It’s September — and for many college students, this signals the beginning of a new semester. For some students, the first months of school are crisp, free-spirited days, consisting of sorority rushing and tailgating. For others, these stressful days are met with sleepless, lonely nights.
If you identify with the latter—I’m right there with you. I was a Nervous Nellie who struggled with crippling anxiety that peaked in college and nearly hindered my graduation.
The college hype starts so early now that I began planning and researching where I wanted to complete my undergraduate degree when I was a high school freshman. What was I going to major in? How am I going to get scholarships? I was a 14-year-old panicked over a choice that was 4 years away.
I loaded my schedule with extracurriculars and volunteer work to make my college application shine. I played competitive soccer, entered piano competitions, became involved in Student Government, French Club, Future Teachers of America, volunteered at the local library.
I’m extremely fortunate to have been able to participate in these wonderful organizations and teams, and I believe they made me into a more well-rounded individual. But the main purpose of my hyper-involvement wasn’t to become more cultured or athletic or to pursue a hobby—this whirlwind was a panicked effort to get accepted into the top schools, to receive the highest student honors, to get the most sizeable scholarships.
I took Advanced Placement (AP) courses in rich subjects like European History, English Literature, Environmental Science––my eagerness to learn not out of a thirst for knowledge, but rather, an eagerness to please, a drive towards perfectionism, a sprint to the finish line. It was an effort to stand out in the sea of millions of other bright university-bound students with stellar applications.
Learning was a choreographed dance of fevered memorization and dutiful regurgitation whose moves I forgot as soon as I turned in the carefully bubbled exam—and it worked. The endless striving accomplished what I’d set out for: I got a full-ride and a small soccer scholarship to my school of choice. But after I did what was required to get into school— I fell flat on my face.
On paper I was well-prepared for university life—I had the grades, the test scores, the extracurriculurs—but in reality, I was an ill-equipped nervous wreck lacking practical knowledge on how to deal with failure and loneliness and anxiety.
I was told that college was supposed to be the “time of my life,” the time I’d create the most unforgettable memories, the time that I’d forge lifelong friendships and have my mind expanded to new cultures and world perspectives.
The reality was far bleaker than the rumors. I moved three hours away and entered a foreign world of large crowds, unfamiliar faces, and group projects. I’ve never been skilled at the kind of small-talk that leads to new friendships—and the added anxiety didn’t make coming out of my shell any easier. So homesickness sat in my stomach like a heavy rock, pulling me closer and closer to the ground each day.
As a college senior, my struggles with anxiety and depression came to a head. I missed my alarm the first day of class and beat myself up about it so much that I spiraled. I thought it was all over. I went to class the rest of the week but couldn’t get the idea out of my head that I wasn’t cut out for college. I ended up withdrawing from my classes completely and took a year off to get myself healthy again. [you can find more about my story here].
The following Fall, I returned to school with a more balanced mindset that helped me finish out my senior year and get the degree I had labored over. I’d like to emphasize that my tireless pursuit of perfectionism was not enough to reach my goal—having a more balanced outlook and taking better care of myself was ultimately the best thing for my health and my school performance.
Take it from one Nervous Nellie to another—college is stressful and it certainly isn’t easy, especially when you’re battling anxiety—but I found ways to survive (& thrive!) university life and I’d love to pass them on to you.
Anxiety can often encourage careful and deliberate avoidance of the events or tasks that are causing you stress. Sometimes it feels safer to abide by the “out of sight, out of mind” mantra—but don’t fall into this trap! Procrastination only aggravates anxiety. The longer you circle around uncomfortable situations, the scarier they become.
Before the semester begins, do your best to collect all the materials you’ll need for your courses before they begin. Many professors send out emails to their students before the start of the semester. If your professor has provided a list of materials and textbooks, go ahead and rent or purchase your items before your first day. Purchase a planner to aid your organization: jot down assignments, deadlines, and due dates.
Prior to the start of the semester, take a few hours to write a detailed schedule for yourself of what your school week will look like. Write the class, the time it’s held, the building and room it’s located, and the professor’s name. Read it. Study it. Make pretty doodles on it. A lot of unnecessary panic can be avoided through having a visual reminder of your schedule.
Being comfortable with your environment has a massive impact on anxiety levels. If you’re unfamiliar with your campus’s layout, it increases the likelihood that you’ll be running late to class with a perpetual “deer-in-headlights” expression.
#2) Go With The Flow
Sometimes you’ll have weeks that life knocks you down and kicks you in the gut: you miss an alarm, contract a stomach bug, and have your car broken into—all within the span of 48 hours.
It’s difficult to maintain composure when you have weeks that remind you of your inability to control all of your circumstances. You start to feel like you’re losing your grip. And suddenly you start to panic over how these events are abruptly dissolving your carefully planned out schedule.
