Students walking on the North Central College campus.

Anxiety in College Students

Jacob Imm

Dec 04, 2020

How to Reduce Anxiety in College Students

After finishing up your online college application, you might be uncertain about the life you will embark on in the coming semester. College is a challenging time. It involves a huge life transition, getting used to more formidable academic responsibilities and more responsibility, making and dealing with new social groups, and thinking about the future. Every student deals with these challenges differently, and it is common for some to develop problems with anxiety.

We often think of anxiety as a common feeling in our lives that comes and goes without explanation and doesn’t require a lot of extra thought beyond that. For many, though, anxiety is part of a mental health issue that can seriously disrupt their lives.

Generalized anxiety disorder is the overarching term for anxiety about multiple things that becomes too much to control and is bigger than necessary. Generalized anxiety disorder is a mental illness that is part of, or can lead to, other afflictions like panic disorder, major depressive disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder or even an eating disorder.

Larger mental health problems like these don’t happen to everyone, and every mental disorder can be treated. Sometimes anxiety can develop within young adults and be addressed before they start college. But Although, in many instances, the stress of entering or dealing with college can create or uncover a disorder like anxiety.

In any case, anxiety is one of the top challenges of mental health in college students, so finding mental health tips for college students on how to deal with anxiety and other problems is important to know should they become an issue. Read on to get some answers. First, let’s step back and try to find the roots of the problem.

What are the causes of anxiety in college students?

Most parents and guardians sending a nervous child off to college will give a version of the same speech they use before their kids’ first sleepover or trip to camp, and it always includes, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Anxiety essentially flips that script--anxious people often are afraid of the unknown. Not knowing what will happen can make the human mind fill in the gaps. Sometimes they’re manifested as hopes and dreams, and sometimes they end up as things to fear. College frequently causes overwhelming anxiety because it’s so new and different from any life experience before it, and students’ minds are overloaded.

Counseling psychologist Will Meek identifies five primary types of anxiety college students most often feel on Very Well Mind. They cover the whole timeline from the months before college starts and arriving on a college campus to the thick of exams:

  • Anticipatory anxiety
  • Separation anxiety
  • Social anxiety
  • Test anxiety
  • Anxiety over peer pressure

Meek says, “College is a new and exciting milestone, so it's common to have anticipatory anxiety in the weeks before heading off to campus. But anticipatory anxiety can be much more serious … For some, it can be crippling, preventing you from preparing for school appropriately or even making you consider not going to school at all.”

Separation anxiety happens in many situations, and in the case of a college student, it could also be called homesickness. However, that term can be harmful because we think of it as something minor that a person should deal with until it passes. Being homesick after a night or a week away from home is one thing, but if a college student sees many years away in front of them, it can lead to overwhelming anxiety.

In an article for the JED Foundation, licensed clinical social worker Hilary Silver said that during college, “Students experience many firsts, including new lifestyle, friends, roommates, exposure to new cultures and alternate ways of thinking.”

Silver went on to say, “When students head off to college, the familiar people are no longer there to reinforce the identity these students have created for themselves.” As a result, college students may find themselves “disoriented and feel a loss of their sense of self.”  

Separation anxiety can contribute to social anxiety disorder. Entering a new routine without the comfort of relationships that may have started in preschool is daunting. It’s possible that some students may have been in friendships so long they’ve forgotten how they made friends in the first place.

The problem is that making friends is an organic process--it just happens naturally for young children as they spend time together, and their minds aren’t developed enough to be self-conscious. At the ages of 18 to 22, though, college students tend to be much more aware and critical of themselves.

Even if they have no reason to be anxious and have never had trouble making friends before, students with social anxiety disorder can convince themselves that interactions with their peers won’t go well. They may present themselves awkwardly or even shy away from social contact altogether. Self-degradations like “I’m a loser” or “No one likes me” are never true, but an anxious mind can get stuck on those phrases, and it’s hard to stop those loops.

Test anxiety pretty much speaks for itself. Tests aren’t new to any college student, but the tests they take are still different from what they’re accustomed to. They’re more challenging and demanding, but that’s not really what spikes the anxious feelings. It’s everything that surrounds those tests.

