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6 Things I Wish I Knew Starting College With an Anxiety Disorder

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College is one of the most jarring changes young adults go through, and when you struggle with anxiety, it can be even more difficult. As I go into my sophomore year of college, here are some things I wish I knew before my freshman year, and some tips on how to manage them.

1. Your mental health symptoms may change.

When I was in high school, I had a consistent habit of stressing out over grades and overthinking almost everything in my life. I remember, the first week of being at college, the anxious voice in my head went completely silent. While I didn’t want to have anxiety, I trusted myself and I knew from years of experience that I should’ve been at least a little bit wired. About halfway through the second week of school, I started having panic attacks — something that had never happened in high school.

College can be an entirely new environment, and unfamiliar experiences may trigger new or different emotions. Stressors might manifest unexpected symptoms that weren’t previously present. Trust your gut and be on the lookout for any changes. Try some mindfulness techniques both before you leave for school and once you arrive to be more aware of your thinking.

2. Your coping mechanisms may change too.

At home, my usual method for dealing with a bad day was spending time with friends, family or pets. My mental “happy place” was to be curled up under a blanket in my living room with dogs and a wood fire. Six hours from home, I had none of those comforts and trying to use my usual calming techniques merely made me homesick. In addition to struggling to adjust to school itself, I struggled to find new ways of calming myself.

Find some relaxing techniques that will work universally and practice them before you go. For me, I’ve leaned on writing, drawing or coloring, and certain mindfulness apps on my phone. Additionally, I found new hobbies on campus to keep me grounded, such as taking walks or spending time with student groups aligned with my interests. There are dozens of clubs across any college campus, so if an activity interested you in high school, being involved in college is a great way to take your mind of stress and meet upperclassmen who can give you tips on college life. Joining groups can also help develop a fondness for your new home. Do things that interest you to break up days that are academically heavy. Going into my sophomore year, I’m continuing involvement in my school’s athletic bands, joining a lab which is training puppies to be service dogs, and intending to work with our school’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter — an organization focused on mental health support and advocacy.

3. If it ain’t broke, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a safety net.

When I first left home, I thought my psychologist had done about as much as they could for me. I thought I wouldn’t benefit from more therapy, and I had a couple of months worth of medication before I would need a new prescription. Fast-forward to October, when I had my first full-on breakdown. The school’s counseling department was flooded, and despite the fact I hadn’t been to class in days, they said I wouldn’t be able to get an appointment for two weeks. I ended up going off-campus to find a psychologist in the community whom I could work with.

Research medical experts who accept your insurance over the summer, and reach out to them around the time you have orientation and/or start classes. Even if you don’t have regular sessions with them, it’s assuring to have a support network ready in case you need it. Be aware your school may not offer everything you need.

4. Be mindful of how you discuss your mental health.

While I am open about my anxiety disorder and eventually make my closer friends aware of it, it’s not exactly an icebreaker. Initially, I tried to hold in all my feelings, and I ended up unloading anxious rants onto groups of people who didn’t know me very well and weren’t comfortable with the topic. Ironically, I then became anxious about pushing them away, because the truth is that not everyone understands mental health issues, and some people may be a little daunted by it.

An alternate solution is to find a few key people you can reach out to. Try to aim for one older student and one older adult. Residential Assistants (RAs) and other “officials” who live in your dorm are great resources. RAs expect and are trained to help students who are struggling with adjustments to college life, and most RAs have singles so that your privacy can be respected. For me, my second-semester RA and an RA who doubled as a student leader in the athletic bands supported me when I needed it. They also answered general questions I had about school, so I had less what-ifs to obsess over.

Even though my RA friends were older students, they still didn’t have all the wisdom that comes from years of adulthood. I was lucky to have professors who resided in my freshman dorm. Most schools encourage interpersonal relationships with faculty, and the aforementioned professors understood my struggles and were there for me when I needed a place to get away or more “adult” advice, for lack of a better word. Even if this exact opportunity isn’t available to you, connecting with a professor in one of your smaller classes is a great way to feel more supported on campus. As the year progressed and I grew closer with certain peers, I was then able to lean on them for some support.

5. Know your rights.

Throughout both semesters, I sometimes had spans of a few days where my mental illness made it difficult to speak up in class or even go at all. In smaller classes, attendance and participation may have a lot of weight on your final grade, so this became a stressor. I communicated with my dean and professors to work out these issues in a way that seemed fair. For example, I worked with my psychology teacher to come up with an alternate assignment when a public experiment we were assigned was likely to trigger my anxiety. With other teachers, we agreed for me to write a summary of my thoughts and opinions on the subject matter of a discussion if anxiety prevented me from being as vocal in class.

It wasn’t until the end of the year I realized the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers psychiatric disability. I thought anxiety didn’t count, but I found that with proper documentation, my university’s disability office was required to make reasonable accommodations for students with mental health problems. For some, this means breaks from long classes, preferential seating, extended time on tests, or different test environments. For others, housing accommodations are available if you have frequent panic attacks or similar ailments. This upcoming year, I have a few academic accommodations which can act as a safety net, so I feel a lot better about my classes. However, note these accommodations are granted only with proper documentation, and you must have a health professional’s support to get accommodations.

6. Don’t be afraid to do what you have to.

With my first steps on campus, I felt a need to act differently, more mature and more “like a college student.” Consequently, I sometimes held back from doing things I needed in order to take care of myself. For example, at home, at least one of my three pets sleeps with me every single night, and I found it difficult to sleep for the first couple of months. I thought of getting stuffed animals that looked like my pets, including one that would be nearly life-sized, but I held off for fear of seeming too childish. What I wish I did from the start was just own it. Decorate your room however you want. Stuffed animals? Sure. Motivational Quotes? Go for it. A boatload of pillows and blankets to cocoon yourself in? Totally worth it. No one minded, and a few friends actually found it really sweet that I had models of my pets.

While my roommate knew I had an anxiety disorder, I didn’t make it clear to her what I expected her to do with the information. Most schools have you and your roommate fill out a living agreement at the beginning of the year. Consider putting in policies for getting time alone and giving one another space if necessary. My roommate and I had assumed a “just ask” basis would be sufficient, but I wish I’d set up something more concrete like a certain amount of time to have the room to myself each day or a codeword that meant I needed space. Your roommate is living with you constantly, so it’s a good plan to work it out from the beginning. They would likely appreciate the same accommodations. By the end of the year, I’d set up a space where I could speak to my parents privately.

Being in college doesn’t mean you’ve left your whole high school life behind. Your parents will still be there for you, and it’s likely that close friends from high school will be there for you too. As the year progressed, I had a couple of hometown friends mention similar experiences to mine at their respective schools. We were able to lean on one another as a reminder we weren’t alone, and while it may happen at different degrees, adjusting to college is something every student goes through. You are not alone. Get excited for the new chapter of your life, but don’t feel like that means you have to close the old chapters.

Photo by Els Fattah on Unsplash

Originally published: August 20, 2019
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