Anxiety largely stems from fearing what we can’t control—it’s the reason swarms of anxiety-ridden men and women lie awake at night, worrying about their future—the safety of their children, the security of their job. They’re eaten up by what-if’s and what-will-I-do’s; consumed by what may happen and what may not happen.
And it’s true—there’s a whole lot that life throws at you that is out of your control. As someone who’s struggled with severe anxiety, I understand that “letting go” is easier said than done. I’ve learned, however, that being flexible is an essential component to managing anxiety.
It’s difficult and scary to come to grips with the knowledge that your perfectly ordered schedule could erupt into chaos at any moment. But you gain nothing from ruminating on what you cannot control. By obsessing over the anxieties, you give more power to the fears that occupy your mind.
And I’d like to state now that I fully understand telling someone with anxiety to “stop thinking about it” is extremely unhelpful. So, instead, I’d like to suggest a few techniques to help you “go with the flow” when you feel like you’re falling apart:
- Adopt a mantra or word you can repeat to yourself when anxiety gets loud. Find a graphic that symbolizes or states your mantra and assign it to your phone background. Most people check their phones hundreds of times per day. Why not have a positive reminder pop up every time you glance at your phone?
Here’re a few ideas if you’re stuck:
- Try some breathing techniques to ease your nervousness and slow down your heart rate. I learned about a “4-7-8” breathing technique last year and regularly use it to self-soothe in stressful situations. The method was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, and it has a mildly tranquilizing effect that’s helpful if you’re having trouble sleeping.
- Bring headphones to campus and listen to soothing music in between classes. Oftentimes, I’d begin my school days by walking to school and listening to positive, happy tunes before I started the day. If you’re like me and struggle with sensory overload when entering noisy, large crowds, a pair of earbuds can be a life-saver.
#3) Pretend You’re Someone Else
Anxious people have a tendency to make “mountains out of molehills”—and I’m in that mountain-making boat. This is why I choose to step outside myself for a moment whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed by a situation. Sometimes it helps to analyze the problem and my next action not based on what my anxious brain is telling me to do (“Go lay down under the covers and cry about it!”) but instead, to consider what my mom would do.
It sounds ridiculous, but I can recall many, many instances in which my mom has faced unexpected circumstances with a graceful smile. Stress never causes her to crumble or panic or lose her mind with worry. She has a way of handling obstacles, making the best out of them, and moving on with her day.
If you can think of a person in your life who you admire for their resilience and grace—you may benefit from keeping this person in mind the next time you have a bad day with anxiety.
My last semester at school, I had my car broken into on a day that was already particularly stressful. Nothing was stolen, thankfully; but shards of glass had shattered all around the exterior of my car and fallen in between its interior crevices. Anxiety urged me to respond to the situation by hyperventilating—but before I began, I asked myself how my mom would handle the circumstances.
I knew she wasn’t the type of person to let fear stop her from taking action and resolving the issue—so I pretended I WAS her. I maintained composure. I called someone to come fix my window and help clean up the glass. I handled it and moved on with the rest of my day.
Do your best to stay organized and prepared with your planner—but when things don’t go according to the plan, take a breath. If you’re having trouble getting rid of the racing thoughts in your head, you might consider taking a step back, kicking off your shoes, and stepping into someone else’s for a while.
#4) Get There Early
I have not-so-fond-memories of driving to campus, knowing I was 15 minutes behind schedule—I knew that, pretty soon, I’d be sliding into a lecture that’s already started, entering a full auditorium of more polished, punctual students, whose heads were sure to swivel at the sound of the opening door.
Most of my classes as an upper-classman were held on the top floor of an older building that reeked of mildew—and I had to climb up 6 flights of stairs to get to.
On the days I didn’t give myself sufficient travel time to get to these classes, I’d find myself frantically sprinting up the steep staircases trying to beat the clock, sliding into the room sweaty and breathless. It wasn’t a great way to start the day and I’d usually carry around the same panicked feeling for the rest of the afternoon.
I couldn’t afford another shot to my attendance record by skipping class, so I’d shamefully shuffle to an open seat.
My tardy memories may seem a bit overplayed, but when you have anxiety, the last thing you want is hundreds of eyeballs staring up at you. It’s already a struggle to get to class in the first place. It’s even harder to enter that territory as a glaringly late arrival.
When I started making a point to leave earlier and became a more punctual student, my anxiety levels decreased by leaps and bounds.
Give yourself 10-15 extra minutes of time then you think you need to get to your destination. This will help if you get stuck in traffic or have difficulty finding a parking space.
