Anxiety in College Students: Knowing the Signs and 7 Coping Tips

Monday, March 18

Going to college can be an exciting experience. You get to learn new things and study for the career path you want. But it may also cause a lot of stress. Finals, projects, essays, and other work can put tons of pressure on college students. 

If you’ve been struggling with anxiety in college, you’re not alone. In fact, the 2022 Healthy Minds Study shows that 37% of college students report experiencing anxiety. 

Below, we’ll explore risk factors to help you understand why you might experience anxiety. We’ll also provide several coping strategies to help navigate college life, and introduce SonderMind as a resource for those seeking professional help.

Why can college cause anxiety? 

College can feel like a fresh start or a whole new chapter in life. However, this feeling can be both exhilarating and distressing. 

Many factors may lead college students to feel anxious. For some, finances can add a major strain. Other students’ anxiety may be more emotionally driven, like feeling pressure over their academic performance. Some students may also feel anxiety about their health and well-being, like not getting enough sleep. For those living on campus, the new environment and distance from family and friend support systems can also cause anxiety.

Without productive coping mechanisms for anxiety, it’s easy to understand how it may feel overwhelming for college students who, in many cases, are handling life’s challenges on their own for the first time. 

Risk factors that can contribute to anxiety in college students 

What might increase college students’ risk of experiencing anxiety while in school? In the following sections, we’ll go over some of the most common risk factors.

Academic pressure

The pressure that college students feel can be hard to handle. It’s natural to want to do well in school in order to earn a degree — and ultimately land a job — in a desired field. Worries may stem from fear of failing classes — or maybe test anxiety. Some students might feel pressured to maintain a certain GPA as part of their scholarship requirements.

In some cases, this pressure may stem from the fear of disappointing loved ones. For example, some students feel like they need to earn the highest grades in order to make their parents proud. 

No matter where it comes from, the demand for high academic achievement can easily lead to anxiety. 

Adjustment and transition challenges 

Going to college is a huge change. Those moving away to go to school might feel homesick. Being away from family and living with other people is a whole new routine to adjust to, and it’s natural to feel anxious during this transition.

Being a college student means having a greater sense of independence. There’s plenty of flexibility to choose classes and activities with no one else’s input! 

This newfound independence can be freeing — but it can also be a bit scary. Some students might worry about making the wrong choices or may struggle with managing time on their own without much guidance. 

Financial strain

College can be costly. Tuition alone can be high, especially for private colleges and universities. Students who take out loans might also be worried about being in debt and having to pay off those loans after graduation. There’s also the cost of buying books and other supplies for classes. 

Living expenses can be another source of financial stress while in college. Filling up with gas to drive back and forth to school or taking public transportation can add up. For those living on campus, board and meals can also be a significant addition to tuition costs. Living off campus also comes with its own strains, with rent and utilities to consider.

Lifestyle factors 

Changes in daily habits or lifestyle can contribute to anxiety. Staying up late to finish assignments and suddenly relying on fast food can be a major lifestyle shift, and college students may not always be getting enough sleep at a time when their brains really need to rest and recharge. 

Eating healthy meals and snacks is also important for our brains — but this can be hard to do with a busy college schedule. College students might grab a bag of chips or a burger and fries, rather than take the time to make themselves something more nutritious. 

Exercise is another big consideration. Physical activity can help reduce anxiety, but it’s also tough to fit into a busy schedule or stick to a workout routine with so many other things to focus on. 

Common signs of anxiety in college students 

How does anxiety show up in college students? They might feel nervous or tense, struggle to pay attention in their classes, or even develop physical symptoms as a result of anxiety. 

Some of these symptoms may include the following:

  • Restlessness
  • Sleep problems 
  • Difficulty focusing or thinking clearly 
  • Upset stomach or other gastrointestinal problems 
  • Increased heart rate 
  • Trembling or shaking 
  • Feeling panic or a sense of danger 
  • Being unable to control worries 
  • Wanting to avoid anxiety triggers or stressors

7 coping strategies for anxiety in college students 

Feeling anxious about all of the demands of college life is understandable. Some days might be better than others. However, poorly managed anxiety can be disruptive, affecting daily activities and student well-being.

Below, we’ll look at some positive coping strategies for managing anxiety. From self-care to education, the right strategies can be great tools for busy college students. 

1. Prioritize self-care

Self-care is not a nice-to-have, it is a must-have. Simply getting enough sleep has been proven to decrease anxiety. Some other ways to prioritize self-care and improve well-being include eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of exercise. 

For students who typically grab a coffee on their way out the door before an 8 AM class, try stopping at the dining commons for a balanced breakfast instead. Going for a walk around campus when the anxiety starts to bubble up or joining an intramural sports team can be great ways to incorporate more physical activity into a packed schedule. 

Self-care also means taking breaks. This doesn’t mean avoiding the problem. Instead, it focuses on giving the mind a chance to reset and relax. This could look like going to see a movie, jamming to favorite tunes, getting coffee with a friend, pausing to take some deep breaths, or relaxing on the quad. 

2. Avoid social isolation

Sometimes, it can be hard to find time to be social during college. However, social isolation may lead to anxiety or make symptoms worse. Research shows that loneliness is linked to increased levels of anxiety, depression, and stress.

