Every milestone brings with it a mix of joy and anxiety. There is a lot to celebrate, yet there are also a lot of unknowns. You might be graduating from high school, college, or university. While you may have been looking forward to graduation for a long time, you may also have been aware that there would be a lot of changes involved. Now that graduation is upon you, it would be totally natural (and even expected) for you to be feeling some anxiety about it! You might feel guilty that you feel this way; maybe you’re the first person in your family to graduate, or maybe you have had a lot of help in getting here, and your anxiety causes you to feel that you’re not appreciative of that. I want you to know that feeling conflicting emotions about graduating is very common. You are not alone.
Graduation anxiety is real and valid as any other emotion. Just because graduation is a joyous moment does not mean you are not allowed to feel nervous at the same time. Graduation signifies a transition to a new time of your life,
where things will look different than they did before. Increased self-reliance may be necessary; you may have to make tough decisions on your own, and you may move away from your childhood home. None of these changes are simple to make! Some of your anxiety may come from a lack of self-trust and/or self-esteem. You might worry that you don’t have what it takes to make it in this new phase of your life and need to rebuild that faith in yourself.
It is also important to know that post-graduation feelings can show up as depression, an increase in self-doubt and insecurity, as well as irritability. You might be able to identify anxiety relatively easily from your experiences taking important tests or other life events that have increased your stress and worry. The way anxiety manifests for you physically (maybe a racing heart, sweating, dizziness, or nausea, for example) might not show up for you at this time. Instead, you may experience other negative emotions or experience them in conjunction with anxiety. It is important that you take them all seriously, even if you have to start with your biggest obstacle and work your way through it slowly. Leaving parts of our issues alone only hijacks our joy and creates an ongoing struggle.
There are many reasons why you may experience post-graduation anxiety and stress. Firstly, the plethora of unknowns that await you after this transition! We human beings appreciate a relative amount of predictability. Whatever pattern you’ve been in for the past several years is sure to change following graduation. Having big gaps in your information is scary enough. Being unable to predict how your life will look also puts you in a position of having to try to imagine it. Whether it’s helpful or not, it is easy to picture the worst-case scenario.
The pandemic and its impact on the economy are major stressors for graduates right now. There have been massive financial barriers since the Great Recession; millennials and those born later have been in a dramatically different financial position than their parents were. Most people under 40 were raised by parents for whom the economy worked and expected a similar life path. The pandemic has added a whole new level of the financial burden to most Americans (and people worldwide).
You may have enjoyed a certain level of “forgiveness” before graduating; you might have felt permitted to make mistakes and try different things out. Now that you are graduating, you might worry about the pressure to meet people’s expectations. Maybe you have told yourself (or been told) that the pressure is on and the real world is about to set in. It is normal to experience a fear of failure, fear of making mistakes, fear of looking foolish.
Post-graduation feels like a more high-stakes time, even though the truth is that life is a series of trial and error, and you will continue to slip up and recover for the rest of your life. This may be your first perceived “big test,” and that can create crippling anxiety. A lot of this fear is attached to underlying core fears about how your actions reflect your purpose and worth. Your fear of failure may be a fear of not being good enough, not working hard enough to show your appreciation for your life, reflecting poorly on your family, losing touch with what brings you joy, or any multitude of options. To address this pressure, you first have to identify your core values and define where this stress is coming from.
As always, we want to start by identifying our emotions so that we can have more insight, clarity, and understanding. You can use emotion wheels such as this one to help you identify your feelings; you might be surprised to discover how complex your emotional state is. In understanding our feelings, we can determine what they are linked to.
For example, you may determine that you are scared to graduate. As you dig deeper, you may realize that we feel anxious, powerless, and overwhelmed. When you know that you feel anxious, you can begin to work out why; perhaps you don’t like change, you’re worried about getting a job, you’ll have to move away for the first time, etc. If you identify that you feel powerless, that is a very revelatory discovery! Perhaps you don’t feel quite ready to graduate yet, but time is still passing, and there is no way to stop it. Maybe you don’t have much of a choice (or any choice) in your next step. This knowledge will enable you to reach out for the help and support you need to feel better. And if you feel overwhelmed by graduation, that is to be expected! The anxiety and the powerlessness; the impending changes, such as friends moving on to different places, a whole schedule overhaul, the need to be more reliant on yourself; the grieving of the chapter that is closing. These are all high-stakes emotional experiences.
