WEIGHT OF THE WORLD
The following post was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of the Quarterly.
EVERYONE EXPERIENCES ANXIETY NOW AND THEN—BUT, FOR SOME, IT CAN BE MORE THAN JUST A REGULAR WORRY OR STRESSFUL DAY.
If you ever find yourself unable to shake feelings of nervousness, restlessness or dread for days—even weeks—on end, it may be more than just butterflies in your stomach. Anxiety symptoms vary from person to person and can appear at any age, but according to a recent study in the National College Health Assessment, the sharpest increase in anxiety often occurs during the initial transition to college.
Many factors contribute to heightened anxiety symptoms among college students, ranging from sleep disruption (think: excess caffeine or pulling all-nighters—or both!) to academic pressure to increased social obligations. Regardless of how you land there, you’re not alone—and there are things you can do to manage the symptoms. Consider implementing these practices:
1. CREATE A ROUTINE
Without structure, many college students struggle to maintain healthy eating habits, consistent exercise and a regular sleep schedule. For those suffering from anxiety, even the simplest of tasks can seem helplessly overwhelming. Keeping a routine, however, can help maintain balance and a sense of normalcy. You may not be a morning person and that is OK (hello, snooze button!). But making regular space in your daily schedule for self-care, meals, studying, sleep—rather than just fitting them in when/where you can—will add some much-needed order to what can be one of the most hectic times your life.
2. AVOID AVOIDANCE
One pitfall of anxiety can be the practice of avoidance (e.g. skipping class, not listening to voicemails, putting off discussing important issues with your roommate). Avoiding stressors is only a temporary solution and will make anxiety worse over time. Instead, take small steps toward facing anxiety-provoking situations. If you’re struggling in a class, be proactive and ask the professor for help. If you’ve missed three payments to your credit card company, ask a customer service rep what your options are. Think about what you can do to improve your situation, and then do it. Chances are, the amount of extra anxiety that has built up during avoidance is way worse than reality.
3. FIND A HEALTHY BALANCE
Have you ever vowed to eat less fast food or take up running then found yourself buying a bunch of ingredients for elaborate meals or spending way too much on the perfect running outfit? While these activities will give you a temporary endorphin boost, it’s unlikely they will lead to meeting your long-term heath goals. Taking small strides is a more realistic way to implement healthy habits into your routine. Start with a 15-minute walk, find a fun workout or yoga video on YouTube and follow along, keep some healthy snacks such as nuts or fruit on hand to prevent you from binging Taco Bell for the fifth time this week. Physical health plays a role in mental health, so find what works for you and build on those positive new habits.
4. JUST BREATHE.
It may sound overly simple, but controlled breathing can be incredibly calming. Breathe in for three full seconds, pause and then exhale for three seconds. Deep breathing reduces the body’s chemical response to stress (and even pain!), slows your heart rate, lowers blood pressure and increases energy. Remember to keep breaths slow and gentle, filling your abdomen—not just the chest. Even if you’re in the middle of class or surrounded by people, taking a few deep breaths is a great way to reduce anxiety in the moment and prevent unwise knee-jerk reactions.
5. BE KIND TO YOURSELF.
Our thoughts can dramatically impact how we feel—both physically and mentally. Taking on too many challenges on an ongoing basis—such as huge projects, exams, club meetings, sorority events, work—can push you beyond your ability to cope and manage stress. Be aware of your limitations and don’t be afraid to reprioritize. Recognizing anxiety response behaviors, quieting your inner critic and knowing it’s okay to ask for help can reframe the narrative. When you find yourself in a moment of unrest, panic or burnout, stop and remind yourself you don’t have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. If you’re unable to move forward or find yourself experiencing more severe symptoms of anxiety or depression, remember help is available.