Overwhelmed with Stress & Anxiety in College? Try These Tips!

On and off campus, it’s official: the Mid-September College Student PANIC and ANXIETY have set in, completely freaking out already exhausted, pandemic-weary students and parents. Please know that EVERY fall, students-especially freshmen and transfer students- question if they chose the wrong school or even the wrong path all together. Should they change majors, drop out, take a belated gap year, transfer schools, or pursue a trade job? Trust me, these feelings are NORMAL and very common, especially during this first month. Most students, however, find that as the weeks roll by, they find a rhythm in and out of the classroom, and things truly get better. Many change majors (often more than once), but truly it’s a small percentage that find it’s the right decision to leave their university (and that’s okay, too. Perspective, my friends!) While pandemic restrictions and ZOOM learning are certainly aggravating things this year, there are still many things students can do to help themselves over this perennial hump. Freshmen, remember this: virtually NOTHING you do this year is a turn-ender! From grad, med & law schools to real-life jobs, admission directors and employers are looking for resilience and consistent improvement, and frankly, odds are good they had their own freshman flop. Don’t let catastrophic thinking suck you down the drain when you stumble.

Let’s talk about what you can do RIGHT NOW to help with academic anxiety, physical stress, and emotional (homesickness/loneliness) stress.

Academic Anxiety Tips:

  1. Classroom Etiquette: Come early and stay late! Professors OFTEN arrive in class (or log onto zoom) 5-10 minutes early to chat with students. Remember, you are not only hearing questions asked & answered, you are connecting with your prof, which leads to #2.
  2. If you haven’t already, really MEET your prof NOW. Use their office hours to zoom and say hello, or at a minimum, email your prof. Virtually every instructor’s pet peeve is having a student show up in crisis at the end of the semester, and the teacher literally doesn’t even recognize that student. Make it your goal to meet one-on-one with each of your teachers by the end of the first month. Side note: Do some homework before you meet. At LEAST read the prof’s bio on the department website, but also, pay attention to the background décor and diplomas in your prof’s office (in person or on zoom.) Look for something you can connect over- are they from a rival school or perhaps another state? Is there a family picture, cool artwork or another object that catches your eye? Ask about it! Professors are indeed human, and it’s refreshing to have a student ask about something other than a grade or exam question.
  3. Learn to study with a partner (over zoom or in person). Read notes out loud to each other and ASK each other questions. Professor Brenda Rushing tells her students, “don’t just read through your notes and power points. As you look at each page or slide, stop and ask (and answer), “what would Dr. Rushing ask about this slide?”
  4. Review old tests/quizzes. As opposed to high school, many college courses have a professor-approved collection of old exams, often referred to as a test bank. Clubs and other organizations have done this for years- both ethically and not, but now online test banks are evening out the playing field and offer students a great way to study and test their knowledge. Although professors at different universities will emphasize unique details, what’s important in core courses is fairly uniform, so even generic online exams can be part of your preparation, if there are not old tests ethically available for your specific class.
  5. Say YES to Tutoring: Many students think tutoring is only for those who struggle with concepts, but profs and TA’s will assure you that their sessions are packed with students at the top of the class. Think of it as extra credit or like an SAT prep class- you go to maximize your score. If you don’t click with your own instructors, look online. A pandemic perk is that online tutoring is flourishing!
  6. Test Anxiety: Whether you sailed through high school or worked your rear off to get into “that” college, many freshman flounder in at least a couple classes, especially this first semester. After bombing a quiz or test, students may develop imposter syndrome (“I don’t deserve to be here. Everyone is smarter than me.”) or crippling test anxiety (true for 20% of students). Don’t suffer in silence! Please make an appointment at your health center sooner than later, because we can help. See this FINALS POST or the test anxiety chapter in The ULTIMATE College Student Health Handbook for more details.

Physical Stress Tips:

  1. INSOMNIA is extremely common with anxiety and depression, and the first thing we try to fix because lack of sleep all by itself will mess you up! See the “I Can’t Sleep” topic for more details, but start with:
    1. 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.
    2. Use a sleeping mask
    3. Find a meditation/sleep app that works for you (like Calm or Headspace or CBT-I)
    4. If you are hot, get a fan (also works as white noise)
    5. Cut back (or better, cut out) caffeine
    6. Consider getting a weighted blanket (15-20 lbs) if anxiety is keeping you from falling asleep.
  2. 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? Yes, many gyms are closed, but Mother Nature is open. 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.
  3. NUTRITION: Especially now with limited access to typical campus cafeterias, college students are relying on convenience foods- granola bars and cereal in their dorms, and the classic pizza delivery or fast food. Before you know it, you 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. You KNOW good nutrition is key for your brain and body, but it’s amazing how quickly you can fall into an unhealthy diet. Take a moment and do a 24 hour recall of what you ate yesterday, and count 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.

Emotional Stress:

HOMESICKNESS or simple LONELINESS are a zillion times worse right now with limited in-person gatherings, zoom exhaustion, and far too many hours spent looking at social media.

  1. Set a time limit (5-10 minutes) and designated non-bedtime times to look at social media- maybe mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Do NOT climb into bed and look at this before you try to fall asleep.
  2. Find 3 clubs to join (or at least three events to attend!) Consider something completely fun, like a Juggling Club-look for the unexpected clubs at your school! Google “top ten clubs at YOUR school” to get started. You won’t stop feeling homesick until you connect with your new environment, so push yourself to try something new, online or in person.
  3. Reach out and connect with at least one new person/day.
    1. Ask if anyone’s interested in forming a study group (or join when someone else asks)
    2. If you’re in an assigned project group, take a few minutes and ask everyone to introduce themselves, maybe with a fun prompt (what food do they hate/love, etc.)
    3. Give positive, thoughtful comments on discussion boards (more than “I agree”) and people will start feeling like they know you better.
    4. If you ARE on campus in a dorm, talk to your RA and learn about ANY social gatherings.
  4. Avoid the temptation to go home on weekends (if you live close.) Often the home-town students are the most homesick, because they pop home for dinner and laundry, and then they aren’t around on the weekends when other students are forming bonds.
  5. Consider getting a very parttime job or volunteering somewhere (even for a couple hours, one day/week) that requires you to be out of your room/apartment and interacting with other people in person.
  6. Seek help! Yes, everyone is stressed, but please don’t wait until you’re in crisis to look for help. If your anxiety is keeping you from sleeping or interfering with your ability to study or interact with others, it’s time for help now. Start with your campus counseling service or medical providers, who see this every day and can offer specific suggestions unique to your university.

BOTTOM LINE: If your college student is struggling with anxiety, depression or loneliness right now, they are not alone! Try these tips and again, ASK FOR HELP early (now) rather than waiting until you’re in crisis. We’re here, ready to help.

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