College students may convince themselves they “can’t” take tests. Indeed, some minds are not suited to certain kinds of testing, but most anxious test-takers don’t have proof of a learning disorder or a diagnosed pattern of alternative thinking. They are just fixated on the idea that a test will not go well no matter what they do. That can lead to poor study habits or simply being too scared to study at all, and then their failure at exams turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

College students will hear rumors from others about how difficult a certain professor’s exams are. No teacher has ever written an exam hoping every student would fail it--unless they had a very specific lesson to teach about failure itself. But in the minds of emotional students, the challenges of a test can take on a life all their own.

Then there are the stakes. College students may worry unnecessarily about losing scholarships or flunking classes because of one test. If there’s ever a chance that one test is that critical, it’s only because of a long period of struggle that one test can’t fix. In those instances, a professor or advisor will likely spot the problem and address it with the student long before it reaches that point.

You can’t tell an anxious college student that, though, because their fears aren’t based on reality. Their anticipation and worry build up uncontrollably, like a snowball rolling down a mountain. Knowing they’re having trouble in a course and their financial aid depends on keeping their GPA up leads quickly to imagining a failed-test disaster.

Lastly, anxiety over peer pressure usually starts sooner than college for young adults. But, for many people, it ramps up when they are out of their family home and living independently for the first time. Simply put, no professor or resident assistant can watch every student all the time. College kids know this and get excited by the idea of seeing what they can get away with.

Underage drinking, illegal drug use, sexual contact, and even things like vandalism or petty theft are seen as normal parts of college life. College students often do these things specifically because they’re against the rules. The lie behind all of this is as old as college itself: “Everybody does it.” That’s what instigators believe, and it’s what they say or imply to get others to join them.

Anxious college students will see this activity, or get invited to join in, and feel an internal struggle. They know they don’t want to do anything illegal or uncomfortable, but they’re afraid of being an outcast if they don’t follow the crowd. Once that struggle starts, it rarely ends well. Students may give in to pressure and do things they don’t want to, or they may stay away from those who pressure them. While the latter is typically the right decision, it can make anxious students feel lonely and left out. Other students may make fun of those who don’t bow to peer pressure and worsen the situation out of their own personal anxieties.


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How has COVID-19 affected students with anxiety?

The COVID-19 pandemic has added a layer of complication to everything in our lives, and anxiety for college students is no different. Unlike some of the concerns we talked about above, COVID-19 is very real and has genuine consequences. Believe it or not, for anxious people, the potential problems coming from the pandemic are even worse than the truth.

College students are certainly not alone in these feelings. In an article for Amgen’s website, licensed clinical psychologist Janie Jun called COVID a shared trauma, saying, “General stress, anxiety and depression are most common at this moment. These feelings are totally normal, and everyone is experiencing them to some extent.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who just want to talk through their fears about themselves or their family members contracting COVID-19. And of course, many people are struggling with financial stress and anxiety.”

It’s important to understand that anxiety distorts the truth so much and is so personal that no amount of reassurance can stop it. A college can tell students over and over what they’re doing to mitigate the spread of the virus and plans they have in place in case someone catches it. It still won’t be enough to convince an anxious college student they are safe.

Many students have elected not to return to reopened campuses and continue taking classes remotely. Others have taken semesters or years off from college to wait out the effects of COVID. Even those who are back on their college campus may be having trouble knowing they’re around so many other people, and not knowing whether they have the virus or are taking appropriate safety measures.

Because of the effect COVID is having on the American economy, many students are also anxious about their ability to keep paying for college or receiving financial aid. They may not know whether their family can keep or find jobs, whether they might have to take on additional loans or even drop out of school.

These anxieties aren’t likely to get much better until vaccines are widely available, and daily interactions are no longer restricted for the sake of health and safety. While they may be more worrying than the typical sources of anxiety for college students, that is only temporary. An anxious college student will find something to worry about no matter what, but for now, they may be in more danger from their anxiety than ever before.

What are tips for dealing with anxiety?

