Common Anxiety Issues in College Students

Common Anxiety Issues in College Students

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Anxiety is one of the most common mental health concerns facing college students today. While experiencing some anxiety during the numerous transitions involved in going away to college is undoubtedly normal, many college students in the United States report feeling overwhelming amounts of anxiety, which can be dangerous and unhealthy. 

Anxiety is characterized by the tendency to: 

  • Worry excessively
  • Feel afraid
  • Experience a sense of panic

There are many factors that can contribute to these feelings for college students nowadays, and major lifestyle changes alone, like going to college, are known to exacerbate the effects of a mental health condition. There are some specific issues that are especially widespread on college campuses right now that seem to be triggering and adding to this rise in anxiety among college students. Below, we discuss some of the most common anxiety issues that are facing college students today.

If you’re struggling with anxiety on campus, you may benefit from the help of a mental health professional. Please do not be afraid to seek help and talk to someone about what you’re going through. Almost all colleges and universities have some form of counseling available on campus to help students with mental health issues. Campus counseling centers can either help treat students or provide an appropriate referral.

Sleep Disruption

Sleep disruption and anxiety go hand in hand, and poor sleep is one of the biggest contributors to anxiety disorders among college students. There are many factors that can significantly impact sleep in college. Aside from things like cramming for exams and partying late at night, even simply living with a roommate for the first time can have negative effects on a student’s sleep cycle. 

The following are some common causes of sleep disruption in college students:

  • Worrying
  • Phone or laptop use before bed
  • Drinking excess caffeine
  • Inconsistent sleep schedule
  • Pulling all-nighters

Some tips for practicing better sleeping habits in college include setting a consistent bedtime and wake-up time each day, limiting caffeine in the evenings and alcohol in general, putting away all electronics an hour or two before bedtime, and avoiding spending time in your bed for activities other than sleep, such as studying. 

Financial Stress

It’s common knowledge that college is getting more and more expensive, but not everyone understands how significantly the financial burden of paying for college affects college students today. Most students leave college with extreme amounts of debt and only entry-level salaries, leaving them in a stressful situation for years after graduation. This predicament has become a source of dread and anxiety for many college students, so much so that the anxiety caused by this financial burden often overrides the happiness and pride that should be associated with graduating from college.

Financial stress is also a source of anxiety for students whose parents pay for college, as this puts an added pressure on them to do well, finish on time, and get a high-paying job. These students experience anxiety surrounding the looming fear that their parents “spent all this money on their education for nothing” or that their parents “wasted their money on them.” Relying on their parents to pay for college can also delay development of important life skills relating to emotional and financial independence for college students, leaving them unprepared and anxious for the “real world” that lies ahead. 

The financial stress associated with paying for college can also make it harder for college students to find the time and space in the budget for doing the things that make them happy. Seeing a movie, going out to eat with friends, joining a gym, these are all things that can help college students cope with or reduce anxiety, but they are hard to do for students who are on a strict budget due to the cost of college, or who have to spend their free time working at a job. 

Loneliness

Loneliness is a common problem for college students, especially for freshmen. One of the biggest sources of loneliness for college students comes from homesickness. Homesickness is defined by functional impairment or feelings of distress caused by an anticipated or actual separation from home and attachments, such as parents, siblings or pets. People who suffer from homesickness often experiences bouts of anxiety, sadness, worry and nervousness and can’t shake their preoccupation with thoughts of home and family. Homesickness is one of the leading causes of loneliness for students who are away at college, especially when they’re first adjusting to the change. 

Social media and technology can also contribute to loneliness in college students, in more ways than one. First of all, social media can get in the way of students, especially freshmen, developing strong relationships with their classmates. Texting and facetiming old friend groups from back home can take away from college students putting time and energy into meeting new people around them in the real world. It can be tempting to stay within the comfort zone of the friends that you grew up with, especially with the ease and instant gratification of social media and modern technology.  But, it’s important for college students to break old habits and branch out when adjusting to their new environment. And, for students coming into college with social anxiety disorder or generalized anxiety disorder already, Netflix, social media and online gaming can become comfortable escapes that hinder their chances of forming meaningful relationships with their peers in real life. 

Academic Pressure

Academic pressure is another major source of anxiety among college students. Academic pressure can lead to generalized anxiety disorder, perfectionism, and test anxiety. Perfectionism, which can also cause or worsen anxiety disorders, is increasingly common in today’s college students. Perfectionism is defined by the need to be or appear perfect in one or more aspects of life. 

Often students feel this pressure to be perfect from:

  • The competitive environment fostered on many college campuses 
  • Financial stress from scholarships or strict parents
  • Comparing themselves to their peers on social media 

Even though some people view perfectionism as a positive trait, especially when it comes to academics and education, it can actually lead to mental health disorders, like anxiety and obsessive behavior, that end up making it more difficult for students to achieve their goals. 

Test anxiety is another big mental health concern for college students that can stem from academic pressure. Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety that can be caused by fear of failure. Colleges have become increasingly competitive, and the added pressure to be the best can lead to test anxiety in college students.

Test Anxiety can activate the body’s fight or flight response, causing symptoms like:

  • Sweaty palms
  • Nausea
  • Racing pulse 
  • Dread
  • Shaky voice
  • Knots in the stomach

These symptoms end up making it harder for students to succeed and achieve their goals, and for students with chronic test anxiety, therapy, as well as relaxation and mindfulness techniques can be very beneficial.

