While college may be ubiquitously portrayed as the best 4 years of one’s life, the truth (as I’ve hopefully made abundantly clear throughout this column), is that college is a really big transition—one that isn’t quite the completely carefree experience everybody makes it out to be. In fact, framing it that way produces a lot of social and psychological pressure that can actually produce many new, challenging emotions.
Maybe we perpetuate this myth because we want to buy into it, because it’s easier than acknowledging a more complex reality. Whatever the reason, though, the result is that few college grads are really honest about the challenges of the experience and rising freshmen, therefore, are often unprepared before they’re thrown into the thick of it. But not to fear: While there are plenty of things that may trigger emotional challenges, there are solutions and coping mechanisms, too.
Trigger #1: Stress
This may be the most obvious mental strain on college students, but it’s worth discussing because it’s still the most universal and consistent. Students of all ages bump up against stress on a pretty much continuous basis and, sadly, it seems that few ever really develop an effective strategy for dealing with it. Many (if not most) just accept it as a permanent aspect of life and let it slowly erode their wellbeing. Super healthy.
Solution: Although you probably can’t eliminate stress from your life, you can put effort into developing certain skills that can make a world of difference in terms of how you manage it. Time management is especially essential: Try scheduling out everything you have to do in a given week so that it feels more manageable. Force yourself to carve out time devoted to self-care—to doing something just for you. Doing so will make a world of difference in terms of making you feel taken care of and prepared to face new challenges. Get to know your own work patterns and don’t give into the social construct of stress culture (what others do or claim to do to get their work done) and focus on what you need to do to get what your work done.
Trigger #2: Social Pressure
So many rising freshmen are under the impression that they’ll show up at school and good time on good time will fall into their lap. The truth is there’s an art to having a healthy and well-rounded social life in college, and yet there remains this overarching ideal of college socializing that generates a weird pressure to have a ton of friends, to party all of the time, and more and more frequently to document that fun.
Social media has a uniquely deleterious effect on everybody’s social life (no matter what they say). Everybody at some point or another has gone on Facebook and felt like everybody else was having so much more fun than them based on their photos and status updates. FOMO is a real thing for our generation: We’re constantly convinced that there’s something great going on somewhere without us, which is stressful in its own way.
Solution: Remember that this social pressure really is universal, no matter how anybody else comes off or how social she claims to be. Nobody can have a super awesome fantastic time always, and everybody falls claim to FOMO at some point or another. Just try to focus on doing things that you think are fun and surrounding yourself with people who share those interests. Seriously, if partying isn’t your thing, you’re not going to have a good time with a group that wants to go out every night. On some level, you have to ask yourself why you feel like you need to go along with social conventions that don’t interest you or aren’t fun for you. Also, don’t be afraid to say no. There is no reason to try to be everywhere at once and at some point it’ll stop being fun and will just seem like another series of obligatory commitments. Life (and the college experience itself) is way too short to engage in things you think you’re supposed to. Do what you want to do and screw the rest. You’ll be a lot happier for it.
Trigger #3: Constant change
One aspect of college that I was barely aware of before I was thrown into the thick of things is the fact that you have to deal with change constantly. It comes in all forms: from the more concrete—the fact that classes change every semester, that you’ll likely switch where you live every year—to the intangible—a high turnover in hook ups, relationships, and even friendships. It’s really easy to feel like the ground beneath your feet is anything but solid. Everybody around you is trying to figure out who they are, emotionally, intellectually, etc. and so are you. It’s a process that necessitates adjustment and experimentation, which can mean that people and certain experiences may virtually disappear from your life relatively soon after they enter it. It’s actually a lot to manage, especially if you’re somebody who doesn’t deal well with change anyway.
Solution: The most salient tip I can possibly give is to try to develop a really solid relationship with yourself. If you work intently on figuring out and knowing on a deeper level who you are, it’ll be easier to handle and accommodate the changes swirling around you. Easier said than done, but you have to start somewhere, right? Also, just being aware that this constant change is a pretty standard part of the college experience helps: Everybody feels like they’ve been swept up into a weird hurricane of constant transition. Once you realize it’s not personal, it usually becomes easier to handle.
But beyond these specific triggers, the bottom line is college is just a lot. It’s super easy to feel overwhelmed for no specific reason at all. If you start to feel like the world is closing in on you (or some lesser degree of that extreme), here are my top tips for keeping your feet on solid ground:
Take care of your physical health: Eating well, exercising, and sleeping are all incredibly important, not just for trying to prevent your body from becoming a decrepit shell of your comparatively robust high school self, but also for ensuring your emotional wellbeing. Also, drink a ton of water. I used to barely drink water at all (because, you know, coffee is a thing that exists) and, intrigued by the many students who carried around and were constantly filling up water bottles, I attempted to drink the designated 64 ounces a day and it changed my life.
I kid you not—most of us are walking around dehydrated and malnourished and yet wonder why we feel crappy. Drink water! Eat real food! Move sometimes! It’s SO EASY and you’ll feel SO GREAT! You’re welcome in advance.
Designate at least a half hour daily for YOU time: College students often divide their time into working or socializing and almost accidentally omit designating time to one of the most restorative things they can do: having some alone time. Seriously, every day do something that is just for you, something that makes you feel whole and personally taken care of. Whether it’s baking yourself some cookies, going for a run, or reading a nonschool book— whatever. Just take time to take care of yourself.
Learn who you are: If you know what you want, what truly makes you happy and do your best to ignore what others think of you and whether or not others are judging you based on your decisions, then you will feel so much better on every plane of your existence. I promise you that.