There is a lot of bad news when it comes to anxiety in college students. Knowing the full scope of the problem is critical to addressing it. Anxiety lives and grows precisely because people are too quick to dismiss it. Once you know better where it comes from for college students, the next step is to identify anxiety symptoms and signs so they can be addressed.

Anxiety is purely mental, but can show itself in physical symptoms. Among the most common are panic attacks. Panic attacks are characterized by overwhelming feelings of dread. A sufferer typically feels serious physical problems like a rapid, pounding heartbeat, dizziness, difficulty breathing, and a general sense they are dying. Unfortunately, these are often the same feelings that accompany heart attacks, strokes, and other breakdowns of the body, and the human mind doesn’t really know the difference.

Panic attacks are extremely difficult to spot until a person actually has one. After a likely trip to the emergency room and a checkup from a medical doctor, it becomes clear that the body is fine, and the panic attack eventually subsides. Once you know you tend to experience panic attacks, you have a better chance to recognize them for what they are.

Sitting or lying down, finding a calm, quiet place and talking out what you're experiencing are all good ways to cope with an attack, but the most important thing is to take slow, deep breaths. The only real physical problem during a panic attack is hyperventilation, which can lead to all the other physical signs and is practically impossible to stop until you realize you’re doing it. There is no way to end a panic attack immediately, so all you can do is ride it out until it’s over and think about lifestyle changes to make them less likely.

Other more troubling issues can include depressive symptoms, like extreme fatigue, body aches, lack of appetite, insomnia, fidgeting, and in extreme cases, mental problems like suicidal thoughts or suicidal ideation. In the case of the last two, it’s critical to contact a hospital or counseling center and set up mental health services as soon as possible. Other things can be dealt with more simply on your own.

The first step is always to accept that a problem is there and take a simple first step to address it. There is a social stigma around mental illness that, unfortunately, prevents many from getting help. It’s important to realize that even if people close to you try to convince you you’re fine or you don’t think your problem is worth the bother, if you want help, ask for it. There’s nothing wrong with doing so, anyone who judges you simply doesn’t understand and isn’t worth your concern, and problems of the mind are just as serious as problems with the body.

The following tips come directly from Chloe Cooper and Rachel Weaver Rivera, counselors in the Dyson Wellness Center at North Central College. You don’t have to feel like you should do everything on the list right away, but using any of these tools is a great start for college students looking for anxiety relief.

  1. Take care of your physical health. This includes getting enough sleep, eating well, drinking water, exercising, relaxing, and attending medical and dental appointments. When we take care of our physical bodies, it impacts our emotional health.
  2. Sleep hygiene. There is a direct relationship between our sleep and how we feel emotionally. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day can help improve our sleep quality. Eliminate screen time while in bed. Limit caffeine, substances, or sugar several hours before your bedtime. Create an environment for optimal sleep, including minimal light, noise, and the right temperature.
  3. Nutrition. Eating healthy takes intentional decision making and planning. Food is fuel, so set aside time to make good choices. Eat two to three balanced meals per day. Try not to eat on the run, but find a relaxing setting to enjoy your food. Eat mindfully. Drink plenty of water.
  4. Manage your negative thoughts. Anxiety is often triggered by worries about the future and negative thoughts about ourselves. It is important to remember that negative thoughts are often influenced by emotion and aren’t always fact.
  5. Practice daily affirmations. One way to combat negative thinking is by practicing affirmations such as “I can handle this” or “I am good enough.” Create your own mantra.
  6. Seek social support. Social support can come in many forms and often has a significant impact on our overall well-being. It is okay to ask for help or emotional support when feeling anxious. Make a plan for regular “check-ins” with friends and loved ones. Create a list of all the people in your life who have your back in different ways--professors, friends and family, people at work, or individuals who share your interests. It is important to remember our network of connections and resources.

