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Mature Students – Stress and Challenges of Returning to School

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Mature Students – Stress and Challenges of Returning to School

Mature students face practical and emotional challenges

Returning to study as an adult, be it after a hiatus of a few years or several decades is a wonderful opportunity for personal growth and development. Sometimes, however, it poses particular personal and interpersonal challenges which lead to stress and may interfere with the achievement of academic or skill acquisition goals.

It is worth recognizing that there are typical stresses which may sometimes feel threatening or overwhelming and may prompt a mature student to seek help or advice. Here is an overview of some of the challenges and issues that a mature student might encounter and which might be worth addressing in personal therapy….

Trouble getting started?

Youthful environment re-attaches us to younger self: hopes and fears…memories of early failures drag us down. Family of origin issues around competition, self-esteem, fear of success, dependence and archaic parental expectations may be revived.

What can you finally do now that you couldn’t do then? Daring to try again.
Returning to study because you have to. The emotional fallout of down-sizing, layoff s being fired…marriage break-up.

Psychology of being there… and staying there!

Family pressure to stay in old roles, family interference…family heel-dragging and acting out in response to attempted change and development. Family feelings of being abandoned create guilt.

Psychological strain of new experience and new challenges,

  • Feelings of inferiority in relation to skills of younger classmates in uneasy mixture with feelings of superiority around own life accomplishments.
  • Strain in group projects which may result.
  • Social isolation from student peers… not fish nor fowl nor good red herring… feeling both above and below
  • Strain of steep learning curve in the face of technology and study skills which have lain fallow for many years… can’t do your kid’s grade seven math anymore… so how to face statistics.

Perfectionism, A very common phenomenon which may be serving as a defense and its relationship to self-sabotage .. how your perfectionism is getting in your way.

Imposter Syndrome…the symptoms are:

  • Inablity to internalize a sense of being talented or competent in the face of all objective evidence to the contrary
  • Attributing success to external factors unrelated to ability.
  • Comparing self to others
  • Emphasizing other’s strengths and own weaknesses
  • Minimizing other’s weakness and own power.


  • Becoming immobilized by deadlines
  • Avoiding challenges


  • Demanding perfection and so never escape disappointments
  • Feeling anxiety, fear and depression from pressure to live up to successful image or fear of being exposed as unworthy or incompetent

Philosophical and moral development

Becoming an individual: Psychologist Erik Erikson’s later stages of personal development start kicking in:

“Generativity vs Stagnation”… leads to “Integrity vs Despair”

Adult intellectual and moral development: Moral issues around taking an individual stand, giving back to the community.

Carol Gilligan on women’s moral development: the right of women to deal themselves in to the circle of care and nurture. Not always putting other’s needs first.

Sandwich generation … Being a “triple decker” sandwich in fact…with responsibilities to the generation above and below…. as well as responsibility to oneself.

Feeling of Vocation …Feeling a “calling” to do some work is a powerful driver of effort and sacrifice but also initially, sometimes hard to justify or express. The existential need or aspiration to express yourself in this particular way and to create a life which is congruent with your mature values needs validation and support. Luigi Rulla writing on Vocation, argues that the salient difference between career and Vocation lies in the fact that Vocation is not the expression of self-concept , but rather the expression of the self-ideal. He argues that Vocation has much more to do with expression of values than career does. It is perfectly possible to pursue a career which is well suited to your abilities and to the potential of the environment but which does not strongly emphasize personal values. There can be at mid-life a re-definition of personal values which is strong enough to provoke an upheaval in career trajectory. Vocational callings have the characteristic requirement that the personal values of the aspirant be coherent with those of the domain or the institution. He suggests that ability and skills are surface attributes that can be modified to a significant degree as the aspirant strives to express deep values.

The emphasis on values may lead a vocational aspirant to make personal sacrifices and over-ride normal considerations of stability, prestige, status and remuneration. This choice may not be equally valued by others around them… and this may cause interpersonal problems.

Practical and physical considerations…

Facing physical limits: For men and women, the acceptance of, and adjustment to, growing limits and a decreasing energy level.

Time management … pulling all-nighters not an option anymore! Need to develop alternative strategies.

Networking: Applying the skills, resources and contact networks of adult life to the scholarly task
Menopause and peri-menopause effects on psychology and physiology for women.

Not suffering in silence

Many of the challenges outlined above are not restricted to mature students

They are often expectable challenges of adulthood and midlife …but the additional challenge of a return to study may intensify the experiences to the point where they feel overwhelming or bring them to light unexpectedly. Speaking about these matters with a thoughtful friend, a therapist or a counsellor may help to normalize the experience and may permit you to find realistic and practical ways to solve the problems as they arise.

Returning to study is exciting and also emotionally and psychologically arousing.
Inward turmoil and self-examination may be marked by external manifestations such as increased physical and mental fatigue which sometimes manifests as mild depression and social withdrawal, but it is worth noting that research assures us that, even while it feels “destabilizing,” returning to study and career changes are rational responses to dissatisfaction and unmet needs by well adjusted people!

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