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Challenges in College
There are many “issues” commonly experienced by students in college that can sometimes pose major challenges to study, play, socializing, and living. In the following, some of these challenges are identified and described, and suggestions are provided for further exploring or managing them.
Beginning life at college naturally generates both excitement and anxiety for many reasons including the move, academic responsibilities, and meeting new people. For some, this apprehension is quickly overcome as they adapt to a new environment; for others the transition takes longer and sometimes emerges as homesickness where there is a preoccupation with home-focused thoughts. Those who experience homesickness might notice an increase in depressed feelings, anxiety, obsessive thoughts and minor physical ailments. Some students will start by being mildly depressed and anxious several weeks before leaving home, in anticipation of the impending change. Others will be fine initially, and then to their surprise find themselves feeling homesick later in the academic year, perhaps after the Thanksgiving or semester break, or even at the start of their second academic year.
If you are homesick, you might notice an increase in:
- Low energy or motivation.
- Trouble sleeping.
- Increases/decreases in appetite.
- Having difficulty with school.
- Increased use of drugs or alcohol.
- Obsessively missing family/friends.
- Pervasive unhappiness or displeasure.
- Feeling like you "need" to go home.
- Lack of interest or involvement in new surroundings.
- The distance from home – the farther you go, the worse it may be.
- A sense of anticlimax – you have finally arrived at college after working toward it for so long.
- Unhappiness when things are different from your expectations of student life.
- A heavy workload.
- Students who are homesick often feel they have no control over their environment
What might help?
- Keep in good contact with the people you have left behind, but also give yourself time within the university to begin to get involved here.
- Remember that many other students will be experiencing similar feelings
- You are allowed to feel sad and homesick!
- Be realistic about what to expect from student life and from yourself. Establish a balance between work and leisure
- If work is proving too difficult, you may need to improve your study skills or your organization of time.
- Remember to get enough food and sleep! These affect you emotionally as well as physically.
- Make contacts and friends through shared activities such as sport or other interests.
- Give yourself time to adjust - you don't have to get everything right straight away.
- Most people come through times of homesickness and go on to do well and enjoy their time at university. But for some, the best choice may be to head in another direction.
- If you stop being able to do normal social and academic things, seek professional help either from your advisor or dean or the counseling service.
* Special thanks to University of Cambridge, University of Montana, and YouthNet UK.
Because very few college students regularly get the eight hours of sleep they need daily, or frequently put together their sleep hours in haphazard fashion, difficulties due to sleep pose one of the biggest challenges in living for many college students. There is no easy cure for this other than to try to get adequate sleep and to figure out ways to fall asleep when the opportunity presents.
Tips for a better night’s sleep
- Keep a consistent sleep routine.
- Attend to the sleep environment. Is the amount of light, level of noise, and temperature appropriate for sleep?
- Just as decreasing light helps you sleep, increasing light helps you wake (especially direct sunlight).
- Exercise moderately.
- Avoid naps; they mess up your body’s natural sleep clock.
- Go through the same routine every night that helps you relax and prepare for rest.
- If your thoughts are racing, write down your thoughts or “to dos” on a piece of paper for the next day.
- Use a relaxation exercise before going to sleep (see above for examples of relaxation exercises).
- Don’t eat or drink too much before going to sleep.
- Avoid caffeine after 5pm.
For a consultation with a counselor regarding sleep difficulties, contact us.
* Special thanks to the Kansas State University Counseling Services
Anxiety is a natural consequence of everyday stressful events. Many students experience some anxiety throughout their day; in some respects it can help them navigate difficult situations. However, anxiety can also become severe, persistent and counterproductive. The NIMH has more information on these anxiety disorders.
Some students may experience severe anxiety while taking exams. They may feel nervous and notice themselves sweating, hyper-ventilating, and having difficulty concentrating. However, since test anxiety is a learned response, it can also be unlearned.
What can I do to reduce test anxiety?
- Eat a performance meal (high protein, low carbohydrate) while studying and before the exam to provide optimal mental energy.
- Get enough sleep.
- Exercise (physical energy = mental energy).
- Minimize your alcohol and caffeine use.
- Use a relaxation exercise (see below for samples).
