No matter how together they might seem on the outside, in the back of most new college students’ minds lurks the fear of failure. It can seem like everything in your life so far has been leading to this one huge milestone: COLLEGE! The stresses before, during, and after you apply are immense — playing the right sports, volunteering an acceptable amount, writing the perfect college essay. And once you’re in, you must be successful, right? That’s a lot of pressure. And the really rotten thing about all that stress? It can make it harder to succeed! If you’ve come this far, though, you already know a thing or two about handling stress.
Here’s a story from “The Freshman Survival Guide” that’s a pretty common snapshot of college stress:
Matt was freaking out. He had three weeks of work to do in 24 hours. He’d been sick and was already behind when he got the flu, but now he had two projects, a presentation, and a paper to get ready and was in total panic mode. He was the opposite of lazy and could outwork most people, but he wasn’t always super-skilled at looking ahead. In the past, he’d frequently responded to stress by pretending his to-do list just didn’t exist, especially if he lacked confidence about a subject. This time he called a friend he knew could talk him down from his anxiety ledge. She helped him prioritize and figure out which professors to appeal to for extensions and which ones he had to deliver on time for.
So, how can you handle all that pressure? As one of the authors of “The Freshman Survival Guide,” I’ve been offering advice to college freshmen for more than a decade, including tips for managing stress. I hope you can use (or share) the following list of long-term strategies to help you keep your stress and anxiety under control. Prevention really is the best medicine when it comes to stress. Here’s your prescription for success:
1. Seek counseling
More and more students are arriving on campus already aware of mental health issues. If you’re one of them, connect right away with your college mental health center. They get very busy, especially as the end of the semester approaches, so call now and get set up.
2. Find balance
Start paying attention now to how you treat yourself. Develop good habits around food, sleep, and physical activity. You’ll be so much better able to handle the ups and downs of your first semester if you’ve got a handle on self-care.
3. Drink healthy
Watch out for caffeine, which can amplify stress and disrupt sleep, and alcohol, which can amplify depression (and make it hard to get to class).
4. Don’t delay!
If you have the habit of putting things off, read up now and start practicing anti-procrastination. Self-regulation, the ability to do the things you need to, is easier when you’re well rested and well fed. Dr. Timothy Pychyl, a procrastination expert, explains that we can trick ourselves into doing things by taking that small first step, sit down at your desk, put the heading on the paper, or head for the library.
5. Be a planner
Use apps, an online calendar, or a good old-fashioned pen and paper assignment book and make a habit of looking ahead. Reduce stress by keeping yourself out of high-pressure situations like deadlines you’re not prepared for.
6. Connect with others
This might be the most important one of all. There’s nothing that can get you through difficult times like friends. Campus ministry, your RA, clubs and activities, and people in your major can all be great sources of community and connection.
7. Develop spiritual practices
Stay calm in a crisis by developing or strengthening spiritual practices. Daily prayer, Scripture, online reflections, and worship services can calm you down and help you carry a sense of peace with you as you go through your day.
8. Gain skills
Find the things that help you de-stress in non-destructive ways like yoga, running, mindfulness exercises, cooking, making music, making art. Try strategies like breathing or grounding exercises. Make a list of what works so when you’re in a crisis you can just check the list. Your future self will thank you.
It’s almost a guarantee that at some point, especially early on, you’ll feel anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed. But you’re not alone and you’ve come so far already. Check out “The Freshman Survival Guide” for more tips for starting off your college career on the right foot.
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