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Going Back to School Later in Life

My mother, at age 70-something, returned to graduate school for a master's degree in social work after a 40-year career in interior design. I was so proud!

Going back to school brought great joy to her life. She loved learning and being part of a collegiate community with its accompanying youthful energy and enthusiasm. But she also experienced high anxiety about grades, keeping up with the workload, reading small print with her failing eyesight, and getting to class in bad weather.

When I went back to school at age 39, I also remember feeling both excitement and fear. My mind raced with questions: will I be able to study and do well while maintaining my family responsibilities? Will I be the oldest in my class? Will I still have the focus to study after all these years? Will the classes be interesting? Is it worth the money that school costs? Will it lead to a better life? I had many hopes and dreams. I also feared failure, dreaded embarrassment, and experienced anxiety about unknown challenges ahead.

Doing Something New Always Triggers Emotions

Doing something new is always hard, even when it’s for the better. We feel change deep in our bodies. It is normal when returning to school to feel out of sorts, out of control, anxious, and even downright terrified.

Going back to school later in life is a thrilling proposition, however. We open ourselves to new experiences. And after all, a well-lived life is all about showing up for new experiences. Having matured beyond adolescence, we embrace school on our own terms, picking and choosing exactly what we want to study instead of what our parents and teachers chose for us. Plus it is exciting to stimulate the mind with new ideas. Our brains seek novelty like our stomachs seek food. Learning is nourishing. We meet new people. And we are given hope to advance ourselves both personally and professionally.

To make the most of this transition we must learn to take care of our fears and insecurities while striving to meet our new goals. So how can we effectively manage the challenges that returning to school involves so we enjoy the experience and function well?

I advocate three daily practices:

1. Write down your goals and read them often.

The brain has a tendency to go negative. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that the brain formed to be vigilant for danger and assess for the worst possible outcome. But in modern times, the brain’s negative bias can lead us down a road to worry. Anytime we try something new, we have to fight off our brain’s natural tendency to look for danger. One very simple way to outsmart the brain is to have a written list of the reasons you are going back to school and review that list all the time. Try this brief experiential exercise to stay focused on your goals:

2. Be self-aware

Awareness is the most powerful tool we have to keep ourselves calm. We cannot tend to our fears if we don’t first realize we have them. And because fears can manifest in all sorts of disguised thoughts and behaviors, lack of awareness of our emotions can lead to unhelpful behaviors such as procrastination.

Think of procrastination like the tip of an iceberg: The conflicts and emotions are the part of the iceberg you cannot easily see. But emotions and conflicts drive self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors called defenses. We have to look inside ourselves to discover what’s really going on at an emotional level. Once aware, we can tend to our feelings and see what they need to calm down. Labeling and validating emotions are key to not letting them rule you. Never judge your thoughts and feelings. Instead, accept them unconditionally so you can work with them. I use a tool called the Change Triangle to decipher my emotions.

3. Apply Tools and Techniques to Help You Relax

A calm nervous system leads to a wise brain. In contrast, the brain does not allow us to think clearly when emotions run high. Anxiety hinders logical thought and generates worries, which often causes us to act in ways contrary to our best interest. There are many techniques that all of us can learn to calm down when we are triggered into upset states:

  • One quick way to calm down is to counter negative thoughts and worries with simple mantras and reassuring words like This feeling is temporary, One moment at a time, and Everything will be ok. (You don't have to fully believe it to say it!)

  • Switch your focus to the soles of your feet, noticing what they feel like as they make contact with the ground.

  • Breathe deeply into your stomach five or six times, exhaling longer than you inhale. Here's the video of how I teach deep belly breathing so you can try it along with me:

  • Imagine a place you find calm and soothing.

  • Give yourself a selfie hug (literally wrap your arms around yourself) or ask someone you know to hug you. It's better than Xanax!

  • Praise yourself for going back to school and being so courageous for trying something new.

These techniques will help calm your nervous system.

Returning to school is a wonderful way to improve. You'll grow both personally and professionally. No doubt it adds stress to life. Ensure your success by doing whatever you can to manage your anxiety like working the Change Triangle. Remind yourself that growth is always synonymous with struggle. And real courage is doing something even when you are afraid. You can do it!



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