College can be a stressful time for most students, but for those who are returning to college after being in treatment for alcohol, drugs or a mental disorder, re-entry can be especially hard.
The fears can seem overwhelming:
How will I handle the stress of school, dating and friends without using?
How will I be able to go back to a place that reminds me of such a dark time?
I’m so much older than everyone else now. What will people think of me?
Dr. Bryn Jessup, Director of Family Services at Yellowbrick, says it’s natural for students who have had a traumatic experience – such as hitting bottom with drugs, an eating disorder or attempting suicide – to have fears about returning to the place where they faced so much pain.
“There’s always a kernel of reality to any person’s concerns,” Jessup says. “What anxiety tends to do is exaggerate the negative impact of them.”
Luckily, Jessup says, there are lots of strategies that students can use to overcome these fears and successfully return to college. Here are his top 5 tips.
- Identify the Factors that Lead to Your Problems
Jessup says it’s important that students spend time in treatment figuring out what factors contributed to their problems in the first place. Once you know what it is about those situations that cause you to feel more shame or anxiety, you can have a plan for how to deal with them when they come up again.“We help people understand that they can revisit and reinterpret their histories… so people have a greater sense of control over the very factors that trigger that sense of shame,” he said.
- Create a Continuing Plan of Treatment
Because returning to college after treatment can be triggering, Jessup says it’s key that students continue with outpatient treatment by seeing a therapist or counselor or attending group therapy as they transition back into school life. That way, students can address their fears and triggers as they come up and have support to deal with them in a healthy way.
- Return to School Gradually
Starting out with just a few classes per semester is a great way to ease back into the stresses of academic life. Once you feel you can handle the academic pressures soberly, you can gradually add a larger workload.
- Live Off-Campus
Although parents typically want their kids to go back to a more structured environment, like the dorms, Jessup says living off-campus can actually give students who are returning to college a stronger sense of independence and the safety of not having to be around so much partying. “For many students who are returning from treatment, living in the dorms would feel like a big regression,” Jessup says.
- Establish New Friends
If your entire college social life was centered around partying prior to treatment, it’s likely you’re going to have to ditch your old crowd for a new one that embraces sober activities. If possible, stay connected with the friends you made in treatment, or seek out others on campus who are living a sober lifestyle.
- Remember that Being Older is a Good Thing!
For many students who are returning to college after going to rehab or treatment, the shame of being older than the rest of your peers is enormous. Jessup remembers one student who was convinced that he was so much older than the rest of the students in his class that he quit the class – only to realize later that he was really only one year older than most of the other students.Jessup says students can learn to manage that shame not by suppressing or concealing their difference, and by coming to view their difference (e.g., their age, their “different” history) in less negative terms and with more self-acceptance.
- Know That Anxiety is Normal
Jessup says your 20s is a time of uncertainty and flux – for all young adults, not just those who’ve struggled with an addiction or mental illness. He says it’s a time of figuring out what you want to do with your life, and it’s normal to feel unsettled and to change your mind about your goals. “For people who’ve had more extreme difficulties like mental illness and addiction, parents and young people tend to feel a lot of anxiety about stuff that’s actually normal,” he says. “It’s important to differentiate between normal developmental flux and regression.”