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Is College Causing You Anxiety and Stress? 3 Ways to Deal with Anxiety in College

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If you are feeling stressed out about college, I feel for you. It’s tricky how something that is happy or exciting can also be a source of stress or anxiety. Logically, we might know that we have elected to do something and yet feel out of control or apprehensive. This is because change is a stressor no matter why it’s happening. We like our lives to be predictable; some of us more so than others. We appreciate the familiar, the things we don’t even have to think twice about. You might have been looking forward to College your entire life, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have mixed feelings about going.

Assuming that you want to go (because I admit that some people don’t really want to but are expected to), you are probably frustrated about how anxious you are currently feeling about it. Whether you are planning to go, awaiting acceptance, enjoying summer, or are already there, this milestone can feel incredibly overwhelming. If you already experience anxiety, this may increase it. Or, you may be feeling this way for the first time in your life. I see a lot of people on both ends of the anxiety spectrum and in between in my practice. Rather than get too down on yourself for your response to life events, you might want to take some time to consider where your feelings are coming from. You might be surprised at how many people feel the same way you do; you are definitely not alone in your anxiety!

How Does College Anxiety Show Up?

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Anxiety may show up in all the different stages of your college journey. You might be a senior in high school and dealing with anxiety around your college applications, worrying about where you will get in if you’ll be moving away from Los Angeles to attend school if you aren’t able to move away, and many more worries. Even after you are accepted into college, you may find yourself anxious in the summer before, worrying about your first year in college, whether you will make friends, and who your dorm-mate might be.

If you’re already in college, you might be struggling to adjust to larger class sizes, less teacher supervision, a grading curve, the social dynamics, and living away from home. Going to college is the biggest change in routine that you will have endured since you entered high school. It is possible that your college experience is simply onsetting underlying anxiety that you have been dealing with in high school in a milder form. You may also have made the biggest environmental leap in your educational career thus far, and the transition is jarring.

Signs That you are Dealing with Anxiety in College

Anxiety can manifest as physical symptoms and changes in mood, thoughts, and/or behavior patterns.

  • Increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, and trembling are physical signs and symptoms of anxiety.
  • Nervousness, a consistent sense of impending danger, difficulty concentrating, and/or feeling overwhelmed are mental and emotional signs and symptoms of anxiety.
  • An increase in (or beginning of) alcohol and/or drug use. This can be easily overlooked and written off as “typical college behavior,” but that is just the point. While people push their limits and experiment in college because it is their first time being off on their own, many of them also find that drinking and/or drug use make them feel “better,” even if they can’t quite identify what is making them feel the need to “feel better.” This underlying issue might be anxiety. If you feel like you need to party on the weekend to let off steam, decompress from the week, and/or boost your mood, this can be a behavioral symptom of anxiety.

These are common struggles in late teens that we see at our therapy practice in our Woodland Hills therapy practice. Regardless of what brings (or brought) them on, there are tools that can be utilized to help deal with anxiety.

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You may find that you feel guilty about how you are feeling. Perhaps you are the first person in your family to go to college, or you got a big scholarship that enabled you to attend. Perhaps you have taken out a big student loan, or your parents have taken on additional debt to help you. You might even feel guilty if you have a robust college fund and relatively few “obstacles” to post-secondary education, as you understand that you are in a place of privilege that others would do anything for. 

Feeling guilty is not a reason to remain in your anxious state; you don’t need to punish yourself. The important thing is not to berate yourself for your human response to this change in your life but to accept that there is an issue and be compassionate with yourself as you work toward feeling better.

3 Ways to Deal with Anxiety in College

1. Befriend your anxiety:

Befriending your anxiety may feel like a big ask if it has been overwhelming, so let me break it down into a few smaller steps and things to think about. Firstly, there is the idea of “befriending” something that causes you grief. The idea of this mindset is to keep you engaged and curious. Think of people you don’t get along with in your daily life; you probably avoid them at all costs. In avoiding them, they don’t change their behavior, and they aren’t more tolerable when they do come around. Friends, however, invite us to consider new ideas and teach us about ourselves. To befriend your anxiety is to embrace and accept it.

First and foremost, I want you to recognize that what you are dealing with is College Anxiety. 

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Yes, college is supposed to be a time of adventure and fun. But it can also be a place of stress, insecurity, and anxiety. The sooner you accept that you are dealing with anxiety, the easier it will be to tackle it. Spending time telling yourself, “I should have fun,” or “I shouldn’t be feeling this way” will keep you stuck.

Next, identify what triggers your anxiety. When we talk about befriending anxiety, we also want to look at the thoughts that fuel it. Do you expect yourself to get all As like you did in high school? Do you think changing majors in your senior year of college is unacceptable? What is exacerbating your anxiety? When does it impact you most? 

