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For some first-year students, the transition from high school to post-secondary education can lead to increased feelings of anxiety, stress and even depression.

SURREY – The beginning of the fall semester at post-secondary institutions is quickly approaching, and for some first-year students, the transition from high school to post-secondary education can lead to increased feelings of anxiety, stress and even depression.

“The first year of a young person’s post-secondary education can be an exciting and rewarding time as they take the initial step into their adult life, but it can also be a period when they feel anxious, stressed or sad about leaving the familiarity of high school, friends and family for a post-secondary institution,” says Nina Krack, a clinical nurse educator in Fraser Health’s Early Psychosis Intervention program. “While some emotion about this new phase is normal, parents and students should address concerns promptly. When unpleasant or difficult feelings persist for a while and start to interfere with daily activities, this can be a sign that a problem may be emerging.”

Students living alone for the first time may also feel daunted at the prospect of having to shop, prepare and consume nutritious food without the familiar comfort of a home-cooked meal.

“The daily consumption of healthy food is essential to supporting a young person’s continued physical, mental and emotional development,” says Carole Chang, Fraser Health public health dietitian. “Living alone for the first time on a limited budget can often lead to unhealthy food choices, but with a little planning, it’s possible for post-secondary students to eat well as they take this important step forward.”

Suggestions to post-secondary students for coping with back-to-school stress, anxiety and depression

  • Understand what is causing your feelings: Recognizing what can trigger stress, anxiety and depression is the first step in learning to manage the symptoms.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to consider what might be the cause.
  • Know the signs:  When you’re stressed, anxious or depressed, your body will exhibit physical symptoms and you may have negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours that vary in intensity and interfere with your daily life.  Listen to your body and your mind to recognize when you might be experiencing these symptoms.
  • Equip yourself with self-care resources:  Foundrybc.ca offers an extensive library of online resources for managing stressanxiety and depression to help you problem-solve, address symptoms, relax and become more mindful while effectively managing your feelings.
  • Address social anxiety:  While your post-secondary education is a time to experience new opportunities and meet new people, it can also be a time of anxiety for students without the comfortable surroundings of high school, their friends and family. For some people, it can be very anxiety-provoking to be in new social situations. It's important to recognize this in yourself before it impacts you negatively. Remember, you should make time for friends and social experiences during your post-secondary education, so if you find yourself spending too much time alone or using substances to be social, ensure you seek support.
  • Have a plan: Develop a plan for your first semester that includes a friend you can call if you’re feeling sad, anxious or stressed. If you are living away from home, plan a weekend visit home during the semester to visit friends and family. Do a stress and/or anxiety test now on Foundrybc.ca and then again later in the semester to see how you are coping
  • Know where you can find help on campus:  Prepare yourself now by doing some research to learn how you can get extra support if you need it. School counsellors are very resourceful with varying problems including anxiety and other mental health concerns, with course selection and for special needs support. Some schools also have very active and resourceful student bodies that support a variety of student needs.  

Parents who suffer from anxiety are also encouraged to seek support and treatment to help cope, as these actions will benefit the entire family. If you believe you are suffering from anxiety, speak with your family doctor or call your local mental health and substance use centre for help. 

Healthy eating tips for post-secondary students living away from home

  • Budget and plan ahead: Set money aside for grocery shopping and use grocery store flyers or apps to find deals. Plan your menu using foods that are on sale and have a weekly menu to help you eat better. Check out the free and low cost food directory if you need help finding free food. 
  • Have healthy food on hand: Chopped vegetables, whole fruits and cheese strings make a great snack when the time is tight.  When grocery shopping, choose fresh and frozen vegetables and fruits, whole grain products, lower fat cheeses and yogurts, and lean protein choices such as canned beans, canned fish, eggs and nuts instead of prepackaged foods. 
  • Think simple: Healthy meals do not need to be fancy. A healthy meal should include three out of four food groups from Canada’s Food Guide. For example, a peanut butter sandwich on whole grain bread and a piece of fruit is a quick and easy meal.
  • Eating out smart:  If you eat at a school cafeteria, try choosing entrées that are baked, grilled, steamed, roasted or stir fried. Increase your fibre intake by getting whole grain products and extra vegetables with your meal. Don’t forget to pack up your leftovers as they make a great meal or snack the next day.
  • Start your day right: Eat a nutritious breakfast that includes whole grain bread or cereal and a protein choice such as egg, peanut butter or nuts. Eating a healthy breakfast does actually help you learn better at school.  
  • Quench your thirst with water and milk: Fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks or soft drinks often replace healthier choices and can add a significant number of calories to the diet. It’s better to get energy from whole foods rather than these drinks.
  • Watch out for caffeine:  A grande coffee contains about 320mg of caffeine which is almost the maximum daily amount (400mg) recommended by Health Canada. Too much caffeine can cause headaches, irritability, nervousness and rapid heart rate. 
  • Be balanced: Try to eat nutritious meals and snacks and include regular physical activity and enough sleep. 

For more tips to ease the transition into the new school year for students of all ages, check out our Your Healthy Back to School Guide. For free healthy eating advice, ask to speak to a registered dietitian at HealthLink BC by calling 8-1-1.

Infographic about the 6 tips for post-secondary students going back to school

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