Editor’s Note: Kathryn Dewitt is not our “usual” institutional researcher or clinical expert. She is an undergraduate student at University of Pennsylvania who speaks from the heart. As a freshman, she battled anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide. Not only has she personally triumphed over those issues but she has become a campus mental health advocate and one of the leaders of the UPenn chapter of Active Minds. We first met her when she was a panelist at the annual conference of the Anxiety & Depression Association of America and were immediately impressed by her commitment to mental health and its stigma and wanting to help other college students. While her article (hopefully there will be more from her) is not evidence-based in the traditional sense, it comes from an insider’s real world experience and living the anxiety nightmare.
College is supposed to be the best four years of your life! I heard that mantra day in and day out as I bought my twin XL sheets, selected my classes, and finally traveled more than 6 hours by plane to a campus that I had never been to before.
I arrived at the University of Pennsylvania with my family in the fall of 2013. As I arranged my books in my room, I worried about what my peers would think about me based on the things I had brought. When my roommate and her mom arrived, I wondered if we would be best friends like in movies. On the first day of classes, I arrived at all my classes early – eager to make the most out of the time my professors gave me. Campus was buzzing with excitement and my freshman hall had this nervous energy about finding the right social scene, the right classes, and the right student groups. Being nervous about such a big change is normal, right? Yeah, everyone gets the jitters.
But for me, my anxiety quickly spiraled out of the range of normal jitters and impacted my quality of life. I had not realized that there was a fine line between being an unsure freshman and having a full blown anxiety disorder, which meant that I let things get even further out of control. Here are 4 things I wish I knew to determine if jitters have crossed the line to become anxiety
1. It’s hard to connect socially
In the time leading up to arriving at Penn, I had been planning to become the person that blossomed socially in college. However, I put that pressure on myself to “do college right” and it backfired when I became too worried about what others might think to contribute to conversation or meet new people during new student orientation.
2. It’s affecting your physical health
When I was a freshman, I had numerous bloody noses, headaches, and chest pains that I could not explain. However, due to stigma, I did not want to admit that this problem was related to my mind as opposed to my body. Later in the semester, my anxiety manifested particularly in the dining halls about eating alone and that worry would undermine any appetite I had.
3. It’s stopping you from being your best self
Depending on where you go to college, you may or may not have peers who knew you during high school. My first semester, the people around me did not know what I was like when I was well, and therefore, my new friends did not realize I was not performing optimally. As anxiety began to consume my life, I was no longer able to enjoy what I was learning, volunteer and serve others, or be a kind and caring friend.
4. You just don’t feel well
Sometimes I just couldn’t put my finger on what was going on, but I didn’t feel well. I felt…off. I was not sure what was going on because I had never experienced anything like that before. Each of the above factors interact and affect your overall wellness making normal life tasks so much harder.
Ultimately, realizing that you or someone you know might need extra support for anxiety is the first step. Different campus counseling centers and learning resource centers have tools that focus specifically on first years to help manage anxiety during the adjustment to college; I would highly recommend investigating what is available at your college or university. My biggest regret of my first semester is not realizing the serious nature of my anxiety and how that anxiety played into my depression. Learning to take care of your wellness is probably one of the most important lessons you’ll learn as you embark on your college journey.
Kathryn DeWitt is an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania studying Psychology with a minor in Spanish. She is a research assistant at the Center for Mental Health Policy and Services Research and a leader in Active Minds Penn, a local chapter of a national organization that focuses on changing the conversation about mental heath on college campuses.