The beginning of a new chapter in one’s life can bring to the surface a variety of different emotions. You may feel excited about the upcoming changes that will occur and the opportunities that will become available to you. You may also feel sad about what you are leaving behind as you head in this new direction. You may feel proud of your perseverance and all that you accomplished in order to get yourself to this point. Feelings of anxiety may also be present as the future you are about to embark on is filled with uncertainties. While many different types of changes can precipitate this mix of emotional responses, the experience of beginning college may be your biggest life change to date.
New college students are often moving away from their families and their homes for the first time to live on their own. They are often attending different universities than their best friends from high school. College life will require them to form a new social circle, navigate living with new people, and spend less time with their pre-established support system. Incoming college students are also faced with more rigorous classes and challenging coursework. In addition to academic and performance pressures, new college students must learn essential life skills, such as how to manage their time, stay organized, budget their money, and develop healthy routines. Any one of these changes can require an adjustment period, but the majority of college students are faced with adjusting to most (if not all) of these changes all at once. The significant number of novelties that incoming students encounter can be simultaneously exciting and anxiety-provoking! The following blog will focus on strategies that new college students can use to manage their anxiety as they transition into college life.
- Work with a Mental Health Professional
If you were working with a mental health professional prior to attending college, plan to continue doing so. Incoming college students who were seeing a therapist up to the time that they moved away for school, should continue to work with a mental health provider as they transition into college. It is important to note that a mental health professional’s ability to treat a patient does not extend beyond the state in which they are licensed. In other words, if you are moving out of state to attend college, it is unlikely that your current therapist will be able to treat you once you are in a different state (unless he/she also holds a license to practice in the state where you will be attending college). Before ending treatment with your current provider, make a plan together to transition your care to a new mental health professional who is located near your school. Ask your current therapist for referrals and work together to develop a list of qualifications/criteria to seek out a new provider who will be a good fit for you. It is advisable to schedule your first appointment with a new provider before you leave for school. Many clinicians have waitlists and/or may not be taking new patients so it is important to have your first session scheduled ahead of time.
If you are struggling to adjust to your new surroundings and you find that your mood has been negatively impacted and/or routine activities are now challenging for you to complete, seek help from a mental health professional. As previously discussed, all of the new changes that college students have to contend with all at once can be overwhelming. Feeling homesick and stressed while trying to navigate the terrain of new relationships and an intense academic load is a lot to juggle! A mental health professional can provide a safe space for you to work through your concerns, collaboratively solve problems, learn new strategies, and improve your confidence in being able to successfully manage new situations.
- Make Your Living Space Feel like Home
Our environments can have a profound effect on our moods. It is important to make your new living space feel like a comfortable, relaxing, and enjoyable place to be. Most new college students are working with the limited space of a dorm room, but getting creative with the use of space and décor can make a big difference! It will be important to try to separate your workspace from the area where you relax (as best as you can). Make your bed comfortable and relaxing. Consider using a mattress topper and making sure your blankets and pillows are to your liking. Control the temperature (fans) and noise at bedtime (sound machine/white noise). Stock your mini fridge with healthy snacks and essentials, but also keep a few of your favorite treats on hand. Post pictures of family members, friends, vacations, memorable events, etc. around your room to boost your mood. Do your best to keep your room clean and orderly. Try out different arrangements and ways to organize in order to discover the best ways to optimize your space.
- Attend Events and Activities for Incoming Students
At the beginning of the school year, universities organize a variety of events and activities for new students. These gatherings are great opportunities for students to get to know one another and begin to form some friendships early in the school year. While you don’t need to attend every event (unless you want to), participating in a couple of events is a good idea. An event that tends to be similar across schools is Quad Day. During this event, all of the school’s clubs, teams, and student organizations have tables set up with a representative who belongs to the organization. Students (of all academic years) can attend the event and learn more about various clubs of interest. Attending this event can be a great way to meet new people who may share similar interests and hobbies with you!
