7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started College as Someone With Anxiety
When I told my therapist in the winter of my senior year of high school that I was following through on my plan to go to college halfway across the country, I couldn’t tell whether she was thrilled that I was refusing to let my social anxiety hold me back or terrified that I wasn’t ready to handle it. I was mostly terrified, to the point I became suicidal a few weeks before I was supposed to move because of how stuck I felt. I went between feeling like there was no way I couldn’t go and no way I could go. Thankfully, however, I worked through that stage, packed up my things, hugged my family and my dog goodbye and moved 1500 miles away from the place I’d spent my entire life to attend my dream school.
To my surprise, I made some incredible progress with my social anxiety at school and there were so many moments when I had to stop and marvel at how grateful I was that I ended up coming. There were, however, a lot of difficult times throughout the year. After some serious trial and error, I figured out a few things I feel anyone moving to college with an anxiety disorder should know, because I wish I’d known them before I began.
1. It’s OK to be honest with your professors.
I had to take days off a few times because of my anxiety and I had no idea what to tell my professors at first. I didn’t want them to think I was using anxiety as an excuse to skip their class, but I also couldn’t think of anything else to say that didn’t sound flimsy. To my surprise, every single one of them was extremely understanding when I sent emails explaining that I was struggling with my anxiety and couldn’t attend class that day. They all kindly encouraged me to take care of myself and let them know if I needed anything.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.
I didn’t have any special accommodations to help me with my mental health last year, but I am looking forward to the next one because I reached out to disability resources to get some assistance, such as a single room instead of sharing with a roommate. It’s not an accommodation that’s absolutely necessary for me to function, but they understood it would make so many things in my life easier and were happy to help.
3. Utilize on-campus counseling, if provided.
Most colleges have counselors as a part of their health services, and it’s great to be able to see someone right on campus when you need to — and at most schools, the cost is included in your tuition.
4. Being honest with your friends lessens anxiety in the long run.
At first, I tried to hide my anxiety from my friends, as I’d done with most people in my life before moving to college. After about a month, the truth slipped out while a friend was asking me to join them at a football game. “I have problems with social anxiety and crowds like that are hard for me,” I said. To my amazement that was that. “Oh OK, I understand,” my friend said. “Do you want to meet us for dinner after or are you staying in tonight?”
My other friends have also accepted and understood whenever I’ve explained something is difficult for me because of my anxiety and having them support me when I struggle with something has made facing anxiety-inducing situations much easier. It took a huge weight off my chest when I wasn’t worried about feeling anxious and hiding it from the people around me.
5. Remember you can’t succeed in school without being mentally healthy.
If you have a big paper due and feel like you’re on the verge of an anxiety attack, take a step back and do what you need to do to calm yourself before tackling the assignment — it will come out better even if it takes a little longer to get done. Take a mental health day if going to class is too much and it’s a day you can skip. Set aside time for self-care during busy weeks. Your grades will thank you.
6. Don’t feel pressured to put yourself in anxiety-inducing situations.
College is often viewed as a time not just to learn, but I believe it’s also a time to let loose and go a little wild. As someone with social anxiety, there was a ton of stress accompanying the idea that I’d be expected to socialize more than I wanted to or — God forbid — party. Some social situations were unavoidable and some weren’t. Some of the avoidable ones I put myself into anyway, because I wanted to or because I knew it would be good for me. But I also knew my limits, and while I definitely stepped out of my comfort zone a lot last year (and am happy I did so), I learned that looking after myself is more important than doing something I feel expected to do.
7. Bring at least a few things that are familiar and comforting to school.
I know — dorm shopping is awesome and planning out your new room can be really fun. And who doesn’t love brand new things for a brand-new stage in your life? But it can be helpful, for times when you’re feeling anxious, to have something that reminds you of home. Bring a treasured stuffed animal, a favorite book, photos of people you love or your favorite blanket. Having something to hold or hug or just look at when the strangeness of the new situations starts to get to you can help with your anxiety and make you feel like you belong in your new home.
To anyone headed to college next year — good luck! These really can be the best years of your life and if you’ve got an anxiety disorder, you’re incredibly brave for going. Your anxiety isn’t going to hold you back from succeeding, though. Have fun, study hard and most importantly, take care of yourself. You’ve got this.
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Thinkstock photo via Jacob Ammentorp Lund.