If you’re a college senior, graduation is an exciting time. You’re at the finish line! All that hard work is about to pay off with a diploma and a bright, shiny new future. Time to celebrate!
So what happens when the celebrations are over? Things can get a little less shiny. For many graduates, the reality of life after school is more complicated than they expected. In the best case, you’ll easily adjust to whatever life is bringing you. Worst case, you could be facing what might be your first bout of clinical depression or anxiety.
And actually, it’s not surprising. Depression and anxiety are often triggered by stressors. A stressor is any external event, good or bad, that causes stress. If you’re susceptible to depression or anxiety, even a small stressor can trigger them. But graduation is always accompanied by some big stressors.
And they’re not always what you would think. Most people assume that a graduate who lands a good job is going to have smooth sailing ahead. But even if (and that’s a big “if”) you snag that perfect job, there are plenty of other stressors that you’re dealing with.
1. Big changes
Change is good. Without change, we’d still be single-celled organisms. But it also can be scary (I’ll bet the first fish that crawled out of the ocean had a major anxiety attack), especially for people who aren’t naturally adaptable. Adjusting to a major life change like graduation takes time, even if you’ve been eager for the change and have a reasonably well-paying job that relieves you of financial strain. Not only is your living and employment situation changing, but your whole identity is changing, for the first time in your entire life. Goodbye, student. Hello, 9 to 5 worker. Adjusting to this shift may be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.
What will help: Keep in mind that one reason this particular change can be so hard is that you’re losing a lot in a short period of time. You’re losing your living situation in most cases, your friends, and the life that you’re used to. It’s normal and healthy to mourn it. Don’t let the mourning go on too long, though. You don’t want to live in the past. After a while, you should be focusing on your present.
If you feel like you’re really stuck emotionally, you might want to talk to a therapist to talk things through.
2. Financial burdens
Many college graduates are being told by their family, either gently or in no uncertain terms, that they’re financially on their own now. Time to leave the nest, little birdie. So now you are responsible for room and board, health and auto insurance and all the other expenses you never had to think about.
And many students graduating from college have student loans. Often the first payment is due anywhere between two weeks to a month after graduation. This can be a big shock to someone who’s just managed to come up with three months of rent for their new apartment and is already trying to figure out how to make $5.00 stretch for a week’s worth of meals (yes, that was me shortly after I graduated from college and started a new job).
For some college graduates, it’s really started to sink in that they are in debt for tens of thousands of dollars, which could stand in the way of a decent standard of living for a very long period of time. Some are even becoming suicidal because of this burden, and this issue is likely one of the reasons for the rise in reported anxiety disorders.
What will help: Sometimes just making a budget and seeing what you can spend every month (or year, or whatever timeline you want to use) can help you feel like you have more control over your debt. Also, start tracking your expenses, at least for a while, so you can get a clear picture of what you actually spend. You might be surprised.
If you’re employed full-time, consider getting a part-time job in addition. This is the best time to do that, before you have a family – assuming you have a decent amount of free time.
If you’re really struggling financially, you might be able to lower your payments, which will help in the short term. Just be careful of student loan scams.
3. Loss of your support system
The end of school inevitably means an end to your current support system of friends, and possibly also family, if you’re moving a distance away. It takes a while to build up a new support system, and it’s almost never as easy as it was in college.
If you’re job-hunting, you’re spending most of your time at home. If you’re working, you’re finding that work environments are just not as conducive to meeting people you can emotionally connect with, or in providing somewhere to connect, as college. So just when the support system is needed to deal with all this change and scary new responsibility, it’s gone.
For people who have some trouble making new connections and building a support network, this can be a lonely time. Depression will turn the loneliness into isolation.
What will help: We all need human connection. You have to create a new support network. You need to put yourself out there in your free time. Explore your neighborhood and try to meet people in venues you’re comfortable in. Follow your passion, no matter what it is. If you love to read, join the book club at the local library or bookstore. Love animals? Volunteer at the local animal shelter.
4. Lack of Routine
If you’re job-hunting, for the first time in a long time, you don’t have any routine or schedule imposed upon you. For the most part, there’s nowhere that you have to be at a specific time. Having your days completely open may sound great. But the reality is that most people don’t respond well, in the long-term, to a complete lack of routine unless they’re really good at setting up their own and sticking to it.
What will help: First of all, create your own work schedule. Treat job-hunting like a job. Work Monday-Friday, with set hours.
You won’t be able to fill up all of those hours, so either get a part-time job, an internship or a volunteer opportunity. Try to find these in the field you’re interested in, especially the last two. If you’re working for free, it’s easier to persuade people to “hire” you for an internship or volunteering than it is for a full-time job with pay and benefits. Every bit of relevant experience helps.
5. New Responsibilities
When you’re in college, a lot of decisions, both big ones and the day-to-day ones, are taken off your hands. Once you graduate and are in charge of your own life, it’s all up to you. Sure, it’s liberating to make all your own decisions, but it can also be scary. All of a sudden you have to decide where to to work, where to live, how you’re going to get to work, what time to get up in the morning, etc. Everything from the little decisions to the big ones, and it’s all on you. Again, liberating – but also enough to send put some people into anxiety or depression, or both.
What will help: Again, you might want to talk to a therapist to get some coping strategies if you’re really struggling, and seeing a big impact on your mental health.
You might be moving back home, which – let’s face it – can really feel like a big step backward. And finding a new normal with your parents is stressful. In many families, this situation can work if the ground-rules are agreed upon up front and boundaries are established.
What will help: Don’t feel like this means you’re a failure. People in their twenties and thirties are moving back home in ever-increasing numbers. The high cost of living has a lot to do with it. In some cases, it’s to save money for the down payment on a house or a financial cushion in case of emergencies or to get ahead on student loans and it makes solid financial sense.
Speaking as the stepmother of a twenty-something who lived with us for a few years, the best way to ease tension is to show that you’re a responsible adult and not just looking for a free ride. This is the time to step up. You should be contributing to the household expenses in some way if it’s financially feasible, doing a large part of the housework and, if you’re job-searching, making it clear that you’re serious. Again, treat job-searching like a 9-5 job and either get a part-time job or an internship/volunteering position.
Finally, don’t forget to prioritize self-care: nutritious meals, exercise, plenty of sleep and de-stressing.
It’s totally normal to be blue for a few weeks after a major life change. But if the normal adjustment period after graduation finds you slipping into clinical depression or anxiety, you need to stop it in its tracks. Go to your family doctor or health clinic, get diagnosed and get treatment.