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Transitioning to College: Helping Students with Anxiety

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College-students-300x200.jpgThe transition to college is an exciting time for students and families. The rites of passage associated with a senior year of high school in particular lend significant buildup to the college transition.

Whether going directly from a senior year in high school or from a “gap” year, students are looking forward with intense anticipation to all of the mysteries and wonders of college life as they’ve come to understand it: meeting new people, a profoundly new degree of independence, exciting new surroundings, studies that may one day connect to a career, and a symbolic point of entry into their adult lives.

This excitement can mask an equally profound sense of anxiety associated with this transition, and students often struggle to reconcile these co-existing emotional experiences. Leaving home can be as scary as it is exciting. Choosing a course of study (or feeling like one has to choose one) can feel as much like pressure as it can feel like possibilities. Meeting new people often goes hand-in-hand with fears about losing old, comfortable, and familiar friends with whom one has shared an extensive history. Being geographically distanced from one’s parents can feel deeply unnerving even as it feels liberating.

Additionally, individuals may have significant concerns about the ramifications of the decisions they have made. The college application, acceptance, and selection processes and all of the inherent details such as securing financial resources and making housing decisions may render students with the sense that they have made profound and unbreakable commitments of epic proportions, which can feel like intense pressure to thrive no matter what — all the while having nagging anxieties that they may not have made “the right” decisions but are now stuck with them regardless.

What was at one point an elated fantasy about four years of bliss may alternately seem like a foreboding, ominous, inescapable, and very expensive black hole. What if I hate it there? What if I should have picked the other school/program/scholarship/dorm/etc.? What if I’m too far away from my family? Will my family be disappointed/angry/upset if I want to change programs? Will Mom and Dad be angry/hurt/lose money if I try this program and it’s not right for me, and I want to transfer? What if I’m miserable on the soccer team and have to play to keep my scholarship/etc.? These are just a few examples of the kind of anxieties that frequently intrude on the festivities and glow surrounding the college transition.

Students transitioning to college frequently feel anxious about being open about concerns they have because they fear that they will be perceived as unready for the change if they show signs of hesitation. It is important to them to prove their ability to go forward and engage their futures, and they may be reticent to verbalize any sentiments that have the potential to undermine their perceived readiness.

The anxiety of transitioning to college is as likely to be a factor for individuals who do not have a history of anxiety or other mental health concerns as it is for those who do. In fact, it’s important to remember that individuals with no history of anxiety may feel even more pressure to appear to be “handling” the transition well, as individuals who have had anxiety in the past may be more comfortable discussing their concerns as feeling anxious is not an unexpected experience. They may feel less pressure to keep up an appearance “keeping it together” having already dealt with similar feelings previously, and therefore more inclined to seek help and support.

For the people who care about them, supporting students through the transition to college means being empathetic to their conflicting feelings and not personalizing the stress. Often, the college process can be stressful and anxiety provoking for the people who make up the student’s support system, especially parents. Be mindful of your own attitude — verbally and nonverbally — towards the new college student. There may be a little part of you that resents them being less than completely positive about the upcoming experience into which you may also have put great time, effort, and resources. But you need to remember that their feelings of anxiety having nothing to do with their appreciation for the part you have played in the process. Their anxieties really exist independently of that, and your compassionate empathy for their conflicting feelings is as important as any other kind of support you have provided along the way.

Consider trying to have some open and low-stress conversations with your student about their transition. You can help open the doorway for them to share their feelings by letting them know it’s okay for them to have some ambivalence … perhaps by sharing your own conflict (i.e., You know, I’m so excited for you and yet I find myself also a little anxious about having you so far away).

Preemptively explore the support resources available on campus such as the student mental health center or counseling service, and review those opportunities with your student the same way you would take note of other resources such as the dining hall or the registrar’s office. In doing so you make your student aware of the opportunities while at the same time normalizing the idea that they might have anxieties and that seeking additional support is a good way to handle such feelings. Also, make sure your student knows that you will always be glad to hear from them, and you want to know how they are doing no matter what. By preemptively letting your student know that you expect there to be downs as well as ups and lows as well as highs on this exciting time in life, you are taking the pressure off of them to only be calling home with good news.

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