College can be one of the most exciting times in a young adult’s life. It often brings about new friendships, experiences, independence, and exploration into interests and the direction of one’s life. Along with all the good things that college can bring, it can also include some very scary and vulnerable moments for a young adult. Oftentimes, college students find themselves overwhelmed by the busy schedule they have to maintain, while also juggling social life, finances, home-sickness, physical health, and mental health. Therapy can help college students with the transition!
For many college students, they are expected to have a firm grip on the direction of their whole lives by the time they turn 18 and head off to college. Despite this expectation, there are so many who trudge through college with little to no direction. With this lack of structure and purpose comes a feeling of fear and a lack of security. When we feel unsafe, the portion of our brain that acts as an alarm system, the Amygdala, goes “crazy”. This alarm lets us know that we are in danger and that a “fight, flight, or freeze” scenario is incoming. This is an evolutionary survival system that helped our cave dwelling ancestors react accordingly when confronted by a predator: Fight for your life, Flight (run away), or Freeze (essentially play dead). Anxiety is the experience of this intense survival alarm going haywire, telling us that we are in a life or death situation, when in reality – we’re just on our way to class or we have a big exam coming up.
A Note About Mental Health and College Men
With iconic and stereotypical displays of “manliness” surrounding college aged men today (picture Clint Eastwood or Edward Cullins), many people forget that these young men are allowed to express anxiety in means of expression outside of violence or endless broodiness. Particularly for college aged men, these feelings of anxiety are scrutinized due to their having supposedly “become a man” when they left for college. A man is not allowed to feel things, especially anxiety or depression, too intensely lest he cause an imbalance in the “frat boy” or “totally together/no personal problems” persona he’s been weighted with. Our very own counselor Ben Lighter reports understanding this sentiment from his own Greek Life experience. Counselor Ben says, “Be careful with social organizations. Greek life and fraternities can be an excellent opportunity for growth both socially and individually, but beware of toxic fraternity culture. If you find yourself surrounded by guys who ritualistically binge drink, conduct hazing, or permit sexual assault, get out of there and contact their national organization. There is no social organization that is worth the cost of your wellbeing.”
How Therapy Helps College Students
Beginning therapy can be a beneficial step for college students for several reasons.
- Therapy Provides Support and Encouragement: Counselors can provide an unbiased and unconditional sense of support for someone that is going through a life transition. Counselors will help college students learn how to manage all their responsibilities, while also taking time to engage in self-care and self-appreciation.
- Therapy Helps With Stress Management: College students experience high amounts of stress that can be new and overwhelming. Stress is one of the biggest challenges for college students. In high school, schedules and responsibilities are often managed by parents, teachers, or coaches. In contrast, college students become responsible for managing their own schedules, sometimes for the first time ever. Counselors can provide helpful and practical tools to help manage stress and overwhelmed students. There are plenty of useful interventions to reduce stress, keep a manageable schedule, and increase healthy productivity.
- Therapy Offers A Safe Space: Most college students enter into an “exploration” stage when they get to college. Many will explore different career paths, friendships, relationships, identities, opinions, and styles. As scary as this exploration can be, it is a good and healthy thing. However, exploration can leave college students feeling vulnerable, exposed, or let-down. Having a counselor to help guide students in this phase of their life can be uplifting and grounding. When one is trying to find their place in this world, it is helpful to have a “safe place” to process and get meaningful feedback from a trusted professional.
Other ways therapy can help college students include include:
- Time Management
- Social Skills
- Navigating Roommate Conflict
- Career Counseling
- Setting Health Goals & Maintaining Physical Health
- Heartbreak & Breakups
- Substance Use
- Interpersonal Skills
You Can Make A Difference On Campus
How can you help those in your college community who are struggling with anxiety? A few tips from our counselors include:
- Practice Awareness: Now that you know many college students, including men, experience these feelings – be a part of the solution, not the problem.
- If You See Something, Say Something: If you have a classmate who is not acting like themselves, but gives you the “Totally Fine!” brush-off when you ask how they are doing – consider practicing vulnerability with them. An example of something you could say: “I care about you, and I know it isn’t easy for men our age to have the freedom to express what they may be going through… How can I support you?”
- Remember That Times Are A’ Changin’: While, sadly, some gender stereotypes and/or inequality are still alive and well – many more now acknowledge and are willing to act out against them. Remind your friends that they don’t have to have it all figured out.
- Knowledge Is Power: Learn all you can about you or your loved one’s anxiety. The more you know, the safer you will feel.
- Get Out Of Your Head And On Campus Instead: College is a time of both challenge and tremendous opportunity. In navigating these experiences the brain, being the problem-solving machine it is, creates a script for what it is to be “the big man on campus.” More time can be spent worrying and stressing about living up to that fiction (it is a fiction because there is no basis for the concept in reality) than actually living the remarkable full catastrophe of college life. Once challenges and opportunities can be accepted as inevitabilities of college life, and life in general, useful actions are possible. So find the strength to be vulnerable. Ask that question in class, take a course in Musical Theater even if you can’t sing, dance with somebody, join a club, even… let yourself cry while reading Blakes’, The Chimney Sweeper for English Literature. Go ahead, try it, make a space for it, and see if you feel more connected to life and less attached to unhelpful fictions of the mind.
The counselors at Garrett Counseling work with college students to help them navigate the transition to college and any mental health concerns they have. To learn more or schedule an appointment, contact us at (256) 239-5662 or online.
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This article was written by counselor Rachel, a mental health professional at Garrett Counseling in Huntsville, AL. Learn more about Rachel here.