Starting college is one of the most exciting times in a young adult's life. It is a time of unprecedented freedom and excitement. It begins a new chapter of your life where you make your own choices and taking complete responsibility for yourself and your behavior. No one is there to remind you to eat and get enough sleep or wake up in time for class. You are in control.
Freshman year can be amazing and full of wonderful new experiences. It can also feel lonely and overwhelming. The new pressures to manage your own space, deal with roommates, effectively manage time, get good grades, and take care of everything else that comes along, can take a toll. When not managed properly, these new pressures can lead to anxiety, stress, and even depression.
Below I have outlined some of the big challenges facing new freshmen with coping tips for each.
Unfamiliar People and Surroundings
In the first year of college, everything is new. You are at a new school, may have a new home, and people are unfamiliar. The structure of classes is new. The level of responsibility and lack of accountability can be disarming for freshmen who are used to teachers who know them and know when they have missed an assignment. There are all kinds of new things to adjust to. It can feel lonely and overwhelming when college begins. Homesickness is not uncommon.
Coping Tips: It may seem counterintuitive, but getting involved in a study group or a team activity can be the best remedy for all the unfamiliarity. Since new students are all in it together, you will find that bonds are formed quickly and before you know it, you will have a home away from home. Having a weekly dinner with a roommate or classmate can also help give you something to look forward to and make you feel less alone. Finally, getting together with anyone you might know from home can keep you feeling connected to your roots as you get established in your new place. It may take a semester to get used to the format of college. Make sure to discuss your challenges with professors or visit an academic advisor if you are struggling.
It can be tempting to stay up all night and sleep in late on the days you don't have any classes. Many freshmen sleep too much and overeat during the first year away. The wide open days can be difficult if you have not yet made friends and it may seem that sleeping and eating break up the monotony of studying and going to class.
Coping Tips: Try to set a schedule for yourself. Getting to bed at relatively the same time each evening and getting up at a reasonable hour in the morning will help you feel less like you are lost in an endless stream of days. Make sure to set aside time to study. If you need to break up the day, head to the library or a cafe to study, or go out for a walk. Additionally, eating three regular meals a day instead of snacking and eating at random hours will help avoid the dreaded freshman weight gain which can cause added anxiety.
Approximately 80% of college student drink. And though only about a quarter of students who drink regularly report academic issues and many students who drink in college do not develop addictions, drinking it is still a concern. Drinking can lead to reckless behavior and put young folks in dangerous situations.
Coping Tips: If you are underage, you should avoid drinking. If you feel that you will be pressured to drink it may be safest to avoid parties and gatherings where there is drinking. If you decide to drink, make sure that you are with people you trust. Don't take alcoholic drinks from strangers and keep an eye out for friends at all times. Never drive or get into a car with someone who has been drinking.
Relationships and Sex
The freedom of having their own space leads many people to get closer to significant others faster than they might have when they lived at their parents' homes. Relationships can move too quickly causing one or both participants to feel hurt or awkward. The availability of alcohol can lead to unplanned sexual encounters which can have a big emotional impact.
Coping Tips: Take it slow with relationships, there is no rush. If you are sexually active, take advantage of your university's health center and get information about practicing safe sex. Make sure to reach out to trusted friends and campus counseling services if you need support for the emotional issues that accompany your relationships.
High Levels of Anxiety, Depression, and Stress
Now more than any time in the past, university students are dealing with anxiety, stress, and depression. There are many theories about why young adults are struggling with more mental health issues now than in years past. It is difficult to pinpoint, but many of the factors noted above can contribute to these challenges.
Coping Tips: There are a number of things that you can do to help with stress and anxiety: get adequate sleep, eat well-balanced meals, avoid junk food and alcohol, and get regular exercise, for starters. You can also practice relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation. If your emotions are still too much to manage, remember, many campuses have mental health clinics. Additionally, there are often peer support groups you can join if you are struggling with stress and anxiety. If you think you may be depressed or if you feel hopeless or suicidal, it is very important that you let your family know and see a professional as soon as possible.
For many young people, college is the first taste of adulthood. It is not uncommon to experience the freshman blues. A bit of self-care and practical coping strategies can make this transition much easier.
Are you a university student looking for academic support or help figuring out what direction to head in?
I can help!
Formerly on staff at the Tulane Student & Health Center of Psychiatry, helping emerging adults uncover the best path to success is my passion. I am a professional psychotherapist and I specialize in academic and life coaching. I work primarily with college students and young professionals. I would love to put my expertise as a certified success coach to work for you.
Dr. Eileen Wynne