College is supposed to be a time of meeting new people, gaining independence, and actually studying what you’re interested in, right?   For many college students, it is a time of difficult adjustment.  You may have been counting down the days to your high school graduation and the day you moved to college.  There was so much anticipation with living on your own and being independent, yet it did not turn out as planned.  Excitement is replaced by homesickness, anxiety, sadness, and fear.  You may ask yourself, what is wrong with me?  First, this article will discuss what is normal and abnormal when adjusting to a new living situation.  Second, it will give you a few tips on how to handle the difficult transition to college.

What Is Normal Adjustment?

Any life adjustment or change may bring with it emotions and behaviors you did not expect.  Examples of life adjustments are moving, changing schools, the arrival of a new sibling, loss of a loved one, and any type of change.  Even though moving to college may be very exciting and you’ve looked forward to it for a long time, it may be difficult to live in a place you are not familiar with and close to people you barely know.  It is common to feel everyone else is adjusting more quickly than you and having no issues with the adjustment.  In reality, more fellow college students than you know are also struggling with adjustment.  When thinking about “normal” adjustment, you have to decide whether the symptoms you are experiencing are impacting your daily functioning.  If you find that your symptoms are bothersome, but you are still able to go about your daily responsibilities, then you are adjusting normally.  On the other hand, if you feel so homesick, anxious, or depressed you are not completing homework or getting out of bed for class, then there may be more going on.  

A few examples of symptoms that can occur with normal adjustment to college are:

  • Calling home more often
  • Visiting home more often
  • Questioning your decision about the college you are attending
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Questioning whether to attend certain social gatherings and/or join clubs on campus
  • Procrastinating school work
  • Experiencing slight nervousness with tests or assignments
  • Feeling sad

On the other hand, a few examples of symptoms that do not characterize normal adjustment are:

  • Isolating yourself in your dorm room
  • Not completing homework
  • Skipping many classes
  • Skipping meals
  • Drinking alcohol and/or using drugs
  • Engaging in risky sexual behaviors
  • Experiencing anxiety more days than not 
  • Feeling worthless, hopeless, or helpless
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Resurfacing of previous anxiety, depressive, eating issues 

If you experience more than two in the second list above, it does not mean you are suffering from a mental illness.  It simply means you may need help identifying healthy ways to cope with adjusting to college. Experiencing one or two is not bad, but if you experience more than two you may want to seek help from your college’s free counseling service.

What Are Positive Ways to Handle the Transition to College?

Don’t Isolate

If you are experiencing anxiety, sadness, fear, or homesickness, the first thing you may want to do is stay in your dorm room, sleep more than usual, or go home the first chance you get.  While these may sound helpful at the time, they are actually detrimental.  Staying in your dorm room or sleeping more than you need will actually increase feelings of sadness or hopelessness. The best thing you can do is get yourself out of your dorm room or stay on campus over the weekend.  The more you meet new people and try new things, the more you will enjoy your college experience.  If meeting new people is challenging for you, ask to spend time with your roommate and his/her friends.  You could go to one of your college’s sporting events or try a club on campus.  At first you may not feel that socializing will be helpful, but in reality, being around other people and building new relationships will improve your symptoms as well as how you feel about yourself. 

Sleeping and Eating Well are Important

This statement may be an oxymoron, but your body handles stress and changes better when it is rested and has nutrients.  Now you may be pointing out that in the previous example it states not to stay in your dorm and sleep.  While this is true, you need to make sure you get 7-8 hours of sleep each night.  If you find yourself sleeping more than 10 hours a night regularly, you may be sleeping too much.  In college, it is also tempting to eat foods that have very little nutritional value especially since you do not have to prepare or clean up the food due to eating in the cafeteria.  Also, you may be prone to late night fast food runs.  If at all possible, try to have a balanced diet and exercise regularly.  These will help your body have more energy and for you to feel better about yourself. 

Avoid Drugs and Alcohol

When you hear the word college, what do you think of?  Probably drinking.  This may be a hard suggestion to follow depending on what college you attend.  College campuses are saturated with students drinking alcohol, so you may be saying “It is too hard to resist.”  First off, if you are under 21, you should not be drinking anyway!  Second, drinking alcohol actually makes anxiety, sadness, and fear worse.  As many of you know, it is a depressant.  It reduces arousal and stimulation, which actually makes your symptoms worse.  Also, you should already know the dangers of underage drinking, drinking and driving, and overdosing on alcohol.  These are all good reasons to avoid alcohol.  With drugs, it is difficult to name all of the possible types that are on college campuses, but the harmful physical and legal effects are astronomical.  Plainly stated: using drugs will keep you further from your goal of graduating college.  Please save yourself pain and stay clear of these two substances. 

Positive Self-Talk

With all the changes that college brings, it can be very easy to allow your thoughts to be negative about your abilities.  You may also find yourself comparing your abilities to others.  Maybe your thoughts go something like this: “I can’t do this.”  “Why did I chose this college.”  “The classes are too hard.”  “I just don’t have enough time.”  “It seems so easy for her.”  Instead of allowing negative thoughts to run your mind, think of things you are proud of or appreciate about yourself.  If this is a struggle, simply stating “I can do this,” can be helpful.  Also, remember that while it seems everyone else is adjusting well to college, this simply is not true.  There are others that are struggling with the adjustment as well.  Do your best not to compare yourself with others.  You are different than them and there is no comparison!

Ask for Help, If You Need It 

One great thing about college is they offer free counseling on campus.  This is a great resource if you find yourself struggling with anxiety, sadness, homesickness, fear, or other issues.  Also, they have support groups, so you won’t feel like the only person on campus who does not want to be there.  You do not have to have a mental disorder to see a counselor.  The counselors at your college will have great resources to help with the symptoms you are experiencing.  Another great resource is the counseling center. It will help you find other resources if you need them (i.e. other help, career services, and help with classes).  It is also a good idea to talk with your professor or teaching assistant if you find yourself struggling in a certain class.  They can be a great resource on how to study and get the most out of their class.

You are Not Alone 

If you find yourself struggling with the transition to college, remember you are not alone!  Everyone has to adjust to the new environment and independence.  When symptoms become too overwhelming or you find yourself concerned about whether what you are experiencing is normal, it can be best to seek professional help.  Don’t forget to take advantage of the free counseling on campus.  If you find yourself needing more help than what your campus can provide, check out the counselors on My Counselor Online.  We know how to help!

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