When The Transition to College is More Complicated and Stressful Than We Thought It Would Be, What Can We Do?
The voice on the other end of the phone line was soft, hesitant and drenched in worry.
“My parents sacrificed so much and I worked so hard so I could go to college here, I can’t let them down or screw this up. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I don’t know why I’m having such a hard time here. I just didn’t think it would be this hard.”
This, or some version of this experience and outreach for help has sadly grown more common in my 20+years as a psychotherapist.
While we seem to be a college obsessed society, often going to great lengths and into deep debt, struggling to make it work, the traditional path to college may not be the best route for everyone and/or especially for everyone right out of high school.
The Education Data Initiative statistics from 2021 report that as much as 40% of undergraduates will not complete their degree program. This could be related to a host of different reasons stemming from economic to health related issues.
The Economic Strain of Higher Education
If the path to getting into college wasn’t already strewn with stress, once you get in, how do you pay for it? Costs associated with attending college are high, to say the least. The financial stress of affording college is often felt by both students and their families.
Many students must either work part- or even full-time, or they must maintain a particular grade-point average to ensure scholarships, if earned, are not lost all the while juggling the academic demands of school. This can add another layer of pressure interrupting a student’s ability to focus on academics and self-care while adjusting to school.
Additionally, students’ awareness of the financial toll college has on their family can lead to or compound a sense of guilt and shame if they are not adjusting and enjoying college as everyone thought and hoped they would or “should” be.
The newfound independence thrust upon college students isn’t always welcome, nor do students know how to manage with it. Learning how to live away from home, for the first time, in a new physical environment and in a new social environment can be overwhelming and wrought with homesickness for many.
College students need to make judgment calls and decisions regarding time and schedule management. Self-organization or self-care doesn’t always come easy, and when stressed, they are usually first to unravel and fall by the wayside.
When there is a mismatch between expectations of what one thought college would be like, vs. what it is shaping up to actually feel like, mental health can suffer leading to an increase in anxiety and depressive symptoms. Managing the newness and transition in unfamiliar physical and social spaces can take time and require more and different types of support and practices than students could have anticipated before leaving for school.
What College Students Can Do
First and foremost, grounding and perspective gathering is crucial. It’s all too easy for current stress to snowball into an all or nothing, doom and gloom, “If I struggle this much now, I won’t make it and I’ll be a failure in life” sort of mindset.
Teaching college students how to ground themselves, learn tools to manage and reorient to the current stress they feel as a sign that can actually lead to growth and a better path forward is essential. Such grounding and reorienting doesn’t happen overnight or in an isolated vacuum.
Somatic-exercises, breathwork and mindfulness-based exercises that can help regulate our autonomic nervous system, the system that manages our stress and trauma response, can be very effective to managing a stressed-out physical experience and can be easily discovered via Google, YouTube and Social Media.
Learning that it is ok to seek outside support and knowing where to find it is necessary. It can feel hard and embarrassing to reach out and students don’t always know where to turn. Reaching out to college guidance centers, college resident assistants, professors , peers and family. Searching up in-person and online support groups, individual psychotherapy, even for the short-term can be a lifeline for struggling students. There are a lot more resources available today than there were, 10 or even 5 or 3 years ago!
There is a saying I read once that goes, “We suffer most when we feel separate from others.” Going it alone, during such a big life transition as in attending college is not the best plan to ensure success. Finding safe others to provide guidance and support can be the most important learning, growth-promoting and successful step anyone who is struggling can take.