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Articles / Applying to College / Report: Majority of US College Students Felt "Overwhelming" Anxiety in Past Year

Report: Majority of US College Students Felt "Overwhelming" Anxiety in Past Year

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Jan. 21, 2020
Report: Majority of US College Students Felt "Overwhelming" Anxiety in Past Year

M.T. ElGassier/Unsplash

High schoolers often misunderstand and distortedly anticipate what the college lifestyle is like. One tendency is to overly romanticize what it's like to be a college student. Thoughts of stimulating, late-night dorm bull sessions, raucous football games, rousing parties, meeting all kinds of new people, and, of course, the exhilarating freedom of being away from home and the associated curfews paint a seductive scenario.

Yes, all these enticing events do happen on campus, but often overlooked in these pre-college fantasies are the relentless pressures of academics, possible conflicts with roommates (and even professors), the stress of being a collegiate athlete, possible illness, financial woes, and issues carrying over from home. There are other possible negatives, too. I've mentioned just a few obvious ones.

Any one of these factors can result in some level of anxiety. Multiple factors working together can cause acute anxiety and make college life an extremely challenging time. New information from Harvard Medical School, Anxiety in college: What we know and how to cope, discusses this important reality and offers some ways to deal with it. Here are some highlights:

What Do We Know About Anxiety in College?

It's common. Anxiety in college is very common. According to the American College Health Association Fall 2018 National College Health Assessment, 63 percent of college students in the US felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year. In the same survey, 23 percent reported being diagnosed or treated by a mental health professional for anxiety in the past year.

The sharpest increase in anxiety occurs during the initial transition to college. A recent study demonstrated that psychological distress among college students — that is, their levels of anxiety, depression, and stress — rises steadily during the first semester of college and remains elevated throughout the second semester. This suggests that the first year of college is an especially high-risk time for the onset or worsening of anxiety.

I can speak from my personal experience. In my first year of college, I was a varsity athlete (tennis) and was under significant stress to deal with long practice sessions during the off-season (fall through winter) and then with missed classes due to match travel during the spring competitive season.

On top of this, it seemed as though each of my professors imagined that his or her course was the only one I was taking. This resulted in what seemed to be an enormous amount of work every night of the week, especially weekends. Being the obsessive personality that I am, I felt compelled to do all my assignments and research to the best of my ability, which, combined with the pressures of my tennis commitments, left me with little time to realize the "fantasy of college" I had so eagerly imagined and looked forward to in high school.

My anxiety was such that even when I wasn't studying or practicing and out with friends or just trying to relax in the dorm lounge with friends, I felt nervous about "wasting" time that could be better spent on academics. Thus, I can strongly identify with those 63 percent of college students mentioned above who feel overwhelming anxiety. It's a serious syndrome.

More Than One Factor Involved With College Anxiety

Anxiety among college students has multiple causes, the report found.

Many factors contribute to the heightened risk for anxiety among college students. For example, sleep disruption caused by drinking excess caffeine and pulling all-nighters is associated with increased anxiety among college students. Loneliness also predicts mental health problems, including anxiety. Academic factors like school stress and disengagement from studies are also associated with psychological distress among college students ... Whether you're a student, a parent, or an administrator, our tips on coping with anxiety in college may help. Even if you haven't yet started college, it can be useful to think ahead.

Students: Approach, don't avoid. College is challenging and many students cope by avoiding stressors (skipping class, staying in bed all day). However, we know that avoidance tends to make anxiety worse over time. Instead, practice taking small steps to approach anxiety-provoking situations. If you're struggling in a class, try emailing the professor for help. If you're feeling lonely, try introducing yourself to someone in the dining hall. Not at college yet? Practice this skill by participating in pre-college programs on campus.

I dealt with anxiety in my typical structured fashion. I made a schedule that accounted for the hours in each day during both semesters of my freshman year, allocating specific times for academics, tennis, social activities, and -- yes -- sleep! I also had to squeeze in meals and letter writing (no internet back in the mid-Sixties!). This schedule, carried around in my pocket on a piece of paper, not a phone, became my lifeboat in the sea of anxiety. It pays to be obsessive!

Practice self-care. Many students struggle to maintain healthy eating habits, consistent exercise, and regular sleep without the structure of home. But self-care behaviors like these are extremely important for regulating mood and helping people cope with stress. Try to establish your own self-care routine — preferably before you even start college. Good sleep hygiene is key. Set a consistent bedtime and wake-up time each day. Avoid using your bed for activities other than sleep, like studying. Limit caffeine in the evening and limit alcohol altogether, as it interferes with restful sleep.

I never had a problem with caffeine or alcohol my freshman year (don't ask me about my Navy days!) because I didn't drink coffee, cola or booze. When I needed an energy kick, I'd grab some chocolate, but that's it. My dull student behavior profile would not have won me a successful casting call for Animal House. That's more than I can say for some of my dorm buddies and team members.

Find resources on campus. Many colleges offer resources to help students navigate the initial transition to campus and cope with stress. Investigate campus resources for academic advising, study support, peer counseling, and student mental health. If you've been diagnosed with a mental health issue, such as an anxiety disorder, you may also want to find a mental health provider near campus. If you struggle with anxiety and you'll be starting college next year, you may find it helps to establish a relationship with a therapist beforehand.

These resources are far more prevalent today, thankfully, than they were back in my day. The suicide situation among today's college students is frightening:

Approximately 1100 college students commit suicide each year, making it the second-leading cause of death among college students. Roughly 12 percent of college students report the occurrence of suicide ideation during their four years in school, with 2.6 percent reporting persistent suicide ideation ...

Thus, I encourage college students to take advantage of the mental health resources available on campus. There's no shame in asking for help.

For parents: You can help your child navigate the transition to college by supporting them in trying the tips described above. For example, you might ask your child about their worries for college and help them brainstorm an approach plan. You can also assist in researching campus resources and finding local mental health providers.

Parents helping their collegians find on-campus help may be the most important thing they can do for them other than applying one-on-one loving counsel. College students many times either can't see the forest for the trees when it comes to seeking help or they're just too busy, depressed or anxious to make inquiries. This is where parents can provide rescue and relief.

Unfortunately, anxiety is part of college life. If you're a high school senior heading to college this fall, be aware of that and be sensitive to any warning signs once on campus. If you're a current college student and feeling even the slightest but of anxiety, follow the suggestions above to deal with it and, most of all, don't hesitate to seek help on campus. There are solutions. Take advantage of them.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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