Are today’s college students more stressed than ever? That’s what some colleges are reporting, according to the Wall Street Journal:
Ohio State has seen a 43% jump in the past five years in the number of students being treated at the university’s counseling center. At the University of Central Florida in Orlando, the increase has been about 12% each year over the past decade. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, demand for counseling-center services has increased by 36% in the last seven years.
Nationwide, 17% of college students were diagnosed with or treated for anxiety problems during the past year, and 13.9% were diagnosed with or treated for depression, according to a spring 2016 survey of 95,761 students by the American College Health Association. That is up from 11.6% for anxiety and 10.7% for depression in the spring 2011 survey. Counseling centers say they are also seeing more serious illnesses, including an uptick in the number of students coming to college with long psychiatric histories.
Of course, there are all sorts of reasons that this can happen. The Journal article points to helicopter parents putting pressure on their kids, the rising cost of tuition, and the impact of social media as some potentially harmful factors.
College can be an incredibly stressful time—regardless of your major, age, or life circumstances. Personally, I started my freshman year blissfully unaware of the stress I could heap on myself by making poor choices—and it took a year or two for me to realize what choices I could have made to improve my college experience.
If I could go back—or help other young, bright-eyed freshmen—here’s what I’d do.
1. Don’t Denigrate the Importance of Sleep
College is a notoriously sleep-deprived time of life for many. I remember the one-upmanship fellow students would engage in, as they would boast of their sleepless nights. “You got three hours of sleep? I haven’t slept in the past 48 hours!”
Some students are worse at this than others. But college can definitely encourage bad sleeping habits. Most of us don’t realize how debilitating exhaustion can be: it’s not just an annoyance. It’s an actual health threat. Consider the following facts from Healthline:
When you’re deprived of sleep, your brain can’t function properly, affecting your cognitive abilities and emotional state. If it continues long enough, it can lower your body’s defenses, putting you at risk of developing chronic illness. The more obvious signs of sleep deprivation are excessive sleepiness, yawning, and irritability. Chronic sleep deprivation can interfere with balance, coordination, and decision-making abilities. You’re at risk falling asleep during the day, even if you fight it. Stimulants like caffeine are not able to override your body’s profound need for sleep.
As a freshman and sophomore, I pulled occasional all-nighters, and regularly got between four and six hours of sleep. This meant I relied on coffee to function and pay attention in class—and was constantly tripping over my own feet, as my balance was impaired. I didn’t see the toll this exhaustion was taking on my mental, emotional, and physical health at the time. But looking back, I can’t believe I tried it. By senior year, I was getting seven to nine hours of sleep every night—and my grades were 100 times better.
2. Eat Healthy and Exercise
It’s not just about avoiding the Freshman 15. Your brain works better when your body is well-nourished and in shape. Burning off excess energy enables you to focus and study better, and it helps you sleep better. Eating healthy, meanwhile, keeps your energy levels up and prevents sluggishness and sickness.
Exercise can also help you combat stress. When we’re stressed, our bodies go into fight or flight mode: they produce adrenaline. But that adrenaline can have deleterious consequences on our body, “producing a weakened immune system and digestive problems, not to mention overworking the heart.”
Exercise enables us to burn off that adrenaline, while also giving us a mood-boost by pumping up the production of endorphins in our brains. It’s a win-win.
I started running my sophomore year, and grew to love it. It gave me 1) the ability to get off-campus and away from people (introverts like that), 2) a great cardio workout that was easy to adjust according to the time available, 3) something I could enjoy with friends if I wanted to, and 4) something that didn’t require a lot of equipment or preparatory work.
If you’re more of a social exerciser, consider doing a workout challenge (like P90X) with a friend who will keep you accountable, or start going to a local yoga or barre class. Whatever you do: make it consistent, and make it fun. That’s the best way to ensure that you’ll cultivate a habit you can continue throughout your time at school.
3. Use Social Media Cautiously
It distracts us constantly. It pulls our attention away from the actual people around us. And it can depress us, as we fight FOMO or experience jealousy. College is an emotionally fraught time. Students are trying to figure out where they fit in, how to join a social group, whether they’re correctly balancing social time with academic studies.
Don’t let social media add another layer of complication. Limit the time you spend online, so that it doesn’t hamper your studies and thus make it even more difficult to spend actual time hanging out with people. If you struggle with feelings of FOMO or depression, consider whether a break from Facebook or Instagram might be salutary. It’s not worth knowing what’s going on with your friends, if that knowledge leaves you feeling anxious and alone. Instead of checking your Facebook feed, text a friend and ask if he or she has time to get coffee with you.
4. Try to Find a Job
As a freshman, I don’t think I understood how easy it would be to get absorbed in the bubble of academics and social life, and to ignore the importance of a steady (albeit meager) income. A college job doesn’t have to be especially lucrative. It doesn’t have to be major-specific. It just needs to be something that keeps a regular amount of money flowing into your bank account. Not only is this financially responsible, it enables you to cultivate skill sets and job experience that will come in handy once you graduate. It will help you pay for important things like deodorant, toothpaste, and the occasional movie ticket. These things help you make and keep friends.
