Why Taking a Semester Off During COVID-19 Was the Best Thing For My Mental Health

This summer was a waiting game for many college students. I was holding my breath worrying about whether school would resume in person, if tuition would be raised, and what this would all mean for my ability to learn. For me, this stress manifested in a very physical way. I was sick all summer with a cold. I had heightened allergies, panic attacks, and a constant uneasy feeling in my gut.

I got tested for COVID-19 on multiple occasions because of the seemingly endless cold, but I never tested positive. After receiving my third negative test, I finally reached out to my doctor to ask about what could be going on. Of course, I had done some of my own googling (please don't do this because it never helps) and had a laundry list of things that I thought could be to blame. My doctor patiently heard me out, then came back with an answer that changed the trajectory of my life for the next six months — I was suffering from anxiety. She went on to explain that it's very common for anxiety to translate into physical illness, then suggested taking time to focus on my mental health.

I knew I needed to make some changes, so I grabbed a journal and decided to write down all the things I was worried about. It was quite overwhelming at first to see everything that was causing me so much stress on a single page. But it made me very aware of the fact that college — paired with the pandemic — was at the center of many of my concerns.

I was worried about everything to do with school. I worried if going back to college would lead to a COVID-19 outbreak, or adversely, if I would struggle to learn virtually if the campus remained closed. Then it was the stress over how I could get home if there was an outbreak. Right then and there, I made the decision to take some time off. I reached out to school counselors about taking a semester-long leave, and finally filed all the paperwork. To this day, I'm so glad I did because my mental health and well-being became a top priority in my life. It was the first time I had ever put my mental health first. Here are five ways I've benefited from the decision to take the semester off.

1. I have never had so much free time. At school, I kept myself so busy that I attributed all my stress to my academics. It wasn't until I had nothing else to blame for the endless anxiety that crept into my thoughts that I realized something was wrong. It was a scary realization, but a necessary one to move forward. I needed this free time to come to terms with the fact that I'm dealing with a mental illness that needs to be addressed or it will get worse.

2. I was able to seek professional help. I'm privileged enough to have access to healthcare and was able to find the right therapist for me. Having more time to speak with a therapist, develop tools, and identify triggers has made my day-to-day life considerably easier.

It wasn't until I had nothing else to blame for the endless anxiety that crept into my thoughts that I realized something was wrong.

3. I've been able to build trust with myself. I've had time to understand how my anxiety manifests both mentally and physically. When I was constantly sick, I never felt like I had control over my body. Now that I've had time to sit with my anxiety and analyze it, I've become more aware of how to identify it. Being able to label specific reactions as part of my anxiety makes me more confident that I can address them properly.

4. I now know that I have options. Not only has this time helped me address my anxiety, but it has also made me aware of the things in my life that I can and cannot control. Before addressing my anxiety, I was in a constant state of stress. I couldn't decipher between things that were adding unnecessary stress to my life and things that may be difficult but were ultimately beneficial. These lines have become clearer. It's easier for me to decide what I can and cannot handle, which has allowed me to cut out unnecessary stressors in my life.

5. Most importantly, this time off has reminded me that I need breaks. I am a driven person and love to take on big projects, learn new things, and continuously push the boundaries of my abilities. This is something I love about myself, but the pressure to constantly be productive is not sustainable and is not helpful to my mental health. COVID-19 made me sit down and relax for a while, giving me a break I haven't had in a very long time. Extending this break through the fall semester made me realize how much I needed to stand still and focus on myself. I have rekindled hobbies, strengthened friendships, and worked on my mental health. A lot of necessary growth has happened for me while remaining still.