How to reduce anxiety in college

The transition from high school to college is not only an exciting time but also a stressful one. This may be the first time that these young adults have to develop time management skills, schoolwork, mental health, social life, and maybe even a part-time or full-time job all at once. These changes can present symptoms of stress or anxiety that could also ultimately affect academic success if left untreated or unmanaged.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA) 2019 Stress in America survey, more than three-quarters of young adults report feeling physical or emotional symptoms of stress. To add to the normal stressors of college life, the coronavirus pandemic hit and caused feelings of uncertainty in college students about the future of their education.

Dealing with the challenges presented by COVID-19 has resulted in increased loneliness, stress, anxiety, and depression for many young adults. At the beginning of the pandemic, an overwhelming majority of college students (85%) reported increased stress and/or anxiety. As a result, the importance of college students developing coping strategies to combat stress, anxiety, and other mental health concerns is at an all-time high.

Impact of the pandemic on student mental health

A survey conducted by revealed that 90% of college students said that the pandemic caused them to experience negative mental health symptoms. Unfortunately, the pandemic has also made it harder to access mental health care for most students (60%), making financial stressors and feelings of anxiety about the future of their education more difficult for students to manage.

Colleges across the nation closed campuses and residence halls to help flatten the curve, forcing students to leave their campus communities, friends, coaches, classes, loved ones, and familiar routines. With many students spending more time in front of screens and being stuck indoors, they are experiencing difficulties making new friends and meeting classmates. The impact of isolation on student mental health will likely increase levels of social anxiety once students can return to campus.

Stress and anxiety in college students

As a college student, it’s nearly impossible not to feel symptoms of stress at least once. Common causes of stress in students stem from living away from home for the first time, academic performance and success, test anxiety, finances, post-graduation plans, roommate conflict, and relationships. The American Institute of Stress says that “stress can have wide-ranging effects on emotion, mood, and behavior.” When stress is left untreated for a long period of time, chronic stress may develop and cause even worse physical symptoms or health issues. Knowing the symptoms and signs of stress will help you to create stress management techniques early.

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Headaches, dizziness, or shaking
  • Chest pains or racing heart
  • Muscle tension or jaw clenching
  • Aches and pains
  • Trouble sleeping or exhaustion
  • High blood pressure
  • Weakened immune system

Normal levels of stress from time to time are expected and can sometimes be beneficial depending on the circumstances. But, when stress continues at unhealthy levels for an extended period, it can impact studying, cognitive abilities, concentration, and self-esteem. When not properly treated, stress affects all aspects of daily life. It can prevent students from reaching their academic goals, which can then lead to developing anxiety or other mental health conditions.

Although often used interchangeably, stress and anxiety have a couple of differences. The major difference between anxiety and stress is that anxiety can also make you feel a sense of impending doom and fear. A study from the American College Health Association (ACHA) revealed that 60% of college students report anxiety as one of their major health concerns. 

Physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Stomach pain, nausea, or digestive issues
  • Headache
  • Insomnia or waking up frequently
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Pounding or racing heart
  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
  • Sweating, trembling or shaking
  • Muscle tension

The constant fear of the unknown, in addition to a loss of control, has drastically increased anxiety in college students and other mental health concerns. According to Dr. Stacia Alexander, mental health clinic coordinator at Paul Quinn College, this is why virtual mental health services like telehealth are so important in effectively reaching all students, no matter their location.

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A lot of what makes you excited to go to college can also make you anxious AF.

The thing is, you’re not alone. Having anxiety as a college student is actually very common. According to a 2018 assessment by the American College Health Association, 63 percent of college students in the United States reported overwhelming anxiety and 23 percent reported receiving a diagnosis or being treated by a mental health professional for anxiety.

We rounded up eight tips for coping with college-related anxiety, and we tapped NYC neuropsychologist and Columbia University faculty member Dr. Sanam Hafeez for advice.

Find support in new friends

Reading that you’re not alone is one thing, but finding a friend who’s also experiencing the same emotions can help you feel supported.

That might seem easier said than done, and even intimidating, when you’re a freshman or starting at a new college. But if you’re feeling it, you can bet others are too — even if they don’t advertise it.

“When you feel anxious about your place in a new college or university, remember that you’re not alone. Everyone else is starting anew as well. Although some may put up a front of bravado, most are equally insecure.” Hafeez says.

You could try joining some clubs, volunteering on campus or at school events, or pledging a sorority or fraternity if that’s more your jam.

Just be sure to seek out friends who share your interests and core values to avoid potentially adding to your anxiety.

“Be patient, and take the time to get to know people. Avoid toxic people or users out of desperation to belong,” Hafeez says. “These kinds of people are more harmful than being alone temporarily.”

