Anxiety and 7 Ways to Help Your Struggling College Kid

As excited freshman or experienced sophomores, juniors and seniors settle in for another Fall semester around the country, I wanted to put together a quick list of 7 things parents can do to hep their college kid suffering from anxiety. It’s scary to put so much freedom and responsibility into the hands of your son or daughter when you know worry and fear is always lurking around social, academic or career decisions. Before I discuss what to do about anxiety, I think it’s important to review some details about anxiety.

Everyone feels uneasy or anxious occasionally like when we are running late for a meeting or got caught doing something we’re not supposed to. It’s a normal.

Anxiety disorders are different than regular, situational anxiousness. They are a group of mental illnesses that are characterized by intensity, duration, origin and how they impact life domains like work/school, relationships, and health.

For people who have an anxiety disorder, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming, and can be disabling. With the correct treatment, most can overcome the anxiety disorder and lead a fulfilling life.

Types of Disorders

Anxiety disorder is a broad category that includes:

  • Panic Disorder. Feeling overwhelming sense of terror or dread that seemingly strikes randomly. During a panic attack, the person may sweat, have chest pain, and feel unusually strong or irregular heartbeats. Sometimes they may feel like they’re choking or having a heart attack.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder. Also known as Social Phobia, this is when someone feels overwhelming worry or judgement while in social situations. They may obsess over others judgment or being embarrassed or ridiculed.
  • Specific Phobias. This is when someone has a very specific fear of something such as spiders, heights or flying. The fear goes beyond what’s appropriate based on actual risk and may cause them to avoid regular situations.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is what I see most when working with college students. They describe having excessive, unrealistic worry and tension with little or no reason.

Risks

Early signs of anxiety are super subtle and include distractability, avoidance and sleeplessness. Students with anxiety disorders often report to me that semesters generally start fine but as papers, tests and social pressures mount, their anxiety builds to the point where they start consider drastic changes like dropping out of school. Untreated anxiety can lead to depression, severe drug use and in some instance, suicide. Anxiety and depression seem to be best friends, often presenting together in college students I’ve worked with. 

What to Do

Though anxiety disorders can make someone feel hopeless, there are very effective treatments and interventions we can implement to get their life back on track. Here are the 7 I think are most important for parents to be aware of if they need help with their college kid.

1. Counseling

Right out of the gate, the first thing parents should do is link their child with a) campus health services (often called Counseling and Psychological Services or CAPS) and b) a therapist or counseling like me specializing in college student anxiety in the community close to campus. Ideally, find a therapist/counselor that uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Waiting until the first big meltdown could be too late. Loads of freshman fail to share their struggles with their parents until Thanksgiving and Christmas which, by then, is too late in their minds and they end up not returning for their Spring semester. Invest the time on the front end.

2. Scheduling

Anxiety is fed by fear. Fear is often the by-product of lack of predictability about social events, academic outcomes, and career failures. One solution is increasing predictability. I accomplish this with students by teaching them to download the semester schedule onto their phone calendars before the semester starts. Next, after they’ve received their syllabi, I coach them to put in every single date for every single assignment/test possible. This also includes social events and any non-academic stuff they know about. This may sound like it could be overwhelming, but I’d rather have them feel a bit overwhelmed when looking at the calendars rather than anxious about remember when that next big thing is due.

3. Resources

Not the most used suggestion but one we have to put here – make sure your son or daughter has a list or access to resources that can help them reduce stressors or mitigate things when they’re already starting to spiral down. These resources could include the academic supports found at nearly every university or within the community. Universities have a vested interest in making sure your son or daughter doesn’t bail at semester’s end. Another form of ‘resource’ is the on-call list. Create a formal or informal list of people they can call/text when they are starting to feel overwhelmed. I am on-call for all of my clients and often receive texts from students the night before big tests asking for help in quiet their brains down. I call them or text back strategies and remind them to call if they want to talk through things in more detail. Just knowing there is a safety net and team of support can have a dramatic reduction effect on anxiety.

4. Medication

I am super conservative with medication use and recommendations for students I work with at Indiana University. But, with that said, we also recognize that some folks simply need a bit more support than what counseling and academic support can provide alone. If your college does not have a psychiatrist on staff, we highly recommend finding one in the local community. We rarely encourage use of primary care physicians or nurse practitioners for medication management since they are not specifically trained to diagnose and medically treat those suffering from anxiety. You also want your college kid to work with someone who genuinely understands the risk of some medications that have the potential for addiction. Good kids get hooked on meds the same as bad kids. It’s also important to avoid illegal or non-prescribed drugs (like the roommate’s Xanax).

5. Meditation

I recommend to nearly every client to start participating in weekly yoga, meditation or mindfullness classes. This is an evidence-based approach with only positive side-effects. Plus, every college offers these in their wellness programs for free so encourage your kid to take advantage and put it into the calendar. Meditation, counseling and medication are an incredibly complimentary approach to combating anxiety.

6. Sleep

Not easy when kids have more freedom than ever away from home but we nonetheless push parents to encourage sleep. Not binge sleeping but a healthy 8 hours per night. The ideal for anxiety reduction is a steady sleep pattern so that bedtime and wake time are pretty standard every day. Staying up late on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, sleeping in till 1:00pm and then dragging out of bed Monday morning for an 8:50am class is terrible for anxiety.  Sleep meds only make things worse and really should only be taken with the psychiatrists oversight.

7. Exercise

Encourage your kid to sign up for the intramural leagues, especially for sports where there is little standing around time. Distraction and flow experience are essential in helping him or her focus on non-academic activities. It’s also a great way for them to be social without needing a drink in their hand.

Ok folks. Hope this helps you figure out the best way to help that college kid who may be struggling as you’re getting through the fear of letting go. It’s an exciting time and, with the right strategies in the beginning, can be the start to a fantastic semester.