An Anxious Student’s Guide to College

happy college student graduating with honors and overcoming anxiety

Seven years ago, I almost quit what would become a life-changing experience.

In my first post on this blog, When the Fear Does Not Subside, I describe how I stood in a bathroom stall, professors waiting in another room, wondering if I could do this at all. What I didn’t know then was how many people would later tell me that they had the same experience, that they felt the same way, and that they were encouraged by my story.

Today, I am writing to that girl who didn’t believe in herself but tried anyway. I’m writing to new college students, whether it is their first year of college or their first year at a new school. I am writing to those who thought they were alone in their anxiety.

You are not alone, and many like yourself have completed the journey you are just beginning who are ready to tell you that you can do it. Right now, that may not seem realistic. You may be thinking, like I did, that you should stay home.

I want to give you some of the advice I wish I had when I started college with generalized anxiety disorder after being homeschooled my whole life. My prayer is that this can give you the courage to keep going. But I also pray that you don’t hold onto this alone. I encourage you to seek others who have gone through the same journey. Find a counselor or mentor or pastor or parent who can walk with you and remind you every day that you are resilient and capable and strong.

Here are ten things that I did (or should have done) to not only survive but also thrive in college:

1. Know that everyone is nervous about starting college

We all have fears, though they may look different. Those with generalized anxiety disorder may have a harder time coping with the physical symptoms of their nerves than someone who is experiencing a specific fear or stress point, but they may still share similar thoughts, feelings, and concerns about school. Others may have entirely different reasons for feeling afraid, whether that it is because of social, academic, or other pressures.

The main thing to know is that, while some people are very good at hiding their anxieties or seem like they have everything together, everyone does struggle with something. Remember that whenever you feel like a victim, or like you are the only one who feels this way.

2. Find out why you are nervous

Knowing why you feel anxious is important when you are facing a new challenge.

Some of you already know why you are afraid. You may be nervous about making friends, about living away from home, about passing classes, or about dealing with new responsibilities.

If you don’t know why, or if you can’t quite pinpoint it, you may be experiencing generalized anxiety (though I encourage you to see a counselor to be sure). The tricky thing about generalized anxiety is that it is always seeking a reason to exist. This is what I experience when I feel physically nervous and, wanting to fix it immediately, I try to locate the source of my fear and obliterate it. I may blame it on food, sleepiness, exercise, or practically anything else.

This is important to know because, once you obliterate that source, anxiety will just pop up again. But before thinking this sounds like an endless cycle, it’s actually essential for fighting anxiety. It means that anxiety, not your surroundings, is the problem. Once you know how to cope with the anxiety itself, you can do anything.

For now, it is still helpful to identify some anxiety triggers so that you can be more prepared for them, which is the next step.

3. Be prepared–but be prepared for things to go wrong, too

In another post on travel anxiety, I detail how I prepared for my first plane ride by anticipating some of the things that make me nervous, such as not having healthy food available or not being able to sleep. I also explain how it is perfectly okay to do this. It doesn’t make you weak, just like it doesn’t make a diabetic weak to keep insulin on hand.

Once you know what you are nervous about, you can make a list of things that may help you cope (see my example list in the post linked above). Giving yourself something practical to do to approach your anxiety instantly makes the challenge more doable.

Remember, though, that you are in control of your anxiety, not whatever you do to avoid it. Sometimes, our plans don’t go through, and that’s okay. If we rely purely on our coping mechanisms, then we won’t grow stronger when those things fail. So be prepared, but remember that you are the one in control.

4. Share your fears–and accept help

Bottling my fears was the worst thing I ever did to cope with anxiety. I sometimes told my parents about my fears, but no one else really knew what I went through. This made me feel even more like an outsider and like people would not accept me if they knew. It made me afraid whenever I was with a group of people who didn’t know that I might pass out if someone talked about needles, or that I was only refusing a snack because I was too anxious to eat.

When I learned how to share my anxieties, I was free in more ways than one. It gave me an outlet to voice my fears, which allows me to process them and even verbally counter them. It also allowed me to accept help and advice from others. Sometimes, that meant telling someone I wasn’t ready to carpool. Other times it meant expressing a concern to see what someone else thought about it. Every time, it meant welcoming another person into my life that I could feel safe around.

5. Check if your campus offers free counseling services

When I started college, I was already seeing a counselor, and she was able to help me prepare using specific tools and guidance. Most colleges offer free services, and I highly encourage this. Even if you do not have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, it is wonderful to have someone to talk to who will never shame you or tell you to “get over it.” They are there to support you through whatever struggles you face.

6. Remind yourself why you are there

Facing fears is hardly worth it if you don’t have a reason to do it. For example, I had no interest in facing my fear of riding busses (which was really a fear of not having control) until I went to a school where I had to ride one every day.

The reason why we face fears is not just to get stronger. We do it because we want something more than we’re afraid of it.

Why are you in college? Why does this matter? How is it going to make you a better person? How might it help others?

Not everyone needs to go to college, but if you are there, be sure to remind yourself regularly of your goals and to celebrate those goals and milestones when you reach them.

7. If you need to, give yourself an out

For my first week of classes, my counselor told me something that didn’t make sense to me at all.

“Give yourself permission to skip a class if you need to.”

When she said this, I had barely eaten or slept. But going home that day with permission to take some time to rest gave me the peace of mind that I needed to eat, sleep, and, in the end, take on the next day anyway. I went to all of my classes because I knew I didn’t have to.

Remember that your health is the most important thing right now. Take some of the pressure off and let yourself rest. It’s likely that resting will put you back in the place you need to be to move forward.

8. Let yourself fail–because failure is impossible

Whenever you try something, you have already won.

At the school I went to, there were many events that started off the semester. I decided I would go to a service project. On the way, I hit traffic, got lost, and eventually arrived with my hands glued to the steering wheel. I circled the building several times before getting the courage to go inside. When I did, all I could do was say “hi” to everyone and then leave again.

I used to think of this as a failure, but it was actually a step forward. Because I tried. The next day, I tried again and took a step further. The next day, I was more confident and stepped even further.

Never step away from your challenges feeling weaker than before. You are already stronger than when you started.

9. Remember the big picture and surround yourself with the familiar

When starting something as big as college, it is hard to think about anything else. This can become overwhelming because of all of the change you are experiencing. Remember to do something familiar every now and then. Maybe you start a book or show before your first week and finish it while you’re there. Maybe you listen to the same music or podcast. You could even surround yourself with familiar items in your dorm, like pictures of your family or decorations from your old room.

And remember that this is just a tiny phase in your life. Whatever happens, it will not be forever, and, despite what you may have been told, it will not affect your entire future. Just do the best you can. You may even look back and realize you’ve crossed milestones without even knowing it.

10. Help others

One of the dangerous things about anxiety is that it brings all of your attention to yourself.

Part of remembering the bigger picture is to look out, away from yourself, towards others. Whether you are taking care of a plant, a goldfish, or your roommate, giving time to something other than your own thoughts and needs is one of the most important things you can do. Not only does it take your mind away from your worries, but it gives meaning to life.

Self-care is essential, but it is also essential to pour yourself out after being filled.


3 responses to “An Anxious Student’s Guide to College”

  1. This is so helpful to someone who is starting dual enrolment classes this week. Very calming to hear that some has experienced the same worries as me. Thank you 🙂


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