In college, I had a roommate who would go to bed super early, around 9 PM. Once in a while, though, I would find her awake at 2 A on our living room couch crying. I thought the behavior was odd and out of character for her—the waterworks seemingly came out of nowhere—but I didn’t know what to do or how to react. It turns out she had an anxiety disorder, and I wish I had known more about it and how I could’ve helped at the time.
If you’re headed to college for the first time, or even if you’re going back again but with new roommates, it’ll take a little while to fully understand the behaviors and emotions of these people you’ll be living with in extremely close quarters. It comes with the territory to find out all of their quirks, e.g., eating eat french fries with mustard, shower-singing Drake songs every morning, or that late-night tears are a symptom of their anxiety disorder.
Anxiety is actually an avoidance of fear, says David Klemanski, assistant professor of psychology who specializes in anxiety disorders at New York University. People experiencing anxiety are afraid of something now or in the future, which can lead to behavioral avoidance. The more we avoid, the worse our anxiety can get. And while anxiety can motivate us to achieve a goal, like acing a test, he tells me, too much of it can break us down and cause a lot of extra stress.
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Klemanski shares some advice—in the form of an actual script for those of you who are unsure about how to word it—on how to make talking to your roommate about your anxiety easier, how to help your roommate through their anxiety if they have it, and ways you can manage your own anxiety if you have it, while navigating college life.
Let's start with the basics:
IF: You have anxiety disorder
THEN: Know that you don’t have to talk about it unless you want to.
Every human deals with anxiety on a daily basis, but once it becomes pathological (or reaches a certain threshold on the anxiety scale) it becomes anxiety disorder. There are two really prevalent types in college students, Klemanski says—although there are other types of anxiety they can have. "We see a lot of cases of social anxiety," he says. "You’re away from your parents. You’re really putting yourself out there for the first time. You function and act one way in high school, but now it’s different. You’re worried about being scrutinized and judged by your peers."
We also see generalized anxiety frequently among college students. "Generalized anxiety is characterized by worry and apprehension," Klemanski says. " Will I do well in school? Will I pass my classes? Will I make friends? You worry about your academics when you hear horror stories about how tough professors can be, and you may worry about your family back home, such as how your younger siblings will get along without you."
It’s also age/grade dependent. Freshman are often worried about the whole new college experience, while seniors tend to worry about securing a job after graduation. If you fall somewhere in or between these categories, Klemanski says it’s totally okay to not want to tell your roommate. It’s your decision who you want to enclose your anxiety disorder to, and if you feel that it won’t interfere with your living situation with them, you shouldn’t feel pressure to talk about it with your roommate. “Before you talk to your roommate about your anxiety, think about whether telling them will strengthen or hurt your relationship,” Klemanski suggests.
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IF: You want to tell your roommate you have anxiety disorder
THEN: Say “Hey, I have something important to tell you. I get anxious when I have a big exam coming up. I even sometimes tremble and I break out in hives. I just wanted you to know what I’m feeling so you know what it is and you’re not alarmed if it happens.”
This script is just an example of what you could say to your roommate when addressing your anxiety. Not everyone gets the shakes or breaks out—some people just get really, really worried, and it manifests in all types of ways. As we learned earlier, it’s not always even a big final exam that spikes the anxiety, either. There are many scenarios that make people anxious, and the symptoms that arise are different for each individual.
Although this script is one strong way to approach addressing your anxiety with a roommate, Klemanski emphasizes that there’s no right or wrong way to disclose that you have a mental disorder. “It’s important to get clarity on your own process and anxiety before talking to your roommate about it,” he says. “You need to understand what you want out of telling them about your anxiety.”
If you understand your specific symptoms and what causes spikes in your anxiety, you can talk about them more easily and knowledgeably with a roommate.
IF: You’ve noticed your roommate might be struggling with anxiety and you want to make them aware that you’re down to help them manage it.
THEN: Say, “I noticed you’ve seemed anxious lately. Is there anything I can do to help? I’m here if you ever want to talk.”
Keep it simple, stay calm, and don’t try to diagnose their specifics. “You can tell if your roommate might have anxiety if you see repeated signs of stress spikes,” Klemanski says. “Are they constantly worried? Do they spew a lot of thoughts out at random?” He stresses, however, that it’s important to wait until they are more calm to address the subject.
Remember, talking to your roommate about their anxiety is all about how you can help them. It’s not about you, but certainly you can make yourself available to them as a resource and let them know that they can reach out to you whenever they need to.
IF: You want to work on better managing your anxiety at the start of the school year
THEN: Rely on what’s worked in the past, and take advantage of new resources.
There are a wide range of ways to manage anxiety, and Klemanski tells me that it’s a very treatable disorder. “People should really think about anxiety as something they can modulate,” he says. “There’s no cookie-cutter treatment for anxiety. What’s right for one person may not work for another.” He suggests reflecting on what’s worked for you in the past, whether it’s getting a decent meal, a better night’s rest, or just talking to somebody—whether that person is a psychologist or simply a friend.
“Never be afraid to seek professional help, but you can gain support in other ways,” Klemanski says. It’s important to talk to the right people and use the right resources when seeking help. Life after college can yield more of struggle to find access to resources, so while you're on campus, try and take advantage of the different support systems offered.
There are generally several student support services to tap into, including counseling. For some individuals, though, it might be easier to talk to resident assistants, mentors, professors, or older peers. Joining clubs and activity groups and meeting people similar to us that we can connect with can also be hugely beneficial.
Klemanski suggests trying anti-anxiety apps, specifically meditation apps that help regulate your breathing pattern and calm you down. “Anxiety activates emotions, so reading and learning about your emotions can also really help,” Klemanski says. If we understand the root of our anxiety and what emotions trigger it, we can better recognize when we are getting anxious and take steps to combat the way we’re feeling.
I hope after reading this script, it’s easier to identify signs of anxiety, communicate about anxiety with roommates, and seek help as needed. That way, whether we’re the roommate crying on the couch at 2 am or the one who discovers him or her there, we have a better idea of what we can do to inject a little calm into the situation.
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