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How Much Stress is too Much? Managing Anxiety in College

“The best four years of my life.” Around the time when you left for college, there’s probably about a 97 percent chance that someone said these words to you. Sighing wistfully, eyes glazed over with nostalgia, this person reminisced about wild parties and the unrestrained freedom of youth, then cautioned you to cherish each moment before it all passes in the blink of an eye.

College gets a pretty glorified reputation, especially in the minds of those who haven’t written a paper or taken an economics exam in a couple of decades. But let’s be real: college isn’t all toga parties and sunbathing in the quad. You’re living away from home for the first time, managing a packed schedule, and trying to maintain a good GPA as well as a social life. You might even sometimes try to get some sleep. The bottom line? College is a stressful place.

Naturally, everyone will get overwhelmed occasionally. But what happens when the stressing becomes the norm and not the exception?

According to Acad Psychiatry, anxiety disorders affect approximately 11.9 percent of college students and are among the most common mental health problems on college campuses.

A photo of scrabble words assembled to spell \"anxiety\"
uploaded to Pixabay by Wokandapix

What classifies an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety disorder” is a pretty broad term: it refers to generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety disorder, as well as specific phobias.

These disorders cover a wide range of symptoms, but they are all serious disorders stemming from uncontrollable anxiety. Many are often accompanied by panic attacks, an episode of sudden and intense panic coupled with physical symptoms like chest pain and rapid breathing. 

Lindsey, a senior at Wake Forest University, started getting occasional panic attacks in high school. “I’ll start sweating, my heart feels like it’s about to beat out of my chest, and I’ll be breathing really quickly, but it still feels like I can’t get enough air, which is a really scary feeling,” she says. “Sometimes, it’ll almost feel like my throat is closing up.”

A certain amount of anxiety is both normal and necessary. While a select few possess the self-discipline to begin working on a ten-page research paper the night a professor assigns it, the rest of us need the pressure of a looming deadline to get started.

The trick is in knowing where to draw the line between everyday anxiety and a disorder. There’s no formula or test to take, but if anxiety begins to significantly interfere with your life, then it might be time to do something about it.

“If it’s continual and it’s painful and it’s very distressing, that’s one indicator,” says Jon Abramowitz, Ph.D, professor and associate chair of psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill. “If they can’t go to class, or grades are suffering, if it starts to impact school, relationships, or other areas of functioning, then that’s another indication.”

Lizabeth Roemer, Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston and co-author of The Mindful Way Through Anxiety: Break Free From Worry and Reclaim Your Life, says that physical symptoms sometimes accompany anxiety disorders as well. But in most cases, just being aware of how your anxiety is affecting your life is the best way to tell.

“Because anxiety naturally leads people to avoid feared situations, people with anxiety disorders often lead more narrow lives and don’t do things that matter to them to avoid feeling distressed and anxious,” she says.

Anxiety in college

According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, 40 million U.S. adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, and 75 percent of them experience their first episode of anxiety by age 22.

It’s not too difficult to imagine why a college setting could lead to increased anxiety. “This is a time when people are coming into their own,” says Abramowitz. “They’re becoming adults, so responsibilities shift. If a person is teetering on the brink, that increase in responsibility can put them over the edge.”

Women are also at an increased risk; they’re twice as likely to have an anxiety disorder than men.

This is partially due to differences in brain chemistry and higher levels of estrogen, but recent research also shows that women are more sensitive to the hormone that organizes stress responses — making them more prone to all stress-related disorders.

“Often people who experience anxiety judge themselves for the symptoms, seeing them as a sign of being ‘weak’ or imagining that other people don’t also struggle with anxiety,” says Roemer. “This criticism and judgment increases the intensity of the anxiety and can also lead people to isolate, when [actually] social support is an important buffer for a range of psychological difficulties.”

And when anxiety spirals out of control, it can quickly turn into something very serious. Anxiety disorders often go hand-in-hand with other disorders such as depression, substance abuse and eating disorders.

Kelsey, a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, believes that anxiety contributed to her developing anorexia. “I am personally recovering from an eating disorder, and many anxieties occurred during the time I had anorexia,” she says. “I don’t believe many people know that eating disorders can arise from anxiety or that anxiety is a top contributor to eating disorders.”
What to do

If you or someone you know is dealing with an unhealthy amount of anxiety, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible. “Because anxiety is a habit, the longer anxiety goes untreated, the stronger the habit grows so that it can worsen over time,” says Roemer. 

Anxiety is a complicated problem, so the solution won’t be the same for everyone. Treatment options include medications, though most doctors recommend turning to therapy before drugs.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, often available for free through university health centers, helps people with anxiety disorders really understand the cause of their anxiety and how to alter their outlooks to better deal with it.

“For the person who’s afraid of social situations, we help them to gradually confront these situations to learn that they probably don’t need to worry as much as they do,” Abramowitz says.

Anxiety will always be a part of a normal life, but therapy can help people learn to cope in healthy ways and look at anxiety in a new light.

“Having compassion for yourself, rather than criticizing yourself for experiencing anxiety, will help keep the anxiety from escalating,” says Roemer. “It’s our automatic reactions to our anxiety that are likely to make it problematic, rather than the anxiety itself.”

But most importantly, anxiety isn’t just something that’s all in your head. And if anxiety has become a constant part of your life, it doesn’t always have to be.

“These are real problems, but they’re also treatable,” says Abramowitz. “It’s a matter of getting the right kind of help.”

For anyone experiencing anxiety in college, there are many simple things you can do to cut down on stress:

  • Learn yoga or meditation. Relaxation techniques like these can be really helpful in managing day-to-day stress. Grab a couple of friends and try out the yoga class at your student health center for free!
  • Start a journal. Writing can help you sort out your thoughts, and seeing it on paper can help you put it all in perspective. Keep track of what makes you anxious, and focus on what’s really happening and what you can do about it.
  • Keep a detailed planner. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your responsibilities for class and other activities, make sure you keep a detailed and up-to-date record of everything you need to do. Managing your time well will help cut down on stress.
  • Take care of yourself. Staying healthy — both mentally and physically — always starts with eating well, exercising regularly, and getting lots of sleep.
  • Talk to friends. There’s a reason why it feels good to vent to your girlfriends when you’ve had a particularly rough day. Talking through what makes you anxious is one of the best ways to relax.

For more information on anxiety and how to seek help, check with your university’s health center, or visit ADAA, ABCT or NIMH


Laura is a senior (class of 2011) at UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in Journalism and French. She spent two years writing for her campus newspaper and interned at USA Weekend Magazine in D.C. this summer. She is also a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and recently spent a semester studying abroad in the south of France. Besides reading and writing, she loves being outdoors (particularly hiking and backpacking, ideally in the N.C. mountains), traveling, coffee, and attempting to play the guitar and/or ukulele. Her major life goals include learning to salsa dance and swimming with manatees. Though the thought of entering the real world still terrifies her a little bit, she plans to pursue a career in the magazine or publishing industries.