Social Media

Social Media has become one of the most common anxiety issues for today’s college students. Having constant access to a highlight reel of what their peers are doing can cause extreme anxiety and self-comparison among adolescents. Everyone shows their best selves on social media, so for students who are struggling academically, socially, or with their body image, comparing themselves and feeling lesser-than is inevitable when looking at the pictures and videos of peoples’ greatest, most showoffable experiences. There is also worry that comes along with seeing that you’re being excluded, or feeling like you’re not living life to the fullest or experiencing college to the extent that you should be based on what “everyone else” is doing. In these ways, anxiety and worry become compounded by social media use. 

For students who already have anxiety, the positive reinforcement of getting “likes” and instant feedback on social media can help put their minds at ease, but negative feedback, lack of feedback or comparison to others, all which are bound to occur on social media, can actually end up causing more anxiety. Students prone to anxiety can also feel anxious from being disconnected for too long when trying to stop using social media. Often, students tend to make the connection on their own that social media is exacerbating their anxiety, leading them to try to take breaks from or “quit” social media altogether. This, due to social media’s addictive nature, can lead to more feelings of fear and worry about being disconnected from the world. 

How Therapy Can Help

Identity Counseling Psychology is a counseling and psychotherapy practice in Ann Arbor, Michigan that specializes in working with college students and helping patients manage anxiety. Our licensed counselors are experienced in treating anxiety and are passionate about helping students navigate the college experience and cope with academic concerns. If you’re a student seeking counseling in the Ann Arbor area, contact us today for an intake. Our office is located in the heart of Ann Arbor, next to Bearclaw Coffee, where Washtenaw Ave and Stadium Blvd split. 


3 Ways to Reduce Stress Using Mindfulness

3 Ways to Reduce Stress Using Mindfulness

It’s another day at work, and you get one of those emails.

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You know… one of those emails.

Maybe the email is from a coworker, or from one of your bosses. Either way, it’s the email that you get about once per day, and it makes your blood boil. The thing they’re emailing about is last on your list of things to do, but the email is still enough to keep you in a constant state of stress and anxiety.

The WEIRD (Western-Educated-Industrialized-Rich-Democratic) culture that we live in continues to demand more and more of us. Living in this fast paced world can be extremely damaging to our health, and can leave us feeling disconnected from the earth and from each other. Stress has been shown to lead to significant health and relationship issues.

What would it be like to live a life free of chronic stress, fatigue, and energy depletion? How could I live a life fully connected to earth and focused on the moment?

It may sound like something you can never attain. This may be true; however, there are a few simple habits that can be integrated into your daily life fairly easily which have been shown to have a dramatic impact on stress and anxiety.

The techniques that I am about to explain are rooted in a practice called Mindfulness. This term may seem like the new “hip” buzzword, but it is rooted in an ancient tradition of practicing intentional living. I’ll start by explaining what Mindfulness is NOT.

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Mindfulness is not a method of escape. Unlike other meditative techniques which may attempt to clear your mind completely and escape life, Mindfulness is an active process of becoming more aware of yourself in the present moment. Mindfulness stresses (no pun intended) the importance of the moment.

Because all we have are moments to live. 

Since all we have are moments, Mindfulness allows us to more fully live them one by one. Here are a few helpful techniques to get you started (derived from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction training):

1.) 3 Minute Mindful Breathing 

Set your clock for 3 minutes. Sit in a chair with excellent posture. Close your eyes, and begin breathing in for 4 seconds, then hold your breath for 4 seconds, then slowly breathe out for 8 seconds.

In for 4, hold for 4, slowly breathe out for 8.

Continue this rhythm, and begin to notice your thoughts. You may have a thought that brings anxiety (maybe it’s the email you received earlier). In this case, instead of rejecting the thought, you are going to let it in. Let your mind experience the thought, and note the emotional experience that you encounter. It is important to not judge this. This is an intentional practice in non-judgment.

Let the thought in, notice how it makes you feel, and simply return to your breath.

Imagine this rhythm as if you’re driving down an empty highway early in the morning. Your thoughts are like the road signs that pass by. They come in, you experience their impact on your mind, and you return to the road. Continue for 3 minutes and when you’re done take note of your current state.

2.) Mindful Appreciation 

Wherever you find yourself, begin to think about 5 things that you are appreciative of. Try to focus on things that typically go unnoticed, such as the electricity powering the air conditioning in your office, or the infrastructure which provides water to your faucet. Spend a few minutes intentionally practicing gratitude for 5 things that you may take for granted most of the time.

 

3.) Mindful Body Scan

Lie on your back and close your eyes. Begin Mindful Breathing (see technique #1). Once you find a good rhythm of breath, begin to imagine a scanner moving up through your body. The scanner starts at tips of your toes, and is monitoring how each square inch of your body feels. Begin to move this virtual scanner up through your left foot, passing your ankle, your shin, your knee, until you hit your pelvic bone. Next, jump down to the tip of your right foot, and begin to move up toward where you left off before.

Continue this scanning method all the way through your body until you reach the top of your brain- all the while noting how each square inch of your body feels. Notice if any areas feel particularly good or bad. Once you reach the top of your head, imagine a hole in the top of your head releasing the energy that the scanner has put into your body. Take note of your current state, and compare it to how you felt prior to doing the body scan.

Practice these 3 techniques once per day for a week, and observe whether you feel or think differently.

Are you interested in engaging in counseling to help you live more mindfully? Do you have questions? Contact Tim.