Anxiety in college students is on the rise. The pressure to succeed academically in college can be immense, especially if you come from a family or community that highly values educational success. If you’re feeling anxious about academics, your social life, or the future, you’re not alone.
In this post, I’ll discuss prioritizing mental health in college students, especially from the perspective of decreasing anxiety.
It’s important to pay attention to your well-being early in your college career so that you can prevent the development of severe levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Addressing these issues before they take over can keep you on the right track so that you can do the work you’re capable of and maintain your mental health.
Mental health symptoms on the rise
In recent years, stress, anxiety, and depression have become more and more common on college campuses.
Back in 2014, the New York Times reported on a Penn State study that found that anxiety had surpassed depression as the leading mental health issue facing college students. And that was before the pandemic.
In fall of 2022, the American College Health Association found that slightly more than one in five students (21.2%) were experiencing “serious psychological distress,” and over half considered themselves lonely.
That next year, inJanuary of 2023, another study found that college students’ mental health symptoms were still high, even fifteen months after the pandemic ended.
Researchers found rates of distress that are alarming. Students reported elevated levels of:
- stress (20.6%),
- anxiety (23.7%),
- depression (15.4%),
- suicidal thoughts (13.8%),
- and PTSD symptoms (29.7%).
And students are noticing that their symptoms are impacting their ability to succeed in school. The 2014 study from Penn State found that almost a quarter of students (21.9%) reported that anxiety had interfered with their school work, including receiving a lower grade on an exam or important project, receiving an incomplete, or dropping a course.
College Students Are Faced with Unique Stressors That Impact Mental Health
Being a college student comes with a set of both stressors and opportunities. These are unique to this time in life and include some of the following.
The Pressure of Academics
At the top of the list of worries for many college students is academics. Expectations around getting good grades and the pressure to constantly perform at your “best” can be overwhelming.
You may be coping with more difficult courses that move at a quicker pace than you’re used to. You may have trouble keeping track of assignments, exams, and projects without the reminders you had in high school.
It’s possible you might also be dealing with perfectionism or procrastination that gets in the way of you doing the work you know you’re capable of. These stressors can lead to anxiety about your ability to perform and earn the grades you want.
Social Stress Related to Loneliness and Fitting In
Transitioning to college means leaving your high school friends behind and making new friends. While you will probably want to maintain those relationships, it’s important to build connections in your new school. It can be hard to push yourself to attend events and activities where you don’t know anyone, and small talk can be awkward. College students often feel unsure of themselves in these new situations and worry about finding their new community. Navigating romantic relationships can also be stressful at this time.
Coping with Uncertainty about the Future
College is time-limited and it’s normal to think about what the future holds. You may be worried about choosing a major, figuring out what kind of work you want to do, how to be competitive on the job market, where you’ll live after graduation, and how you’ll maintain your relationships. It’s also a time when you might be worried about making enough money in the future.
When Anxiety In College Students Is Too High
Anxiety is normal. Anxiety signals to us that something important is going on. It alerts us that we may need to take action. It’s adaptive. Feeling anxious doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.
However, when anxiety starts to get in the way of us doing what we need or want to do, it may be time to practice some active coping strategies.
Here are some common symptoms of anxiety disorders:
- Physical sensations like restlessness, feeling on edge, dizziness, racing heart, muscle tension, or shortness of breath.
- Emotional symptoms like feeling nervous, worried, apprehensive, or afraid.
- Behavioral changes like procrastinating, avoiding, oversleeping, drinking too much, using too much marijuana, or isolating from others.
You can read more about specific types of anxiety disorders here if you have questions about specific themes of anxiety, like social anxiety, generalized anxiety, or panic disorder.
Five Tips for Coping with Anxiety in College Students
1. Take a break.
Give yourself permission to take a break from schoolwork sometimes to focus on your emotional well-being.
Schoolwork can be exhausting, and taking a break from time to time is essential. It can be hard to focus on our feelings when we’re busy tackling homework, studying for exams, and attending various classes.
It’s important to take time to step away from school pressures—it doesn’t have to be anything major. Simply pausing and taking some deep breaths or going for a quick walk is a great way to check in with yourself throughout the day.
Taking just five minutes out of your day a few times a day will give you a chance to slow down and check in with yourself.
2. Relax your body and mind.
Learning to relax your body and mind can help you cope with temporary feelings of anxiety.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a type of structured exercise that involves tensing and releasing different muscle groups. Practicing this type of relaxation can help you to loosen up tension you’re carrying in your body. You can search YouTube and try out a few to find one that works for you.
Formal mindfulness practices can help you learn to calm your mind. Mindfulness is not about emptying your mind or trying to have no thoughts. It’s about bringing nonjudgmental awareness to your current situation, including thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Slowing down with a short meditation can be a great way to slow down and take a break.
3. Tackle negative thoughts.
Write out your thoughts and practice thinking realistically. When we’re stressed or anxious, the natural tendency is to distract ourselves or push these thoughts out of our mind. The idea of writing them down or giving them more attention seems overwhelming. But, writing them down and getting them out of your head can actually decrease your stress.
Seeing clearly what you’re worrying about can help you get clarity. You might find that what feels like a million worries is actually just a handful. You can identify which worries you can control and take action on, which will decrease your anxiety and feelings of being stuck. Then, practice writing down a kind response to your negative thoughts, something you would say to a friend.
4. Deal with procrastination.
In a 2022 study, a whopping 72% of college students reported struggling with procrastination. If you’re dealing with this, you’re not alone.
One of the best ways to tackle procrastination is to break large tasks into smaller ones. Sit down with some paper or open a new document on your computer. Next, identify the very first thing that needs to be done to tackle the task you’ve been dreading. Focus on a very small step. Then, identify the next small step after that. List three small steps that will help you to take action.
Commit to acting on the first step without getting overwhelmed. Focus on one step at a time.
5. Connect with your values.
School is not the only important thing in life—family, friends, pets, exercise, and hobbies matter, too. You might feel like your life is doomed if you don’t get good grades at school. And yet you know that there is so much more to life. Having a community around is often more beneficial than memorizing for an upcoming exam or wasting time on LinkedIn. Spend time with those who lift you up, express yourself passionately through hobbies, and cherish those special moments with loved ones.
Additional Resources for Anxiety in College Students
- Active Minds: Active minds is a nonprofit organization that supports mental health awareness and education for young adults. Check to see if your campus has an active chapter and get involved. Their website also has a number of excellent resources.
- Intelligent.com: Intelligent.com is a student-focused publication dedicated to delivering data-driven research and insights to aid students and educational institutions nationwide. They hope to foster informed decision-making and elevate educational standards by translating complex data into understandable and actionable information. Intelligent.com’s resource guide on college planning provides additional ideas about support and options for coping with mental health challenges while in college.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: The ADAA is focused on providing education, support, and resources to those dealing with anxiety, OCD, depression, and other mental health concerns. The site also has a directory of therapists who may be able to help.
When to Get Professional Help
Remember that your mental health is a priority. Anxiety in college students is a real issues and you deserve support.
If you notice that you’re having difficulty completing daily tasks, taking care of yourself, or completing your academic work, it may be time to reach out for help. It’s okay to take a break from schoolwork to focus on your emotional well-being. Your campus likely has a student health center with trained counselors who can give you support and practical strategies to help you feel better.
Questions? Reach out for a consultation or send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re happy to help!