College students have higher levels of anxiety and loneliness than any generation before them. This generation will probably be surpassed by the next generation, because the clear trend is that anxiety and loneliness are increasing, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can start decreasing college student anxiety right now, and the way to do it is by taking a skill-based approach.
Emotional regulation is a skill, not something one is born innately having. Our emotions are triggered by our experiences and the related thoughts that come from having those experiences, and so how we respond in any given situation is not some sort of lottery of random outcomes, but the product of how we train our minds to handle the circumstances of life.
Identify the Skills Student Need Most
If we want students to be successful in college, what are the most crucial skills for doing so? It’s not computation math skills or language composition skills. They have already been admitted to college because they were assessed to have those skills at a proficient level. What students are not being assessed on in current admissions systems are skills around emotional intelligence and mindset. Whether a student has a growth mindset or a fixed mindset may be the single biggest factor in how they succeed or fail at college.
By coaching students toward a growth mindset, we’re helping them remove the limiting beliefs about their own identities and what they are capable of achieving. Along with this, we must also teach students to evaluate their fears rather than simply feeling them. Feelings are not always accurate; sometimes they can be misleading. In our modern culture fear is dominating young people and keeping them from learning and growing.
There are many compassionate students at institutions around the world. Part of being a human being is having times when we forget to be compassionate and instead think and act from a place of ego. More compassion is always a good thing, and telling students they need to work on compassion as a skill isn’t going to get them there; it has to be modeled.
When I worked in a department of residential life at a state university, I wasn’t always compassionate in my interactions with students. Sometimes I would get so frustrated by their selfish behavior and their dishonesty! I would then “put them in their place” by pointing out their selfishness or dishonesty. In those moments, I was modeling the wrong thing to students. We all have these moments, and that’s okay. Having moments when we can say, “I don’t agree with this choice you made, but I still want you to be happy and feel valued” is critical to helping students learn that we can have different viewpoints and still value one another.
This one often triggers secular folks, but I want to emphasize that faith can be many things. One can have faith in science, or faith that people are fundamentally good, or faith that we’re all here for a reason, even if we don’t know what that reason is yet. The important thing is to have faith in something. In over twenty years of working in education and personal development, I have consistently seen that people who have faith in something rarely have anxiety. Promoting faith as a source of certainty can help reduce college student anxiety without promoting any particular religion.
Get Them Connected
When I worked as a residence hall director, we conducted an annual survey of the students living in the residence halls. My department had over twenty years of data from that survey, and one of the most consistent data points across two decades was that the students who got involved in clubs and organizations in the first semester of school reported the highest levels of satisfaction with their college experience. The students who were connecting with other human beings sooner were happier.
The pandemic has limited the opportunities for in-person socialization, but it hasn’t removed all opportunities to connect. There are still ways for young people to connect with other human beings and share an experience. It’s important that when students take advantage of online forums, Zoom meetings, and other digital connection opportunities, they maximize the experience for themselves. Access is not the same as connection.
There is no singular solution to reducing college student anxiety because there is no single cause of college student anxiety. What I know for certain is that college students aren’t having more anxiety because the world is falling apart, or because they themselves are fundamentally flawed. College student anxiety is about not having the skills to navigate a world in which our technological advancement is outpacing our cultural evolution. When we focus on helping students improve those skills, we’ll see a decrease in college student anxiety.