College, Anxiety, and Our Immediate Gratification Culture

My oldest daughter went to college this year. As her mom, I was hoping she would hit the ground running, call to tell me everything was great, and be having so much fun, meeting so many wonderful people and feeling so appropriately challenged academically, she would be too busy to call again. As a realist, I knew that was not going to be the case. As a wellness coach, I saw the value in helping her pre-cope with issues and problems. I warned her that despite the common thinking there is a “perfect school” for everyone, despite the sickness of social media pressuring everyone to put their “perfect school” on display, and despite my generation’s insistence on telling college kids, “College is the best four years of your life,” there is no perfect place, and if college is the best four years of your life, that’s a sad life. It’s all downhill after 22?!

College is a journey and an experience, and like all transitions, like all challenges, it will have it’s ups and downs. This is a fact. There will be good days and bad days. This has always been the case, but in the past, fewer kids were anxious, depressed, and stressed about flying the coop. Why? This topic is a hot one for my friends right now, and theories abound as to why more kids are disappointed in their first semester and in their school choice than ever before.

Here are the top 3 reasons I hear (and agree with) for this inability to launch smoothly and successfully:

  • Social media makes it look like everyone is having more fun (even though, if staged correctly, everyone’s Instagram could look exactly the same.)
  • Kids today are less resilient because we have been wiping their butts for 18 years. Any bump in the road seems mountainous.
  • They are leaving homes where they have it really good; fewer rules, parents who act more like friends and a constant safety net.

I’d like to add a fourth reason. Impatience. We are a culture of immediate gratification. We can’t sit quietly and wait for anything. I know I can’t. Amazon means I can get it tomorrow, or even today. Netflix means I don’t have to wait for the next week to watch a new show. Google means I don’t have to wait for the answer. Spotify means I don’t have to find time to get to the record store for the new release. Any downtime, no matter how brief, means I pick up my phone, and pass the minutes doing something mindless.

How does this translate into life transitions? Not well, as it turns out. Life changes have always been difficult. Moving has always been hard. Leaving home has always come with obstacles. And one of the most potent cures for the associated negative feelings has always been time. Time is a healer. Emotionally, it offers perspective, a chance to adapt, the space to do the inner work change requires. Practically it offers opportunity to meet new people, to get comfortable in new surroundings, to establish a new normal. Time moves at the same speed now as it ever did, so why isn’t it working as well as it used to? It isn’t time itself that mends, it is what we do with the time.

When I went to college, I spoke with my mom about once a week. I didn’t speak with my high school friends until Thanksgiving. I wasn’t bombarded with images of other people’s fun, and I wasn’t pressured to market myself or my school choice to the masses. I don’t remember clearly, but I am certain there was homesickness and hiccups at the beginning. There should be, this is normal. Without a parent on call to fix everything from a tough class to a bug in the room, without a phone in which to bury my face when I was bored or insecure, time was on my side. Having no expectation of immediate happiness, I adjusted. Over a span of weeks or months, I grew to love where I was and who I was when I was there. It was pretty amazing, but it was not the best four years of my life. Things only get better, and I hope the best four years are yet to come.

In all my preempting about how college was not going to be perfect, I left off something even more important. Adjustments take time. No matter how great your bedding is, no matter how cool your roommate, the transition from home to college is likely not going to be all smooth sailing. The best gift you can give yourself is patience. Sit calmly in the discomfort of the newness. Time will often tell, and its story may be that you wasted it on being guilty about feeling stressed, being anxious about being homesick and being frustrated you weren’t feeling differently. Honor your feelings. Don’t rail against them. Happiness is not an app you can download.


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Author: Karen Latimer

Karen is a Family Physician, Wellness Coach, and founder of Tips From Town. She is passionate about sharing her medical expertise, her coaching techniques and her parenting experience to encourage happier and healthier lives.

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