Three Reasons Why Anxiety Gets Easier to Deal with After College
Graduating isn’t just a time for new opportunities, it’s also a time for less anxiety. Here's why.
This article was originally published on Medium.com on June 25, 2020.
Many people say that as we get older, we tend to mellow out. While that notion certainly doesn’t apply to everyone, I think, on the whole, it’s fairly accurate.
As it pertains to anxiety, this means that, at some point, we lose our reputation as angsty teenagers and start our journey into true adulthood — one during which we become more responsible, less perturbable human beings.
Of course, anxiety doesn’t leave all of us for good during that journey; for many of us, it’s a lifelong battle — young adulthood and its various challenges included.
Despite that reality, however, many folks actually do report that their anxiety becomes easier to manage in the years following college graduation. In this post, I’ll cover the three main reasons why I think this is the case.
1. Frontal Lobe Development
When it comes to anxiety, there are a few key brain structures/systems at play. To simplify things a bit, I’ll focus on just two here.
The first is the limbic system — a set of structures that comprise what’s known as the emotional brain. This system, as the name suggests, is responsible for pretty much all of our emotions, including fear.
The second is the frontal lobe and its prefrontal cortex (PFC). This lobe is responsible for the higher-level functions of the brain, such as thinking, planning, and making sense of our experiences.
Though many of the brain’s structures and systems work together in various ways, these two are particularly closely linked, especially as it pertains to anxiety. That is, the prefrontal cortex interprets information from the limbic system and acts as both a filter and a “brake” on its emotion-based messages.
Or, in layman’s terms: with our thoughts, we can tell our emotional brains to rein it back in a bit. This is especially important when it comes to experiencing anxiety, as it means that the better we get at turning away from negative and apprehensive impulses, the less fear we’ll feel, overall.
There is one caveat here, however, and it’s the fact that our frontal lobes don’t fully develop until we’re about twenty-five. This explains both why anxiety hits teenagers so hard as well as why we often “mellow out” as we get older; when we’re nineteen, we’re working with less effective anxiety-mitigating hardware than we are when we’re twenty-nine.
That’s not to say you can’t manage your anxiety via your thoughts in your teenage years, just that if you’re not yet at least halfway through your twenties, you can rest assured that things will get easier and more manageable in the near future.
2. More Predictable Social Interactions
One thing I always found difficult about college was the fact that I was around so many people all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I love social interaction — just in the right doses.
In college, you’re forced into social encounters at almost every turn. This can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s great because it means the odds of isolation are pretty low (a common precondition for anxiety and depression, by the way).
However, on the other hand, endless opportunity for social interaction also means you may run into people who not only trigger your anxiety on the regular (crushes, professors, etc) but also leave you obsessing over when you’ll run into them yet again.
The fact that our frontal lobes aren’t fully developed in college only further complicates the matter. Being exposed to countless anxiety-provoking situations is difficult enough. Now add to that challenge a frontal lobe that isn’t 100% ready for anxiety primetime just yet. Hard just got a whole lot harder.
Though this won’t exactly fix the problem if you’re currently in school, I still think it’s comforting to know that most anxiety-related things get better, especially those on the social front, after graduation.
For example, those “around every corner” social situations are far less common once you’re out in the real world. Since you no longer live on the same campus after graduation, you likely won’t have to fear running into professors or crushes all the time.
In addition, since you’ll probably have to plan to hang out with such folks when you want to see them, you can keep your anxiety around such meetups contained to smaller, more manageable slots on the calendar.
Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t any anxiety-provoking situations in young adulthood — just that they’re more predictable (we anxious folks love predictability). Those dates and performance reviews, though obviously fear-inducing in their own right, are typically constricted to one specific time or event. Navigating such specific events, at least in my mind, is much more doable than living in fearful anticipation at every turn.
3. More Life Experiences
One of the most difficult things about dealing with anxiety at a young age is that we don’t yet have a lot of reference points for it. This is why our first panic attack can be so befuddling — we not only have no idea what it is, but we also have no idea what to do about it.
Once we graduate and move onto the real world, we put many of our “firsts” behind us — our first anxiety attacks, our first rumination sessions, and our first wildly fear-provoking experiences. As with everything in life, the more we experience something, the more we learn how to deal with it.
Sure, anxiety can be, and typically is, a long-term battle. But even with that being the case, I can say for sure that it does get easier to deal with as you get older. One of the main reasons why is that as we age, anxiety becomes more familiar to us.
I’m sure you’ve heard some people refer to their demons as “old friends” before. This is exactly what I mean when I cite such “familiarity.” As the saying goes, it’s better to face the devil you know than the one you don’t, because at least you know what to expect from the familiar foe. As we move from college to the early parts of true adulthood, anxiety becomes our own familiar demon.
In time, some of us may be able to train that demon into a friend; it’s all about how you look at it and what strategies you cultivate as you move through more and more anxiety-provoking experiences.
It Really Does Get Better
So, whether you identify yourself as an insecure high schooler, an angsty college student, or a fearful adult, know this: the struggle against anxiety can and does get better. It just takes time, dedication, and resilience.
As you move from one decade of your life to the next, you’ll not only pick up helpful strategies and tactics, but you’ll also feel the effects of a developing frontal lobe — one that gets better at thought filtering and emotion regulation until you’re almost thirty.
Now, with that said, don’t feel like you have to wait for real-life experiences or frontal lobe maturity to really master your mental monsters. Start sinking your teeth into more empowering anxiety-related content today. I’ll leave some of that sort of stuff below, in hopes that you find it helpful. Best of luck on your journey, regardless of where you find yourself right now.
Sources / Further Reading
- The limbic system: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2917081
- Frontal lobe development: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2892678
- Frontal lobe and limbic system interaction: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, Ph.D. (Chapter 7)
Mental health advocate and author of “Get Out of Your Head: A Toolkit for Living with and Overcoming Anxiety” (available on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2HSnqpo)