- Study ahead of time and create practice tests similar to the format of the exam
- Stop negative thoughts (“I don’t know enough to pass”) about the test and increase positive thoughts (“I know a lot of this information; I’ll start with the questions I know”).
- Expectations often impact actual performance.
* Special thanks to Texas Women’s University Counseling Center
Stress (also called anxiety) is a reaction to everyday demands on our energy. There are various ways you may experience stress including increased adrenaline, muscle tension, hyper-ventilation …anything that makes your body and mind work faster. Sometimes, our stress spills over into an unproductive feeling or mindset.
Ways to cope
Eliminate unnecessary demands.
Take an assessment of your ability to cope with stress:
Do I have enough physical, mental, and emotional energy?
For more physical energy, attend to your eating, sleep, exercise, and use of substances like alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine.
For more mental energy, consider changes in your study habits and organization strategies.
For more emotional energy, find ways to vent and increase your social support through friends, family, and/or your romantic partner.
Engage in a relaxation/meditation exercise (see below for samples)
Take strategic study breaks and set up “rewards” for accomplishing successful work.
Strategies that don’t work:
- Ignore your physical/emotional reactions to stress.
- Blame other people.
- Push harder.
- Add demands.
* Special thanks to Texas Women’s University Counseling Center
The social scene at college can be anxiety-provoking at times, especially during your first year. While some students are naturally outgoing, most have to work to make social connections. Some students may find that they tend to isolate themselves or remove themselves from participating in activities for fear of embarrassment, being judged, or fear of rejection. Some label themselves as shy and fail to think of themselves as capable of joining with others.
Tips for making social connections:
- Change unrealistic expectations (“I should have a close group of friends the first week of college”) to realistic expectations (“It takes time to make close friends; I can start by talking to people in my residence hall”)
- Turn critical thoughts (“I probably wasn’t funny enough”) into realistic thoughts (“I can’t be funny all the time”)
- Build friendships by joining student activities/organizations.
- Pay attention to your body language and try to use good eye contact, a relaxed but alert posture, and smile.
- Think of each social experience as a way to practice making connections.
- Use open ended questions to get a conversation started (i.e. "why, how, what, when.")
* Special thanks to the University of Texas at Dallas Student Counseling Center
Samples of Relaxation Exercises
* Special thanks to Hobart and William Smith Colleges Counseling Center
Self-Evaluation for Anxiety - Follow links to “Generalized Anxiety” section
There are various ways our mood may change throughout the week. At times, we may feel especially “down” or “tired”. If this “down” feeling also includes unexpected crying, changes in eating/sleeping, or even suicidal thoughts - - and seems to last for a few weeks, you may be experiencing symptoms of depression.
How will I know if I'm depressed?
If you've been feeling sad, pessimistic, hopeless and down more often than not over the past two weeks or more, and you've stopped enjoying things that used to be fun, you might be depressed. Check the symptoms below - if you have experienced three or more it is likely you are experiencing a bout of depression.
- Finding it hard to get motivated and feel interested in things because of lacking energy and feeling sluggish.
- Wanting to avoid friends and everyday activities.
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions.
- Losing interest in eating, or overeating.
- Sleeping difficulties or feeling fatigued nearly every day.
- Thinking about death, or planning suicide.
- Having unpleasant, negative thoughts (like feeling guilty or that you are a bad or unworthy person).
- Getting pains in your body or headaches that don't seem to have any physical cause.
How did I get depressed?
Ongoing stress like coping with injuries, doing poorly academically and failing tests, or feeling lonely and isolated can lead to depression. Sometimes people get depressed for no obvious reason; the heavy feelings just seem to come out of the blue. This sometimes happens when people come from families who seem more vulnerable to becoming depressed after relatively mild stress. No matter how you became depressed, the effects are debilitating and will affect your academic performance, play, and relationships if left untreated.
Ok, so I'm depressed - what now?
