Dealing with anxiety in college is incredibly common. So common, in fact, that 63% of college students report feeling anxiety in the past year. If you’re feeling stressed, you’re not alone. You don’t have to have a diagnosed anxiety disorder to experience common symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid breathing, trouble concentrating, or feeling agitated. As a college student, you’re often away from your usual support system, and you’re adjusting to a new way of life. This can make it difficult to practice healthy coping mechanisms for anxiety.
In this article, we’ll identify some common triggers for anxiety and anxious thoughts in college students, along with helpful coping strategies.
Triggers for anxiety in college students
It’s not surprising that this time of life can be difficult for many young adults. The transition to college life often involves many major life events happening at the same time, including:
- Graduating high school
- Starting a new school
- Adjusting to new living conditions
- Changing eating habits
- Altering sleeping habits
- Attending fewer family get-togethers
- Adopting new personal habits
- Financial independence
- More rigorous coursework
Being away at college doesn’t make you exempt from normal life, either. Hard things still happen. Loved ones get sick or pass away, parents get divorced, and breakups happen. These life events can be more overwhelming when you’re already experiencing the stressors of college.
And sometimes, you can be enjoying all that a new chapter of life has to offer and still feel anxious. If you notice that you’re starting to experience chronic anxiety when you’re in college, you’re not alone. In fact, research shows that the first two years of college are the hardest when it comes to social and individual adjustment.
Additionally, many mental health conditions begin to show symptoms in the late teens or early 20s, right when most students are in college. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, stress can contribute to exasperating symptoms of mental health conditions.
Unhelpful coping strategies for anxiety in college students
Let’s not focus too much on the negative here. It’s important to briefly mention, however, that some coping strategies may be detrimental to your overall mental health and wellness. Below, you’ll find just a few of the most common unhelpful coping mechanisms out there.
Drinking and substance use
You might find that you turn to drinking or substance use to get a break from your stressors. 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. Heavy drinking even has the potential to cause anxiety and depression.
Additionally, substance abuse can even worsen anxiety over time and vice versa. When you live with both anxiety and alcohol use disorder, the two conditions can progressively exacerbate each other. If you feel that substance abuse could be having an impact on your anxiety or stress in college, you may want to consider evaluating your drinking habits.
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, you might overeat unhealthy comfort foods. Or maybe you’ll lose your appetite 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.
If you notice a change in your eating habits, it’s important to keep an eye on your overall health and relationship with food. One study found 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. For more information about the relationship between eating habits and anxiety, we recommend reading the Anxiety & Depression Association of America’s guide to anxiety and eating disorders.
Avoiding the problem
‘Avoiding the problem’ is different from healthy distraction when you’re dealing with anxiety in college. When you avoid your stress and anxiety, you might skip classes, fail to study, procrastinate, stay in your dorm, or spend excessive amounts of time on social media. None of these coping strategies do anything to address what is making you anxious in the first place.
5 helpful ways to cope with college anxiety and stress
Many college students live with mental health conditions, whether they have generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or are simply struggling with all of life’s demands. It can be helpful to understand that you are not the only one with feelings of anxiety, particularly when social media can make it seem like you’re alone. Below are five strategies to help you cope with anxiety.
1. Prioritize self-care
Self-care is all the rage, and for good reason. Simply getting enough sleep has been proven to decrease anxiety. Some other ways to prioritize self-care and improve your well-being include eating a balanced diet and moving your body.
If you typically grab a coffee on your way out the door before your 8 a.m. class, try stopping at the dining commons for a balanced breakfast instead. To get your body moving, you could go for a walk around campus when the anxiety starts to bubble up or join an intramural sports team.
Self-care also means taking breaks from your harried life. This doesn’t mean you’ll be avoiding the problem. Instead, you’ll be giving your mind a chance to reset and relax. This could look like going to see a movie, getting coffee with a friend, pausing to take some deep breaths, or relaxing on the quad.
2. Avoid social isolation
It can be difficult to make time for socializing when you’re stressed and overworked. However, social isolation can feed anxiety. In fact, a study in the Journal of Public Mental Health found that loneliness was associated with higher levels of anxiety, stress, and depression.
Getting out there and socializing, particularly when you’re in a new environment, can be difficult. Thankfully, many colleges offer programs and social events to help students find friends and socialize. Try attending a sporting event, striking up a conversation with a classmate, joining a club, volunteering, or talking to a resident assistant.
If meeting up with other people feels like too much, you can start by studying in the library or a common area. This is a good first step because you’re no longer isolated, but you won’t feel pressure to strike up a conversation.
Don’t forget to call home as well. A good talk with someone who truly knows you can help you feel less alone in a new environment.
3. Consider talk therapy
Sometimes, it becomes difficult to address your anxiety on your own. Most colleges have mental health services and counseling centers on campus. You can also find many independent therapists, and they are a great option as well.
A mental health professional can help you work through your anxiety and reassure you that you are not the only one living with those feelings. It can be difficult to take that first step in trying therapy and seeking professional help. However, it may end up being one of the best decisions you’ve ever made. Consider what's most important to you when finding the right therapist.
SonderMind can connect you to a therapist or mental health professional who can help.
4. Find a hobby
College campuses are well-known for having clubs you could never even dream of — think skydiving club, clown nose club, or squirrel club. Perhaps you could find a club that fits your interests, take up a new sport, try yoga, or take up a hobby you enjoyed in high school.
If you’re experiencing homesickness, finding an activity that reminds you of home might be especially helpful. If you miss your pets, for example, try volunteering at an animal shelter. If you miss playing sports, consider attending a game at your college or joining an intramural team.
For hobbies you can do on your own, consider practicing mindfulness, meditation, or going on a walk.
5. Create a study plan
Sometimes, college can feel overwhelming when you don’t have your coursework organized. The assignments seem to pile up, and before you know it, you’re pulling all-nighters.
Try going through your syllabus for each course and writing the date of each exam and assignment on a calendar. This will give you a visual picture of your semester. From there, you can plan a study schedule that will help you stay on track with each class. This master calendar will also allow you to predict weeks that will be especially busy and stressful. This might help you have better time management.
If you have a hard time organizing your studies, an academic adviser or tutor at your college may be able to help you.
Resource to help with anxiety and stress in college
If you find yourself living with anxiety, try engaging in healthy coping strategies. Your college campus likely has mental health resources available to you. A licensed therapist may also be able to help while you’re dealing with anxiety in college.
Remember that if you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Keep these hotline numbers handy, too.
(800) 799-7233 Domestic Violence
(800) 366-8288 Self-Harm
(800) 656-4673 Sexual Assault
(800) 622-2255 Substance Abuse
(800) 273-8255 Suicide Prevention