It’s officially fall. And as a psychiatrist on a college campus, I find that I’m only getting busier this time of year. It makes sense that fall brings up a lot of feelings like stress and anticipation of new beginnings for a lot of people—whether or not it’s their first year of college. Adjusting from summer back to the grind of college life can be hard, to say the least.
College, in general, can be a baffling emotional roller coaster, but these years also hold so much opportunity for exploring, accepting, and loving who you are and where you’re headed—even when it doesn’t feel like it. To help you through those moments, here’s a list of seemingly small things you can do to feel a little better when you’re in school. I recommend these tips often in my conversations with patients. I hope they help you just the same.
1. Write down and challenge your negative thoughts.
Here’s something I see all the time: Someone comes into my office feeling anxious because they “definitely failed” the test they just took while “everyone else looked like it was so easy.” This is an example of what experts call a cognitive distortion, or basically jumping to a (usually negative) conclusion without sufficient evidence. A lot of people think they’re the only ones struggling while everyone else sails through life. This can make it feel like you need to pretend everything is perfect even when it’s not.
In my ideal world, everyone would admit when things are hard so it would be clear that we all struggle sometimes. But that doesn’t help you right now, so I’ll instead suggest that you challenge thoughts like, “I definitely failed that test and everyone else clearly aced it so easily.” It may seem obvious, but stopping to really analyze a thought like this can help you believe it less.
First, write down whatever thought is stressing you out, like that you failed an exam while everyone else got an A. Then try to come up with a list of evidence supporting the thought (“I skipped a bunch of questions,” “I didn’t study that last chapter”) and evidence against that thought (“I did study for hours, though,” “I actually can’t know how well anyone else did”). Then ask yourself again how likely it is that your original thought holds water.
As an extra step, try being vulnerable enough to run these stressful thoughts past people you trust (friends, family, a significant other, your therapist). This will usually reinforce that your original thought isn’t true, or even if it is, remind you that you’ll be okay.
2. Use an emotion wheel to name your feelings.
Have you ever scrolled through your ex’s Instagram at 1 A.M. and felt…a lot of things that you couldn’t quite name? Maybe a confusing mix of anger, sadness, grief, and even a little gratitude that you no longer have to workshop their “hilarious” punny captions?
Not having the words to name your emotions is more common than you might think. It can be particularly hard to figure this out in college when you’re feeling a lot of things you might not have felt before thanks to your new, probably pretty stressful situation. This is why some therapists teach patients how to name their feelings using emotion wheels, which depict core feelings like “happy” and “sad” in the middle, then move outwards into associated feelings like “optimistic” or “fragile.”
Whenever you feel like your emotions are out of control, look up an emotion wheel online (or grab the copy you’ll print out after you’re done reading this, right?). Starting with the core feelings and then the associated feelings or vice versa, try to name your emotions. Honestly, this can feel a bit silly at first. But exploring your emotions this way allows you to acknowledge, better cope with, and maybe even understand the meaning behind how you feel.
You can also make a habit of journaling every time you use your emotion wheel. Not only can this help with processing your emotions and problem-solving in the moment, but you may also begin to notice patterns you would have missed otherwise.
3. Find concrete ways to remind yourself that your feelings will pass.
Just as your feelings are valid, they are also often temporary. This can be hard to believe when you’re feeling the heat of an emotional firestorm because you didn’t get into the one class you were most excited to take this semester, so now everything feels like it’s going to be awful—but it’s true. Here are some concrete ways to remind yourself that this too shall pass:
- Write down a mantra to this effect (like, “I might feel bad right now, but I’ll feel better soon”). Make sure it’s somewhere you can easily access, like in your phone or on a sticky note that you put on your mirror.
- Remember a time in your past when you felt like the world was ending but things got better. Hello, perfect example of your emotional resilience! Ideally, you would have this story in your head or written down before you get into a bad emotional state so you’re not trying to think of it when you need it most.
- Ask a trusted friend, family member, or mentor about a time they felt just the way you do right now. Hearing their stories might normalize your own experience.
4. Get enough sleep. Yes, really.
I know, I know: You’ve heard this one before. But I promise that things really can look and feel different after you sleep.