- Create Opportunities to Get to Know New People and Maintain Your Important Relationships
Being socially connected is one of the pillars of having an enjoyable college experience. Getting to know people will help you to better distinguish the types of people who you’d like to include in your social circle. Research has shown that having positive social connections helps to reduce stress and strengthen our immune system, both of which are critical to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It is important to note that everyone has different social needs. Some people like to cast a wide net with their friendships, whereas others prefer to keep their social circle smaller. Some people like to go out with friends multiple times per week, while other people are satisfied with one or two outings per month. In other words, the desire to socialize is dependent upon your preferences and needs. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to being part of a social group. No matter how many friendships you would like to have, it is important that you make efforts to connect with others. Some ways to invite more socializing include leaving your dorm room door open to make yourself more approachable (of course, this should not be all the time). Other ways to facilitate more interactions and conversations with others include using the common rooms in your dorm, eating in the cafeteria, working out at the school’s gym, using the campus on library, participating in study groups, and getting involved in at least one club, team, or student organization.
While it is important to form new friendships with people who you see on campus every day, it is equally important to maintain your important relationships with your family and friends (who do not attend the same school). These are the people who know you best and can offer valuable support, advice, and words of encouragement. Schedule phone calls or FaceTime calls and/or virtual hangouts on a regular basis. Make sure to contact friends and family members on important dates (holidays, birthdays, and other significant times). Make plans to spend time with these important people when you are home from college during the holidays as well as during break times and over the summer.
- Strategically Schedule Your Classes (When Possible) and Use Available Academic Resources
One of the major differences between high school and college is the ability to create your own schedule. Instead of having pre-set school hours, the time college students spend in classes differs from day to day. When you are registering for classes, make a point of selecting class times that accommodate the ebb and flow of your energy level throughout the day. If your energy levels are higher in the morning, it would be beneficial to register for classes in the earlier half of the day. On the other hand, if you don’t feel awake and alert until the afternoon rolls around, honor your inner timetable and select classes that take place during the later half of the day. It is also important to be mindful of which classes you will take on the same day. For example, scheduling classes with a range of difficulty (low to high) on the same day might make the day feel more balanced as opposed to scheduling all of your most challenging classes on the same day. Also, consider which day of the week to schedule your different classes. Do you want to schedule your most challenging classes at the beginning of the week (when you might have the most energy after the weekend) or at the end of the week (because shortly thereafter, it will be the weekend)? In general, incoming college freshmen have schedules that are primarily composed of core classes. Core classes typically have multiple offerings and therefore, there will be more options regarding when you can schedule these classes. Thus, it will be beneficial to be strategic when selecting your class sequence so that you can create a schedule that is most optimal for your lifestyle.
In addition to being intentional about your class schedule, be mindful about making regular use of academic resources, as they will be great assets to your academic success. Make a point to utilize office hours and other available academic resources, such as peer tutoring, career center services, writing centers, academic advisors, etc. When accessing any of these resources, come prepared with a list of questions, stuck points, and/or ideas that can pave the way for others to best assist you. Utilizing all (or any) of these resources can enhance your learning experiences and connect you with some helpful people who are invested in fostering positive and supportive learning environments.
- Prioritize Organization
Upon entering college, there will not be the same amount of structure or external factors that dictate your daily schedule or help to keep you organized. The classes you take, the hours you and your roommate keep, and the available opportunities to socialize will be different from day to day. Therefore, it is important to determine effective ways to remain organized and maintain a balanced schedule. On the first day of classes, professors usually take time to review the class syllabus. The syllabus will detail the respective professor’s policies, due dates, and sequence of class materials. It is important to use some sort of system to help you keep track of deadlines for assignments, papers, presentations, and exams. Some students may prefer to use a hard-copy planner, while others may opt for using an electronic calendar, such as Google Calendar. Employ whichever method you will consistently use and make sure to check you schedule on a regular basis (at least once a day).
Once you have a sense of what class requirements will be expected and when items are due on a weekly/monthly basis, you can create a study schedule for yourself that will help you stay on track. Block off time in your calendar to reserve for study periods. Determine the environment that is most conducive to studying. If your dorm room has too many distractions, plan to study in the library or reserve a private study room. Do your best to create plans in which you break down tasks and disperse the work throughout the time that you have prior to the deadline. Seeing how the work can be spread out and accomplished over time can help decrease your stress and reduce pressurized feelings that result from feeling rushed to meet a deadline. For example, if you are writing a paper, the task might be broken down into the following steps: topic selection, research and gathering of materials, material review, outline construction, rough draft, proofreading/updating the paper, drafting the final version, and conducting a final proofread.
- Be Proactive (not Reactive) with Your Routines
Having healthy and balanced routines will be a massive contributor to a positive college experience. Make sure that you are getting enough sleep, eating well, and getting regular exercise. Create time for breaks in your schedule, plan time to spend with friends, and carve out time to dedicate to self-care. Be proactive with your habits. Do not wait to use your stress outlets until your stress is at level 10. Listen to your body and listen to your emotions so that you can intervene sooner! Use your outlets routinely to keep your emotions in balance. It is far easier to recover from stress, anxiety, frustration, sadness, and other challenging emotions when you are taking good care of yourself each day. However, if you are chronically sleep deprived, overwhelmed, and fueling your body with junk food, your ability to handle stress and be effective in your classes and in your relationships will be compromised. Create routines for yourself that allow for some flexibility, as being too rigid with your routines can be limiting (in the opposite way). Intentionally plan to keep some time slots in your calendar open for miscellaneous things. When those open periods roll around, if you feel like getting in a good workout, do so. If you feel like watching an episode of your favorite show, then do that. If you anticipate that your stress will be higher next week, make a plan for how to navigate the upcoming challenges. Schedule an appointment at the university’s counseling center, schedule a phone call with your best friend, prioritize your sleep, select your favorite self-care activities, and create a plan to complete the required work that does not require you to rush.
College is a big adjustment for each and every new student. No one has it all figured out. You’re not supposed to have everything perfectly planned or flawlessly executed – this is not realistic! You are in college to learn. You are not in college because you already know it all. Embrace the fact that there is a learning curve, which exists both inside and outside of the classroom. Just as you will learn new facts and concepts in your classes, you will also learn about the intricacies of complex relationships, gain insights into yourself, your beliefs, and your life goals, and you will continue on the never-ending journey of learning. There will, of course, be some wrong turns on this trajectory and there will be instances in which you have to double back and change your direction. It’s okay to not get it “right” the first time. It’s okay to explore, and it’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to stumble and it’s okay to fail and start over. Expect that there will be some trial and error. This is normal! Just remember: the comeback is always far more important than the setback! Take care of yourself and believe in yourself. Prioritize your health and make a point to participate in opportunities that will facilitate self-development. Utilize the available resources and access help when you need it. Adopt a growth mindset and take advantage of the positive opportunities that will come your way during your time in college. Finally, for additional strategies to manage anxiety, please see our previous blog entry – 15 Things You Can Do to Enhance Your Anxiety Treatment.
Need Help or Support?
If you or a loved one are struggling with an anxiety disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or any other mental health concerns, know that you are not alone. If you are a parent or a caregiver and are seeking additional information about how you can best support your child, our office provides parent training with the SPACE program. Please see our November 2021 Newsletter for more information on SPACE.
For these or any other mental health concerns, please contact The OCD & Anxiety Center at (630) 686-7886 or email@example.com. We have offices located in Oak Brook and Orland Park, Illinois and in Marietta, Georgia. Our clinicians specialize in helping individuals overcome anxiety disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, and other co-occurring mental health conditions. We provide telehealth services that are available in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Florida, and Georgia.
At The OCD & Anxiety Center, we can provide treatment both in the office and at off-site locations (your home, mall, school, work etc.). We will work closely with you to create an individualized treatment plan and discuss the appropriate frequency of appointments (once a week or more, if needed). We look forward to working with you and facilitating your therapeutic journey!
Dr. Ashley Butterfield is a licensed psychologist at The OCD & Anxiety Center in Oak Brook, IL. She specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy for anxiety, OCD, and anxiety-related disorders. She is comfortable working with children, adolescents, and adults and is able to provide treatment both in the office and outside of the office, wherever anxiety happens.