New semesters bring new stressors, study shows

Students socialize on campus as they return from summer break. The start of the school year often brings stress, according to a 2019 Pew Research study. (Andrew Osborn)

For many students at BYU, the start of school does not just mark the return of late-night cramming sessions — it also calls back increased feelings of anxiety.

“At the beginning of the semester, there are definitely more stressors that can exacerbate anxiety,” Phil Rash, assistant director of BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services said.

The problem of back-to-school anxiety is not BYU-exclusive, according to a 2019 Pew Research survey. 7 in 10 teens today see anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers, according to the study.

The findings illustrate a growing epidemic that American youth face — one that affects its victims equally, regardless of gender, race or socio-economic status. Rash agreed with this sentiment.

“Anxiety is one of the most common reasons people come to CAPS,” he said.

At CAPS, Rash and a team of 20 full-time clinicians and psychologists, along with an even more expansive group of graduate students and trainees, work together to ease students through their mental health struggles.

The CAPS website lists the current wait time for an appointment at three to four weeks. Wait times tend to wax and wane throughout the semester, Rash said, but one can usually expect to wait around three weeks for an appointment.

“In 2016, nearly two-thirds of college students reported ‘overwhelming anxiety,’ up from 50% just five years earlier,” according to Pew Research Center.

According to data from a 2019 Pew Research survey, 7 in 10 students see anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers. These categories were ranked higher than substance abuse and poverty. (Andrew Osborn)

Existing mental health problems can be intensified when faced with dramatic life changes, Rash said.

“For the student that already has anxiety, the stress that comes with moving to a new location or university can increase anxiety and increase stress, which are usually interlinked,” he said.

For BYU senior Ellis Smith, the beginning of the school semester brings a mixture of stress and excitement. 

“I think the responsibility of classes and getting good grades, especially coming off of a summer of fun and relaxation, it’s just kind of scary going back into routine again,” she said.

When dealing with school-related stress, Ellis said her first step is to make a list of the things she needs to do. 

“After that, I try and find ways to not think about school when it’s appropriate, whether it’s going to play some pickleball, watching movies, stuff like that,” she said.

One of the best things students can do is to take time for themselves and focus on self-care, Rash said.

Making time for physical activity, taking time to decompress and utilizing mindfulness techniques are key for those who are experiencing school-related anxiety and stress, he said.

BYU sophomore Jared Hunter said he feels excitement, more than anything else, as he begins the new school year. 

“It’s been two years since I was here,” Hunter said, as he had recently returned from a mission. “I came last time during COVID so it was very different. I didn’t get the full experience of school with a lot of things closed down, so I’m very excited to finally get the full experience of BYU.”

When asked if there were any feelings of anxiety or stress at the start of the school year, Hunter said he experienced positive stress.

“I think the biggest thing that I didn’t really apply super well in my freshman year that I’m trying to do better now is just studying more in advance,” he said.

By having a study plan, Hunter said he feels like he has a better idea of what needs to be done and is less stressed at the last minute.

Feelings of stress and anxiety are normal as school ramps up again this fall, but there are many resources available to BYU students to navigate these complex feelings.

Students can set up an appointment with one of BYU’s many licensed psychologists and therapists here.

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