A Family Therapist’s Guide to College Anxiety and Stress


What triggers anxiety and stress and why is it so heightened in college? While your student is building friendships, growing in maturity and moving closer to their career, the newness of college could be causing them to feel anxious. For many students, college is their first real experience with anxiety. As a parent, it’s helpful to know your student’s triggers and identify warning signs that they are going through a particularly stressful time.


Navigating anxiety with your student may be uncharted territory for you. We asked Marriage, Family and Art Therapist, Angelena Gagliardi, to share a few ways parents can support their anxious and stressed college student.



Angelena currently works as a private practitioner for a broad spectrum of clients ranging in age from toddlers to adults. Her areas of specialized training include working with: Highly Sensitive People (HSP); traumatized individuals; the anxiety spectrum: PTSD, OCD and anxiety treatment; alternative approaches to traditional therapy: using art therapy and other creative approaches, EMDR, and EFT.



Next time your student is feeling stressed or anxious, try one of these 5 approaches:


1. Model

Learn ways to manage your own anxiety/stress. Modeling how you manage stress and anxiety through your actions can be very impactful for the student to witness.


2. Listen

Connection through empathy and compassion can go a long way. Listen empathetically and reflect what you hear. For example: I am hearing you are worried about your schedule because you are needing more sleep in the morning. It can be difficult being tired in class.


3. Ask

You can ask: “Is there a specific way I can be of support to you? For example: Would you prefer I only listen or would you like to brainstorm ideas or resources?” They may not know what they need and that is okay too.


4. Respond

Try to respond without giving advice, demands, criticism, judgement, evaluation or denying their feelings. These responses are usually coming from our own stress response that becomes activated.


5. Encourage

While you may be modeling healthy stress management techniques, here are a few you can encourage your student to use:

  • Take several slow deep breaths. This simple action activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which acts like a brake pedal in the car and can lower the stress response.

  • Approach avoidance. Anxiety responds to taking the perceived safest route. Avoidance often results in a vicious cycle of that leads to increased anxiety and stress. Encourage your student to try to notice what is being avoided and take steps towards it rather than away. For example: Instead of avoiding starting a term paper, set aside 15 minutes to focus on the paper. They can approach in small intervals if needed.

  • Break up overwhelming tasks in small doable steps and include self-care breaks.

As a parent, it can be painful to watch your student experience anxiety and stress. However, helping them develop habits to express their feelings can be a crucial step in growing up.

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