You may not be able to stay debt-free throughout your time at college. But you can regularly put money towards your tuition costs, and thus foster a financial mindfulness that will serve you well post-graduation. This should also help combat some of that worry and anxiety you might feel towards tuition and post-college finances.
5. Focus on Friendships, Not Relationships
It’s not that romantic relationships aren’t good. They definitely are. And you’ve got four years to find the perfect boyfriend or girlfriend. But during your first year at college, everything is brand new and overwhelming. You’ve got tons on your plate as it is, you’re just beginning to find your social footing—and you want to throw a romantic relationship into the mix?
Perhaps part of the reason I believe this is so important is because you’re still discovering who you are at this stage in college. You’ve just started to “spread your wings,” to figure out what you want to do with your life. Freshman year can be an incredible time of discovery and singleness. You can focus on developing your academic and extracurricular interests, building a great group of friends, and figuring out where you fit on campus.
Here’s the honest truth: my freshman-year relationship didn’t last—but the friends I made that year are still some of my best friends. We’ve been through everything together, and I can’t imagine my life without them. We still get together for Friendsgiving, are the godmothers to each other’s children, and are getting together the night “Gilmore Girls” launches on Netflix for the longest marathon ever. They helped, not hurt, my studying habits—while still knowing when to get me away from my books for a spontaneous adventure or prank.
Freshman-year romance, in contrast, can distract you from school, hamper your mental and emotional well-being, and even hurt the friendships you’ve just started forming. It may also be amazing—but consider keeping things friendly for a bit longer, as you figure out the other stressful components of your life.
6. Take Friday Nights Off
We all need an opportunity to recharge and be social. For more extroverted people, this isn’t a problem. But for the more introverted and studious folks (cough cough), it’s sometimes helpful to have a reminder. We all need to put the books down and have fun sometimes. That’s why it can be helpful to designate a specific night as the not-studying night. Sure, you can break the rules for midterms and finals seasons. But in general, enjoy your Friday night.
7. Party Wisely
I promise this isn’t antithetical to the above point. We’ve all heard horrific stories lately of campus rape and sexual assault. And we’re not always careful or thoughtful in how we act when we’re out having fun with our friends. Ladies, this is especially a word of caution to you: take care of yourself. Be wise in what and how you drink, as well as where you hang out. Don’t go to parties by yourself: make sure to bring a loyal and trustworthy friend with you.
By no means take this as a “It’s your fault if you get hurt” sort of argument. There is no excuse for the horrific and unjust actions of the men who’ve assaulted and raped women in the cases we see in the news. However, because we live in a broken world, it’s important that we women exercise prudence and look out for each other. This is just me urging you to stick up for yourself and take care of yourself—just as countless other women looked out for me as a freshman.
8. Learn How to Bribe Yourself
Did your mom ever do this when trying to get you to clean your room? “If you get it clean, I’ll give you a cookie,” she’d say. This is actually a brilliant tactic, and one you can use while studying to great effect.
Finish that paper by 9 p.m., and you can go to the movies with your friends. Write that study guide, and you buy yourself some peanut M&Ms or a latte. Get through your physics homework, and reward yourself by watching some college football. You can also ground yourself from favorite things (dessert, social time, movies, etc.) until you get your work done.
Our parents were smart, guys. We just need to use their evil yet brilliant strategies to succeed.
9. Do Not Join A Study Group
Study groups do not help you study. “Study groups” become social gatherings in which you Do. Not. Study. So if you want to hang out with people, eat pizza, gossip, and discuss politics—join a study group.
If you actually want to study, hang out with one to two other people, or just study by yourself. I guarantee you, it will be more productive.
10. Find a Quiet Space Where You Can Recharge
This is especially important for introverts, but I think all of us really need this space. If you’re sharing a dorm room with other folks, things are liable to get messy, dramatic, and distracting at some point or another. If you are taking enough classes and involved in enough activities, you’re going to get stressed.
You need to find a sanctuary.
Sometimes this might literally be a sanctuary: a quiet church is a great place to find stillness and peace. Other times, it can be an outdoor escape where you can get away from the clamor and exhaustion of campus life. You can go to the golf course, say, or spend some time running on a peaceful trail. Maybe you find the buzz of a coffee shop relaxing and inspiring.
Whatever and wherever your quiet space is, find that still point in your spinning world, and savor it weekly. Make sure you don’t find yourself seeking rest and unable to find it.
Don’t Let Anxiety Ruin Your Time At College
Freshman and sophomore year were tough ones for me. I really wish sometimes I’d used those early years more wisely—studying smart, taking care of my health, making a little extra money. Sometimes, I think the greatest stresses of school are the ones we put on ourselves, by not exercising good judgment in how we coordinate our schedules and social lives. When our inner defenses are weak, we’re more susceptible to the circumstantial stresses and anxieties of life.
Monetary worries, family upheaval, campus drama: these things will come. The question is, are you mentally and physically prepared to deal with them?
You can be. It’s just a matter of discovering how. Don’t wait till junior year to find out.