Between classes, extracurricular activities, jobs, internships, and trying to maintain a social life, college students have a lot on their plates. Feeling anxious from time to time is an inevitable part of the college experience, but if you’re experiencing excess anxiety, it may begin to negatively impact your day-to-day life. If you’re struggling with anxiety right now, it can help to add a few healthy coping mechanisms to your arsenal. I spoke with three mental health experts who gave us valuable tips for battling anxiety in college — from how to practice healthy habits to structuring your day and beyond.
1. Develop healthy habits
Now that you are living away from home, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself. “Starting college for most students is one of the most exciting — and at the same time terrifying — times in their lives,” says Dr. Roy Stefanik, DO and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University. “Developing good habits to deal with anxiety can be tremendously helpful.”
Regular exercise, talking a walk outdoors, activities like yoga and meditation, maintaining a balanced diet, and keeping a consistent sleep schedule are all habits that can help lessen anxiety. On the other hand, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, lifestyle habits like drinking or smoking can make anxiety much worse, and can often lead to a vicious cycle of self-medicating. Dr. Stefanik suggests avoiding substances, including caffeinated drinks, as they can amplify anxiety symptoms (think: heart racing, nervousness, feeling “on edge”). “If [anxiety] problems persist,” he shares with Her Campus, “learn some relaxation techniques like diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or visual imagery.” Whether you’re a college freshman or a senior, practicing healthy lifestyle habits now will only make you happier in the long run.
2. Listen to your body
According to Dr. Nancy Stockton, a psychologist and former director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Indiana University, frequent headaches, stomach aches and poor sleep without any apparent physical cause can all be possible signs of anxiety. Worrying incessantly and coping with alcohol or drugs are also indicators that you may be experiencing an anxiety disorder, rather than situational stress. “Watch for [red] flags that may be a sign of problematic anxiety,” agrees Dr. Stefanik. These signs may include persistent sleeplessness, irritability and being fearful in situations that aren’t typically anxiety-provoking. Additionally, always listen to your body, because it may be trying to tell you something.
“I was diagnosed with anxiety when I was 15,” says Krystal Douglas, a senior at Georgia State University. “I saw someone who helped me cope with it, without medication. I was taught how to relax and refocus my thoughts when I became overwhelmed with anxiety and started to feel the physical symptoms. Although I still deal with anxiety today, physically and mentally, I manage it a lot better. Remembering to breathe and relax at times when things get hectic and overwhelming keeps me afloat with the high demands of college life.”
3. Incorporate structure into your day
Finding balance among academics, student activities and your social life may seem impossible, but working towards a stable schedule can make your college days far less stressful. “Go to class, study at set hours, and plan a structured fun activity to have something to look forward to,” advises Nancy Wolf, a parent coach, young adult mental health advisor and college planner. “Set aside regular time to listen to music, exercise, write, read or a combination of all of them.”
Christine Burney, a senior at Savannah College of Art and Design, has dealt with a lot of anxiety in her life, and says that adding structure has helped her cope with the demands of college. “One time, I looked up the word root for anxiety and it painted the picture of being pulled into two different directions,” she says. “I realized that multi-tasking isn’t a good way to finish things…now, I just have to regroup and do things one at a time.”
4. Take pleasure in the little things
When anxiety hits, it can be difficult to keep things in perspective. “Silly as it may sound, a key strategy is to remember to breathe,” says Wolf. “When I get anxious, I tense up and almost forget to breathe. Stopping, focusing on the moment — thinking ‘this too shall pass’ — and taking a few deep inhales and exhales calms me down.” Dr. Stockton also tries to intentionally enjoy the activities she takes part in, no matter how small. Believe it or not, even tasks like household chores can be nice distractions from work and help keep your mind active instead of constantly worrying about what’s happening in the future, which can be a key marker of anxiety.
Madelyn Pellegrino, a senior at Emmanuel College, finds that writing in a journal calms her down when she is experiencing anxiety. “It took me a while to really get into it, but physically writing out everything that has happened to me and how I’m feeling really helps me get out my stress and leave [it] on the page,” she says. Whether it’s writing, reading, or simply breathing, sometimes the smallest tasks have the most impact.
