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Anxiety in college students

with Clinical Pyschologist Dr. Andy Pomerantz

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Andy Pomerantz, Ph.D., earned his B.A. in psychology at Washington University and his M.S. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Saint Louis University.  For over twenty years, he has seen therapy clients in his St. Louis private practice and worked as Professor of Psychology and Director of the Clinical Psychology Graduate Program at nearby Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE). 

How common is anxiety in college students?

Very common, especially among the high-achieving students who go to Washington University.  Of course, a little anxiety at appropriate times doesn’t hurt, and in fact can be somewhat motivating.  But when anxiety is more intense than it needs to be, or persists after the stressful situation has passed, it can be problematic.   

For WU students, there is no shortage of challenges: living away from family, getting along with roommates and suitemates, making new friends while maintaining the friendships from home, Greek life, preparing for the next big step (grad school, career, etc.), social media, and of course current classes, among others.  Any of these issues—or a combination, or something else altogether, or something that can’t quite be identified—can cause some students to struggle with anxiety.

 

What can my WU student do if anxiety becomes a problem?

Plenty, including these strategies:  

  • Realize that they are not alone in experiencing anxiety.  Lots of college students, at WU and elsewhere, feel very much the same way.  

  • Don’t get overly anxious about anxiety.  Remember, a little anxiety is normal and sometimes even productive, and it often passes rather quickly. 

  • Get good sleep.  

  • Eat healthy and exercise regularly (but not in ways that create excessive stress or pressure for perfection).

  • Practice self-care by doing things that bring joy and fulfillment, even if they have to squeeze these activities into their schedule.  For some students, meditation falls into this category.  

  • Recognize and change irrational thought patterns that unnecessarily heighten anxiety.  

  • Get counseling or therapy if necessary.  WU offers on-campus counseling services (https://students.wustl.edu/counseling/), and there are plenty of counselors or therapists in the St. Louis community including some whose offices are a quick Uber ride, Metrolink ride, or walk away.  

  • Consider medication too.  Again, WU offers on-campus services (https://students.wustl.edu/mental-health-services/), and there are plenty of well-qualified prescribers in nearby areas of St. Louis.

 

What can I, as a parent, do to help?

A lot, including these strategies:  

  • Try not to be overly anxious yourself.  To the extent that you successfully manage your own anxiety (about your child and your own life), you offer a valuable role model and a calming influence to your WU student.  

  • Remember your child’s resilience.  You raised a smart, capable young adult.  When faced with an anxiety, they may be able to endure, thrive, and even learn from the experience.

  • Be available for calls, texts, and FaceTime/Skype conversations, but don’t smother or demand too much information.  

  • Respond with support and compassion, but without judgment.  Don’t doubt their reasons for anxiety (with questions like “What do you have to be anxious about?”); instead, trust that their reaction is genuine and focus on helping them through the situation they face.

  • If the anxiety is not severe, don’t rush in to fix their problems, even if it was helpful to do so when they were younger.  Give them the opportunity to build their confidence by handling challenges on their own.

  • If the anxiety is truly debilitating—for example, if it persists for a long time, significantly interferes with day-to-day life, or leads to thoughts or actions of self-harm—help them find local resources such as counselors, therapists, or psychiatrists.  ​