A Therapist's Guide on how to Survive Your First Year at College
You are heading to college! That is so exciting! Right? While I’m sure excitement is in the mix, it may also be swirled around with fear, uncertainty, anxiety, and sadness. Preparing to attend college, whether you are living at home, moving to another state or to a different country entirely, can be a very stressful event. Here are some tips to surviving your first year. (Side note, it irks me that the term “freshman” is gendered, so I’ll use the term “first year” in this article).
Also, shout out to my alma mater Clark University in Worcester, MA! It was an intense 4 years but I’m glad I spent them there. And special shout out to my two besties from college who shared their wisdom and helped me prepare for this article. Trio forever😊
“These will be the best years of your life!” “The friends you make will be your friends for life!” “You are going to have the most amazing memories!” No pressure, right? Those statements may be true-ish, or temporarily true, but you will also have times where you are homesick, lonely, unsure, bored, and regretful. This does not mean you aren’t cut out for college; it means you are human. Very rarely are experiences entirely good or entirely bad, most of them have a lot of emotions and experiences all rolled into one. Enjoy the good, and don’t feel entirely surprised or self-critical when there are some negative experiences. Give yourself grace.
If you already have some mental health struggles, or are developing some in college, get connected with counseling. Continue with your current therapist and/or psychiatrist or contact your school’s counseling center. Make sure you have refills on any medications you take and transfer your prescription to a local pharmacy. You can also find a therapist through your insurance provider, www.psychologytoday.com, or through the county’s mental health agency. Don’t wait, have a plan before you attend school. Even if you don’t already have depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions, know how you can access these resources if you need to later on.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, tell a friend, contact family, reach out to your school’s crisis center that should be connected to the counseling center, or call/text 988. Don’t wait, and don’t struggle alone, you have people around you who want to help. Give yourself safety.
Change is Hard:
Yes, college is a privilege. It is often a really cool experience. It can be a major developmental milestone. And change is hard. Balancing work and school is hard. Moving is hard. Meeting new people is hard. Being in a new environment is hard. Being away from your support system is hard. Being challenged academically is hard. Buying groceries, doing laundry, managing your own schedule etc. Adulting is hard! It takes time and practice, and here is the secret, no one fully figures it out. So, do your best. And do what works for you. If you are a structure person, map out your routine. If you are an extrovert, plan a grocery store run with others. Use past successful strategies to help with your current experience. You can do it. Give yourself discipline.
Go to the doctor. Go to the dentist. If you have chronic health issues it can be tempting to backslide into a state of denial about them in college, but it will hurt you in the long run. Stay on top of your needs. One thing no one tells you is that if you live in the dorms you will get sick, probably a lot. Invest in Vitamin C and hand sanitizer! Follow your school and county’s Covid protocols.
If you are having sex or might have sex, get birth control! If you are 18 you can make your own medical decisions and can get this from a doctor without parental consent. Regardless of sexual orientation, everyone should be protecting themselves and their partners from sexually transmitted infections. Also, if you are moving to another state know what the abortion laws are there, unfortunately abortion laws are changing pretty fast due to Roe v. Wade being overturned. Whenever possible be proactive, saves you from having to be reactive. Give yourself health.
Give it Time:
It takes time to get acclimated to a new environment, new schedule, new people. Some people meet great friends the first day, some people discover a year or two into college that they are not at the right school for them. Everything takes time. When people ask you if you have made any friends yet it is perfectly acceptable to say “no” if that is the case. That doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you, these things take time. Look for opportunities to socialize, and accept that this is not a race, it is a marathon. Give yourself patience.
Call your parents! I had to say it. Also, call your siblings. (Do people make phone calls anymore? I just dated myself). Not only is it a huge adjustment for parents when a child moves out of the house, it is hard for the younger siblings who are still at home. They often don’t express this and get overlooked. So, stay in contact with them. Go visit. Give yourself familiarity.
What do you want from college? You don’t have to have your career all mapped out, although some do. Put some thought into what you want to major in but don’t stop there. Want to study abroad? Attend sporting events? Make new friends? Secure an internship? Just hang on for dear life and pass your classes? Success can be determined in a lot of ways, so give it some thought into what feels important as well as special for you. Give yourself focus.
Some of my top experiences in college- I volunteered with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, got my tongue pierced, volunteered to hand out condoms through a safe sex club on campus, worked in the general store, restaurant and a dive-y coffee shop, performed karaoke, went to multiple showings of Rocky Horror Picture show, spent time in Boston, saw my first drag performances, acted in the Vagina Monologues, modeled for art classes, went sky-diving on spring break and got kicked out of a gay bar for being underage. I love that I did those things!
Separate Fear from Danger:
The things I didn’t do in college that I still regret to this day are the things that I didn’t do because of fear. I really wish that I would have traveled abroad, attended the cast party for the Vagina Monologues, talked with more professors and went to more lectures. Now, it is important to acknowledge that fear and danger can feel the same in your body. You get tense, your heart races, you want to punch somebody or run away. Take a deep breath and ask yourself what are you afraid of? If you are afraid of harm coming to you, if your body and mind are giving a resounding “Nope” to what is in front of you, that might be a response to danger. If you are afraid of being embarrassed, of not being capable, of the unknown, of your friends and/or family being mad at you, ask yourself if that is what you want dictating your life or not. You are not perfect. But you are capable, strong, resilient, and able to take healthy risks if you so choose. Give yourself trust.