5. Have a solid support system
Wolf shares with Her Campus that college students who experience anxiety think they are alone in feeling anxious. If you’re feeling this way, know that you are not alone at all! In fact, you may want to talk to your friends about what you are feeling. Chances are, they have felt similarly and can give you advice on what worked for them. “Share your concerns with peers, with resident advisors, with your parents,” Wolf tells Her Campus. “If you feel you are out of your depth or experiencing more serious symptoms of anxiety, do not hesitate to seek on-campus or off-campus help.”
Madelyn shares with Her Campus that she has struggled with anxiety for many years, but particularly during college. “College can definitely be a time where your anxiety is at its peak,” she says. “I’ve found that having a strong support system really makes a difference. I have so many great friends I’ve made in college who are here for me whenever I need it.”
“For a long time I was afraid to talk to anyone about my anxiety,” says one junior at TCNJ. “But once I opened up to my significant other about it he started helping me through it. Leaning on others for support is nothing to be ashamed of, and I am so glad that I realized that before I let my anxiety consume me.”
6. Take advantage of campus resources
If you’re battling anxiety, take some time to learn about the resources available at your campus counseling center as soon as possible. It can help to be aware of how, when and where you can get help before you or your friends need it. Most colleges have an on-campus counseling center that offers individual therapy sessions (sometimes with a cap on the number of sessions), group therapy, and psychoeducational workshops to help you lead a healthy lifestyle in college. While it may be intimidating to reach out for help, know that there are many options to fit your unique circumstances and needs.
Wolf suggests finding out how the counseling center works, and what type of staff are available to support you. For example, will you be seen by a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker? How do they differ? If meds are needed, can they be provided off campus or do you have to find a psychiatrist in the town or city? Is there an after-hours support number you can call? Is there a peer support network? Does the campus have a student-run chapter of Active Minds or National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) on campus that you can join? Exploring your resources ahead of time can help you feel more confident and empowered when seeking help for anxiety.
Wolf also notes that if you have a diagnosed mental illness such as an anxiety disorder or depression (two common examples), you may be able — if you can present appropriate documentation — to obtain on-campus academic accommodations such as taking an exam in an alternate format, extended test time, pre-arranged class breaks or having a note taker. “Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) all such accommodations must be reasonable,” she says. “So if you have a pre-diagnosed mental illness or develop one in college, do register with your campus’s office of disabilities to discuss appropriate support and accommodations for your particular need.”
7. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
While some situational anxiety — about upcoming exams, general academic pressure, a breakup or roommate drama — may resolve with the passage of time, an anxiety disorder may show itself with warning signs such as sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, a panic attack (or multiple) or intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities and functioning.
“College students cannot and should not attempt to diagnose themselves,” says Wolf. “If you are [feeling] anxious and can’t shake it, talk with an expert at your college counseling center as soon as you can.” And while talking to friends or family can be a beneficial outlet for anxiety, but don’t put off getting professional help. “The sooner you find out what is going on the better,” Wolf tells Her Campus. “Mental illness — if you do have a diagnosable illness — can be treated. The earlier the treatment, the better the outcome,” she says. Know that while it’s not always required, medication (prescribed by a psychiatrist) can be an excellent supplement to therapy as well.
From situational anxiety to diagnosed anxiety disorders, stress and anxiety show themselves in different ways and are quite common for college students. Whether you’re looking for a way to deal with a big exam, would like to see a counselor regularly, or think you could benefit from a bit of extra support, know that there’s no shame in seeking help. Anxiety can be incredibly difficult, but it doesn’t have to control your life, and the above therapist-approved tips can help. Remember, not every method is right for every person, so try out these tips and discover what works best for you.
Dr. Roy Stefanik, DO, Georgetown University
Dr. Nancy Stockton, PhD, Indiana University
Nancy Wolf, Parent Support Coach
Krystal Douglas, Georgia State University
Christine Burney, Savannah College of Art and Design
Madelyn Pellegrino, Emmanuel College
American Psychological Association. (2020). Stress in America 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (2021). “Anxiety or Substance Use Disorders: Which Comes First?”
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. National Institute of Health (2021). Relaxation Techniques: What You Need To Know.