Finding your crew takes time, so don’t get discouraged if it’s taking longer than you hoped it would.

Reach out to your family and friends back home

While you’re working on building a new social circle, remember you can always lean on your family or existing friends.

There’s just something about a parent’s reassurance that can make all the difference, even if you couldn’t wait to get out of the house and live on your own.

Staying in touch with a parent or parental figure might just be the key to helping you cope with the stress of being a college student, according to a 2016 study.

The researchers found that, as students’ daily stress increased, so did their daily loneliness and depression, while their daily happiness decreased. Communication with a parent was found to be an important factor in a student’s well-being during their transition to college.

And if you’re feeling homesick — which is typical BTW —calling home can help, Hafeez says.

“If you need some extra FaceTime calls with family to buoy you in the beginning, there’s no shame in that.”

Make your surroundings feel like home

Being able to retreat to a dorm room or apartment that’s comfortable and familiar can help you unwind after a stressful day. How you set up your surroundings can help you sleep better and even help with homesickness, Hafeez notes.

Here are a few ways you can create a relaxing space that feels like home:

  • Display pictures and other items that remind you of home or happy times.
  • Set up a designated workspace separate from your chill zone.
  • Make sure your bed is comfortable, so you can get a good night’s sleep.
  • Avoid clutter, since research suggests it increases feelings of anxiety and stress.
  • Stock your mini fridge with a combo of your favorite treats and nourishing snacks.

Practice self-care

Self-care isn’t all about avo masks and pedicures. Self-care looks different for everyone.

It can involve anything that helps you feel your best — physically and emotionally — so that you’re able to better cope with life’s stressors.

Self-care doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive, and, contrary to popular belief, practicing self-care isn’t limited to women. Anyone can do it and benefit from it.

Not sure where to start? Consider making a self-care checklist that’s realistic for you based on your schedule, finances, and habits.

Here are some ideas:

  • Exercise regularly. Exercise can help you manage stress and anxiety, improve sleep and mood, and boost confidence and productivity. For quick relief, stepping away — literally! — from a stressful situation for a short walk can stop anxious thoughts.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. Not getting enough sleep can contribute to anxiety and depression and affect your concentration, making it harder to stay on top of schoolwork. Create a comforting environment by investing in blackout curtains and a white noise machine if you can. Earplugs can also be helpful in a noisy dorm or apartment with paper-thin walls.
  • Watch a funny movie. Laughter really is the best medicine. Studies have shown that laughter induces physical and mental changes that reduce stress and improve health. Watch a funny movie as a quick way to get your mind off stress. Make a point of laughing often, and try finding the humor in situations to cope with anxiety.

Keep yourself busy

Unless the source of your anxiety is having too much on your plate, keeping busy can help with feeling homesick and help you meet new people.

“When we feel sad or depressed, our first tendency might be to isolate. That is the worst thing to do,” Hafeez says. “Throw yourself into campus activities, schoolwork, and evening events. The less time you have on your hands, the less homesick you’ll feel and the more connections you’ll make to help you feel at home.”

Be realistic about your course load

College is an entirely different game than high school, and it can be hard to determine just how difficult a class or program will be.

There’s nothing wrong with aiming high and being ambitious. But if your course load is causing you to feel overwhelmed and anxious, it may be time to reevaluate.

“If you made it to college, this isn’t your first rodeo of tests, papers, and pressure. Evaluate the classes you registered for,” Hafeez says.

“You know your capabilities better than anyone. If you really bit off more than is realistic, it might be time to rethink your schedule and see if you need to re-engineer it and perhaps not take quite so many credits in a semester. Talk with a professor on campus, and get some guidance from them.”

When choosing courses, be sure to factor in other time commitments, like work and extracurricular activities. And don’t forget to factor in adequate time for rest.

Try to identify your triggers

Identifying what triggers your anxiety can make it easier for you to manage it. Once you know what’s setting off your anxiety, you can begin to find ways to tackle or avoid your triggers, depending on what they are.

Anything from certain lifestyle choices to what’s going at school or home can be triggers.

Are you drinking a lot of caffeine or alcohol? Are you staying up too late? Does your diet now consist of less nutrient-rich food? These things can also lend to anxiety and make you feel pretty crappy overall.

Along with the new lifestyle habits that often accompany a big life change, like going off to college, other common triggers of anxiety in college students include:

  • homesickness
  • trouble making new friends

  • dating and breakups
  • heavy course load
  • adjustment to new surroundings
  • responsibilities of living on your own
  • uncertainty or fear about the future

The bottom line

Anxiety is common among college students, but that doesn’t mean you have to take it lying down.

Getting involved in school activities, making new friends, and leaning on your loved ones can help. You can also reach out to a campus counselor or local therapist who can suggest coping strategies or treatment.

Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.

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