After years of dedicated, hard work, you have completed your college degree. What a tremendous accomplishment. Pause to reflect on how far you’ve come, and appreciate your strengths and abilities that have helped you arrive at this exciting new point in your life. As you do this, you quite likely have a host of doubts, worries, and fears that creep (or barge) into your thoughts.
Know that this is a natural response to this time of transition into full adulthood and new responsibilities. To help you make sense of and deal with your mixed emotions, let’s examine the very real experience of post-college graduation anxiety and depression.
COVID-19 Hijacked Graduation
The current pandemic of COVID-19 and resulting shut-downs and stay-in-place orders across the world have created unique feelings and experiences for college seniors in 2020. In addition to the typical mixed emotions associated with college graduation, the COVID-19 experience has disrupted senior years in unprecedented ways.
For seniors, the abrupt campus shut-downs have meant not just a disruption but a sudden end to college life. Celebrating the completion of years of rigorous studies is going to look very different and perhaps feel anti-climatic this year. This let-down can feel extremely disappointing, and the lack of formal closure can leave loose ends. Together, these can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.
Further, sudden shut-downs have disrupted internships, housing situations, and in-person access to college career centers. The ability to complete portfolios, finalize resumes, and secure recommendations has been disrupted, increasing the normal stress and anxiety associated with wrapping up a degree and transitioning into the career for which you’ve been preparing for years.
College seniors, the depression and anxieties we’re about to explore may be intensified for you this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Know, however, that despite experiences of anxiety and/or depression, you have prepared yourself during your college years, and you are equipped to advance into full adulthood and new opportunities.
Factors That Could Lead to Post-Graduation Depression and Anxiety
Completing college is both exciting and anxiety-provoking.The college years are a gradual transition from the dependent living of childhood and adolescence into fully independent adulthood. The term “adulting” captures the experience well: the orchestration of your life is now totally in your hands. This can be intimidating, issuing in stress, anxiety, and even a sense of loneliness.
Experiencing anxiety and depression in this important time of your life is a natural part of development.1
Several factors contribute to both anxiety and depression as you make the transition into adulthood:
- Unrealistic Expectations
This transition is exciting and can be full of positive potential, and it can also be overshadowed by the unknown. A study of college graduates found that uncertainties about the future can cause significant, sometimes paralyzing, distress and anxiety.2 That feeling of “Now what?” can stop you in your tracks. The stress of finding and securing a job in your chosen career field can weigh heavily.
New responsibilities loom large: leaving the structured, educational environment where you’re provided a syllabus and clear expectations for what to do, how to do it, and when it’s completed are replaced by equally high expectations that you are left to organize and accomplish with fewer guidelines. This new, full-scale self-reliance can make you feel overwhelmed and vulnerable, which contributes to depression and anxiety.1
As if facing this unknown new frontier of your life weren’t scary enough, college graduates often experience an upheaval in relationships. Securing a position in your chosen field requires flexibility and a willingness to move that scatters people who have supported each other through the stresses of college life. Professors and other adults who have been advisors and mentors may no longer be available to you in person. This can bring a sense of loss that sometimes leads to separation anxiety and adjustment difficulties.
Separation anxiety isn’t just for young children but can happen to people of any age.4 According to authorities like the Mayo Clinic5 and Anxiety Canada,6 life stressors and transitions like graduation can cause separation anxiety. Feeling a sense of loss and mourning your “old” life can make it difficult to adjust to your new situation. Even when you feel positive and excited about your new independence, it’s normal to develop anxiety and/or depression as you get used to your new circumstances.
As you celebrate your accomplishments and wrap-up internships, classes, activities, and jobs, you’ll probably be asked ad nauseam if you have a position lined up in your chosen profession.
These conversations are unintentionally loaded with often-unrealistic expectations that can make you feel pressured and anxious. The current job market in many fields is tight and competition fierce. Expectations for success might come from friends, family, or others in your life, and they might also come from within. High expectations can be motivating, but they can bring a fear of failure, self-doubt, and sense of shame at the thought of not meeting them.
Together, the uncertainties, sense of loss, and high expectations that are handed to you with your diploma and degree can take a toll on your mental health. Symptoms of depression and/or anxiety might overshadow your excitement at entering your career of choice and prevent you from planning and taking positive action to begin your adult life.
Signs and Symptoms of Post-Graduate Depression & Anxiety
Bernard Luskin, an honored therapist who has served as CEO of numerous colleges and universities, refers to the turmoil that can accompany graduation as Post Commencement Stress Disorder, or PCSD.3 While this is not an official mental health diagnosis, the term does convey the very real collection of anxiety and depression symptoms college seniors often experience as college draws to an end and adulthood begins. These mental health challenges can range from mild experiences to more severe mental health disorders.
General signs (indicators that others can observe) and symptoms (things you feel and think) include:
- Sensing a lack of control over your future
- Feeling unsupported, alone as you venture ahead
- Perceiving yourself as incapable or as a failure
- Sleep problems
Luskin explains that these and other symptoms of depression and anxiety might occur just before or immediately after graduation, or they might begin a few months after graduation once the initial euphoria has worn off and you’re attempting to create new routines and settle successfully into your new stage of life.3
During this time of transition, you might experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, or both.
Depression vs. Grief of Loss/Complicated Transition
It’s not unusual to feel depressed after college graduation. You might be feeling grief and loss for several reasons. The structure and support you’ve relied on for the past several years is dissipating, friends are moving apart, and unsuccessful job searches can be crushing. This is a time of significant changes and transitions, and when difficulties and problems arise and continue, it can be considered as complicated transition. This is similar to complicated mourning— continued feelings of intense grief and life disruption after the death of a loved one. Your depressed feelings are strong enough to complicate your life and rob you of the joys of your new independence.
The American Psychiatric Association lists the symptoms in the fifth edition of their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5):4
- Depressed, low, sad mood most of every day
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
- Appetite changes and/or unintended weight loss or gain (more than five percent of your body weight in a month)
- Sleep problems, either sleeping too much or too little
- Feeling agitated and keyed up or lethargic and slowed down (this is felt by you and observed by others)
- Fatigue, lack of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, and making decisions
- Recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, or self-harm
Anxiety vs. Transition Nerves
Graduating from college, even though it is a positive accomplishment, is stressful. The uncertainties and expectations that the transition brings can cause excessive worries and fears that disrupt your life.
Experiencing “transition nerves,” or stress and worry caused by this major life change is extremely common. Many people experience anxiety as they try to find meaningful employment in their field of choice and adjust to the responsibilities of adulting. For some people, the anxiety is intense or lasts for a long time. When this happens, it’s called an anxiety disorder.
Several types of anxiety disorders are described in the DSM-5.4 Those that are commonly associated with life transitions like graduating from college include generalized anxiety disorder and separation anxiety disorder.
The DSM-54 list these signs and symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder:
- Excessive worries about several events or activities
- Difficulty controlling the worry
- Feeling restless, on edge
- Becoming fatigued easily
- Difficulty focusing or contracting or the mind going blank
- Difficulty sleeping
In separation anxiety disorder, symptoms are similar; however, the worry and fear is centered on being apart from loved ones or losing loved ones. This anxiety can cause nightmares or make it difficult for someone to be apart from their loved ones for even short periods of time.
Anxiety can also make you feel physically ill. It can cause physical symptoms such as digestive troubles, increased heart rate, breathing difficulties, sweating, trembling, and headaches.7
Whether or not they’re diagnosable mental disorders, depression and anxiety can be miserable and disruptive with dire consequences. Both anxiety and depression can cause you to avoid people, places, and activities and thus miss positive new opportunities and new adult friendships. They can make it difficult to navigate the responsibilities of independent adulthood. There is good news, however: it is possible to cope with and move forward so these conditions no longer interfere in your freedom.
Coping with Post-Graduate Depression & Anxiety
Dealing with anxiety and/or depression as you graduate from college and move into the next stage of your life can be challenging and even life-disrupting. The good news is that no matter how extreme your symptoms feel right now, they don’t have to be permanent. Because they’re natural reactions to a time of big changes, you can cope with them and move forward into an exciting new life.
Researchers analyzing participants in Canada’s National Health Survey found that finding and maintaining social support and taking purposeful, meaningful action that includes physical activity are key factors in overcoming mental health challenges and stress during times of major transition such as graduations.13 You can use this knowledge to your advantage to take charge of your mental health and wellbeing in the days, weeks, and months prior to and following college graduation.
Stay connected with friends and classmates who shared your challenges and triumphs as you advanced through college. Even if you’re no longer in the same community, make it a point to text, chat with, or connect via video platforms a few times a week at first. Know that it’s normal for friendships to shift and change and you might find that your contact gradually decreases as you make new adult friendships.
Form New Connections
Make yourself visible wherever you go. If you’re in a new job, socialize during breaks rather than avoiding new people. Participate in community groups to meet other adults. Get to know new people, and be active with those you like.
Maintain and Identify New Interests
While the activities and organizations of college have ended, your interests haven’t. There’s a new world of opportunities for you to be involved in. Look into community centers and groups. Searching sites like MeetUp can help you find ways to stay active and follow your passions.
Forge Your Direction
Create a plan of action for the months ahead. Some experts recommend beginning this well before graduation, but it is never too late to start.3 Describe your goals, make a realistic budget, include action steps you need to take such as searching for an apartment, listing references, etc. Don’t forget to have your greater purpose in mind so you create meaning in your life. This is as important as the details.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying complete attention to each moment you’re in. Use your senses to focus on what is going on around you. This helps you pull away from anxious thoughts and your negative feelings to embrace the good in each moment.
Enlist the Help of a Therapist
Mental health therapy can help you process problems and plan for a positive future.