Try new things. Always been interested in archeology, even though you aren’t going to major in it? Take a class! (Coolest classes I took? History of witchcraft, a cinema class, Latino literature, contemporary art, and a history of genocides). Want to connect with others regarding race, politics, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or hacky sack obsession? Check out a club! Go to the pool, go to the gym, go to college events and presentations. (This is 20 years overdue but thanks for the lift to the Renaissance Festival, Clark Wiccan Group!) Explore new groups of people, new ways of thinking, hidden sides of your personality. Don’t let past labels define you. Learn about the world. Broaden your horizons, your mind, and your spirit. College isn’t just about growing into careers and growing in debt, it’s about growing your heart. In big and small ways we can all work to change the world for the better. Give yourself expansion.
College! Party time, excellent! (Ok, I dated myself again, but seriously, everyone should know about the cinematic masterpiece that is Wayne’s World). However just because there is a lot of substance use in college doesn’t mean people can’t have serious dependency issues. Some people remain sober in college. Some dabble. Some experiment. Some get trashed often. And some people are entering or have been in a dangerous relationship with drugs or alcohol for quite a long time.
It’s not just the amount that you are using, but also what it is doing to your health, your relationships, and your commitments. Are you missing classes due to substance use? Is your physical or mental health suffering? Are you isolating yourself from others, or hanging out with people that are not healthy for you? When you think about not using drugs or alcohol for a set amount of time, how do you feel? If you feel nervous or anxious, you might want to consider taking some time off and/or getting some help.
There is a lot of judgement around the word addict, so don’t focus on if you have an “addiction”. Focus on why you are using and what it would be like to not use. How are you actually feeling, or what are you trying not to feel? Notice if your whole social network is based around using. Try taking some time away from substances, focus on other things that bring you joy and help you relax. Suggest a movie and ice cream night or going on a hike as opposed to using. Your school will have a substance abuse program and support groups you can connect with if that would be helpful. Most schools offer sober living environments and sober activities. Want to take a break from substances but need some no-pressure structure? Look into this 30-day sobriety plan. https://thisnakedmind.com/blog-the-alcohol-experiment/. Seek out counseling support if needed. Give yourself clarity.
Is there anything in life that is as basic and as complicated as our relationship with food? Maybe sex, but that’s a different article! Food sustains us, it strengthens and energizes us. However, millions of people in the United States will experience an eating disorder at some point in their life. Millions more struggle with Disordered Eating, which doesn’t quite evolve into a full-blown eating disorder but does include obsessive thoughts around food, appearance, or weight, eating to deal with emotions, feeling guilt regarding eating or appearance, skipping meals and/or avoiding certain foods.
What’s one thing many upcoming first years hear about food before starting school? Not about grocery shopping, cooking, or intuitive eating (listening to your body and understanding hunger and fullness cues) but “Beware of the Freshman 15!” It’s infuriating, like the worst thing that could possibly happen in college would be to gain weight. Your weight will fluctuate in college. You might not like the food in the dining hall, or you might like it a lot (Bittersweet Fried Chicken wrap from the Bistro, yum…) You might do what I did and exist off mac and cheese and top roman (ah the good old days!) You might be busy and forget to eat or have a weird schedule that doesn’t work with dining times or have food intolerances that limit what foods you can eat. So, your weight will fluctuate.
Be kind to yourself. Feed yourself. If this is an area where you are already struggling, have a plan in place. Schedule time to eat, set reminders, carry snacks with you. If you have an eating disorder and are in treatment, work with your providers on a plan. If you have some disordered eating and body image issues like most of us in this country, try to find an accountability buddy. Have someone you can eat meals with and work out in a healthy space with. Agree to not talk about weight or appearance with each other. Find out what triggers you. If the gym is triggering, avoid it and go on walks. If social media is triggering, take a break or be very deliberate in who you are following- get rid of the negative and bring in more positive. Notice what you appreciate about your body.
Your relationship with your body will be your longest, and most intimate, relationship ever. If that relationship is abusive seek help. Learn to be proactive in fostering a kind and compassionate relationship with your body. Give yourself nourishment.
I don’t recall conversations about sexual consent in college 20 years ago, though there might have been. I do remember the name of a boy being written on a stall in the bathroom at a neighboring bar, stating he was dangerous and warning girls away from him. I think, and I hope, that we have come further than this. We are having more conversations about sex and consent, movies are starting to depict sex scenes showing people asking for consent before getting it on, and there is more support for victims of sexual assault.
If you are the victim of a sexual assault know it wasn’t your fault, and talk to a trusted person in your life. There are supportive institutions that will protect your anonymity or advise you in making reports, whatever you need. https://www.rainn.org/. Support your friends and others. Take care of yourself and others. Give yourself permission to have boundaries.
Enjoy the Little Things:
If you go to school in a town that actually has winter, you will notice that the first few warm days of spring are magical. Everyone lays on blankets outside and wears shorts in 60-degree weather. It’s full of wonder and bliss. Find your small moments of bliss. The walk to class with a friend. A private area outside to sit (loved those stone benches surrounded by trees behind the library Clark). Inside jokes. New music. Not having a curfew. There is so much to be in awe of around you, seek it out and let is fill you. Give yourself magic.
These years are intense, challenging, fun, and SHORT. Make the most of it, and congratulations on all your hard work getting to this point. Have a time to remember!