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 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:
- 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.
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 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 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
- Racing pulse
- 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 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.