the test to see how realistic they are.

For example, we might think there’s no point going to a party because no one will talk to us. But if we think of that fear as a prediction to test, we might go to the party to see if our fears were accurate. We’ll find that many times our negative predictions are not accurate, especially when we are anxious.

When you are feeling social anxiety, you can follow these simple steps to test out your predictions.

  1. Identify what your mind is predicting about an upcoming social situation.
  2. Now dig a little deeper. Other than feeling anxious, what are you worried could happen in that situation? For example, are you worried you will embarrass yourself or that others might reject you?
  3. Decide what you need to do to test out your prediction.
  4. Test your prediction – attend the social activity even though your mind predicts it won’t go well.
  5. Afterward, evaluate the results of your test. What really happened? Did your negative prediction come true?
  6. Now, focus on what you learned. If your negative prediction didn’t come true, what does that say about the accuracy of your anxious mind’s predictions? And even if your negative prediction did come true, were you able to cope with the outcome better than you expected? Was it less awful than you imagined?
  7. Finally, remind yourself of the positive effects of facing your fears.

On your own: The next time you experience social anxiety, test out your prediction.

Skill 2: Put yourself out there socially

When we get sad, anxious, or overwhelmed, socializing with others can be difficult and feel less rewarding. But isolating from other people usually makes feelings of loneliness, boredom, and hopelessness even worse. Because of this, it’s important to socialize regularly even when we don’t feel like it.

We may think we have nothing interesting to say or that trying to make new friends is too hard. But it’s important to fight against this pattern by reaching out to someone in our social network or going to an activity where we might meet new people.

Socializing is just as important for our physical health as exercising, eating right, getting enough sleep and spending time outdoors.

It can be helpful to take stock of your social network and make a commitment to contact someone from your list. We introduced this skill in the Tools for Addressing Loneliness segment of the Care Package. This exercise can help us identify people we’d be excited to contact, make commitments to reach out to them, and identify activities to meet new people.

On your own: Take a few minutes to take stock of your social network and make a commitment to contact someone on your list.

Skill 3: Practice self-compassion

It’s common to feel awkward when meeting new people or reuniting with people we haven’t seen in a long time. And it’s likely our social network feels a bit smaller than it was before the pandemic, and we might feel discouraged.

When we are feeling emotional pain or having self-critical thoughts, it can help to take a self-compassion break. This practice reminds us that suffering is universal and that it’s okay to sometimes feel sad, awkward, or discouraged. You can do this practice in four simple steps:

  • Identify and think about the stressful situation.
  • Notice and label the emotional and physical sensation you experience from thinking of the situation.
  • Remind yourself that moments of such suffering are normal.
  • Ask yourself what you need to hear to express kindness to yourself and then say that to yourself.

This practice may sound familiar because we reviewed it in the Strategies for when you Feel Stretched too Thin, Handling the Stress of Returning to Work, and Recovering from Trauma & Grief segments of the Care Package. The practice was developed by Kristin Neff, PhD from the University of Texas at Austin.

On your own: Review a more detailed explanation of self-compassion breaks and incorporate this practice into your routine.

Managing a changing learning environment

The transition to remote learning was challenging for many of us. Although we may have benefitted from being able to learn at home, we also struggled with excessive distractions and more limited access to instructors and peers. Let’s look at two skills s to help you cope with the transition to in person learning.

Skill 4: Problem solving

When facing new challenges, we can feel overwhelmed and have trouble figuring out how to address problems coming our way. When we’re feeling stressed about specific problems, it can be helpful to use a five step framework developed by Raphael Rose.

This framework can help you pick from several options to solve your problem. We’ve used it before in the Tips for Keeping your Worry in Check, Finding Order when you’re Feeling Overwhelmed, and Handling the Stress of Returning to Work segments of the Care Package.

On your own: use the problem-solving worksheet.

Skill 5: Setting goals

Adjusting to the academic challenges of returning to campus will likely involve a lot of goal setting. Setting goals and following through with them is often a challenge.

When you struggle to set and accomplish goals, you can use the “SMART” goal framework to help you succeed. SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-limited. A SMART goal has all these attributes. To learn more about how to make your goals SMARTer, review the information sheet.

On your own: Review the SMART Goal Setting information sheet and strive to make your goals “SMART.”

Navigating the social and academic environment can be difficult

If the skills described above do not help you navigate the social and academic environment, we suggest finding out what resources your campus has to help you. Many campuses have psychological, social support and education support centers to help students. Many of these centers also have online resources. Explore what is available and take advantage of those that might be right for you.

Downloadable resources to use on your own

Information Sheets:

Pre-Work List:

How-to Guides:

Fillable Activity: