Since I was a young girl, I have dealt with an oscillating mixture of anxiety and depression, a mental illness cocktail, if you will. But dealing with anxiety in college was a new challenge.
When all you know is anxious way of thinking, it is difficult to recognize what is unhealthy and what is “normal” thought patterns. The peak of my anxiety occurred during high school, an accumulation of anxiety attacks and depressive episodes concluding in a dissociating mental breakdown that my mother and I refer to as My Trip To Alaska.
The source of my anxiety in college varied from grades to social life to family problems. Anyone who has suffered from chronic anxiety knows the feeling all too well – a crushing, gaping black hole in your stomach that spreads throughout your limbs, your eyes, your ears, making it impossible to think clearly or keep up with the daily grind. Thankfully, I have healed immensely since those days.
I am still on this journey, the pilgrimage to my own Mecca of Mental Health, but I am much better than I was two years ago.
Mental Health and Anxiety in College from Dr. Lisa Damour
I am quickly coming to the conclusion of my first semester of my freshman year of college. Going into college, I expected there would be some anxiety. With any change comes uncertainty, and uncertainty quickly breeds anxiety. Truthfully, these past four months have been difficult, as they are for most college newbies. But I have developed a few methods to keep my head high and out of my pillow.
So, here it is – seven ways I dealt with the crippling anxiety that comes with college.
How Students Can Deal With Anxiety in College
Get. Out. Of. Bed.
This is the first step to pulling you out of your funk because getting in bed is the first step of putting you there. I know the routine all too well. The thought of leaving the comfort of your room can be strenuous when anxiety has taken hold of your brain. Your bed is warm and all-encompassing there are no homework assignments to worry about when you are napping. It is so easy to believe that you feel better hiding under your covers than you will if you step outside and face the world.
The truth is, after a few days of this routine, you start to feel incredibly worse. The problem is you become desensitized to how feeling worse really hurts you. Before you know it, it has been four days and you’ve hardly gone outside. So please, when you start to feel this way, pick yourself up by your bootstraps (or pajama pants) and get out of bed. Even if you sit at your desk and stare of into space, get out of that bed. It is not the comfort you believe it to be – it is your handicap.
Go for a walk.
Everyone who has spent any time in a college dorm knows how suffocating it can feel. At first, you don’t mind the small space. You’re finally away from home, free to leave your dishes out and neglect vacuuming if you wish. This euphoria is short-lived. You wake up one morning to find that your room has shrunk three times over. Or maybe that is just because you have three times as much stuff crammed in there as you did in the beginning of the year. Either way, you need a break from that space.
Get out of that room, rain or shine, and get some fresh air. If the only time you leave your room is to go to class, you begin to feel stifled without even realizing it. Find some fountains around campus, or perhaps a small coffee shop. Take a book with you, even if you don’t read it. Put on your favorite shoes and go people watch in front of the lecture halls. This will do wonders to your mental health. Trust me. About a month into school, I fell into a deep dark hole where I hardly left my room. I didn’t even realize how small it really was until I got out for an hour or two and came back. You will feel a million times better, I promise.
Keep a journal.
As a slightly neurotic perfectionist, keeping up with a journal can be quite a challenge. Every page must be my best handwriting or the whole journal is ruined. Every entry has to be in the same ink color, done with the same kind of pen. Variation in pen thickness ruins the ambiance of a filled journal, and I just can’t deal with that. So, I began typing out my journal entry first and then writing it in my “special” journal, a fifteen dollar fake leather-bound number with gold leafing on the cover. When I don’t write, my thoughts begin crowding my head and there is no room for anything but my crippling worries.
Get those thoughts out and on paper. Put them out into the world and out of your noggin. Once you have “cleaned house,” you have extra room to remember deadlines and write essays for that English class. When you try to keep up with school and you don’t clear out your thoughts every once and awhile, it can feel impossible to keep up with everything you have going on.
Do something creative.
Can’t draw to save your life? Try a coloring book. Get some paint and make abstract colors and shapes. It doesn’t have to be a Picasso, it just has to make you happy. Before college, I had always been decent at looking at shapes of people and bowls of fruit and copying it in charcoal onto a sketchbook, but I never felt like an artist.
