Anxiety and College: Why They Often Go Hand In Hand

Something that University of Minnesota, Augsburg, St. Thomas, St. Kate’s, Hamline, and Macalester students all have in common: gearing up for finals. Which means stress and anxiety are on the rise.  

Final exams are usually among a student’s least favorite aspects of college life. The pressure to cram at every waking moment, the sheer panic when you realize your grade is hanging on this one final exam, the inner conflict of prioritizing what you need to do vs. what you want to do . . . talk about anxiety provoking!

What many students and parents don’t realize is how common anxiety is, especially during college and in young adulthood. In fact, 75% of adults in the United States who experience anxiety report having first anxiety episode before the age of 22. Why is college among the most common times in life for the onset of anxiety?


Being Away From Home For the First Time

Leaving for college is a bittersweet time for many high school grads. The excitement of finally being off on your own, coupled with the scary realization of . . . “wait, I’m on my own?!”

Living with strangers, doing your own laundry, grocery shopping, navigating the whole FAFSA thing, even seeing the doctor and figuring out your health insurance… it’s a lot of responsibility in a short period of time. Not to mention the difficulty of being separated from your hometown, your family, and the comfort of your own bedroom.

Transitioning to college life is a major change that students are faced with. Just because it’s an exciting time, doesn’t mean it’s exempt from major anxiety, stress, and worry.


Social Media

Over 98% of college students use social media, such as Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook. The thing about social media is that it’s a big contributor to the anxiety-provoking feelings of isolation and “not good enough.”

Though seemingly contradictory, social media can be incredibly isolating. It can give a false sense of having meaningful relationships, thus leading college students to rely on it to meet their needs for social interaction. College students are particularly vulnerable to “social media socializing” because of their busy schedules and ever-evolving friendships and relationships.

Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook are where everyone displays the “highlight reel” version of life (you know exactly what I’m talking about — and it’s okay if you’re guilty of it). The sweaty post-gym #fitnessaddict, the beaming group of #besties #makingmemories, the sunny #vacay #beachvibes… social media can make users feel like life just sucks and they’re just not good enough, which is unfortunate, because many of these posts are inaccurate representations of real life.

Academic Pressure (the obvious, but major one)

For most, doing well academically is at the top of their list. Students aim for high GPAs, especially those who plan on applying for postgraduate school. Earning high grades in college can be challenging because of the difficult coursework and the pressure to keep up outside of class and try to balance the rest of life.

To top it off, some classes at larger universities (such as the U of M) have over dozens and dozens of students in just one generals classes. This means less one-on-one interaction between students and professors.

Another challenge in college is that students are in the beginning stages of building peer relationships and may not yet feel comfortable reaching out to other peers in class for help. This can further strain academic success and lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety.



A 2016 study found that roughly 80% of college students drink alcohol. Why is college such a vulnerable time for increased alcohol use? Certain aspects of college life play a factor in the increase in alcohol use, including freedom from parents, unstructured time between classes, and the normalization of binge drinking in college.

It’s not uncommon for college students to find themselves caught in a vicious cycle of anxiety and alcohol use. Some college students drink not only to have fun, but drink in an effort to keep anxiety at bay, since alcohol has a rather quick sedative effect. However, alcohol consumption can backfire and actually increase anxiety due to its effects on serotonin and neurotransmitters in the brain.

So the science says that anxiety can worsen for people the day after drinking… ever heard of the “Sunday Scaries”? Sundays can become one of the most anxious days of the week since they often follow a night of heavy drinking and are usually the time when students are coming to grips with the stress of the upcoming school week.

College is a stressful time in life, but you don’t have to go it alone. For resources on managing anxiety, check out your college’s counseling center, which usually offers short-term counseling services to students or can direct you to someone who can help. If you’re living in the dorms, check in with your Residential Advisor, who can help you connect with some mental health resources. Feel free to read more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in St. Paul, MN, or schedule a free 20-minute phone consultation with me so we can connect and see if we would be a good fit.