Dealing with Anxiety My First Semester of College and What I Learned

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Before I started college, I repeated that cliché phrase, “college is the best four years of your life”, in my mind almost every day over the summer to get myself excited for school. I had a grand vision of what I thought college would be, and I thought I was totally prepared for any challenges that would cross my path. I deemed myself ready. When college started, however, I got a bit of a rude awakening. I was prepared for the academic stress I would face, but I was unprepared for the emotional stress that I endured throughout my first semester. People always tell you “not to follow the crowd” and “just be yourself” so that everything falls into place. I thought I knew who I was, but as the first semester proved, I had some soul-searching to do. 

There are different kinds of anxiety, and they all affect different people in different ways. It's something that is so common among college students, yet it somehow makes you feel so utterly alone. I certainly had never been the type of person to talk about my anxiety. I tended to keep my thoughts to myself and push them to the back of mind until they went away, and usually, that worked. However, when college came, everything was new, and with new experiences accompanies new reasons to stress. College is stressful in so many different ways. Everyone is trying to make friends, make sure they do well in their classes, join enough clubs and organizations to make sure they feel involved, etc. All the while, you’re forced on your own into a completely new reality. All of the comfort that you once had from home is left behind and you’re left to fend for yourself in a world full of people who all want the same thing as you: success. Having always been a perfectionist, this idea consumed me and pushed me beyond my emotional limits. Basically, I felt trapped.

Photo courtesy of Vladislav Muslakov

I began to push people away from me. I tried too hard to always be perfect, to constantly keep myself busy so I wouldn’t have to deal with the underlying issues at hand. As a consequence of that, I lashed out anytime that my anxiety came to surface. I didn’t know how deal with my problems because I never had felt such an overwhelming sense of fear. I felt as though everything I was doing wasn’t good enough. My grades, my relationships, the way I looked… nothing met the expectations that I had set for myself in my head. I was so disappointed with myself, and I had a hard time seeing the good in anything I was doing because I wanted to be more. However, through all of that, I did learn something valuable.

I am not alone.

While at times I did feel lonely, I was certainly not alone. A lot of people go through struggles with anxiety, and in college, those struggles are heightened. However, I found comfort in talking to others, whether it be adults or people my age, and I slowly but surely began to feel less isolated. Through all of the stress that the first semester college brought me, I gained a better sense of myself and I have found ways to cope when my anxiety becomes overwhelming. Here are some little lessons I’ve taught myself that help relieve anxiety, and I hope will help others as well:

1. Do what make YOU happy, and stop worrying about others.

Cliché as it sounds, it is so important in life to do the things that make you happy. Don’t feel as though, because you’re starting college, you have to join 10 different organizations and make 137 friends and make sure you’re going out every night of every weekend and make sure you get all A's and don't gain "the freshman 15" and blah blah blah. The list of expectations that college students are meant to reach is extremely daunting. A lot of college students feel so much pressure to be “perfect” all the time, and that certainly includes me; however, nobody’s perfect. I thought that people would only want to be friends with me if I appeared to have a lot of friends, went out all the time, etc. Basically, I didn’t want people to think that I was boring. That mentality led me toward people who were temporary friends; people who didn’t have my best interests at heart… people who, ultimately, cared about nothing more than to be just like “everyone else”. My priorities were mixed up because I didn’t have the right intentions. Now that I have fully learned how to love who I am, I have made friends that love and support me. Once you stop worrying about what other people think of you, life becomes easier. This is obviously easier said than done, but it doesn’t have to happen overnight. It’s something that takes time and gradual acceptance. And, here’s a little tip: no one in college gives a crap about what you’re wearing, or who you’re hanging out with, or whatever it may be that you think people are judging you for. As long as you’re a decent person, people will like you and you’ll find the people with whom you were meant to be friends. In addition, if there are people who are judgmental and ridicule you, that says a lot more about them than it does about you.

2. Practice Wellness

What makes you feel good? Healthy? Calm? Whatever came to your mind, do more of those things (as long as it’s not something self-destructive.) If doing yoga makes you feel good, go to more yoga classes! Making a conscious effort to better yourself will make you feel more productive, and in turn, will lead to success. Even the smallest things can make you feel better, like making your bed or writing things down in a planner. If you do things that make you feel happy and healthy, you will start to become happier overall. With that being said, everyone has days where they feel a little bit lazy or what have you, but try to make sure that those days are few and far between. By commonly practicing little habits that lead to wellness not only physically, but mentally, you are helping yourself more than you realize.

Photo courtesy of Dominik Wycislo 

3. Take your stress and pretend it’s a challenge you’re taking on.

Instead of being fearful of your stress and your workload, try to accept it and conquer it. Look at it as not an impossible obstacle, but as a puzzle that can be solved. While, yes, being stressed does suck (for lack of a better word) it also prompts us to work harder. Instead of seeing your stress and anxiety as a burden that you can’t shake off your shoulders, try to see it as something you are able to overcome with effort. It’ll help you to feel more productive and, hopefully, you’ll feel more confident when you have some sort of obstacle to rise above. Thinking of my stress as more of a challenge than an impossible feat has helped me feel motivated rather than defeated.

4. “Fake it ’til you make it.”

It is so easy to get overwhelmed by all of stress that college brings. When that happens, we want to crawl into bed, eat Oreos, and watch Netflix until our troubles bury deep into the abyss of our brain. This, however, is extremely counterproductive because, by dealing with stress through “relaxation,” most of the things that are probably causing your stress are not being solved. Even if it’s really, really hard to get out of bed and pretend like you have your life together, try your absolute best to do it anyway. There were days during the first semester where I felt so utterly overwhelmed with schoolwork, co-curricular activities, and other things that I felt unmotivated because of all of the anxiety I had about the day that I would have to face. I’ve found, though, that when I forced myself to get out of bed and fake my confidence, I gradually became more confident in myself as the day progressed because I was proud of myself for facing the day despite my mental state. It made me feel good to accomplish my tasks, and in turn, it lessened my anxiety.

Photo courtesy of Steve Harvey 

Dealing with anxiety is a challenge, and there is no certain method that works for everyone. Ultimately, you have to find out what works for you. It’s true that college is stressful, yes, but you have the freedom and the power to choose what you do, who your friends are… you basically have the freedom to choose to do whatever you want, whenever you want. So, instead of choosing to let my anxiety consume me for another semester, I decided to take the reigns and not let my anxiety control my life, and I hope that anyone else struggling with anxiety gains the courage to do the same.

Cover image from Green Chameleon