BRACE YOURSELF, my fellow parents of college students, because with Halloween in the rearview mirror, we are now officially in what I often call the “FALL FRENZY” season. The realities of college are setting in- from suboptimal (sometimes shocking) midterm grades and academic scrambling to social extremes (either too many friends/parties or sitting alone in dorm rooms)- especially for freshmen and anyone new to campus life (which includes not only transfer students but also everyone who did off-campus pandemic learning last year.) As they struggle with classes or relationships, many students begin to question if they need to change their major, change career goals or change schools. I’m here to remind you that THIS IS SUPER COMMON and totally NORMAL! Estimates range widely, but studies show that minimum of 30% to possibly up to 80% of undergraduate students change their major AT LEAST once, and around 10% change their majors more than once.
Let me offer a few tips to handle those FALL FRENZY FaceTime’s, phone calls & texts:
STOP CATASTROPHIZING! Whether it’s YOU or your kid, death-spiraling into catastrophic thinking is the opposite of helpful. You know how it goes- “I bombed a quiz/test, so now I’m going to flunk the course, which means I will lose my scholarship and have to drop out of school, and now I will NEVER become a doctor/lawyer/engineer/CEO/Supreme Court Justice/Ruler of the UNIVERSE!!”
Especially for FRESHMAN, virtually NOTHING they do this year is a turn-ender. Trust me that grad schools, law schools, med schools & real-life employers are looking for resilience and consistent improvement. And frankly, many of them had their own FRESHMAN FRENZY, so they get it. If you are bombing one class, you’re bombing THAT class…so start with perspective.
- This holds true for relationships- “I’m never going to find anyone; I’ll be alone forever…”
TEST ANXIETY: Please, let’s talk about this, because 1 in 5 college students deal with significant test anxiety!
If it’s test anxiety because when they hit the exam they are honestly not adequately prepared, then the answer is academic coaching. Many, MANY, super-bright high school students never learned how to study beyond memorization and regurgitation (no judgment) because that’s all they needed to ace their high school exams. Students should start with their school’s academic success center/website, then quickly move to forming peer study groups where they go through the prof’s power point together and trade off asking “what test question would Dr. X ask us from this slide?”, and then if needed, advance to online or in-person free or paid tutoring.
- Pro Tip: If you aren’t getting anything out of your TA’s study session, GO TO ANOTHER SECTION’s session!
- Ever heard of a BRAIN DUMP? It’s where you immediately write down every formula/equation/date that you need to know for the test when the test begins, so that later on, you don’t have to pull up that knowledge from your brain when it comes up on question #17.
However, if you are fully prepared and have the knowledge, but literally have the palm-sweating, heart-racing, lip-numbing, hyperventilating, brain-blanking experience of pure test anxiety- PLEASE GO VISIT A DOCTOR! We can not only connect you with a counselor who can do a few sessions of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with you (to help you recognize your unconscious magnification of potential negative outcomes) but we can also teach you a few mind-calming techniques AND we can potentially prescribe a medication that beautifully slows down your heart rate and calms your mind (without any addictive potential.)
- Breathing techniques can really help you get control of physical panic symptoms- start with a simple 4/10 pattern: breathe in for a slow count of 4, then breathe out for a prolonged count of 10. Repeat this cycle four times.
- Caffeine is NOT your friend. Chugging a cup or two of coffee before your exam will make your heart race faster, which signals your brain that you are anxious and perpetuates the panic response. LIMIT your caffeine intake!
- If they never wanted this pathway in the first place:
- Take a deep breath. And another. Recognize that you might have unintentionally (or with all the best intentions) forced your kid into a certain major- probably what you do for a living, or what you wish you would have done.
- Understand that although their academic strengths may align beautifully with their major, sometimes they frankly couldn’t care less. This is tough! We see the realities of paying bills and worry that what they enjoy as a 20-year-old won’t be lucrative enough. However, before you put the kibosh on their passion, encourage them to check it out and then to literally educate you on their realistic career opportunities. I’m here to tell you that when one of our kids decided to pursue a career in the arts, we initially rolled our eyes with the thought that she’d be yet another starving artist, but ultimately, she could end up being the strongest breadwinner in the family! (Side note- I learned that “animation” is used in virtually every industry these days, not just video games and feature-length movies.)
INSOMNIA: If you can’t sleep, everything is MUCH WORSE!
- Students VERY often come into university health centers complaining they haven’t slept in a week or more. Insomnia is often the first physical sign of anxiety or depression, so it’s the first thing we try to fix! Please see the Insomnia topic in The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook for more details, but start with:
- Consistent sleep/wake times- I swear, it doesn’t matter if it’s 11pm-8am or 3am-Noon; keeping the same schedule will improve your mood and brain functions. This is the NUMBER ONE problem I see in college students with insomnia! If you have ONE early class, that means you get up early every day- and take a nap later if you need it.
- Use a sleeping mask.
- Find a meditation/sleep app that works for you
- If you are hot, get a fan (also works as white noise)
- If you are cold, get a blanket- especially consider a weighted blanket (15-20 lbs) if anxiety is keeping you from falling asleep.
- Exercise! We all know that exercise is a good stress reliever, but did you know that many studies have shown consistent, moderate to vigorous aerobic activity (anything that keeps your heart rate up) for 30-45 minutes, 3-5 times/week may be equivalent to taking a low dose of an antidepressant? Go for a walk, ride your bike, or simply dance in your room! I recommend 30 minutes/day, EVERY day- this should be like brushing your teeth, something that is an automatic part of your routine.
- Look at your NUTRITION: College students often rely on convenience foods- granola bars and cereal in their dorms, and the classic pizza delivery or fast food. Before you know it, they may literally go days without significant quality fruit or vegetable intake. Make SURE to stock up on some healthy choices-even if they aren’t “fresh” or organic. Canned or single serving fruits are better than none! Choose smoothies with fresh or frozen fruit over a coffee drink. Add a side salad to that pizza slice, and grab the carrots and hummus snack packs over chips. Everyone KNOWS good nutrition is key for their brain and body, but it’s amazing how quickly we can fall into an unhealthy diet. Take a moment and do a 24- hour recall of what you ate yesterday, counting your fruit and veggie servings (a serving is what you can hold in your cupped hand)…the goal is 5-10/day. FYI, can’t tell you how many people have less than 2-3, and not just students! Raise the bar for yourself today.
- HOMESICKNESS or simple LONELINESS can be a zillion times worse when you spend too many hours looking at social media. We all know that everyone posts “happy” pictures, but it often feels like “everyone else” is having an amazing life while we flounder. Set a daily time limit (5-10 minutes/session) for social media and literally schedule these times throughout the day…ANY time, really, as long as it’s not when you crawl into bed at night.
BOTTOM LINE: If you (or your college student) have succumbed to FALL FRENZY, please know you are not alone, and we have so much help available! Please reach out to your campus doctors, campus counseling center, or your primary care physician or therapist.
On a sobering note, over 1000 college students die by suicide every year. Although I want to reassure parents that “fall frenzy” is extremely common and the vast majority are truly not at crisis level, I am in NO way trying to make light of serious, potentially life-threatening anxiety and depression. I would never want any family to write off significant concerns about their child. Especially if they are telling you they are having thoughts of self-harm, it’s time for professional intervention. You know your son/daughter better than anyone else- trust your instincts. Also, I highly recommend The Campus Cure: A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students by Marcia Morris, MD.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.