College can be a stressful time in the lives of many students. It can seem like things are constantly changing, and with so little consistency, it can sometimes feel like you don’t belong anywhere. Then, on top of that, there are high expectations coming at you from every direction. Your parents want you to do well in class, because college is expensive and you’re going to need a job after. Your professors expect you to be in class, be on time, be prepared and contribute to discussions. And then there are the expectations you have for yourself. You want to have fun, meet new people, learn new things, experience the world, and try not to come out $100k in debt. And this all has to be done in 4 years.
All of these pressures can create turmoil within your body. Of the 40 million adults in the U.S. who suffer from an anxiety disorder, 75% of them experienced it for the first time by age 22. The prime age of onset for most mental health disorders happens during the college-aged years (ages 18-24). So while some people experience stress and periods of low motivation during college, others may not be able to come out of the funk, which leads to an anxiety and/or depression diagnosis.
But can you still be successful in college while dealing with depression and/or anxiety? Absolutely. It’s all about finding a balance and what works for you. Here are 5 tips for setting yourself up for success.
1. Have a good support system
Surround yourself with a good support system. This can include family, friends, or even a professor. Yes, you’re in college and becoming an adult. But, that doesn’t mean that you can’t call home when you need to talk to Mom–sometimes just hearing a loved one’s voice is all you need.
Spend your time with people who have a positive outlook and therefore a good influence on you. It’s also nice to have a reliable, listening ear on campus. If your roommate isn’t that person, find a peer or adult who can be. Even the occasional one-armed hug can make a big difference when you’re having a rough day.
2. Utilize the school’s counseling services
If you are struggling and need help, go to the student services center. If your campus has its own counseling center, sessions are usually free. If you are attending a smaller college, the health services center will usually partner with a local community agency or counseling center to provide counseling sessions at no or little cost to you.
Talk therapy, in combination with medication, is the best intervention. Yes, for some people one or the other will work on its own, but combining the two will increase your chances of improvement.
The American Anxiety and Depression Association also has a list of on- and off-campus resources and recommendations on their website.
3. Take care of your body
You’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it 100 times. Diet, exercise, and sleep are the keys to a healthy you. Well, it’s not just about your cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight. Sleep, what you eat, and how much you exercise can also affect your mental health.
Diet: Did you know that serotonin and dopamine (neurotransmitters that are some of the “feel good” chemicals in your brain) are made from things that you eat? One of serotonin’s precursors (building blocks) is tryptophan–the stuff in turkey that makes you sleepy after a big Thanksgiving meal. So, you can essentially increase the amount of neurotransmitters (like dopamine and serotonin) by being mindful of what you’re eating. Check out Be Brain Fit’s article, How to Increase Dopamine Levels Naturally for more tips and snack ideas.
Exercise: As Elle Woods famously said, “Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy…” and it’s true! But, exercising also helps release some of those same neurotransmitters we discussed earlier in addition to endorphins. When you’re lacking motivation and don’t want to do anything–exercise seems like the last thing you want to have to do, but it can make a significant difference. The Mayo Clinic does a nice job of explaining the impact exercise has on your body and how it relates to anxiety and depression on their website.
Sleep: Sleep and depression and anxiety have a relationship similar to that of the chicken and the egg. No one is really sure which comes first. Sometimes sleep issues can lead to depression, but depression can also have insomnia as a symptom. The National Sleep Foundation suggests keeping a regular sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine and alcohol, and getting some form of exercise each day.
4. Avoid alcohol (and other drugs)
There are a number of reasons why you should avoid alcohol and other drugs while managing anxiety and depression. The most obvious reason being, ALCOHOL IS A DEPRESSANT!
In addition, it messes with your sleep cycle. You just read that the National Sleep Foundation recommends not using alcohol while depressed for that very reason. Chances are, if you’ve been diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression, you have also been prescribed an anti-depressant or anxiolytic (anti-anxiety med). We won’t go too far into the psychopharmacology (how’s that for a fancy word), but I will say that medications for anxiety or depression do not mix well with alcohol. One or two things will happen: 1) the alcohol will reduce the effectiveness of the meds, or 2) the alcohol will hit you like a ton of bricks, regardless of your “normal” tolerance level. ULifeline has a great article explaining why alcohol and depression don’t mix well.
5. Get involved
Joining clubs or social groups on campus is not only a great way to get involved and feel like you’re part of something, but it’s also a great distraction from real life. When students do something that many students do, like go to a football game for example, they aren’t thinking about the essay that’s due in 3 days–they’re praying that the running back makes it more than 2 yards so they can finally get a first down.
Do something you’ve never done before. Join a club that will allow you to meet people who will support you. Get involved in a service organization where you’ll be helping other people–service projects are a great way to see the world from someone else’s perspective.
Find what works for you. Maybe it’s an anti-depressant, a few counseling sessions, and volunteering at your local soup kitchen. Look into getting a therapy pet. Find an exercise buddy and change your eating habits. The magical equation for overcoming anxiety and depression is different for everyone. Don’t get discouraged if you aren’t instantly “better”.
Over the course of my undergrad and graduate education, my mom has consistently told me one thing–just four simple words, “keep your chin up”.