For the last few months, I've referred to graduation as “the G-word.” I've changed the subject every time my mom tries to talk to me about plans for that weekend.
I’ve never been good with change. I’m a naturally anxious person who tends to overthink everything. I also like to make a big deal out of good-byes (I may or may not still have a letter from a teenage summer fling my friends claim is “tear-stained”). So in addition to the whole “oh-sh*t-I’m-about-to-be-a-real-person” thing, graduating college feels especially scary.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not sure college was the “best four years of my life.” There have been periods at Northwestern when I’ve been very unhappy. But the people I’ve met here are unmatched. I came as a confused, wannabe doctor and I'm leaving as a proud graduate of the journalism school with newfound passions, amazing friends, and an obsession with the city of Chicago. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot I’ll miss about this place.
I’m fortunate to have a job lined up and a summer filled with travel plans—and I really am excited about these things. But for months, I still haven’t been able to shake this fear of graduation.
With that in mind, I spoke with a few mental health professionals and life coaches to see what I could do about it. Here’s what’s helped me get excited—instead of petrified—about crossing the stage in my cap and gown.
6 Steps to Calm the F Down
1. Think about what you're really afraid of.
For a while, I was scared about graduation because I thought was supposed to be—everyone freaks out about this, right? But once I stepped back, I realized it isn’t really leaving college that scares me—it's leaving my friends and moving to a completely new city come January.
Michael Mantell, Ph.D., a transformational behavior coach and Greatist expert, explains that we never actually "get anxious," but rather we create anxiety in our minds. "I encourage my clients to do whatever is necessary to change their inner perspective," he says. Realizing that I was creating this anxiety helped me gain perspective and work toward solutions.
Ask yourself questions to evaluate your own thinking and find the source of your anxiety, Mantell says. For example: Is it really true that I'll have no friends in Ann Arbor, where I'm moving to? Is freaking out helping me find a solution? And do I really need to have 20 amazing friends next year right away? Short answer: no. This kind of evaluation really helped me change my thought pattern.
2. Forget making a "bucket list."
Thinking about “all the things I have to do before I leave Chicago” made me regret what I hadn’t done already—which is just a negative way of framing the good experiences I have had. Instead, I made a conscious effort to reach out to friends that I hadn’t seen in a while—and to try one new restaurant a week.
These small steps seemed a lot less stressful. And when I did something cool in Chicago, I was simply happy I got to do it—and didn’t worry about other things I had yet to check off.
It's the way you think about planning those things.
Still, the bucket list strategy may work for other people. "Planning things doesn't help you look at potentially scary situations more positively," Mantell says, "It's the way you think about planning those things." If you love the idea of checking off a list of amazing things you get to do before leaving college (or any major life transition), then it may be a positive thing for you.
3. Talk it over with friends.
After refusing to talk about "the G-word" for months, I recently spent an awesome night sitting on the floor talking with friends over wine, sharing our fears and feelings about graduating. Hearing other people’s perspectives made me realize that some of my worries were exaggerated (hey, I didn’t know anyone when I moved to college and that turned out OK, right?).
"Avoiding the reality of graduation will likely only work temporarily," says Jennifer Litner, a couples and individual therapist and Greatist expert. "Avoidance as a coping strategy provides a distraction but may not actually be very helpful in the long run, as it draws us away from reality." Plus voicing those worries can bring you closer to the present moment and let you feel more open to new ideas or emotions, she explains—like excitement!
4. Make plans for the future (ahh!).
Part of not talking about graduation was refusing to acknowledge anything that came next. But once I started booking flights, activities, and places to stay for a couple trips I had planned for the summer, I started getting ridiculously giddy about post-grad life. Studies have shown that planning a vacation is actually even more exciting than being on a trip itself—and I have to agree.
"When we have something to look forward to, such as upcoming travel plans," Litner explains, "this builds anticipation in an exciting and positive way that contrasts routine and day-to-day life."
5. Create a new routine.
I've always sort of rolled my eyes when people would say, "Yoga changed my life." And sitting still has never been my forte. But after writing about the benefits of mindfulness and meeting lots of badass yogis recently, I set a goal to take at least one yoga class per week.
I’ll admit it was pretty hard to get into it at first, and I still look like one of those blow-up dancers at a car dealership when I’m trying to balance in tree pose. But after finding an instructor I loved and committing to focusing on my breathing for just one hour, I started to actually hear myself say, "I need yoga today."
Making something I wasn't really comfortable with part of my regular routine helped me realize that I’ll be able to adjust to other new things that come my way.
Another reason yoga calmed my graduation-related anxiety is because it helped me create a whole new routine. I’ve had some of my best life chats over long runs, and I’m constantly taking HIIT classes with friends, but yoga is a time for just me—when I can be alone with my thoughts and my body.
Plus it's something I can continue to do when I move to a new city. Making something I wasn't really comfortable with part of my regular routine helped me realize that I’ll be able to adjust to (and even grow to love) other new things that come my way next year.
6. Be OK with not being totally OK.
Although all these things have helped me cope with my fear of graduation, I’m in no way worry free. Of course I’m still nervous to graduate—it’s a big deal! But as I recently learned while writing an article on how to calm down when you're anxious, using nervous energy to channel excitement is easier than telling yourself to “calm down.”
Still, after talking to friends, calling my mom (a lot), and reaching out to mentors, I understand that it's completely OK to be nervous about this change. Instead of telling myself I must be happy or excited all the time, I'm trying to take this process one day a time. Some days I wake up super psyched for the next chapter of my life, and other days I wake up wanting to slow the whole thing down.
Instead of resenting my anxiety, I remind myself that I wouldn’t be worried to leave this place if I hadn’t had such an amazing time here—and that’s something to be thankful for. As Litner puts it, it's better to "celebrate where you are at and know that it’s perfectly OK to be where you are—emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually."
Yes, graduation (or any major life change) is scary—and that's OK. However, that fear isn't something that's out of my control. Mantell says we often create stress by thinking about the worst-case scenario or how things must or should go a certain way. But if we "anti-awfulize" them or take a second to stop our negative thoughts in their tracks, things might not seem so scary anymore.
Graduation weekend will definitely be an emotional rollercoaster. My parents will still cry, and I'll still write a bunch of sappy good-bye letters, but I'll also walk across the stage a lot more confident that the next chapter of my life is something to be stoked about—not something to freak out over.