According to a study cited by Harvard University, 63% of college students struggle with some kind of anxiety disorder. That’s a staggering number. It’s no wonder; college is a very stressful time. There’s a lot of pressure, expectations are high, and deadlines abound. The important thing to remember is that if you are struggling with anxiety, you are not alone.
Anxiety is a big part of my life. It made my first semester of college extremely difficult, and took a huge toll on me. Since then, I have overcome a lot of the effects of anxiety by utilizing a few different strategies, enough to graduate with an associate’s degree (and I’m continuing on to my bachelor’s!). I know what a terrible thing it is to have the cloud of anxiety and depression over your head every day as you try to navigate the high-pressure world of college.
Disclosure: I am not a doctor, nor a mental health professional. These strategies are a relation of my own personal experience and are not a substitute for medical advice.
One thing to help that’s recommended by Harvard is to set a routine for yourself. Maintaining healthy eating habits, setting a strict bedtime, and getting regular exercise are not only a form of self-care, but can help ease general anxiety as well.
In learning to handle my own anxiety, I’ve come across a few different options that have all helped me at one point or another when it all got to be too much. If you’re finding yourself in the same place, confused and worried and unsure how to cope, give one or more of these 5 strategies a try. Remember that not every strategy will work for everyone, and it’s okay to keep trying.
1: Talk to someone about your anxiety
This is the #1 strategy and the one you should try first. If you don’t have a psychologist, counselor, or therapist already, I highly recommend finding one. They are incredible at helping you navigate through your anxiety. There can be a stigma with seeing a therapist, but it’s important to remember that there doesn’t have to be anything “wrong” with you in order to talk with a professional, and you don’t have to tell anyone else if it really bothers you. They are there for a reason – to help you!
Many college campuses have counselors on site, either separate or within the health clinic, as a resource for students. They are often free and are great because they work with students every day and may be able to recommend specific strategies that they have seen work for other students.
If seeing a counselor or therapist in person isn’t an option, there are online counseling services available. If one isn’t a good fit, you can always try another.
2: Try deep breathing and grounding exercises
If you’re finding yourself in the middle of a bout of anxiety, there are breathing exercises you can do to help yourself calm down. You may have to try a few but they have been known to help in a pinch. They work best before tests, presentations, or even just a class or situation you know is going to be stressful.
One exercise is the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold it for 7 seconds, and breathe out for 8 seconds. Repeat as many times as necessary. This deliberately slows down your breathing and helps take your brain from fight-or-flight to a more controlled response. Even if you aren’t doing the time exactly, just focusing on your breathing can help calm you down.
Another technique you can try is for grounding yourself. If you feel like you are overwhelmed and losing control of your surroundings, it can help to center you. Find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 4 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
These kinds of exercises can bring your brain’s focus to what is actually going on, rather than the anxiety you’re feeling.
3: Find a natural supplement or essential oil for anxiety
They aren’t for everyone and there isn’t much scientific research behind essential oils or other natural supplements, but many people do find that they help. Oils can be diffused, but aren’t safe around pets and are difficult for those with breathing problems. An easier solution may be to get a bracelet and a couple of roll-on oil blends if that calls to you. If you’re really going to use them, make sure to read up on essential oil safety and remember do not use them around pets. Lavender, roman chamomile, and frankincense are all essential oils commonly cited as helpful for anxiety.
I have personally used this passionflower extract when my anxiety becomes acute. It’s a little bitter, but can be added to juice, tea, or even water to dilute it. It can be used over time but I only take it when my anxiety becomes overwhelming, at it helps calm me down a lot. Of course, this is only my experience and you should always consult a doctor before trying any supplements.
4: Keep a gratitude journal
If you are always worried that something can go wrong, it helps to remember what is going right for you. Many people tout keeping a gratitude journal as “the way to rewire your brain to be happy”. This might not quite be true, but it can get you thinking more positively.
Find a small notebook (or a big one) that you really like. Maybe it’s a small leather-bound sketchbook, or a spiral wide-rule with glitter all over the cover. Maybe it’s just a file on your computer. Grab a pen you love to write with (I suggest markers) and list all the things that are going right, things that you enjoy, things that make you happy. It can be a way to go back and see the things that are positive. You can even make it a habit, as part of your routine. I have a gratitude section in my planner that I come back to every time I need it, and it can help put things into perspective.
5: Get active
When you’re feeling anxious, the last thing you likely want to do is get outside and run, but science says it can help. Exercising for at least 30 minutes a day is recommended for all adults, and vigorous exercise releases serotonin, a brain chemical that can boost happiness and confidence. I always find that after a round of kickboxing, I am happier, more positive, and ready to take on tasks.
If cardio isn’t your thing, try yoga, which puts a focus on mindfulness and breathing that can help keep you calm. I very much enjoy yoga, and try to take classes when I can, but it can also be done at home! I find myself coming back to this selection of poses, which can be done by (or modified to) any skill level to help you relax.
These 5 strategies can help you in managing the anxiety that comes with being a student. I strongly recommend that if your anxiety becomes overwhelming or debilitating, you speak with a medical professional as soon as possible. If you are in crisis or thinking about hurting yourself, helplines can provide free and confidential support.