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Recognizing and Coping with Anxiety in College Students

Young woman in school sitting looking unhappy with her hand in head

Attending college is a significant change. You’re moving to a new place, meeting new people, and learning a whole new skill set. It’s a big adjustment that happens practically overnight. This unfamiliar time can be exciting yet stressful. For many, the transition causes anxiety and apprehension. 

Anxiety in college is a common problem among students. More than 60% of college students report experiencing anxiety. It’s a crucial time in adolescent development that presents challenges. Many students leave their support system for the first time and have trouble adjusting to academic and social stress. To overcome anxiety, students, parents, and professors should recognize the signs and symptoms to learn how to cope.

Is it Common for College Students to Have Anxiety?

Starting over in a new place is challenging. It’s common to experience anxiety as you navigate new challenges, relationships, and routines. For many students, developing friendships may take a semester or two, which can cause feelings of loneliness and decreased confidence.

College also presents the burden of choosing a major. For many, choosing what skills to pursue professionally is a lot of pressure, whether you’ve just turned 18 or are an independent adult. Many people struggle to decide what they want to do with their life after college. That pressure is exemplified by parental approval, financial status, and academic ability. 

College has multiple stressors that impact students’ mental health, which is why anxiety is one of the top mental health challenges they face. 

“College completely changes a student’s environment and introduces a myriad of unique concerns,” said Sheena Miller, LPC-MHSP, Clinical Manager at Integrative Life Center. “It’s not surprising that all this change brings anxiousness with it. The key is giving college students the tools to cope with that anxiety before it becomes a bigger issue.”

What Causes Anxiety in College Students?

Students experience many firsts in college. It’s a major life transition that can present various obstacles. Of course, each student has a different experience, but there are some common causes of anxiety in college that students may face.

Factors that cause anxiety in college include:

  • Lack of Support. Attending college is like entering an unknown world. There’s so much to learn and adapt to, which can be even more difficult without a safety net. Leaving behind your support system, whether it’s friends, family, or a significant other, can be daunting. 
  • Academic Stress. There’s constant pressure in college to be effortlessly perfect and achieve greatness. The stress of having a perfect GPA or maintaining grades for scholarships can overwhelm students. This stress exacerbates anxiety in students and can affect their self-esteem and well-being.
  • Overwhelmed Developing Brains. Many college students are vulnerable to anxiety because their brain hasn’t finished developing. Since the brain doesn’t fully develop until the mid-to-late 20s, students may feel overwhelmed by critical thinking and decision-making. They may also struggle to form meaningful relationships with others. 
  • Social Pressure. Many students feel immense pressure early in their college career to make friends and integrate into a group. The reality is, forming friendships can be a long process. Students may also feel pressured to do activities they’re uncomfortable with to appease the group.
  • Unhealthy Behaviors. Alcohol abuse in college is a common occurrance. Some students turn to drugs, drinking, or illegal activity to cope with stress. Because a lot of college culture involves a party atmosphere, students may struggle to avoid getting involved. If the behavior goes against their morals and values, it can cause intense emotional strife. 
  • Isolation from Family. Living away from the people who reinforce a student’s identity can cause them to feel a loss of self. Without their support system, students can feel lost, alone, and unsure of themself. 
  • Settling in a New Environment. Acclimating to a new environment can be stressful, especially while trying to study and make new friends. Students are likely living in an environment different from home, requiring patience and adaptability. College usually involves living with a roommate, which might not be the perfect match. Meals are often eaten in a cafeteria with a group, which can be unsettling. Students may feel homesick for what they know and struggle to adapt to a new place.
  • Financial Strain. College can be expensive, especially for students who don’t have the financial support of their families. It can be stressful trying to balance studies with a job. With the rising cost of tuition, many students feel the financial burden of choosing between their education and trying to support themselves. 
  • Fear of the Future. Choosing what you want to do for the rest of your life is daunting. Many students fear what life after college brings, especially if they aren’t satisfied with their chosen major. Whether they’re just starting school or ready to graduate, the future presents unknowns that can cause great distress. 

“For many students, college is the first time they’ve been out on their own and able to make their own decisions,” Sheena said. “This newfound freedom comes with stress and pressure.”

What Does Anxiety Look Like?

It’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of anxiety. They can manifest both physically and emotionally and have a debilitating effect on students’ well-being. 

Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Mood swings 
  • Poor sleep habits
  • Feelings of fear or impending doom 
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Memory issues
  • Restlessness 
  • Fast heart rate, rapid breathing, or shaking
  • Physical pain and soreness 
  • Panic attacks

“If it seems like a student isn’t acting like themselves, reach out and inquire about their well-being,” Sheena stated. “They may be hoping someone engages them and leads them to helpful resources.”

How to Cope with Anxiety in College

Anxiety can spiral out of control without proper care and have debilitating consequences. By practicing healthy coping strategies, you can better manage your anxiety and feel more prepared for future stressors. 

