Going to college is a big change that generally involves a brand new environment in an unfamiliar city. In general, making a big move involves figuring out living accommodations, new roommates, scheduling demands, and independence. For some the transition is overwhelming and can result in avoidance, missing classes, staying in one’s dorm, an increase in alcohol use, panic attacks, an inconsistent sleep schedule, and erratic eating habits.
Here are a few tips to help college students make the transition.
- Make sure you are familiar with the campus. Try to find out the location of everything before you go to your first class. Find your classrooms, know how long it takes to get to different buildings, and if you can, spend a little bit of time in the buildings before your first classes. Unfamiliar situations cause more stress than familiar situations, and getting lost in new crowds in unfamiliar territory can be cause for anxiety. Don’t assume that you will just figure it all out when you get there.
- If you are a student who has struggled with depression or anxiety in the past, try to find the college counseling centering and see if you can set up a “check-in” session a week or two after school starts. Not having any plans to ask or get help can make everything worse. Identify your stressors and know what situations will make you likely get into a crisis. If you know any of the college counseling staff, it will be easier to reach out to them when you need them. Counseling centers can help with stress, overwhelm, demanding schedules, irritating roommates, and organization. They usually have an agenda to service as many students as they can accommodate in a given school year.
- Try to initiate social connections as much as possible. The more people you know personally, the less stressful it will be to go to class. Try finding people who are by themselves or alone. Consider starting conversations that invite people to talk about their stress: “Are you as overwhelmed by this as I am? Are you feeling a bit lost? Because this whole college transition is a lot to take in.” Sometimes it feels good just to be able to acknowledge stress with someone else, even if you think the stress seems small or insignificant. Try to find things that you relate to and that are similar to you. Ask other students how they found and chose this college, if they’ve thought about a major, if it was hard for them to leave home, how they are finding their way around campus, what would make their college experience a positive experience, and what they are doing to help them deal with the transition. They may have some good ideas for you.
- If you are overwhelmed by your classes and have the urge not to go, consider all the steps that it takes to get to class. If the first step is getting out of bed and brushing your teeth, do the first step. Getting out of bed and brushing your teeth is not a commitment to attend class. After you brush your teeth see if you can make another small commitment, such as getting your books together or getting dressed. Each small commitment can bring you closer to class. If you actually get all the way to the building and end up skipping class, you will at least have gone through the motions of getting yourself around campus. Moving around on campus dressed for class is better than spending the day in bed avoiding everything. Consider the short and long term cost of what you’d have to tolerate to make it through one class, and assess what you would be willing to do. Going to one class doesn’t mean going to all of them. Go to classes you enjoy and see if you can talk to an advisor about cutting back on classes that are too much. Don’t wait until you are failing. Remember that once you start avoiding one class, it will get easier and easier not to go. Don’t let yourself get into that pattern. Avoiding this problem can increase the stress, whereas admitting it is too much and dropping the class is a more proactive way to accept what is too much for you at this time. It doesn’t mean you are a failure and doesn’t mean you can’t take it another time.
- Plan down time that is not related to school. Because school can be overwhelming, it is important to press the “pause” button by taking “time outs.” This may include a nature walk, a spiritual activity, meditation, exercise, yoga, prayer, a nap. It might also be helpful to plan a time to talk on the phone with parents, friends, or family that know you. Periodic and planned check-ins can provide a sense of stability and relief. College students sometimes underestimate their needs for leisure time and overestimate how much they can accomplish. This inevitably causes stress. Being an adult also means being able to take care of your time and your body.
- Take care of the basics: Are you finding yourself consuming more sugar, alcohol, marijuana, or caffeine? Sometimes college is a time where you test the limits of your body as you no longer have a family time schedule to stay on track. Insufficient sleep, erratic eating, over-dependence on substances, and having too many commitments often contribute to stress. Panic attacks alone might be reduced by attending to your biological limits (eating more consistently, getting more sleep).
- Don’t let panic attacks go untreated, because they are treatable. Panic attacks don’t go away by suppressing emotions, drowning them in alcohol, and ignoring what they may be trying to tell you. Panic attacks are often very intense experiences that include hyperventilating, shaking, racing heart, a feeling that you might pass out or die, and feeling like you can’t breathe. They can be extremely debilitating and scary if you’ve never had one. Often they are a red flag to pay attention to something that is causing you distress- more often than not, something that is easier to ignore. Panic attacks can be hard to explain or understand; don’t be afraid to ask for help. Find out what services are available at the college help center your school and use them.