Once we understand what we are going through, we can sometimes trace our feelings back to certain events, incidents, or ideas. These may go back for years and years! Pressure from your family to excel might have been pushing you through your academic career so far; maybe you are exhausted from trying to live up to those standards and terrified that you won’t succeed in the next step. If you feel inclined, you might want to discuss some of these feelings with your family or find a support network. You may have reached a point where you decide that you are going to work to distance yourself from those expectations. Or you may seek counseling that can enable you to handle the pressure more easily. These revelations and decisions can only come with an understanding of your emotions and what is driving them. That is why this step is so important. We can’t process, fix, change, or adapt to something we don’t acknowledge and understand.
This is a time of life that is the perfect breeding ground for self-criticism and bullying. We often compare ourselves to others during times of transition, as we falsely believe that there are not enough seats at the table, so we have to rush and be the first one to get there. This type of comparison and abundance mindset can exacerbate the normal post-graduation jittery emotions. Being mindful and grounded in the present can help us stay focused. We cannot change the past, and we can’t actually be sure how many seats are at the table. All we can do is handle what is right in front of us as best as we can.
There is no need to talk down to yourself about the fact that you are feeling down. I know that that is easier said than done; it is far easier to let a negative thought pattern take over. Write affirmations on sticky notes or your phone if you need to. Set an affirmation as an alarm to go off three times a day. You may want to remind yourself of any or all of the following: “I am doing my best”; “I have made it this far, and I can keep going,”; “I am proud of the person I am”; “I have everything I need to keep going.”
If you begin to hear unkind thoughts about yourself, ask yourself if you would talk about a friend this way or if you would let a friend talk about themselves this way. If the answer is no, correct your thought process with an argument. If this means talking to yourself, go for it! If you think, “I’m not good enough for x,” argue that point! “Yes, you are; why wouldn’t you be? You have achieved a, b, c, and you are a good person!” Write a list of things you like about yourself. Any and everything! Ask others to contribute. Keep the list where you can read it, and read it when your inner critic starts nagging at you. Make space for self-care and anxiety management, even if some days that means you only have five minutes to do so.
This might be the first time you are experiencing post-graduation anxiety if this is your first time graduating from high school or college, but the fact is, this is not the first time you are dealing with anxiety. You may seek guidance as to how to
identify and employ these skills with a trained professional like we offer at our therapy practice in Woodland Hills. You may already have some skills in place or many of these skills!
When you realize that you are experiencing this negative emotion, make an inventory: what are your go-to coping skills when you feel anxious? Looking at your list, can you see anywhere you could add to it? A great idea for an inventory of coping mechanisms is to have as varied a selection as possible. This means that you have items that are easy to do anywhere at any time, items that are quick, items that take longer, items that require appointments, and everything in between. In cultivating a well-rounded self-care list, you are creating a lifestyle that supports your mental health and encourages you to prioritize your own needs.
For example, you will want big building blocks on your list, such as good sleep hygiene, proper hydration and nutrition, and moving your body in a way that feels good for you. You might not always be able to get enough sleep or drink enough water, but these are daily habits that you accept and prioritize as essential. You will have other items on your list of coping skills, like journaling, therapy, and meditation. Whether you carry a journal with you at all times or set aside time every day to write, it is up to you to fit this habit into your routine. The same goes for meditation; there are quick meditations that you can use in a pinch or longer ones that you might have to make room for. Keep your list of anxiety management skills fresh and appropriate for your lifestyle by revisiting it at times and considering how many skills you are using, when, and how often.
The most important thing to know about your post-graduation anxiety is that you are not alone. Within your class of peers, the majority of them probably feel similarly. Consider how many classes graduate every year around the world, and you will realize how many people are in this struggle with you and also how many of them got through it. When you think of all the people who have graduated before and gone on to lead happy lives, I hope it gives you some comfort.
I’m not saying that adjusting to change is easy. You will definitely have adjustments to make, hard times, mishaps, and setbacks. What I am saying is that you have every right to believe in yourself and that you will be okay! If you create a robust system of people, habits, and tools, you will have a support network to catch you when you struggle. There is no rule that says you have to have your entire list in place. Keep adding to it. Adjust it. Get rid of things that don’t serve you anymore. Add things that do. And if all else fails, just remind yourself to breathe. Every moment passes, both good moments and bad moments. Sometimes, it is enough to take a few deep breaths and resolve to keep going.
Here at Embracing You Therapy Group, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.
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