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Degrees & Distress – Addressing Graduation Anxiety

By Sarah Hugee, Crisis Counselor at CommUnity

The silhouettes of a group collage grads can be seen throwing their caps in the sky, with the background being filled by a sky with clouds

After years of dedication, frustration, hard work, and seemingly endless assignments, you have completed your degree. This is a phenomenal achievement! And in the middle of the celebration, there is a sudden barrage of hurdles thrown into people’s paths that can push them to feel symptoms of depression and anxiety. For many people, graduation leads to a lot of mixed emotions and feelings of uncertainty. “The world is your oyster” and “there are endless possibilities” are two phrases so many graduates hear as motivators; but in reality, it can be an overwhelming realization that they are now being thrown into the deep end with the prediction that they will figure things out in a timely manner. Here are some aspects of life many recent graduates might worry about or struggle with:

Navigating graduation alone is a feat. But the COVID-19 pandemic has created and/or amplified people’s anxiety and depression. Along with typical emotions associated with graduating, experiencing COVID-19 manifested another layer of change. The pandemic resulted in worldwide shut-downs and stay-in-place orders which created unique feelings for graduates. A lot of expectations for senior year were not met, leaving many people to feel upset and disappointed because of the lack of closure to their adventures at school. From a personal standpoint, the pandemic harmed or took away family members and friends, leaving some students to deal with grief and loss. Further, the pandemic affected internships, housing, and in-person access to certain resources and centers. This increased the level of stress graduates endured greatly. Despite this additional stressor, we are capable of overcoming the pandemic’s impacts. The transition to the “new normal” requires flexibility, patience, and community. Remind yourself to breathe through this adjustment period and reach out to others for support.

Most milestones we set for ourselves are frequently reinforced by society’s timeline. Getting a bachelor’s degree in four years, getting married by the age of 25 and having children at 26, getting a job right after graduation… These timelines can add a lot of pressure to those of us who are not entirely sure about what we want our next step to be. This can cause many of us to feel and believe that we are falling behind, being lazy, and/or not doing enough. A lot of us go through the motions of achieving these milestones but still feel unfulfilled at the end of it all. Life is about exploration of one’s self and the world around them. The thought of exploring a world of endless possibilities can be overwhelming because it implies vulnerability and discomfort. Depending on the person, the exploration of one’s passions, interests, goals, and talents can take more or less time. Either way, it is okay if your timeline does not match others’ timelines. Take the time to ask yourself what truly motivates you, what you are passionate about, and what makes you feel fulfilled.

It feels like, whether you are graduating with a high school diploma or a Ph.D., you are hit with another level of responsibility. Suddenly, you are gifted with more independence, more knowledge, more obligations, more opportunities, and more financial strain. With all these new accomplishments and responsibilities, the first thing many graduates do is search for a job. In fact, millions of graduates are searching and competing for job openings at the same time. Millions of graduates are going through the process of creating a resume and cover letter, buying new interview outfits, rehearsing their interview answers, attending job/career fairs, and still face rejection. Especially during the aftermath of a pandemic, finding job security is an intense endeavor many are trying to achieve. There is no shame in working a “filler” job while you work towards your dream job. While working, you can go the extra mile by building connections with people who are in your desired field and search for opportunities to volunteer or gain experience related to your desired field. Disclaimer: the job is not the whole picture. Make sure to maintain personal goals and remind yourself of the bigger picture. Success and productivity can be achieved in many ways outside of school and work.

For a lot of people, graduation emphasizes that it is now time for them to explore, determine, and solidify their identity. Up until now, life has revolved around classes, grades, clubs, and school spirit. The identity of being a student is coming to an end: What is the next identity? Who do you want to be? Who do others want you to be? Shedding the identity that was built during years of school can feel like a loss or a freedom. Some people are excited to explore who they are in a different setting while others may struggle with feeling exposed when they are stripped of their prior identity. It is okay to grieve. Changes in our identity can be difficult and can take time to process. Writing down your strengths, weaknesses, and interests is a helpful way to test out potential identities and develop our own personal and professional goals. Connecting with others who have similar interests and goals or a career counselor is another way to investigate other identities that can support us in growing.

Social comparison is something many of us have struggled with throughout our lives, but it is amplified around graduation time. Usually in school, there are consistent comparisons between academic achievements, appearance, social connections, and extracurricular performance. All of these provide us with a level of validation, but when school comes to an end, all of those things are taken away, leaving some people feeling unstable. This uncertainty can create this sense of vulnerability and sometimes fear about taking steps towards what we may be interested in. Comparison is natural and can be healthy when it drives us to do better and inspires us to grow. However, comparison is often harmful when we use the goals and standards of others to guide our own lives. Constant comparison can lead people to feel inadequate and depressed. Self exploration is a key component in establishing what you want out of your own life. Some graduates find that going to a career counselor and journaling are beneficial. These tools support people in asking themselves what they want and enjoy in life. It is important to remember that the grass is not greener on the other side, it is greener where you water it.

Relationships are hard, and I am not just talking about romantic relationships. In school, we build connections with friends, supervisors, colleagues… Some of these people become our main source of support. And when graduation comes around, it begins to sink in that what has become comforting to us may now be changing. Separation anxiety can happen at any age, especially when the looming realization that people you went to school with and spent so much time with may now be moving in a different direction. Like I mentioned before, relationships are hard and take work. Graduation does not mean that those connections will now wither away, nor does it mean that there is not another opportunity for you to build other strong connections. Scheduling phone calls and lunch dates are great ways to maintain those old relationships; likewise, searching for volunteer, extracurricular, or professional groups is another great way to find other people to connect with, leading to a sense of security and belonging.

If any of this resonates with you, please know that you are not alone! The realization that adulthood, loaded with seriousness and responsibilities, is fast approaching is a lot to digest. But it is not impossible. If you are struggling with any of this, there are things that you can do to work through these obstacles. Stay connected with others, form new connections, maintain and identify new interests, create a plan to work towards your goals, practice mindfulness and self-care, and ask for help from a therapist or career counselor.

Graduation comes with a decent amount of scary feelings, it also comes with a lot of amazing opportunities for growth, exploration, and success. And while it is important that we all take the time to independently forge our own paths, we do not have to do it alone. Many graduates, regardless of age, race, religion, or interests, are experiencing similar feelings and concerns. Trust that you are capable of maneuvering obstacles to advance into adulthood and successfully experience new opportunities. Allow yourself to navigate your next steps with self-compassion and flexibility. Allow yourself to pause and reflect on all the hard work you have put into getting to this point in your life. Allow yourself to learn through mistakes and experiences. Allow yourself to grow into your own image.

And remember, if these feelings become overwhelming, trained and compassionate crisis counselors are ready 24/7 to support you at CommUnity. If you want to speak in person, over the phone, or via text, there is always someone here to help.

Call/Text: 1-855-325-4296
Mobile Crisis Outreach: Call 1-855-800-1239 and ask to speak with Mobile Crisis.