How To Tackle Post-Graduation Anxiety

Graduating from college is a huge milestone worth celebrating. But once you've turned your tassel and taken some joyous photos with the fam, you might notice some not-so-festive feelings sinking in. Graduation, like many other transitional moments in life, can trigger intense stress and anxiety. You may start to view college as your metaphorical training wheels, and without lectures to attend and essays to write, you're flying down a hill at full speed with nothing to keep you from falling.

If you're overwhelmed, know that your feelings are totally valid. "The first thing to understand is that you're not alone," Dr. Libby O'Brien, a licensed professional counselor, told WebMD. "Feeling anxiety, depression, or some degree of 'stuckness' and discomfort after graduating is normal. It's a change, and change can be very challenging to negotiate. You don't necessarily know what comes next."

Thankfully, post-grad anxiety does get better, especially if you tackle it head-on. Use these strategies to cope when you're spiraling over job-hunting stress and student loan payments.

Abandon restrictive timelines

You might be eager to get your dream life started ASAP after graduation, but don't expect everything to unfold as quickly as you'd hoped. Planning to find the perfect home right away or thinking you need to be in a destined-for-marriage relationship by 25 is only a recipe for more anxiety. The same rule applies to your career too. "One of the most frequent struggles that students that are on the brink of graduation have expressed is a feeling of failure if they have been unable to find work in their area of study in a reasonable length of time," Debra Cox-Howard, assistant director of the University of Arizona's Counseling & Psych Services, told The Daily Wildcat.

The truth is that the path to get to where you want to be may not be quick or linear — and accepting this fact can help ease those post-graduation jitters. You may have to accept a less-than-ideal job at first or move back in with family to save money until you find a place of your own. Remind yourself that these kinds of arrangements don't have to be permanent, nor are they a sign of failure.

Look beyond the negative

Graduating college can kickstart a period of grief. You might find yourself longing for those off-campus parties and easy-breezy classes, especially when confronted with the pressures of "real life." It's easy to fall into a spiral of negativity, where you only see the dreary aspects of leaving school and none of the positives. But be aware that your mind is only playing tricks on you.

According to Emma McAdam, a licensed marriage and family therapist, mental filtering — and particularly negative mental filtering — is a cognitive distortion where we amplify negative information and mute the positives. If post-graduation anxiety has gotten the best of you, you might struggle to recognize when things actually go your way. Instead of seeing an amazing job opportunity, you fixate on the one you didn't get, for instance.

McAdam notes that while mental filtering can help us in the short term, it can be destructive over time and can often keep people stuck. Notice if you've been hanging onto the negative aspects of your current situation, and challenge yourself to recognize the positives that might be hiding right under your nose.

Avoid the comparison game

Chances are, a lot of your friends just graduated too, making it kind of hard to not draw comparisons. Who got offered the most lucrative job? Who's moving to the coolest city? Who's engaged and already picking out baby names? You've probably pondered these questions at least once since turning in your textbooks.

If you feel like you're falling behind because you don't have a brag-worthy plan like some of your friends, pause and ask yourself if these comparisons are really serving you. Though measuring yourself against others can be motivating in some cases, it can also trigger feelings of shame and inferiority. If you're struggling with anxiety, comparing yourself to others may only breed more stress and worry.

Also, friendly reminder: Your peers are probably only sharing the highlights of their post-graduation lives on the internet. Don't expect them to post on social media that they broke up with their boyfriend from college or the fact that they bombed their first week at their snazzy new job.

Take small steps forward

Making the switch from school life to I'm-a-full-blown-adult-now life can be stressful. Things like where to live and how to budget your money may be more challenging now that you don't live near campus or receive financial aid. Navigating so many changes and decisions at once can trigger emotional overwhelm, which — if left unchecked — can make it even harder to function. As Dr. Jade Wu, a clinical health psychologist, wrote in Psychology Today, most people respond to overwhelm by procrastinating rather than confronting the sources of their stress directly.

You may not feel emotionally or mentally equipped to apply to dozens of jobs at once, for example, and that's okay. Still, taking small, thoughtful actions can make a huge difference in how you feel. Consider what would help relieve your post-graduation anxiety, and then list the smaller steps that would help make those changes a reality. "This can mean taking 30 minutes to polish your resume or to do a job search," Tanya J. Peterson, a certified counselor and expert on anxiety, shared with WebMD. "Sometimes when we set goals we want to achieve them right away to make up for what we think of as lost time. But when we do that, we often fall flat."

Reach out for support

Graduation ushers in a new era of freedom in your life, but depending on how your college days went, this could trigger more anxiety than relief. "If a student's college experience is mostly positive, college provides a cocoon of sorts: a community of friends, teachers and mentors who are mostly readily available to offer support or advice. Graduating symbolizes a leap into 'adult' life, which is a huge transition," psychologist Juli Fraga explained to The Washington Post.

That built-in network you relied on for the last two to four years may be gone, but that doesn't mean you have to navigate this transitional period alone. Ask for help from those around you. You likely have friends, family members, and others in your circle who have experienced similar anxieties and can offer words of wisdom. Additionally, your school may offer alumni services to help you create a résumé, search for work, and stay connected with other recent grads.

One of the hardest parts of leaving college can also be losing touch with friends. It's natural to grow apart as you pursue your individual life paths, but if you start to feel lonely, take it as a sign to create new, lasting friendships as an adult. Join meet-up groups, sign up for a friendship app, or volunteer to connect with others.

Take care of your physical and mental health

You probably know this all too well already, but stress can be hard on your mind and body. According to Mayo Clinic, stress can trigger aches and pains, sleep issues, low motivation, mood changes, unhealthy eating habits, and low activity levels. These symptoms can exacerbate post-graduation anxiety and make it even harder to move forward.

If your worries are consuming your daily life and well-being, consider visiting a therapist — especially if your feelings don't subside after a couple of months. Even if you don't seek professional help, self-care can have a major impact on how you feel. Take time to relax and reflect by meditating, journaling, or reading self-help books. Spend time with friends or catch up with family members you rarely saw when you were in college. Finally, make your physical health a priority: Maintain a regular sleep schedule, eat balanced meals throughout the day, and stay active by going on a daily hot girl walk or hitting up your local gym.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.