Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/10/2022
Whether it’s your freshman year or senior year, college is a time of significant change, growth and exploration for many.
Between the academic and life lessons, there are plenty of spaces for expanding your mind on the college campus.
But while these opportunities might present pathways to great things in your future, they also pose unknowns, uncertainty and unanswered questions, and the fear of these things can cause anxiety.
The bad news is that it’s arguably easier to get anxiety in college than at any other time in your life. The good news, though, is that mental health resources are likely nearer in college than they have been or will ever be again.
The question of managing college anxiety, then, is simply one of recognizing the problem and taking action. Let’s start with that first part.
Anxiety disorders are a group of mood disorders, and according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), they are defined by panic, unease, anxiety and other intensely negative feelings of uncertainty.
Anxiety centers on the unknown, which can be everywhere in college, regardless of whether you’re a clueless freshman or a leaving-the-nest senior.
The symptoms of anxiety present in many ways, but can take the form of everything from aches and pains to stomach issues, to irritability and edginess, to insomnia, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, panic and uncontrollable worry.
Anxiety symptoms must be felt somewhat regularly for a period of time — at least six months.
Getting anxiety in college might arguably be part of the American experience, and with more than 30 percent of American adults statistically dealing with anxiety in their adult lives, it’s a distinct possibility yours will come in college.
Anxiety may take several forms, and from generalized anxiety disorder to panic disorder, they’re all a potential risk in college. The medical community isn’t sure what causes anxiety (though a variety of genetic and other factors are on the short list) but one likely source is imbalances of serotonin and other brain chemicals that regulate mood.
As such, anxiety medications can address the symptoms, though there is not currently a cure.
Managing anxiety in college is a unique problem because, well, for many students it's the first time they’ve ever been in charge of their own fate.
We don’t mean that in some existential way — the truth is that for many young adults, college is the first time you’re in control, you choose whether to go to class or not, to leave your dorm room, to stay in bed or to do your homework.
This is a rewarding change in the balance of power, but it also comes with responsibility to yourself and your mental health.
Here are a few things that will help you take care of yourself, and mitigate or prevent anxiety issues in your life:
Whether it’s exercise, mediation, or just some healthy talk with your close friends, finding a way to manage your stress is key to not letting it manage you.
Learning that you get stressed out by upcoming tests is one thing, but seeing that you tend to drink more or overeat is one way to start mitigating the damage done before exam week. A healthy look at your own habits can save you down the road.
In times of stress, those symptoms may crop up. It’s important to be able to recognize your own stress and anxiety symptoms, so that you can get a handle on that temper, or manage your irritability to prevent it from harming any relationships, and making you more worried about new problems.
Once you learn to recognize these feelings of anxiety, you can start to put overwhelming anxiety in its place, and learn how to cope on your own terms. That may mean a pick-up game with friends to blow off some steam, or a quick run to shake out all the anticipatory anxiety before a class presentation.
Extracurricular activities are a great way to face social anxiety. By putting yourself willingly into a stressful situation, you get to do a little exposure therapy while also making some contacts and expanding your comfort with college life.
Employing these tools can help you find a new balance, but if you’re facing a mental health challenge that can’t be managed with exercise, it may be time to seek the help of mental health providers.
So how do you get help with anxiety in college? The answer is surprisingly simple: You ask for it.
Setting aside the social stigma we’ve conferred on therapy and mental illness as a society, it’s actually relatively easy to seek help for mental health conditions on a college campus.
This will most likely look like a trip to an office of mental health services, or speaking with the on-campus healthcare provider for a referral, though depending on where you’re attending, different programs may be run differently.
You can also find help online, such as through the mental health services at hims.
Once you do ask for help, it will likely be given in the form of either therapy, medication or a combination of the two.
Therapy for anxiety is a relatively well-trodden path, especially for those spread thin in pursuit of academic performance. The mental health community knows that anxiety responds generally well when addressed with therapy, and particularly with a popular and effective form of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT.
CBT is a practice in which you and your therapist learn to spot the patterns of anxious thoughts in your daily life and eventually rewire your brain to avoid them. This helps anxious and disordered thinkers begin to retake control of their thoughts and chart a new mental course.
With regards to the question of medication, there’s a fairly substantiated answer. The mental health profession typically considers antidepressants to be the go-to solution for anxiety; these medications offer anti-anxiety benefits on or off label, depending on the type of medication.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs are a popular choice, because they’re generally well tolerated and considered more effective than other options. Generally, these will be the first option, with other medications like selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, or SNRIs, pregabalin and others only used when SSRIs fail.
The truth is that coping with anxiety isn’t an easy task, and that the solution may be more complicated than pills or talking. Lifestyle changes, for instance — exercise, dietary changes and avoiding certain substances — can have a profound impact on your mental health, sometimes when other treatment options fail..
The truth of the matter is that regardless of where you are in your life, there can be predictable and unpredictable sources of anxiety waiting in the wings.
If you're struggling with anxiety or any other mental health disorders, it's time to seek the help of a mental health professional, on or off campus.
Professionals are uniquely trained and experienced to help you with a mental health issue, whether it's affecting your grades, your relationships or your health.
College is a wonderful time for ambition and an adventurous spirit to run wild. Give yourself the education you deserve, and talk to someone about anxiety today, because managing anxiety may be the most valuable thing you learn in college, whether it's two years or four.