How to keep Stress from turning into Anxiety and Depression In College

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Change is an inescapable part of life and even if it is exciting it is also stressful because embedded in change is loss. It is the end of something, the closing of a chapter, and just like grief, it takes time to adjust to the new reality. People also have an innate need to assign meaning to events that happen in their life, and since stress magnifies negative thoughts, feelings of discomfort can easily become interpreted as an indication of inadequacy, and disappointments, which are normal, can easily be seen as a never-ending cycle of defeat. It is therefore important to manage your level of stress so that it doesn’t reach threshold and then result in these kinds of thoughts and feelings that render a person vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

How to keep this from happening?

Stress must be managed proactively, and one of the most effective ways to manage stress is through self-care, meaning attention must be focused on health, relaxation, socializing, and fun. Some people unfortunately, when they begin to feel mounting stress, begin to panic, and have a tendency to double down, and do more of the thing that causes stress as a way to try to reduce stress. The problem, however with this approach, is that life becomes constricted, and devoid of pleasure and meaning other than achievement, and therefore you magnify the importance of accomplishment in your mind. You unwittingly tie your self-esteem to achievement, which is now needed to validate your worth. If you succeed then you will experience yourself as a worthwhile, and competent human being, but if you don’t meet the hoped for expectation you experience yourself as inadequate and hopeless.

Other people, however, when they feel mounting stress, have a tendency to avoid any situation in which they may risk failure. They are afraid to put their competence to the test, because their negative thoughts have convinced them that they are unlikely to succeed. The fear of failure often manifests in opportunities being ignored, and also procrastination, which sadly is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy because when you put off what needs to be done you rob yourself of the time to adequately prepare.

The following are 10 tips and conversations to have with your child to help them manage their stress so it doesn’t become problematic in their lives.

  1. Emphasize to your child the importance of accepting who they are, just as they are, and not tying their self-esteem to others by making comparisons or being overly concerned about their opinion and judgment of them. Your child should understand that not everyone will like them, and that they should always be kind and respectful of other people’s feelings but their goal should not be to ingratiate; some people will appreciate them for the exact same reason that others might not. And also, making comparisons provides no meaningful information because we are not equal; we all have different strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Teach your college student about the paradox of self-confidence, and that is, if you wait for this feeling to manifest you will likely wait forever. Self-confidence follows action and doesn’t precede it. It is only with accumulated successes, and feelings of pride that you will begin to internalize a feeling of competence. Just like with happiness, you need to do in order to feel happy and not wait for it to strike. Encourage your child to take action despite their lack of confidence because this will reduce their stress in the long run. Short-term stress is uncomfortable but long-term stress is debilitating.
  3. Discuss with your child the importance of having realistic expectations since accumulated disappointments can easily become internalized as a feeling of failure. If your child is capable of getting great grades, and identifies as being smart let him or her know that they are now competing with a larger group of students and that they are no longer a large fish in a small pond. Often grades are scaled on a curve and they must prepare themselves for the possibility that they may no longer be in the upper tail of the curve, and that this is okay because what is more important than the grade are qualities like effort, tenacity, and integrity. By emphasizing qualities you also convey to your child that you value who they are more than their intellectual ability, which is an inherited immutable trait no different than the color of their eyes.
  4. Share with your child that stress is inevitable, and that it is best tolerated when the source of the stress can be expressed. Encourage your child to talk about his or her concerns and insecurities, and reassure your child that there isn’t anything wrong with them because they feel insecure and vulnerable. Feelings must be discharged in order to keep stress from causing emotional difficulty or getting expressed in unhealthy ways.
  5. Educate your child that too much stress creates an anxious mind, which has a tendency to both overestimate the likelihood that something bad will happen, and that they will be unable to cope. Instead of anticipating choppy water, for example, the mind will anticipate a tidal wave or tsunami. It is helpful to reduce your stress level by exercising, and getting enough sleep and eating a diet that doesn’t cause spikes and then sudden drops in blood sugar. Our level of frustration tolerance is much lower when we are overwhelmed with stress and so a molehill can easily be experienced a mountain.
  6. Encourage your child to set aside some quiet time each day to reflect back on the day, because when we are busy, we distract our mind from thinking about things that cause us stress. By not addressing these issues however, they cannot be resolved, and problem solving is one of the best ways to reduce stress. Educate your child that there is often an irrational belief that thinking about what makes us anxious will increase the anxiety and make it intolerable. The truth is that the anxiety is growing and becoming intolerable because there is something that needs to be addressed but instead it is being pushed aside and ignored.
  7. Stress often causes a feeling of alienation and so having a support system is necessary to combat these feelings of disconnection and the desire to withdraw and isolate. Encourage your child to join some kind of club immediately. Moving into a new and unfamiliar environment is lonely, and being with other people that are navigating the same terrain feels less lonely.
  8. In times of stress and moments of self-doubt help your child reframe their experience. The following is an example: Even though I am feeling lonely and worried that I don’t belong and fit in, I will persevere for the year because it is likely that I need to adjust to this new reality.
  9. Teach your child to feel empowered by cautioning them against pursuing the idea of being “best” and “perfect” and encourage them to rather aim to be the best version of themselves since this goal is healthy and attainable. This will help reduce their stress stemming from the foolish belief that they must be exceptional or perfect in order to be acceptable.
  10. It’s important for your child to accept the reality of limitations even if it is unpleasant since we all have them; none of us is equally strong in all areas. For example, your child may want to be a doctor but if science isn’t his or her aptitude then they are setting themselves up for failure, and undermining their confidence in the process. Remind your child that there are many roads to the same destination, and that they can be perfectly happy and find fulfillment doing something else.

    A program designed to address these issues and others pertaining to low self-worth and self-esteem in general can be found at:

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