Depression is more common than people think, but it can be treated. It's important to treat it like any other illness and seek help. Depression involves changes in brain chemistry and can influence the way you respond to the world around you. Options for dealing with depression include:
Talking with a Counselor or Psychologist who will:
- Help you learn skills for solving problems, planning ahead and improving interactions with others
- Help you see the positive side of yourself, others, and your circumstances
- Assist your relationships with others
- Reduce unnecessary stress in your life
- Be aware of your negative thoughts (“Nobody here likes me”) and how they affect your mood. Try to stop them and replace them with more realistic (“I’ve met some people I could build a relationship with”) or positive (“I’m going to feel good today”) thoughts
- Spend more time with people (this may mean you just have to get out of your room and into a public area)
- Eat a balanced diet and reduce substances that negatively affect your mood (e.g., alcohol, nicotine, caffeine)
- Find ways to express your feelings (e.g., journal, friend); don’t suppress them
- Discus with your therapist, the possibility of seeing a psychiatrist to discuss the possibility of using antidepressant medicine to correct the imbalance of chemicals in the brain
Often counseling, together with lifestyle changes, is useful for alleviating depression. In some cases medication may be necessary to help resolve a severe or long-standing bout of depression.
* Special thanks to Massey University and UNC Chapel Hill Campus Health Services.
One of the most severe symptoms of depression is suicide. While many people at some time in their lives contemplate the question, “is life worth living?”, students who are depressed tend to answer that question in more pessimistic and hopeless ways and become at risk for hurting or killing themselves. What can you do if your friend says she or he is having serious thoughts about suicide?
- Get your friend to talk about what’s bothering him or her. Use conversation to direct your friends’ thoughts toward getting help.
- Listen. Be aware of what your friend is saying and how he or she is feeling.
- Encourage your friend to seek professional help. Advise your friend to seek help from someone who can help resolve the problem.
- Remove, or encourage your friend to give up anything that could be immediately lethal.
- Don’t leave your friend alone if you discover he or she has a plan or a timetable – take it seriously. Don’t be brushed off by, “I’m okay now.”
- You must get help for the person if they will not seek help for themselves. Contact someone who can help (e.g. Gryphon, RLC, student life dean at 8-4156, counseling center at 8-3880, or campus police at 8-4200).
Suicide Warning Signs
- Depressed behavior (lack of energy, lack of appetite, change in sleep patterns)
- Talking about wanting to die or hurt himself/herself
- Preparing for death (giving away possessions, acquiring means to commit suicide)
- Sudden or unusual or changed patterns of interaction with peers and faculty (e.g. irritability, avoidance)
- Decline in academic performance
- Use of drugs or alcohol to cope with life
- Those who talk about it don’t do it. Three out of four victims talked about suicide before they died. Verbal cues such as “Sometimes I wish I could just sleep and never wake up…” are warnings of suicide and should be recognized as a plea for help.
- Those who attempt suicide and fail won’t try again. If a person’s feelings about life don’t change and new coping skills were not learned and practiced, a person is likely to rely on suicide to cope with future depression and loss of hope.
- College students have no reason to commit suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students and, 7.5 of every 100,000 college students take their own lives. The fact that their “whole lives are ahead of them” may be more of a threat than a comfort to some.
- Talking about suicide will cause someone to do it. If someone is so upset that he/she might be considering suicide, you won’t be putting ideas into his/her head by bringing it up. Be direct and ask, “Do you want to die?” Talking about it openly could prevent a person from acting.
The Jed Foundation web site also has information about suicide awareness for college students.
Self-Evaluation for Depression (Follow links to “Depression” or “Bipolar” section)
Trauma can occur when a stressful event (often unexpected) causes significant psychological distress. When psychological trauma persists and is re-experienced by the victim through flashbacks, nightmares, and/or unexpected triggers, the person may be experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
What are some natural responses to a traumatic event?
- Depressed mood
- Changes in appetite and sleep
- Avoidance of certain triggers that remind you of the traumatic event
What can I do to cope with a traumatic event?
- Remind yourself that it is normal to experience psychological distress after a traumatic event
- Remain consistent with your routines (eating, sleeping, exercising, social activities), even if they don’t feel as productive or enjoyable.
- Spend some extra time relaxing or talking to friends, family, or other sources of support.
When should I seek professional help?
It may be helpful to speak with a counselor right after a traumatic event, but responses to trauma often go away within a couple weeks. If you find yourself experiencing symptoms after three or four weeks, you should consider talking to a counselor or other mental health professional.
* Special thanks to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention
More Information and Resources Related to Traumatic Events