Any major life change can be nerve-wracking and cause stress and anxiety.
Heading off to college is no different.
You have new roommates, shared bathrooms and increased responsibilities across the board. You’re doing your own laundry, cooking your own meals and trying to manage a stacked schedule while maintaining good grades.
Coloring it as a major life change would be an understatement, as many colleges and universities have a larger population than your own hometown.
It can be helpful to develop a routine at the outset.
“A new campus can be extremely daunting,” Hershman said. “Even parking for the first time can be very difficult, if you’re not used to traffic and city parking.”
Easing into the new routine can take some time, but tackling it sooner rather than later will help you in the long run.
“In high school, you got up, you went to class with friends and come home to dinner,” she said.
In college, everything suddenly seems different.
Being prepared with things like parking and class locations—how long does it take to get from one location to another?—can help ease fears of the unknown.
New roommates can also be challenging.
“Set ground rules and boundaries on space and times right away,” she said. “And learn to respect one another too. That way no one’s feelings will be hurt and frustrations will be minimized.”
Shared bathrooms can be scary at first, too.
“Some of my patients have said trying it out at a gym and practicing in that environment ahead of the big move can help,” Hershman said. “Or finding a time to go when it’s less busy and you may have the place to yourself.”
An important point to keep in mind: You’re not alone in this journey.
There are thousands of other new students, and even returning students, who face anxieties from academic demands, social life and more.
Hershman offers other several tips and pointers to help manage the anxiety:
Try things once before the big day comes. Check out your parking situation, walk to each class and figure out where the building is. Find out how long it takes to get from one place to another. This will all ease stress on the first day.
Get a planner
Plan out each day. Think about when you will do homework, when you will do laundry, work, and maintain time for self-care.
Being in school mode all the time will make the full college experience difficult. Take time to talk with family and friends or do something you enjoy. You’ll be refreshed after giving your mind a break from your studies and worries.
Try deep breathing or box breathing. Fully focus on breathing in, holding it and breathing out. This can get your heart rate under control when anxiety creeps up.
Try grounding techniques
Being in a large classroom can be overwhelming. Find three things you see, hear, smell and feel in the room. Bring yourself back into the moment—and realize everyone is in the same situation as you right now.
The night before going to class, visualize what a classroom might look like and what it might feel like ahead of time. Preparing yourself can lower stress and anxiety when it’s time to try something new.
Try progressive muscle relaxation
Find a relaxing space and start from head to toe. Tense each muscle and relax them one by one. Say out loud that you will relax and be calm in the moment.
Limit screen time
When you are constantly on a screen, your body is focused on what’s in front of you instead of what’s going on around you. Take a break from screens throughout the day. When you get home, relax and wind down.
Many colleges are renowned not just for their academic offerings, but for their outdoor environments, too. Picturesque trails and well-manicured courtyards can make for great locations to unwind and gain clarity.
Even a five-minute walk can help you be present in the moment. Take time to go outside. Enjoy nature, listen to the sounds, sights and smells—and fully enjoy your surroundings.
Ask for help
There’s no real true sign or symptom when it comes to anxiety and depression. It looks and feels different for everyone. But there are a few things you can watch for.
When it comes to college-age students, for example, parents may notice their children want to come home more often.
“They may simply be uncomfortable in their new surroundings and looking to be at home, where it’s safe and they know what to expect,” Hershman said.
If you’re not doing things you typically love or you’re isolating yourself, it could be a sign of anxiety or depression. Not connecting with friends and family is another sign.
“If you notice a friend staying home more often and not getting out and being active like they used to, check in with them,” Hershman said. “Chances are they may just be focused on trying to survive and not truly living.”
Reaching out to someone who might need help is always the best bet.
“Showing someone that you care is so important,” she said. “When a person feels supported, it may give them the nudge they need to come out and do something or see someone.”
Don’t be worried about saying the wrong thing when you reach out. Saying something is better than saying nothing.
“Never be ashamed to reach out,” Hershman said.
College students often assume they’re there to accomplish things on their own, so they might feel less inclined to ask for help.
“If you feel overwhelmed, reach out,” Hershman said. “Professors want to see you succeed and office hours are there for a reason.”
You can connect with a university’s counseling center, or simply touch base with family or friends when you need a hand.
Anxiety can cause depression, too. In fact, one typically will lead to the other, Hershman said.
“They go hand in hand,” she said. “You start to overthink things and that’s when you stop doing certain things. Then later you wish you would have, and then you might beat yourself up about it.”
When you start overthinking, you need to challenge your irrational thoughts, she said. Work to look at things realistically.
“Think to yourself, ‘What is the probability of this happening?'” she said. “And many times, you’ll find it’s not realistic. And the worst-case scenario will never happen.”
Hershman said some students may find that depression comes from missing home, or missing specific things from home.
“If it’s a person, take a shirt from that person and make a pillowcase out of it,” she said. “You can then physically feel that person’s clothing—and it will remind you of them.”
She also suggests taking some things from your old home to your new home. You can FaceTime with friends, too, and have virtual video dates if there’s distance between you and them.
“Simply try to keep in contact with those who are important to you, and this can bring you some comfort.”
If things aren’t getting better in time, it may be time to reach out to a professional. Or, if someone else notices these things before you say anything, take that as a cue to action.
“Everybody is different, but you certainly know yourself,” Hershman said.
Most colleges and universities offer a counseling center, which can be a great first step. You can also contact your primary care physician and ask for a referral.
A bonus: Many therapists offer virtual counseling. You can have a session from the comfort of your dorm room, or even while you’re in your parked car.
“You’re not in it alone,” Hershman said. “There are many people who love and support you and want to see you do well.”