Understanding College Anxiety

Lindsay Schnetzer, PhD

You’re off to college! Some consider these years to be among the best in life.  Here you’ll find a lot of new things -- a place, people, ideas, and ways of understanding the world around you. The scope of your world suddenly expands, and the possibilities are bountiful.

While some students fully embrace this situation, others feel more hesitant and may doubt their ability to adapt. This comes as no surprise when we consider the significant changes that occur with the transition.

Changes include:

  • leaving behind the familiarity of home
  • needing to be more self-reliant
  • adjusting to a new time management structure with several hours of “free” time between classes
  • entering an unfamiliar social scene in which your identity is mostly unknown to others

Add pressures to succeed, and it’s no wonder anxiety is a common experience in college. A 2017 survey from the American College Health Association showed that nearly 61% of undergraduates reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety” during the previous year.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a basic human emotion with an important purpose – it alerts us to potential threat in our environment.

Anxiety is an intense feeling of fear, apprehension, and dread. Symptoms can include:

  • increased heart rate
  • sweating
  • chronic muscle tension
  • upset stomach
  • headache
  • irritability
  • obsessive thoughts
  • persistent worry

Even though it’s quite unpleasant, the temporary feeling of anxiety itself is not dangerous.

Situations that are unfamiliar or unpredictable can trigger anxiety, even when no actual danger is present. It can be helpful to become better acquainted with anxiety because it allows us to figure out the source of the suspected threat and then do something about it.

Often though, because the feeling of anxiety is so unpleasant, people resist it and try to shut it down by avoiding the situation. If you end up avoiding things that are unfamiliar, you may find it hard to have a successful and meaningful college experience.

Know the signs

If you notice any of the following signs, it may be time to reach out for help:

  • skipping class to avoid feeling anxious or embarrassed
  • being so distracted by worry that it affects concentration and/or sleep
  • earning poor grades due to panic or test anxiety
  • demanding perfection from oneself in a way that makes it hard to complete assignments
  • feeling too anxious to give a speech or presentation
  • spending excessive time distracting oneself from anxiety by watching TV, playing video games, or browsing the internet
  • avoiding clubs, sports, or activities that would otherwise be of interest
  • isolating despite wanting to socialize
  • not eating regularly because of a “nervous stomach”
  • relying on alcohol or drugs to calm down

Ways to manage anxiety

Thankfully, there are ways of reducing the negative effects of anxiety. Most often, this involves approaching the things that are causing you to feel anxious. Then you can learn those things are not as threatening as they appear. You can also learn ways of coping that allow you to keep living your life even when anxiety shows up.

If this seems overwhelming, consider reaching out for professional help. This can include individual treatment or group-based therapies (with peers who can relate to what you’re going through). Most colleges have counseling centers located on campus, or you can also find providers in the community. Lifespan's Young Adult Behavioral Health Program is one such place where providers have expertise in meeting the special needs of college students.

Tips for parents

  • Truly listen and try to see things from the student’s point of view.
  • Let your student know that their anxiety is understandable.
  • Inform them that anxiety is common in their situation.
  • Provide reminders of familiar things from home, with phone calls, notes, and care packages. Also reassure them that they’re capable of adapting to change.
  • Help them connect to why they want to be in college – this can increase motivation to face anxiety-provoking situations.
  • Encourage them to seek help if you notice avoidant behaviors like those listed above.

Tips for students 

  • It is important to understand that nervousness and anxiety are common and natural feelings given the circumstances.
  • It is okay to have mixed feelings about this challenging transition.
  • Don’t hide out.
  • Don’t let anxiety boss you around and limit your college experience.
  • There’s a way to embrace these changes, as scary as they may seem!
  • Tell your friends and family if you are struggling. Reach out for support.
  • Talk to a professional – we’re here to help.

We hope you enjoy your college experience. If you feel you or your student needs help, our Young Adult Behavioral Health Program is available.

Young Adult Behavioral Health »

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