Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
A crowded dorm room decorated with fairy lights and posters. Music blaring from a set of speakers. Sweaty, scantily-clad teenagers laughing and dancing. The ubiquitous red solo cup. On this particular Saturday night, I found myself faced with a relatively familiar scene in my college life. But the way I felt was far from normal. Around five minutes in to the party, claustrophobia set in. As my breath became quicker and my skin felt hotter, I began to recognize the telltale signs of a panic attack settling into my body. Managing to squeeze through the swarms of people, I escaped into the hallway just in time, sinking to the floor and shakily dialing my friend’s number on my phone — partly to let him know how I was feeling, and partly because I knew hearing a familiar voice would calm me down.
I have struggled with an anxiety disorder since I was twelve and over the years have learned how to manage it in a variety of ways without medication. However, going to college has presented several new, unseen challenges: living apart from my main support group (my parents), navigating the murky waters of new friendships, experiencing academics-induced stress, and of course, parties. Since starting at my university six months ago, the scene described above has only happened to me a handful of times. Usually, I manage to pull myself together by just closing my eyes for a few moments, but occasionally I’ve needed to grab a friend and make a quick exit in order to get a grip.
I often fight off my anxiety through over-scheduling myself to the point where I don’t have any time to drown in nervous thoughts — not a fantastic coping mechanism, but it works like a charm — but some days I feel lost in a sea of unease regardless. Here are a few easy ways I manage to keep myself (relatively) sane amidst the constant hustle of life in college.
1. Daily check-ins
I meditate twice a week, which helps keep me mindful of how I’m feeling. On the days when I don’t, however, I try to take a few minutes — typically in the morning — to close my eyes and check in with my mental state. If I’m feeling anxious, this also helps me to isolate what any contributing factors might be and try to calm myself down as much as possible. It’s human nature to sense what our body needs, but we rarely do the same for our minds.
2. Taking a night off
Sometimes I have to admit to myself that I’m feeling too mentally unwell to handle the sensory overload of a party. I stay in instead, using the time normally spent going out to clean my room or catch up on a TV show. I am still struggling to perfect the skill of staying in on a weekend night while avoiding FOMO (fear of missing out), but avoiding social media helps.
While I don’t keep a daily diary, I do have a notebook that I write in whenever I feel overwhelmed. Pouring any thoughts out onto a page is incredibly helpful; knowing that my feelings are documented somewhere rather than just swimming through my mind puts me at ease. I would encourage writing in a paper diary rather than on a computer. Personally, the physicality of writing by hand helps me better embody the feeling of letting go.
4. Time with friends
People often cite sleep and exercise as the most important wellness activities to prioritize in your schedule. However, humans are naturally social creatures and it’s self-destructive to neglect this part of us. Though it may not seem as productive as going to the gym or heading to bed early, spending time with friends is the most important form of self-care for me. In college, it can be difficult to avoid getting caught up in an endless cycle of studying and sleeping, only taking time to truly socialize on the weekends. Even if you’re an introvert, I cannot emphasize enough how energizing and affirming it can be to spend a few hours with your friends at least a couple times per week where you are wholly present, undistracted by homework, alcohol, or technology.
5. Professional help
Zencare.co is a great website for finding qualified therapists who fit your needs — it currently only operates in New York City, Rhode Island, Boston, and Connecticut, but is coming to Chicago and Seattle soon. Alternatively, if you don’t have insurance or have less comprehensive coverage, see what kinds of mental health resources your university offers and don’t be afraid to take full advantage of them. Though it may seem daunting, sometimes seeking assistance from people who are properly trained in treating what you’re struggling with is the best way to take care of yourself.
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