Coping strategies include:

  • Accept and Approach Anxiety Concerns. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed and try to escape stress by skipping class or avoiding social situations, but this can worsen anxiety over time. Instead, take small steps to approach anxiety-inducing situations. You can meet with a tutor to help you in class or participate in a club that interests you to meet new people. 
  • Prioritize Task and Time Management. The more you need to catch up on assignments and responsibilities, the more stressed you will get. Be proactive and plan with a calendar or planner. If you get behind, prioritize important tasks and give yourself breaks when needed.
  • Practice Mindfulness and Self Awareness. When dealing with the stresses of a new routine, it can help to go back to the basics. Practice mindfulness by journaling about your abilities, your accomplishments, and things you’re grateful for. It can help put things in perspective and decrease anxiety. 
  • Regular Exercise. Physical activity can help you relieve stress and help you feel more productive. It also can elevate your mood and improve sleep. Even a short walk can help you clear your head of anxious thoughts. 
  • Integrate Calming Hobbies. Invest time in healthy activities that make you feel relaxed. It should be something you enjoy doing that makes you feel calm and happy. When you’re overwhelmed, practice returning to these hobbies to feel more at peace.
  • Set Social Boundaries. Know yourself and your limits. Don’t let someone else push you to do something that makes you uncomfortable. Set personal boundaries so you can feel confident saying no. Having a social battery is real, and sometimes you need to take a break. Don’t be afraid to spend time by yourself to reconnect and relax.
  • Minimize Alcohol Consumption. While drinking may help you feel more relaxed at the moment, it can exacerbate anxiety long-term. The after-effects of a night of drinking can make you feel confused, embarrassed, and stressed the next day. The more you become dependent on alcohol, the higher the chance of developing an alcohol disorder. 
  • Make Your Space Feel Like Home. It’s tough to feel connected to your space when it feels foreign to you. Creating a comforting, relaxing space can decrease your stress and help with homesickness. Put up pictures of friends or family, keep some of your favorite snacks handy, and try to avoid clutter. It’s helpful to have a designated and organized work space so you can focus and feel productive. 
  • Volunteer to Help Others. When you meet someone experiencing similar feelings to you, it helps you feel less alone. And if you can use your experience to help others, you’ll probably feel better about it in the long run. 
  • Reach Out to Campus Resources. Your college may provide options to help students adjust, such as counseling, academic advising, or peer groups. If you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, it can be helpful to research mental health care options near you to find support. 
  • Seek Counseling. Many universities offer students free counseling sessions. These counselors also can connect you with local mental health resources. Speaking with a mental health professional can help to understand why you feel the way you do and how to manage your stress.
  • Rely on Your Support System. If you need advice, encouragement, or a shoulder to cry on, turn to people you trust. They can remind you of your accomplishments and inspire you to pursue your goals.

“Remember that you’re not the first or only student to feel anxiety in college,” Sheena stated. “It’s acceptable to talk about how you’re feeling and ask for help.”

Spotting Anxiety Issues in College Students 

Keep an eye out for anxiety symptoms in students, so you can feel prepared to handle it. The signs may look different for everyone, so you must be diligent in your observation. 

Signs of anxiety in students include:

  • Poor academic performance
  • Not showing up to class or isolating from others
  • Jittery behavior or panic attacks 
  • Unusual dependency on others 
  • Lack of physical tidiness
  • Witnessing risky behaviors  

How You Can Help Anxious College Students 

You can’t cure a student’s anxiety, but you can provide support and resources to help students feel less alone. Here are some tips for those in students’ lives to help them if you notice anxiety symptoms. 

“People who want to help students must think about their mental health and their intellectual growth,” Sheena explained. “If you notice that a student is struggling, don’t make assumptions about the reason. Engage the student and guide them to the resources they need.”

Faculty and administrators:

  • Raise Awareness. Many people don’t know about the effects of anxiety. Do your part to educate students so they can better understand what they’re experiencing. 
  • Be Aware of Signs. Be attentive to students so you can observe any warning signs. Students may be struggling but are unsure how to ask for help. 
  • Reduce the Stigma and Barriers to Seeking Help. Students may have grown up without affirmative mental health options. The easier you can make it to access, the more likely students are to seek help.
  • Make Classrooms a Safe Space. Teach students transparency and respect, so they feel comfortable confiding in you. Students should feel they can be their authentic selves in your classroom. 
  • Ensure Engagement is Respectful and Kind. Facilitate a safe learning environment for differing opinions that stays respectful. Students should not feel they have to defend their identity or culture. All students should feel respected and encouraged to be themselves. 
  • Have Zero Tolerance for Bullying. If a student fears coming to class because of bullying, you don’t have an environment conducive to learning. Ensure each student feels safe and comfortable and discourage gossiping amongst students. 

Loved ones:

  • Be Available. If you see a loved one struggling, be present with them and offer support. Knowing they have someone to lean on can offer comfort during stressful times.
  • Proactively Check-in. Don’t wait for a crisis to communicate about their well-being. Reach out frequently to establish trust and open communication.  
  • Listen and Uplift. Be an active listener and pay attention to any red flags, such as an inclination to isolate themselves or self-harm. Show respect and affirmation for their feelings. Offer encouragement to reassure them.
  • Encourage Healthy Activities. Sometimes people need a push from those they trust. Be their biggest cheerleader and support healthy activities that can serve as a distraction from stress.
  • Help Find Options. Students may feel too overwhelmed by academics or other stressors to advocate for their needs. Offering mental health support options like counseling and campus resources can remove the first barrier to getting help.

Getting Treatment for Anxiety

If you have mental health challenges, you’re not alone. As many as 75% of students with depression and anxiety are reluctant to seek help. But with support and the right resources, you can overcome anxiety and succeed in college. 

Sometimes the best solution is professional anxiety treatment. At Integrative Life Center, we offer solutions to help recognize the behaviors working against you and tools to change and adapt. Contact us today to experience true relief and healing.

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