While anxiety and depression can zap your energy and make you want to avoid the world, staying active and connected will help you overcome these challenges. Dr. Luskin’s words are wise: “Generate some positive action and the positive feelings will follow.”3
Coping Strategies to Avoid
Anxiety and depression associated with college graduation are disruptive to your life now and as you plan for your future. You might be willing to do almost anything to reduce them. It’s healthy to want to do things to minimize your depression and anxiety symptoms, but certain coping strategies, while they might feel helpful when you’re doing them, ultimately increase symptoms and impede your actions toward your goals.
The following coping strategies are unhealthy ways to deal with stress, depression, and anxiety:
- Unhealthy eating habits: Overeating, eating a lot of unhealthy “comfort” foods instead of nutritious foods, or avoiding food altogether because of lack of appetite negatively affect your physical and mental health and make it harder to fight stress.8
- Substance use: Alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, nicotine, caffeine, and illicit drugs keep you from facing your challenges plus create new problems of their own.4
- Emotional spending: Spending a lot of money on things not related to your life goals can make it difficult to afford the independent living you’ll enjoy when your anxiety and depression are no longer interfering.9
- Procrastination and avoidance: Putting off or completely avoiding tasks like finding a meaningful job and securing a place to live might help keep worries at bay temporarily, but in the long run they’ll create more anxiety and stress as you scramble to put these in place.10
- Social withdrawal: Withdrawing from friends and loved ones and isolating removes you from your support system, prevents you from enjoying activities, and can cause you to lose job opportunities. Together, these can increase symptoms of depression and anxiety.11
If you’re stuck in unhealthy coping strategies or if you find that even with your healthy coping skills you’re struggling to adjust to post-college life, you might consider finding someone to talk to about this transition.
How Do I Find Someone to Talk to Through This Transition?
Support is crucial right now. Connecting with friends and family can be very helpful. Sometimes, though, casual support, while it’s caring and useful, isn’t enough. If you are feeling highly anxious or very depressed, are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, it is vital to reach out for professional help. Here are some ways to find someone to talk to:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: If you are having thoughts harming yourself or ending your life, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 or chat with someone on their website.
- Talk to a therapist in person: Talking face-to-face with a mental health professional can help you overcome anxiety and depression and learn tools to use as you transition into adulthood. Ask your doctor for a referral or find names of therapists in community centers, hospitals, or mental health organizations (these places often have information about low-cost options). You can also use an online therapist directory.
- Try therapy online: Working with a therapist online can offer the same benefits as in-person therapy. Some people find it more convenient.
- Talk to a member of the clergy: Many spiritual and religious leaders offer counseling services. If you belong to a religious community, you might consider talking to someone there.
Therapy can be expensive, but it is often covered by insurance. Often, parents’ insurance companies cover children, teens, and young adults until age 25, which means that some unmarried college graduates still qualify. When you call or go online for an appointment, present your insurance card and they’ll check for you to see if their services are covered.
You can also call the phone number or visit the website printed on the back of the card to see if you are covered and what mental health services are part of the plan. Some employers offer a few free therapy sessions to employees and their families. These are called employee assistance programs, or EAPs. As your parent or guardian if they have an EAP and if you are still eligible to use it as a college graduate.
If you are already seeing a therapist and are leaving the state for your career, ask him/her if they are licensed in your new state and whether you can continue working with them online. If not, your therapist might be able to refer you to someone new.
It can sometimes require a bit of work upfront to find a therapist and sort out insurance, but it’s worth the effort. It’s a small investment in the quality of your life.
How Can Parents/Guardians Be Most Helpful?
Parents and guardians suffer along with their adult children when they struggle. Your child may now be an independent young man or woman, but they still need your support.
Here are some ways to best continue your support:
Remember Their Age
Ways you helped in the past might not be helpful now. They are moving into a new stage of independence and may resist your efforts to tell them what to do or do things for them.7 Make suggestions and then back away to give them time to decide what to do.
Listening to their thoughts and feelings is more helpful than finding solutions for them. Often, young adults need to verbalize their problems to a supportive parent or other adult. Feeling heard often reduces stress and lets them process their problems.
Remind Them of Who They Are
When engulfed in the thoughts and feelings of depression and anxiety, people of all ages often lose sight of themselves in the context of the bigger picture of their lives. Remind your adult child of his or her strengths, brainstorm past challenges and how they overcame them, and help them explore their sense of purpose. Helping them identify things that are meaningful to them can lead them to action.
Helping your adult child with depression or anxiety is stressful. If you find that you are struggling with your own thoughts and emotions or feel frustrated and want to seek tools to help you help your son or daughter, working with a therapist might be very beneficial. Helping yourself will help you be there for your independent adult, and in doing so, you’ll model positive, effective self-care behaviors.
College graduation is an incredible accomplishment to be proud of and full of wonderful new potential. While this is an exciting, positive time, it is also a difficult, stressful one. Struggling with anxiety or depression during this time of transition is natural. Know that it is temporary. You can take charge of your wellbeing and begin adulting with purpose and positivity.