As someone who went to med school, I completely understand the temptation to pull all-nighters in college. Sometimes it feels like that’s the only possible way to get everything done (and done perfectly, at that). That’s especially true if you’re the first in your family to go to college, you or your family have taken out a lot of loans to get you through school, you have anxiety, you did poorly on a previous paper or test, or anything else that might make you feel especially pressured to succeed.
Still, I can’t tell you how many sleep-deprived patients I’ve seen who feel significantly better physically and mentally when they start getting healthy amounts of sleep. When you’re sleep-deprived, you’re more prone to physical and mental illnesses, and it’s a lot harder to juggle school, your social life, and everything else on your plate. You might not even notice how much a lack of sleep is impacting you until you start sleeping well again. Given the choice between one more hour of studying and sleep, I would choose sleep every time. Of course, sometimes a medical issue like anxiety can prevent you from getting the sleep you need, so be sure to see a doctor if you think that’s the case for you.
5. Set phone alarms to take study breaks.
This is somewhat related to the sleeping advice above, but it’s important enough to deserve special attention.
I fully understand that it can feel like taking a study break is a waste of time that will derail your day and leave you scrambling to catch up. With that said, it’s actually really important to incorporate study breaks into your schedule. It might feel like those extra 15 minutes of reading will make or break your grade, but when you’re burned out or have just been doing something for too long, you’re not learning or working at your full capacity. Giving your brain a rest will allow you to focus and absorb material even better the next time you get back to it. If you don’t think you’ll remember to stop and take a break, setting “PUT DOWN THE FLASHCARDS FOR A SEC” reminders on your phone might help.
6. Remember that you don’t have to have it all figured out.
It might seem as though you need to have your whole life path figured out the second you set foot on campus. I’ve seen many people believe this and wind up two years into, say, an engineering major without ever stopping to question if they remotely like engineering.
This can be unhealthy for so many reasons. You can end up doing something unfulfilling because you already invested a lot of time and energy into studying it, or you can feel like doing poorly on one test means your entire life plan is now ruined. On the other hand, you might feel upset and aimless because it seems like everyone else knows exactly what they want to do in life while you’re still unsure.
In reality, college is all about change and questioning what’s right for you. You don’t have to have it all figured out at the start of school (or at the end, either). Be open to experimentation. Take the ceramics class that has piqued your interest even if you were always into math. Check out every booth at the club fair even if you’re pretty sure the college newspaper is calling your name.
If you happen to arrive at the same place you started (e.g., you came in pre-med and still want to go to med school), you’ll likely feel like that decision is even stronger for having tested it. If I didn’t question my goal to be a psychiatrist multiple times at basically every stage of my education, I truly believe I wouldn’t know that I’m doing what I want to do—and for the right reasons.
7. There’s no shame in needing mental health support.
You might worry about burdening others with your “problems,” but supporting you is in your friends’ and family’s job description. And if it ever feels like you need more help than a loved one can handle, that’s okay too. Nothing is wrong with seeking out that extra support.
Most campuses have a student health center that has mental health providers. These centers often have some sort of screening process to figure out what the best resources are for you and, to some degree, assess your level of urgency. They might recommend that you see a therapist for talk therapy, see a psychiatrist like me for a medication evaluation, or give group therapy a try. If you’re having thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, please skip the counseling center and go straight to the emergency room or call 911.
If the waitlist to see someone on campus is long (which can happen due to limited resources, especially during busy times of the year like midterms or finals), you can ask the center if they have recommendations for community mental health resources. Most college counseling centers keep a list of off-campus providers that is often more up to date than what insurance companies have on file (though they can be helpful, too). Psychology Today is also a great resource because you can search for mental health experts using filters like your insurance plan if you have one and any main issues you want to discuss, like depression. (Here’s more information about finding mental health support in college.)
I know the stigma around talking to someone like me can be very real, especially when the cultural message is that college should be the best years of your life. I promise you that it can be utterly normal to find college overwhelming, difficult, and disorienting. Reach out to us. We want to help. You don’t have to be having your worst week ever or be doing poorly in school or avoiding your social life to ask for help. Just like you would want to prevent the flu by getting a flu shot, mental health support can be preventive, too. Don’t just wait for a crisis to reach out.