7 Therapist-Approved Tips for Battling Anxiety

Between classes, extracurricular activities, jobs, and internships—not to mention maintaining a social life—college students have a lot on their plates. While it’s not ideal, feeling stressed out from time to time is an inevitable part of the college experience. If you’re experiencing an excess of anxiety, however, it may begin to negatively affect your day-to-day life. In that case (and in general), it’s a good idea to have a few coping mechanisms in your arsenal. We talked to three mental health experts who gave us the scoop on how to deal with anxiety in college.

1. Develop healthy habits

Now that you are living away from home, it’s even more important 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 such as yoga and meditation, a balanced diet and a consistent sleep schedule are all beneficial habits that will help lessen anxiety. Drinking or smoking pot heavily can make anxiety much worse, as for many, it can make people feel disinhibited or out of control. Dr. Stefanik also suggests avoiding caffeinated drinks, as they too can worsen anxiety. “If problems persist, learn some relaxation techniques—diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or visual imagery,” he says. Whether you’re a college freshman or a senior, taking care of your body and mind now will only make you happier in the long run.

2. Listen to your body

According to Dr. Nancy Stockton, psychologist and director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Indiana University, frequent headaches, stomach aches and poor sleep without any apparent physical cause are all possible signs of chronic anxiety. Worrying incessantly and self-medicating with alcohol or drugs are also indicators that you may be experiencing an anxiety disorder, rather than just a “normal” amount of stress. “Watch for flags that may be a sign of problematic anxiety,” agrees Dr. Stefanik. These signs include persistent sleeplessness, irritability and being fearful in situations that shouldn’t be anxiety provoking. 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, as far as 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 will make your days much less stressful. “Watch out for perfectionism and its converse, procrastination,” says Dr. Stockton. “Both can contribute substantively to anxiety.” Instead, fight anxiety by trying to incorporate structure into each day. “Go to class, study at set hours, 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. “I just have to regroup and do things one at a time,” she says. “Multi-tasking is not a good way to finish things. One time, I looked up the word root for anxiety and it painted the picture of being pulled into two different directions. So, a key would be to focus and do one thing 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. “Often 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 enjoy almost everything she does, no matter how small. Believe it or not, concrete tasks like household chores can be a nice change from abstractions of work. While no one can be positive all the time, looking at your mundane or difficult responsibilities in a more optimistic light can make them less anxiety provoking.

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 cites recent studies, which show that college students experiencing anxiety—the number one most common on-campus complaint—think they are alone in feeling anxious. Well, you’re not! 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,” says Wolf. “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 has struggled with anxiety for many years. “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 have made at 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."

Related: What to Do If Your SO Has Anxiety or Depression

6. Take advantage of resources on your campus

Get to know the resources available at your campus counseling center as soon as possible. It’s better 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. Some offer individual therapy sessions (sometimes with a cap on the number of sessions) and some offer group therapy. Wolf suggests finding out how the counseling center is staffed. Possible questions include: “Will you be seen by a psychiatrist (less likely), a psychologist or a 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? 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 means you’ll know what to do if and when you are experiencing 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 series of them 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 anxious, just not feeling right and can't shake it, go talk with an expert at your college counseling center as soon as you can.” Yes, 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. Mental illness (if you do have a diagnosable illness) can be treated. You can go on to lead a full and successful life with proper treatment. The earlier the treatment, the better the outcome,” says Wolf. Medication can be an excellent supplement to therapy as well. While the recommendations above may be effective in curbing anxiety, if you have a severe diagnosable illness, it may require medication to treat.

 

From situational anxiety to a diagnosed anxiety disorder, stress shows itself in different ways. Whether you’re looking for a way to deal with a big exam, or you think you may need regular counseling, don’t let your anxiety control you. Not every method is right for every person, so try out these tips and find what works best for you.