How to Navigate College With an Anxiety Disorder
I am a full-time college student. I also have an anxiety disorder, and have had one for as long as I can remember. This certainly isn’t an uncommon occurrence; a large portion of college students experience mental health issues.
Many people who struggle with mental health issues have done so for a significant portion of their life before college. On the other hand, the young adult years are a common time for mental health issues to first present themselves. Whether these issues are old or new, college is a unique environment. For me, a major part of adjusting to college was learning how to deal with my anxiety issues in this environment, knowing that it would look different from when I was in high school or at home.
As of now, I have completed three semesters of college. There have definitely been many difficult anxiety-related moments. I have had episodes of severe anxiety, complete with symptoms like dizziness and abdominal pain, during four-hour labs I couldn’t escape. I also knew in these moments if I didn’t accurately complete the lab, it could turn into a much bigger ordeal, which only added to the anxiety. On multiple occasions, I have had panic attacks that demolished my energy just hours before a major deadline. As a result, I have turned in a fair number of late and lower quality assignments over my three semesters. These types of incidents have often made me question my worth and potential for the future.
However, over these three semesters, I’ve worked out some ways to better manage my anxiety in the college setting. I won’t pretend there are no longer rough moments, but compared to a year ago, my anxiety issues don’t feel like they’re as much of a barrier to reaching my goals.
I hope I will only continue to find other strategies that work for me in this environment, and I know the strategies I use may need to change over time depending on other factors. I also hope with work and continued treatment, my symptoms themselves will decrease.
I don’t expect the same strategies will work for all college students struggling with mental health issues. Every school is different, mental health conditions vary in symptoms and severity, and everyone has different life circumstances. In many situations, people decide the best choice for them is to take time off from school entirely, and that’s perfectly OK. However, I’d like to share some things that have helped me navigate college with an anxiety disorder so far, in the hopes that it will be helpful to someone else.
1. Contacting my school’s accessibility office.
Though I was already registered with my school’s accessibility office for another reason, I decided to also talk to the staff about my anxiety issues. Somewhat to my surprise, I was offered certain accommodations, both academic and otherwise. The office gave me a letter explaining my accommodations to give to my professors, and I was given the option to include or exclude my diagnoses from this letter. I will say having a note from my doctor and other documentation was critical for this process. If you want to register with your school’s accessibility office, I’d recommend trying to obtain documentation as soon as possible. In addition to being necessary to receive certain accommodations, working with the accessibility office has helped me to communicate better with my professors about my needs without providing too many uncomfortable details.
2. Working when I can.
In many cases, mental health issues can be unpredictable. I don’t fully understand all the factors that trigger my anxiety (though this is something I am working on). I’ve realized that even when I set aside adequate time to complete an assignment, unexpected bouts of anxiety often interfere. Recently I’ve been trying to get extra work done during times that I’m feeling good, even on assignments that aren’t due in the near future. In order to do this, I’ve asked my professors for assignments and readings ahead of time (here’s a big example of where that accommodations letter comes in handy), which most professors have been happy to provide.
3. Talking to an older student who’s been there.
During my second semester, I decided to ask an older friend if she had any friends who might be willing to talk to me about their experiences dealing with mental health issues in college, since I know they are so common. I immediately worried that this was a silly question, but the end result was that I was able to talk to someone with much more experience handling mental health difficulties at my school. I was able to get a lot of invaluable tips specific to my school, and it helped me to feel less alone.
OK, so maybe this one isn’t quite so specific to the college environment, or specific to mental health. However, for me, being in college has made different types of exercise way more accessible, which has been important for my overall well-being. I have access to a variety of facilities and some free classes, which is helping me to find new forms of exercise that make me feel good physically and mentally. I know there are times when mental health issues drain your energy and exercise seems impossible. I’ve definitely had those days myself. But if you’re feeling up to it, I’d recommend taking a look at what types of different exercise options are available to you.
5. Identifying physical places I can go to feel more comfortable.
I know when I’m anxious, being in a room with too many people or too much noise can greatly exacerbate it. That said, sometimes a bit of background noise and being around others can actually help relieve some of my anxiety. It really depends on the circumstances. During my first semester, I spent some time looking for places where I could be alone and have some quiet time, when necessary. I’ve also discovered certain public places where I can feel a little more comfortable when I’m having bad anxiety.
6. Adjusting my ideas of success.
Out of all the items on this list, this one has been the most difficult for me. It will always be a work in progress. I can sometimes be overly self-critical, and it can be really easy to fixate on GPA. I’ve learned a lot in my classes so far, and that’s a big success. I’ve also learned about what environments I work best in, and which ones aren’t as great for me. That’s also an important success, and is invaluable for the future. Some days, even getting through the day is a huge accomplishment. It’s easy to forget that success is contextual and relative.
Just remember that if you are a college student living with a mental health condition, you are not alone. Due to the stigma attached to mental illness, it’s not something that’s frequently discussed. Fortunately, this appears to be slowly changing. Mental illness is much more common than it’s made out to be. Chances are, there are many people around you who are struggling with something similar.
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