You may discover patterns that you wouldn’t think would make a big difference, such as not getting enough sleep. You may identify that you have to study for the first time in your life and have no practice at it. This is the sort of realization that can lead to solutions like joining study groups or reaching out to on-campus tutoring services. Luckily, with the aid of technology and the internet, there is a multitude of ways to engage in learning and studying these days. You may find that recording lectures while taking notes is helpful; you can listen to the lecture again and take more thorough notes. You might even pause the lecture to watch a video online about the concept being discussed. If you hadn’t first acknowledged your anxiety and discovered one of the key factors, you would have no way to come up with a plan of how to cope with it.

2. Engage in healthy coping skills:

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As I said above, you might want to expand your study methods if that is the cause of your anxiety. If sleep is an issue, you may want to make yourself get into bed earlier than you want to. Being mindful of your sleep schedule is very important when it comes to managing stress and anxiety at any age. 

A tricky thing about anxiety, however, is that it can cause us to neglect sleep schedules and earlier bedtimes; this is sometimes referred to as “sleep procrastination,” where we delay going to sleep to give ourselves the free time we didn’t have during a busy or stressful day. Ultimately, we suffer; our alarm clock rings out in the morning, whether we went to bed late the night before or not.

Making time for meditation can also help you to process and decompress. This might be something you make a point of doing for two minutes per day during the week, then longer on the weekends, or at varying times depending on your schedule. Meditation involves finding a way to be peaceful (often seated comfortably) and paying attention to your breathing. You may have thoughts arise; you can notice them and let them go. You might want to listen to guided meditations on apps or online or create your own practice. If you find that the last thing you want to do after sitting in class all day sits and meditate, it might work for you to meditate while going for a walk! You can still focus on breathing while walking, perhaps breathing in for a certain number of steps and out for a certain number. You can also count steps or pay close attention to how your body feels as it moves.

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Journaling about your feelings and experiences can be helpful in not only expressing them but understanding them. Sometimes, we sit down to write and find that the words seem to flow out of us. This can feel like a cleansing of the emotions that are associated with our struggles; it can also help us to communicate about our troubles without censorship, allowing us to read back and learn new things about our internal monologue. Other times, we may find that taking the time to put our experiences into words challenges us to really analyze and identify what we are seeing, feeling, thinking, and experiencing. Writing about our anxiety in a thoughtful way may provide more insight than thinking or talking about it.

To combat the creeping sense of dread, explore creating a structure or a routine. Anxiety leaves us with a constant feeling of impending doom; with that, we worry we’ve forgotten things or that we will forget things. We feel depleted of energy and are more likely to lay in bed if we don’t have something time-sensitive to get up and do, leading to us feeling even more lost and out of control. Structure and routines that can help are the following: consistent bedtimes and alarm times in the mornings, even on weekends; joining a club or activity that meets regularly, to use as a touchstone of the week; a set time every evening to review the work of the day; keeping a household and grocery list. They can involve never going to bed without putting away clothing or making sure it’s in the hamper; doing every dish from the day, even if it’s just a coffee mug; meditating, journaling, or going for walks at certain times every day, or every other day; doing laundry on a set day of the week, or when the hamper gets to a certain fullness point.

In your quest to cope with anxiety, you may be tempted to begin or increase alcohol/drug use. This is not the healthiest way to handle anxiety, though it may be the most readily available and tempting. Because the ingestion of these substances can decrease our inhibitions and cloud our ability to think reasonably and responsibly, they can feel good at the time but have dire repercussions, not to mention physically taxing recoveries afterward. If your nervous system is already overburdened, maintaining control and structure is far more beneficial than dis-regulating it through the use of substances.

3. Seek support:

The good news is you have multiple options for seeking support, even if it doesn’t feel that way to you right now. You can reach out to your friends and family from back home. I know you might worry that you’ll upset or worry them, but they’ll be happier to hear from you now than to find out later that you struggled in silence. You can also reach out to new friends you have made. It is likely that they are experiencing something similar; you’re all in the same boat!

You can reach out to a counselor either at your college campus or an online therapist anywhere in California. You may benefit from individual counseling or group therapy addressing anxiety support. You might worry about what others will think of you or have ideas and stigmas of your own, but I promise you that you are not alone in your anxiety, and help is not only available but recommended.

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Anxiety is not something you have to suffer with silently. You deserve to share and process your emotions in a safe environment, whatever that looks like for you. What you are going through makes perfect sense when you are coping with a big life transition. The important thing is that you recognize your need for help and your worthiness to receive it. We can get through almost anything with some support!

Other Services at Embracing You Therapy

Here at Embracing You Therapy, 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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