3 Things To Do When Feeling Overwhelmed By College


It happens to all college students.  At some point during your college experience you’ll likely feel stressed out by the pressures of classes, working, fraternity or sorority commitments, roommate drama – or maybe all of the above! It’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed by everything on your plate and be at a loss as to what to do.  All is not lost, however.  Here are three things you can do that might prove helpful:

1. Social support – research demonstrates that talking to friends, family members and significant others is key to helping people cope with stress.  Knowing that you can share your problems with others who are truly concerned about you and have your back provides “psychological fuel” that will help you carry on.  However, some college students internalize their feelings when they are stressed out and although this may work in the short term it usually “eats away at them” in the long term resulting in health and/or mental health problems.  Other students don’t have a problem talking to friends and family members about their problems, but complain so much that it’s a big turn off and so they don’t get the amount of sympathy they feel they need or deserve.  Whatever the case, if you recognize that things are getting beyond the point of dealing with the situation yourself and talking to friends or family members just isn’t cutting it then it might make sense to talk to a counselor at your college or university counseling center.

Self-reflection questions:  Do I understand the value of talking to others about what’s stressing me out and engage in honest conversations with them about it?  If not, why not?  Am I at the point where I need to talk to a professional about my situation?

2. Tweak your perceptions – the way you look at and think about situations plays an important role in how you feel and behave in response to them.  In the famous movie, “The Wizard of Oz” it would have been very easy for Dorothy to perceive her situation as bleak and hopeless.  However, she chose to maintain hope that things would get better (i.e., that she would return home) and it was hope that motivated her to continue moving forward.

Sometimes people develop thinking styles that negatively impact their feelings and behaviors.  Here are a few of them:

* All-or-none thinking – seeing things in black-and-white terms.  Some people feel as though things have to be (or be done in) a certain way and, if not, then the opposite must be true.    This is certainly the case with perfectionists who believe they must do things perfectly (e.g., get As in all their classes) and if they fall short – even if by a razor-thin margin – they view themselves as failures.  If this applies to you then the question is, “Why must things be black or white?  What would happen if you allowed for a little more gray every now and then?  Allowing for gray would help, but it may take you some time to make this kind of adjustment if you make this kind of thinking error.

Self-reflection questions:  How am I similar to and different from Dorothy in terms of how I view events?  What would it take for me to tweak my perceptions of a situation so it doesn’t stress me out so much?

* Overgeneralizing – believing that what holds true for a specific situation holds true for all situations.  For example, as a freshman in college it would be easy to conclude that all professors are unfair, uncaring and unreasonable based on a negative experience with one professor early on in one’s college experience.  Obviously, this goes way too far, but happens automatically if you are prone to make negative assumptions about people.

Self-reflection questions:  Do I tend to make generalizations about people based on a single experience – especially a negative experience?  How can I become more aware of this tendency so I don’t stress myself out?

* Emotional reasoning – some people are really tuned into their feelings and give them precedence with regard to reasoning and decision-making.  Their philosophy – even if they are not aware of it – is, “If I feel it then it must be true.”  A college student may feel uncomfortable or intimidated by her roommate and conclude, “I feel so inferior to her.  I really am a loser.”  Unfortunately, feelings are not the reliable indicators of things people like them to be.  Still, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feelings-based reasoning, which can make your life miserable.

Self-reflection questions:  When was the last time I concluded something to be true or that I should make a decision or take a certain course of action based on a feeling?  Why was it that I allowed the feeling to be the “boss” in that situation?

3. Do some problem-solving.  There may be some perfectly legitimate reasons why you are feeling overwhelmed.  For example, college freshman are oftentimes surprised by the amount of schoolwork they are required to do not to mention the increased level of difficulty.  If this applies to you then you probably won’t be able to do things the same way as you did in the past.  Perhaps you’ll need to change the times that you study or the amount of time that you study.  A basic problem-solving model includes 1) Identifying the problem, 2) Figuring out the potential reasons why it is a problem (it’s a good idea to talk to someone to help you pinpoint these things), 3) Brainstorm possible solutions to the problem, 4) Select a solution & put it into action and 5) Evaluate how well the solution addressed the problem and adjust accordingly.

Self-reflection question:  When I experience problems do I try to use the most reasonable and straight-forward methods of solving them or do my feelings or inaccurate perceptions of people or situations cloud my view of optimal solutions?

Although these are common sense approaches to help you when you are feeling overwhelmed it’s not always easy to put them into action because of the intensity of your feelings.  If you find that things are getting so bad that you can’t cope with things very well and it’s affecting school and/or relationships then consider contacting your university counseling center to talk to a counselor or – if you’re looking for a flexible and easy “Skype-like” experience in which you can talk to a psychologist from the comfort of your own dorm room, apartment or home – then contact Dr. Quarto at (615) 403-5227 or chris@chrisquarto.com

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