Dynamic Downtown Worship in the Anglican Tradition

College Ministry: Helping Students with Anxiety

SoulFeed Boxes by Kami Gilmore

I could tell she had been crying the minute I answered the phone.

college-ministry-picSo it was going to be one of those talks.   

On the other end was my tearful daughter (a college junior), who was having a panic attack trying to juggle the next week of projects, papers, and an internship–as well as the looming pressure of finals.

Her call reminded me of something I’ve become increasingly aware of: the rising rates of anxiety among teens and young adults. Anxiety has now surpassed depression as the most common mental health diagnosis among high school and college students. More than half of students visiting campus clinics cite anxiety as a health concern, according to a recent study of more than 100,000 students nationwide by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.

I’m not going to lie: this anxiety factoid gives me anxiety.

As a parent of a student who suffers from anxiety and panic disorder, I’ve been trying to figure out the best ways to help my daughter, as well as my sons who are both in high school and experiencing their own levels of stress. While I don’t have a fail-proof road map, I have learned a few things so far.

Related: Listen to this author talk more about how parents can help their kids cope with anxiety on our new podcast, “They Say”

  1. I’m keeping the lines of communication open and honest

When my daughter first started experiencing anxiety, she did an excellent job of covering it up, both from herself and from those closest to her. It wasn’t until the anxiety got too overwhelming for her to handle on her own that she finally opened up about what she was experiencing.

Since then I’ve worked hard to maintain open lines of communication, and to reassure her that she can be honest with me about how she’s feeling. I don’t want her to worry about worrying me or disappointing me (and therefore pass off things as better than they are) so I listen calmly without reacting, dismissing her feelings, or immediately trying to “fix” things.

I’ve also noticed that she has a tendency towards “extreme” thinking during times of stress, such as snowballing major life decisions into a reactionary response. I’ve learned to repeat the phrase–“Take a deep breath, and just focus on the problem at hand,” reminding her that the peak of emotion is not the time to tackle the big stuff.

  1. I’m helping her explore healthy ways to cope

Stress is a natural part of life, and there’s nothing I can do to change that. But what I can do is help her recognize how certain choices might compound her anxiety, and coach her through a variety of healthy ways to cope. I ask questions about the things that seem to trigger her anxiety, and help her prioritize the things she can tackle, focusing on one doable item at a time.

I also help her explore what things she can eliminate and teaching her how to give herself permission to let go or say “no” to certain commitments or pressures to please others.

Another coping strategy I remind her of is to make healthy body choices – through regular physical exercise, getting enough sleep, and eating healthy.

Lastly – I try to point her back to God. A lot. I often text her Bible verses along with words of encouragement. I remind her that God is alongside her every step of the way, and to take her worries to him in prayer. She loves yoga, so I’ve also encouraged her to use her yoga time as a time of mind/body/soul nourishment with reflection and meditation focused on Jesus.

  1. I’m  helping her get connected to the resources and support she needs

Trying to power through these feelings alone only compounds the intensity of the situation. But fortunately, there is a lot of help available for teens and young adults struggling with anxiety. Family doctors, guidance counselors, campus health clinics, coaches, youth/young adult pastors, and friends are just a few places that can offer support. Many therapists also now offer “face-to-face” counseling through web-cam conferencing, which is a huge help for students who feel like scheduling an in-office visit is too hard due to transportation or scheduling challenges.

With my daughter, I knew that she needed professional help. I also recognized she needed to “own” this decision by choosing her support, and that trying to force her into a specific group our counselor wouldn’t work. But I also knew that I could help provide her with information and options that she was too overwhelmed to collect herself. So I researched, I asked friends for referrals, I interviewed a few people. I shared what I found and then let her make her own choices. The only option that wasn’t an option was to do nothing.

  1. I’m trying to not be afraid (or ashamed) to accept the reality of anxiety

Confession: I struggled to understand that there IS a difference between feeling stressed vs. the symptoms of anxiety disorder. I had a hard time wrapping my brain around the fact that this might be a mental health issue, and dreaded the stigma associated with it. It was scary to listen to my daughter share her anxious thoughts and symptoms of panic attacks. I worried about her future. I worried about what her friends and peers would think–that they would treat her differently. I worried for her safety and health. And I worried that somehow I’d let her down as a mom because I’d missed (ignored?) some signs along the way.

But I’ve also learned we are not alone in this struggle. Nor are the millions of others struggling with the same thing. God didn’t make a mistake when he created each and every unique being, and he is here with us in the journey to lean on.

The most effective solution I’ve found for my own worries has been prayer. Giving my anxiety about her anxiety over to Jesus (sometimes every five minutes) has consistently reminded me that he cares for her even more than I do, and that she’s not alone. I can’t take away her anxiety for her, but he can. I can’t think clearly for her when she’s stressed, but his voice can break through her fear. And I can’t choose peace on her behalf, but his peace covers her.


Related: Send your student the gift of encouragement and spiritual support with a finals care package from SoulFeed! Click here to learn more!

By the time we got off the phone, both of us felt more relaxed and peaceful. We’re figuring this out, one conversation at a time. And as we head into the next six weeks of final projects and tests, I’m praying for all of my kids to reach out when anxiety shakes their confidence.

Fellow parent, if you have a child struggling with anxiety, or know that these next few weeks will be particularly stressful for your son or daughter, take one easy step with me: let’s pray right now.

Jesus, thank you for these kids. We love their courage and their desire to be pleasing to you and others. Help us give them wisdom and a listening ear, and to not freak out when they’re freaking out. Show all of us steps we can take today to invite peace and remove stress from our schedules. Remind them they are not alone, and you are with them through every step of the way! Thank you for your help that offers hope. Amen.


Kami Gilmour is a blogger, co-host of They Say podcast, a wife and the mom of 5 teen and young adult kids, including a freshmen at Montana State University.  She’s also the co-creator of SoulFeed college care packages, designed to help keep parents and college kids connected to what matters mosttheir faith.  Want to send your college student a care package? Check it out here: http://www.mylifetree.com/soulfeed/finalscarepackage/

St. Michael’s Church Student Ministry sent out over 20 care packages in September/October. We wanted to stay connected to our students and keep Christ in the center of their college years. ~Cyndee Cave