During this first semester, I broke out my roommate’s cheap Michael’s acrylics and began painting. It start with birds – I painted a turkey vulture that turned out much better than expected. Owls, feathers, little talons on branches. I sketched and painted on scraps of notebook paper, old cardboard. Then I moved onto bodies. I painted the shapes of people. Women’s naked bodies, long hair, sad faces, happy faces. I painted it all. When I am feeling particularly anxious, I break out the paints and I let it all flow. I leave my worries on the brush, let them flow onto the page.
As the talented Bob Ross once said, “in painting, you have unlimited power. You have the ability to move mountains. You can bend rivers.” When you feel like you have no control over anything else in your life, pick up a pencil or a brush, or even your fingers, and give yourself some control.
Start a non-academic project.
For me, this is knitting. I knit scarves, hats, finger-less gloves, headbands. Working on and finishing a project that you aren’t worrying about being graded on is incredibly therapeutic. It gives you a sense of accomplishment without the expectations of perfection. Just make something. Start a campaign for your favorite cause. Join a book club.
No matter how much you enjoy your major, if all of your activities revolve around academics you will quickly go a little crazy. Having interests outside of your classes will keep you balanced and you will find yourself doing better in your classes. Seems counter intuitive, right? Take a break from academics and you will do better in school?
Don’t let school consume you. Branch out, let yourself explore interests or hobbies that you’ve always wanted to try but never could. This will greatly reduce anxiety.
Turn those tunes up and sing and dance like a maniac.
Whether it be the Hairspray soundtrack or Wiz Khalifa or Metallica – turn up the volume and dance like crazy. I’m serious. This one may seem silly, but I promise, it works. When I feel the anxiety building up, bubbling to the surface, I tend to tense up and sit in one spot and just let those horrible poisonous thoughts hit my conscience like crashing waves.
The best way to shake these thoughts is to shake your body. Using your body jolts you right out of your head and forces you to feel your heart beating, your brow sweating. And listening to your favorite tunes is an added boost of fun. I personally like to turn on Stevie Nicks and twirl my imaginary shawl and sing “Rhiannon” at the top of my lungs. My roommate has witnessed this and it is a sight to see.
Get coffee with a friend.
For some reason, during my first month or so of college, I conveniently convinced myself that I was the only person who was dealing with these feelings. A friend of mine reached out to me, inviting me out to coffee. We sat in a Starbucks while some smooth jazz played over the speakers and she revealed that she was feeling the exact same way I was.
For some reason, this shocked me. I had been stuck in my little bubble for so long that I truly believed I was alone. Not only are those feelings of loneliness misleading, they are a bit selfish. You’re feeling anxious about your classes? Your roommate probably is too. So is your neighbor. So is your old friend from high school.
So get out of that lonely bubble and talk about how you’re feeling with a friend. But don’t just talk – listen. Listen to how they are feeling and how they are dealing with the same qualms.You may gain some insight into your own worries that you never even thought you could have.
Finally, the lesson to remember is this – the anxiety never leaves.
It is never totally gone. For so long, I thought I would eventually get to a place in my life where I would be free of worry. In high school, I thought that place would be college. Now that I am in college, I fall into a pattern of thinking that my graduation date will bring a sweet release from my anxieties. This is a dangerous way to think.
I have realized in my short 19 years that there is no place like this. There will always be deadlines to meet, projects to complete, bills to pay. In fact, as you grow older, the list of things to cause anxiety just grows longer and longer.
The key to dealing with anxiety in college is not working towards a place where anxiety is nonexistent – the goal is to be okay with what you have, where you are, and what you are doing. The worries will always be there, but you can develop ways to not let them control your life. So, to all those college kids out there, good luck. And to all of the parents with kids suffering from anxiety, remind them to get out of that dorm and don’t stop telling them how much you love them. We would never admit it, but we miss that everyday.
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Rachel Hicks is a young writer who attends Purdue University and is majoring in comparative literature. She enjoys writing about her journey with mental illness as well as her experience as a lesbian. She hopes to become an advocate for those who suffer from anxiety and depression. She is a cliché anglophile, her favorite book being Wuthering Heights. You can find Rachel on Facebook and Instagram