Many of us think of college as an exciting time to experience new things and find one’s self. But on the flip side, all these new opportunities can cause anxiety. In fact, a 2018 study from the American College Health Association (ACHA) revealed that more than 63% of college students stated that they had felt overwhelming anxiety within the last 12 months. What’s more, many colleges and universities are reporting that the number of students seeking counseling is rising.
So what’s driving the number of college students suffering from anxiety and seeking help? The answer is complicated, but below are the common causes:
#1. Underdeveloped brains
College students are particularly vulnerable to anxiety since the human brain doesn’t fully develop until the mid-to-late 20s.
“Student decisions aren’t always the best as their frontal lobe — the lobe responsible for higher order processing such as critical thinking and decision-making — is not yet fully formed,” says AJ Marsden, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.
So when faced with new problems and pressures, college students tend to feel overwhelmed.
#2. New environment, new challenges
Moving and acclimating to a new environment, such as college, can be extremely stressful. Just imagine the number of changes going on simultaneously: they’re adapting to new schedules, heavy loads of coursework (possibly also a job), life with roommates, new cultures, and alternative ways of thinking. They’re meeting new friends, figuring out how to fit in, developing an independent identity, and handling adult responsibilities (probably making some bad decisions along the way).
Dealing with all these changes — many of which are college students’ firsts — during a major life transition from adolescence to adulthood can push them past their breaking points. Successfully navigating through all these changes requires cognitive maturity and life skills that many in this age group are still mastering.
“If students do not feel adequate or prepared to cope with the new environment of a college campus, they could easily become susceptible to depression and anxiety,” says Harrison Davis, PhD, Assistant Professor of Counseling and Coordinator of the Community Counseling master’s program at North Georgia College and State University.
To make matters worse, there is typically palpable pressure to do well and greater competition in college.
#3. Separation from the support system of family and friends
Even the most confident high school student is likely to experience a dip in confidence when leaving home (in many cases, for the first time) and moving into a new environment full of unknown stressors. That’s because the familiar people — family and old friends — are no longer there to reinforce the identity that students have created for themselves. This can make them feel disoriented and feel a loss of their sense of self.
Without their usual support system, coupled with profound loneliness and homesickness, adjusting to college life becomes extremely difficult, increasing the risk of anxiety.
#4. Lack of sleep
Multiple studies show the importance of regular, quality sleep in reducing anxiety symptoms. But college life — with its all-nighters, excessive caffeine intake, parties, and possibly drug and alcohol abuse — can make it difficult to achieve healthy sleeping habits, thus increasing the risk of anxiety among college students.
#5. Uncertainty and fear of the future
Anxiety thrives in unknowns, and unfortunately, college students are faced with so much uncertainty. They do not know if they’ll land a job after college, how they’ll pay their student loans, or where they will live. Some college students still feel lost about their direction in life, which could feel even more unsettling when their peers all seem to have found their calling. Many students also fear unsuccessfully transitioning to adult life, which is one of their biggest triggers of anxiety.
College students need the help of mental health professionals
College students today appear to be more stressed and anxious than ever before. And when left untreated, these issues can become debilitating and even life-threatening. So if you think you or your peers are experiencing anxiety or other mental health issues, you should seek help by consulting a qualified clinician immediately.
Meridian Psychiatric Partners, LLC clinicians include psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychotherapists that can provide specialized mental health services for emerging adults in Chicago, Evanston, and Lake Forest. Contact us today for details.