Breaking Down Student Debt Anxiety & How to Manage It

When I arrived at Emerson College in the fall of 2018, I was a bleary-eyed freshman ready and eager to start my college journey. It didn’t matter to me that I signed myself into loads of debt; really, the cost of my education wasn’t even on my mind. I was solely focused on discovering the wonders of college and fostering relationships with new friends and professionals. 

Spring semester snuck up, with relationships fostered and wonders discovered, but I was suddenly no longer blind to my financial ruin from paying for private education. The once-ignored unaffordability of Emerson and life in Boston became my sole focus and the pillar of my anxiety. The thought of acquiring more loans, more interest, and more financial stress put my mind in a frenzy and body covered in hives. 

How could I afford to pay off my loans? How would I get a high-paying job after graduation? The unknown of my future financial status became something my mind couldn’t escape from, and I soon started suffering from student debt anxiety. 

What Is Student Debt Anxiety? 

Feeling anxious and depressed about loans and the uncertainty of your financial future may seem abnormal, but in actuality, these worries are common among college students. In fact, these feelings are called student debt anxiety.

According to Student Loan Planner’s 2019 mental health report, 53% of respondents felt depressed because of their student loans. 90% of respondents also said their student loans made them feel anxious. 

With the tuition of both private and public education on the rise, more students are turning to federal and private loans to afford a degree. No longer can middle class, or even upper-middle class, families afford the six figure prices of higher education. 

“The middle class is slowly disappearing again and more and more people are considered low-income,” Emily Cardona, a junior at Emerson College, says. “But we want to go to college and we don't have thousands of dollars laying around, so we have to get loans.” 

The average undergraduate student loan debt for 2019 was $30,000, an increase of 26% of student borrowing in the last decade, according to U.S. News. In addition, the Federal Reserve also reported in 2018 that two out of 10 student loan borrowers are behind on their replacements. Statistics like these can increase student debt anxiety, as it demonstrates the difficulty of repaying loans post-graduation. 

“In order to receive a good education they make it seem as though you have to pay an arm and a leg, which is not true,” Taylor, a junior at Emerson College says. “I believe [these] pressures such as debt only add to the bigger problem of mental health and make [us] feel trapped.”

Who Does Student Debt Anxiety Impact the Most?

Cardona says low-income and minority students are impacted more by student debt anxiety than middle or upper class white students because of the disparity in income, which leads to the inability to afford higher education and repay student loans. As a low-income white Latina, she took out loans because it was her only option to afford school. 

“I think debt anxiety affects low-income students the most because if they can't pay for it, then their parents definitely can't pay the loans off,” Cardona says. “When you're a low-income college student, you are on your own when it comes to money. You can't expect your parents to help you out, because you are going to college to help your family to get out of the poverty cycle.” 

Taylor is also a low-income student who struggles with student debt anxiety. At the end of her junior year, Taylor says she expects to be $96,000 in debt — something that causes her constant stress. While her and her mom have a plan to split the repayment in half, Taylor believes she’ll struggle to find a job in journalism post-graduation that would comfortably cover repayment. 

“It is hard to find a job right out of college and especially in a lower paying job such as journalism,” Taylor says. “That is what makes me anxious to think about. I was diagnosed with anxiety in junior year of high school, and money is a huge trigger for me.” 

How to Manage Student Debt Anxiety

Most colleges offer free or low-cost therapy for students, which can help alleviate student debt anxiety, but Cardona thinks colleges are not doing enough to acknowledge and solve this problem. 

“I don't think there is a lot of awareness of these anxieties because [Emerson College] is filled with financially stable and wealthy people,” she says. “They gloss over low-income students because there are only a few of us. I'm surrounded by people who wear Gucci and who have parents who are doctors, lawyers and movie directors.”

To help cope with these feelings of anxiety, Taylor recommends identifying your triggers and talking to your peers about your feelings. Anxiety is a continuous battle that you shouldn’t face alone, and coping skills are one of the key solutions to managing it.

According to Heathline, there are multiple coping strategies for anxiety. When feeling anxious about student loans, try taking a 15 minute walk or writing down your thoughts in a journal. Reach out to your school’s financial advisor and learn about the different repayment options. You may not be able to “cure” your anxiousness, but there are multiple ways to manage it. 

Until private and public education becomes affordable to everyone, college students will continue to experience student debt anxiety. However, finding strategies – such as utilizing your college’s therapy center, your friends, or even a crisis text line – can make your loan anxieties a little more bearable. 

The reality is college is expensive and sometimes it means taking out a loan that amounts to a house to afford getting a degree. And, yes, it’s okay to feel anxious from that. But, identifying your triggers and finding solutions is the first step to take to managing your anxiety. Try to start now.