#5) Show Up
If you find yourself running a few minutes late and are tempted to skip class altogether—trust me, I’ve known the struggle. I used to opt for total absence if I was running a few minutes late just to avoid the attention I’d likely bring to myself by walking in late. But skipping class didn’t alleviate any anxious feelings. In fact, I’d get more worried about the lecture I was missing and I’d get more anxious about the next time I had to go to class.
I felt embarrassed and ashamed about the impression I was giving to my professor and peers—and I can see now that I absolutely 100% blew out of proportion the weight of the situation.
Make an effort to get to class unless you are deathly ill or have a serious situation you need to attend to.
Showing up is 90% of hacking college: it shows professors that you’re serious about excelling, and it greatly increases the likelihood that you’ll know what’s going on. In terms of anxiety, I found that getting over the first part of the semester was the hardest part. Each week, I’d become a little more desensitized to the crowds and classroom environment; conversely, the more classes I skipped the harder it was to return.
#6) Dress Up
I don’t mean you have to smear gobs of makeup on your face and flat-iron your hair before class. I certainly didn’t—most days I sported active wear to my classes because that’s what I felt comfortable in.
When I felt more confident in my appearance, I felt more confident interacting with people and asking questions in class.
I didn’t steer clear of people I knew on campus out of embarrassment, and it wouldn’t be such a terrifying prospect to smile and say hi.
#7) Don’t Pack Lightly
When you don’t have the resources you need to get through the day, anxious feelings can be that much worse. Here are 6 essentials I learned to keep in my bookbag:
- Snacks– Hunger can lower your ability to manage stressful situations and inhibit your capacity to think clearly. Throw a few high-energy, nutrient-dense snacks into your bag—a banana, protein bar, trail mix— before you leave your apartment.
- Water– Like hunger, dehydration can be detrimental to your energy levels and cognitive abilities. Fill up your water bottle (Nalgene bottles and Yeti tumblers are environmentally-friendly and keep your water cool) and make sure you’re well-hydrated throughout the day.
- Hygenic Items– If you’re a female, keeping lady products on hand can save you a lot of unnecessary panic. Packing a hairbrush and deodorant is also a great way to feel comfortable and fresh throughout the day.
- A Phone Charger– Avoid the dead-phone-panic and ensure you have the means to communicate with your loved ones by keeping your phone charged. Nearly every campus building has available outlets you can utilize while you’re waiting for your next class to begin.
- Pens + Notebook Paper– Keeping ample school supplies in your bag seems like a no-brainer, but I feel it’s an important item to mention in this list. Be sure you have tools to take tests and jot down notes with.
- An Umbrella– No one likes sitting in class shivering with a mop of wet hair. In the case of rain showers or storms, keep an umbrella in your bag.
#8) Remember that You Aren’t the Only One
Most people (including professors) walk around feeling self-conscious, nervous, and a little awkward. The swarm of students you navigate through on your way to class are so worried about their own appearances, to-do lists, and relationship issues that they aren’t paying close attention what’s going on around them. I think anxiety often intensifies when we feel we’re being scrutinized by others—but I found a lot of relief once I realized that most folks are in the same self-conscious boat—or otherwise staring at their phone screens—and too pre-occupied to give a flying hoot about sweaty I look or how squeaky my voice just sounded.
We tend to overplay the amount of flaws that we think people notice—when in reality, most people are so consumed by their own thoughts and insecurities that they aren’t focusing on you. It’s important to remind yourself we tend to over-scrutinize ourselves and criticize ourselves far more than any outsider would.
I’m hopeful that these tips for managing anxiety as a college student are helpful to you along your journey. From one Nervous Nellie to another: keep fighting, be extra kind to yourself, and take it one day at a time.
A Few Things to Keep in Mind Along the Way:
- Your test scores, academic awards, and grade point average are not reflections of your self-worth.
- You are unbelievably courageous for going to college while battling with anxiety. A lot of peoples’ fears inhibit them from leaving their front doorstep at all. You’re putting yourself in the trenches and showing bold courage, day after day. I think that’s something to be proud of.
- It gets easier. Each time you choose to run towards your fears you get stronger, more flexible, and better equipped to handle whatever crops up next.
- You aren’t alone. It’s likely that a large number of people who pass you in the hallways or sit next to you in your classes deal with feeling overwhelmed and depressed and scared. Acknowledging this caused me to step outside of myself and be more comfortable with talking to others.
- Most campuses offer access to counselors to talk when life gets hard—and if you EVER need a friend to talk or vent to, I’m always available. I know life gets dark and scary sometimes and I’ve been there. When I was at my worst I felt unable to talk with anyone about the raging storm inside my head—but I can assure you, it’s better to verbalize your fears rather than let them eat away at you. I would love to talk. You can reach me at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org if you ever want to chat.