Instead of staying isolated, build a strong support system. This kind of support can help students cope with anxiety, even if it flares up during midterms or finals. Look for social events, clubs, or organizations to join in college. These are great ways to meet fellow students with similar interests and life experiences. 

It’s also important to continue to lean on existing support systems — even when away from home. Stay connected to those social supports on a regular basis, not just during times of high stress. 


3. Find a hobby and immerse yourself regularly 

Having a hobby gives college students a chance to focus on something they enjoy — rather than all school work all the time. Many schools have a variety of clubs and teams for all kinds of hobbyists, or even present the option for students to create their own clubs.

You can also look for local organizations that offer activities you like, whether that’s gardening, volunteering at an animal shelter or stable, playing sports, or learning photography.

Enjoying hobbies in a group setting can help with socialization, but hobbies can also be solo activities, like mindfulness or meditation. Whether the hobby is social or solo, immerse yourself on a regular basis to take your mind off of stressors.

4. Create a study plan 

Some students may struggle to keep coursework organized, or to manage time effectively to complete assignments on time. The assignments seem to pile up, and suddenly, you’re pulling all-nighters. 

Try going through the syllabus for each course and writing the date of each exam and assignment on a calendar, which will provide a visual representation of the semester. From there, it may help to plan a study schedule to stay on track with each class. This master calendar will also give insights into which weeks will be especially busy and stressful — which can be a great planning tool for those who struggle with time management.

If creating a study plan alone sounds stressful, there are supports to help. Academic advisors and tutors can help create a plan that works for you.

5. Try talk therapy 

You don’t have to cope with student anxiety on your own. Many colleges and universities have counseling centers or mental health services located right on campus. 

Mental health professionals can help address issues that are contributing to anxiety. With this kind of help, students can learn adaptive ways to manage these emotions and thoughts. 

Talk therapy for anxiety provides an effective way to do this. These sessions help explore anxiety-driven thoughts and feelings, helping view things from another perspective and providing resources for addressing them in more helpful ways. Other benefits of talk therapy include helping you feel more relaxed and processing underlying issues that might contribute to anxiety.

6. Identify campus resources 

Most college campuses have resources available that assist with mental health. These provide college students with a convenient way to get help with anxiety. Students may be able to seek counseling or join support groups on campus, or may even have access to stress management workshops and seminars. 

Government initiatives in recent years have also given colleges and universities incentives to focus on mental health care. For example, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $188 million in 2023 to over 100 colleges in more than 30 states for mental health programs. 

Federal and state initiatives — and campus resources — vary from school to school. Check with your college to see what mental health resources and support services are available.

7. Learn about your anxiety 

While only a licensed practitioner can diagnose an anxiety disorder, talking to a therapist or counselor is a great way to learn about the anxious symptoms you experience. This information helps you understand your symptoms better. In fact, you can give them a name, which may reduce their power over you.

However, you can also educate yourself in between sessions. Look for books, articles, and blogs from experts in the mental health field. There are dozens of helpful expert-reviewed resources about anxiety on the SonderMind blog

Unhelpful coping strategies for college stress and anxiety 

So you know about healthy coping strategies. What about strategies or activities that may be detrimental to your overall mental health and wellness? Below, you’ll find just a few of the most common unhelpful coping mechanisms to avoid. 

Drinking and substance use 

Some college students may find that turning to drinking or substance use gives them a break from college stress. You might also engage in these behaviors as you try to make new friends and adjust to a new social culture. This coping strategy is not ideal because it can lead to addiction, and it doesn’t actually solve the problem. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, heavy alcohol or drug use can occur more often with certain mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.

If you feel that substance abuse could be impacting your anxiety or stress in college, you may want to consider seeking professional help from a licensed therapist.

Poor eating habits 

For the first time, you may be in an environment where you alone are responsible for what you eat. When stressed in college, some students might overeat unhealthy comfort foods. Or maybe they lose their appetites and undereat. It’s easy to begin to engage in poor eating habits while in college, but it is possible to eat healthy while on a budget.

It’s important to keep an eye on your overall health and relationship with food. One study finds that the prevalence of anxiety disorders was much higher in people with eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. In that same study, researchers found that an anxiety disorder may create a vulnerability to developing an eating disorder

Avoiding the problem 

Actively avoiding a problem is different from enjoying a healthy distraction when dealing with anxiety. Actively avoiding anxiety-causing stressors may look like skipping classes, failing to study, procrastinating, staying in your dorm, or spending excessive amounts of time on social media. None of these coping strategies do anything to address the root of the anxiety.

How do I get help for anxiety in college?

Remember that help is always available for anxiety and other mental health issues. Meet with a licensed therapist to work through your thoughts and emotions as a college student. Reach out to the student mental health resources that are available on campus. 

If you or someone you know is in crisis, get help right away. Call 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or find other suicide prevention resources here

Reach out to SonderMind for support 

College is a time of excitement, transition, and change. But with change often comes anxiety, which may be overwhelming for a newly independent college student. Between classes and assignments, it may be challenging to navigate anxiety productively. However, therapeutic support can help you build adaptive coping strategies, so you don’t have to do it alone. 

SonderMind makes it easy to connect with a therapist. Whether you prefer online or in-person sessions, SonderMind makes it easy to get the support you need, making therapy more accessible for busy students. 

Take the first step toward managing anxiety more productively — connect with a therapist through SonderMind today.


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