Overcoming College Anxiety and Stress

Overcoming College Anxiety and Stress
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Student: “Everyone says I’ve got to have lots of fun before I leave for college.  Instead, I stay up at night wondering if I can actually do this.”

Parent: “Is my child ready to go to college and be independent? I feel like I have to chase after every little thing for them.”

    Both: Am I making a huge mistake??

This calls for stress and anxiety management skills.

Anxiety about the Future

Over the summer, the promises and thrills of college are so exciting! You’ll get the chance to live on your own, come and go as you please, make new friends, and explore new places. But these changes can also be stressful. The new freedom comes with the loss of the traditional support system of family and friends, as well as the addition of new challenges. They come in the form of learning to live with new people, managing a heavier workload, and developing an independent identity.

You get a “fresh start”” in college–a chance to make new friends and find new mentors. But often your emotional weaknesses get packed up along with your shower caddy and new bedding. We see students who are described before as “just fine or even high achieving” really struggle in their new college environments. Some of them are overwhelmed with organization and time management issues, increased academic pressure, or the independent skills needed to manage their lives.

Essential Skills for the Transition

So, how do you overcome pre-college anxiety? And how can you cope with it during the college years?

Parents and students can start shifting responsibilities even while in high school or during summer breaks between semesters of college. They can practice being more independent, having emotional regulation, and enhancing problem-solving skills. Here are some key skills that most mental health professionals define as executive functioning skills. These are the ones that help us achieve goals, stay flexible, mange our feelings and solve problems:

  • self-restraint/emotion control
  • focus/concentration
  • task initiation and inhibition
  • planning/prioritization
  • organization
  • time management
  • stress tolerance

Many parents have grown used to jumping in when their child is distressed. Unfortunately, that affects the growth of these skills by reducing the chance to practice. While parents may not (and should not) hang around on campus and swoop in to “save” your student from challenges, there are ways that you can guide them and offer suggestions. It will also feel great for students to develop their own toolkit of resources and problem-solving skills. If you both feel a little distressed along the way, know that it’s a normal part of growth and change. But when it gets overwhelming–like you are worried about safety or if the same problems keep repeating–it’s time to add in some professional support.

Advice for Parents

The key to overcoming college anxiety and stress is to have open communication about mental health challenges at times when the anxiety or low mood seems to be in the lead.  Your student needs to hear that, “It’s okay not to feel okay.” Validate their feelings before you help them solve their own problems. Parents, if you notice that your teen is in distress, try offering a neutral, nonjudgmental comment to open the door to a conversation. Examples:

  • “I notice that that you talk about hard Spanish class is.”
  • “I notice that you don’t say much about your roommate.”
  • “I see that thinking about the test tomorrow is making you really anxious.”

Once they feel heard, ask what they may do next to solve the problem. And parents, this may be the hardest advice of all: let your student ask you for your opinion before you offer it. That space, along with your caring availability creates opportunities for growth. This will greatly help your student in overcoming college anxiety and stress.

Skill development and coaching: We can do this!

Planning to go to school in the West like Arizona, Nevada or Utah? Or the Midwest at a college in the Chicago area or downstate Illinois? Maybe heading to the East coast to a college in Pennsylvania, Virginia, or DC? Thrive Collective can support you! Check out the 20+ states we serve through online sessions.

Let Thrive Collective walk with you through this big transition. We will teach and build those executive functioning strategies and create a partnership that can see you through the first year of college and beyond. Dr. Menon is able to provide telehealth services in 20+ states. Contact us to get started!

Good read? Check out these other articles about the same topic:

Anxiety in college: What we know and how to cope

8 Tips for Coping with Anxiety as a College Student

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