Starting college is an anxious time for everyone. You’re in a new environment, don’t quite know how to navigate (either the physical campus or the different expectations for each class you take), and feel as though everybody has their act together except you.
For those of us who struggle with Generalized Anxiety disorder, perfectionism, or other “Type A” tendencies, that stress never really goes away. We are the overachievers, the worriers, and the perpetually frazzled. We’re the devout children of Mother Starbucks, who pray for the day when we’re no longer exhausted and our brains will kindly shut the hell up. The one thing we are not, however, is alone.
According to the Clinician Index of Client Concerns, U.S. college students now deal with anxiety at a higher rate than they deal with depression (55.1% of students surveyed versus 45.26%). I wanted to gain some insight into this trend as well as possible coping strategies, so I spoke with Dr. Melinda Honeycutt, a staff psychologist at UWT’s student counseling center.
“A lot of people are very dismissive of clinical anxiety,” she said. “[People will say] ‘Well everyone gets anxious, so it’s not that big of a deal.’”
Despite the general stigma surrounding mental health issues, Dr. Honeycutt believes that public perception of anxiety is moving in a positive direction: “There’s a lot more awareness of anxiety now than there was before… I think people are getting more comfortable talking about it and how it affects their lives.” The great part about this, she explains, is more people are willing to seek treatment.
I’m one of those people. I’ve become a regular at the Student Counseling Center and Student Health Services (Clinic) over the past year with a lot of success. And now, in my final year at UWT, I want to share some nuggets of wisdom that have helped me survive what has been the most stressful—and amazing—time of my life.
Get Organized & Tackle Your Class Work
• At the beginning of each quarter, invest time into creating a “master homework schedule” from all of your syllabi. Make a table with a column for each of your classes, name each row a date you have class, and list all the work that’s due each day.
• Ditch the paper planner for smartphone apps! I’ve been using Google Calendar, Google Keep (a list-making app), and Mint (a financial planning app) to get that structure I crave. They’re all free.
• The amount of reading in college is downright scary. Resolve yourself to the fact that you will miss some readings despite your best efforts. Only then can healing begin.
• If you can’t accept that last tip—read smarter, not harder. Try skimming or speed-reading dense readings. Highlight main points so you can refer back to them. And if your eyes get tired, download NaturalReader, a free text-to-voice program, so you can listen to your homework instead. (Pro tip: Set the voice to 5x the normal speed. You’ll finish the reading faster, but still retain the information!)
• Students deny it, professors can’t stand it, but you will sometimes be forced to complete an assignment the night before it’s due. A counselor once told me: “You may not produce your best work, but the tight deadline will force you to produce something, and you won’t have time to agonize over mistakes.”
• In our interview, Dr. Honeycutt warned against “avoidance and escapism.” In other words, realize that perfectionism and procrastination are bedfellows—we put things off because we worry we won’t live up to the crazy expectations we have for ourselves. If you find yourself struggling to start an important task, set a timer for 15 minutes and force yourself to work. If you’re not feelin’ it after 15 minutes, stop. But hopefully you’ll find that the hard part is out of the way and you’re on a roll.
Make Connections While You Combat Social Anxiety
• It took me all of freshman year to realize that sitting alone—during class, at lunch, or on the benches outside—didn’t make me a social outcast. People have different priorities in college than they do in high school; nobody’s sitting there and judging you. So don’t worry if you prefer to fly solo.
• That said, I met my two best friends on campus when I took a risk, sat by them when they were sitting alone in class, and struck up conversations. Mutual “aloneness” can be a powerful bonding agent!
• Try to get the contact information for at least one classmate in every class you take. You’ll feel better knowing you have somebody to reach out to if you miss a class or need to partner up for a project.
• Dr. Honeycutt suggests discussing your fears with classmates if you’re feeling anxious about a test. “Checking in with other people [about your concerns] can be really validating,” she explains. “Ask people you’re in class with, ‘Oh, are you nervous about this test?’… you know, just get that feedback.” In that same vein: find a group of people you feel comfortable with, find a cozy spot on campus, vent, and study!
• If dances, concerts, and other rowdier events aren’t your style, look at joining a campus club. I find it a lot easier to talk to people in small groups/one-on-one, and it’s even better when you all share a common interest.
Take Serious Care of Yourself
• Allow yourself to take mental health days. You may be more productive catching up on work at home than commuting to campus and going to class (depending on what’s scheduled that day).
• Watch what you’re putting into your body. Dr. Honeycutt advises that too much alcohol or too many caffeinated drinks in a day (such as energy drinks or coffee) may make you jittery or heighten whatever anxiety you’re already feeling. As our state is one of a handful to allow marijuana for recreational use, I thought it was important to ask about that as well. “I get the appeal,” she said. “Short term, yeah, [marijuana] might lessen your anxiety. Long term, it’s not really a good solution. Your tolerance is going to build, you’re going to need more and more to get that same effect… If you’re going to use it, try not to let that be your only coping skill.”
• Anxiety can make it difficult to fall asleep, but here’s what helps me: begin slowly preparing for bed about an hour early. Take a warm shower, put on your pajamas, brush your teeth, and do something low-key such as reading or listening to soft music. Turn off your electronic devices, too! According to an article by Harvard Health Publications, the “blue wavelengths” emitted from TV, computer, and phone screens mess up your circadian rhythm, making you feel awake when you should be drifting to Sleepy Town.
• If you’re feeling particularly anxious, Dr. Honeycutt suggests grounding yourself in the moment, a technique others call “mindfulness.” Focus on your physical body and surroundings. Feel your chest move up and down as you breathe. Rub your hand along the fabric of your chair. Listen to the clock on the wall. “Bring your body to a normative state of being,” Dr. Honeycutt explains, “and your mind will respond to that.”
• Book an appointment at the Student Counseling Center (MAT 354)! Too many students wait until the end of the quarter when they’re at the height of distress. Instead, begin your visits the first week of the quarter so your counselor can work with you as you tackle various stressors. Appointments are free (i.e. covered by student fees).
• Consider medication, seriously. I was terrified of being put on medication for my anxiety because I thought it meant I was too weak to handle life’s problems on my own. But man, 6+ months into taking meds and I’m a true believer. If you feel medication might be an option for you, book an appointment with the folks at the Student Health Center (next to the Student Y Center on Market Street). Your visit is free (i.e. covered by student fees), they’ll determine the best prescription and dosage for you to try, and then schedule follow-ups to discuss any concerns.
• Last but not least: when life gets tough, tell a loved one what they mean to you or complete a random act of kindness. Remind yourself that life is about loving one another and being a good person, not some arbitrary grades.