    It isn’t always easy to build a social support network, especially if you’re struggling with finding  how to make friends in college during COVID , so joining support groups centered on anxiety or mental health is a great method to find people to talk to who understand what you’re going through.
  7. Identify what is in your control vs. outside of your control. Often, we feel anxious about situations that are completely out of our control. By identifying what we can actually control in a situation and accepting what we cannot, we feel more empowered. Sometimes we think we don’t have choices, but if we look closer, or take a slightly different perspective, we may realize we actually do.
  8. Utilize healthy coping skills. By engaging in activities you enjoy, it will often lead to a shift in how we feel. Coping skills can range in variety from yoga to reading to humor. It is important to know what coping skills are in your toolbox and most effective for you in moments of stress.
  9. Practice gratitude. Research has shown that the daily practice of gratitude can reduce stress and improve mood. It can be helpful to start and end your day with three things you are grateful for. You might consider starting a gratitude journal.
  10. Set boundaries. Give yourself permission to say no. It is important to recognize your own limits and how to communicate them. Boundaries can pertain to mental, emotional, physical, time, and/or financial limitations.
  11. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness helps bring your awareness to the present moment. Anxiety is often future-focused, so practicing the act of being more present can decrease feelings of anxiety. Headspace is a great app to begin this practice.
  12. Practice self-compassion. Being compassionate to yourself when experiencing anxiety can be validating and reduce the shame surrounding feeling anxious. Self-compassion is when you talk to yourself with kindness, patience, and understanding. Never say anything to yourself you wouldn’t say to a friend facing a challenge.
  13. Plan ahead. Last minute scheduling and completing tasks can often lead to feelings of stress. By creating a schedule and routine, you can decrease feelings of uncertainty and improve time management. Use mental strategy tools like setting priorities, creating to-do lists, and following timelines.
  14. Slow down. It is okay to step away from a task and “take a breather.” Breaks are necessary to recharge. It can be helpful to take 15 minutes to go on a walk, focus on your breathing, or listen to some music. Think of it as taking a “brain-break.”
  15. Relax. Practice yoga, meditation, or deep breathing as a way to relax both your mind and body. Tapping into your creativity is also a great way to relax. The old adage is true: “Time flies when you’re having fun.” Activities that get you out of your head, like dancing, drawing, singing, cooking, running, or playing games are ways to reconnect with your inner creative spirit.
  16. Spend time in nature. Research has shown that spending time in nature can improve how we feel. Hiking, going to a forest preserve, or spending time at a park can be healthy outlets for anxiety.
  17. Get moving. Studies have shown that moving your body, whether it is an intense workout, dancing, or low impact walking can decrease feelings of anxiety. Try to incorporate movement into your daily routine, even if it is for only 15 minutes. As a reminder, when we take care of our physical health, it impacts our emotional health.
  18. Unplug. Take technology breaks. Develop awareness of how technology use makes you feel, from comparing yourself to others on social media to playing games to avoid responsibilities. Make intentional choices about how you use technology to connect with others or get work done.

    When it comes to anxiety about COVID in particular, Ken Goodman, a licensed clinical social worker, talks about limiting your access to news and gossip in an article for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA): “All anxiety stems from uncertainty and an active imagination which produces catastrophic thoughts. The media, which is 24/7 Coronavirus and virtually all negative, is the driver of those thoughts. The more anxious you feel, the more you should distance from the media.”
  19. Seek help. If you feel like you are unable to manage your anxiety on your own, schedule an appointment with a therapist or psychologist. It is a sign of strength to seek help. At North Central College, the Dyson Wellness Center provides both physical and mental health support for students. Check out the center’s web page to learn more about their services and additional mental health resources.

This article is written from the perspective of a writer with a passion for these issues who is pointing you toward helpful resources, but not a licensed medical professional. These are guidelines, not professional opinions. Always consult with a doctor, therapist or counselor in cases of anxiety to get the most qualified guidance available.

Good luck, good health, and remember: anxiety is your mental health issue. It’s unique to you, which makes it tough for other people to figure out. But it’s also yours to deal with any way you feel is best. Anxiety is a natural human response to danger that is just turned up too high, so it comes about at the wrong times. You can be glad your mind is always working to help you protect yourself, and find ways to keep that work at an appropriate level. That way, you can spend more time anxiously awaiting the best moments in life.

Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 10 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.