In 1987, a longitudinal study was conducted to examine the effects of transitions to university on the wellbeing of first-year students. The study found that all students evidenced increased psychological disturbances, such as heightened levels of anxiety, stress, and homesickness, following the transition. Feelings such as this are, of course, completely normal; transitioning to university is a big step that is destabilizing in many ways. But making an effort to mitigate psychological disturbance is nevertheless necessary for two main reasons: first, since psychological wellbeing is the best predictor of performance, students with increased anxiety are likely to underperform in their studies; second, if students experience protracted stress and anxiety they are greater risk of developing long-term mental and physical health problems.
So, to ensure that students perform to the best of their abilities and successfully manage the emotional upheaval of transitioning to university, what can we do?
First and foremost, it is crucial to provide students with relevant psychological insights and equip them with usable tools and techniques that they can deploy to help assuage potentially harmful emotions. Such insights begin with the notion that feelings of stress around environmental change are totally normal and natural: the human brain is evolutionarily hardwired to crave familiarity and respond anxiously to unfamiliarity since that which we know is ordinarily associated with safety and protection. Though a negatively charged response to unfamiliarity is natural, it is not unavoidable. Despite being influenced by the event itself, our reaction is largely based on our perception of the event. So although feelings of threat that arise when we experience large changes are normal, if we learn to step back, remain calm, and rationally reassess a situation, stopping our emotions from hijacking our rational neural networks, we can curb unhelpful stress and adopt a more thoughtful, solution-focused attitude towards whatever is threatening us, be it real or imagined. It is worth recalling the stoic philosopher Epictetus’ adage: ‘it is not what happens but the view we take of it that matters.’
Once we recognise that our perception of events is highly influential in determining our reaction to them, we can begin enhancing a vital trait that psychologists refer to as ‘tolerance of ambiguity.’ Essential in situations when we are confronted by the uncertainty of a major life transition, tolerance of ambiguity describes our individual and collective ability to cope with unpredictability. Rather than perceive change as threatening, which only leads to increased feelings of anxiety that inhibit their ability to respond rationally and proactively, individuals with high tolerance of ambiguity approach change with an outlook of excitement and curiosity, perceiving it as a challenging opportunity for personal growth and development. This places them in a much better position to adapt effectively when they find themselves in new, potentially unsettling situations.
While enhancing such tolerance involves training individuals to alter their perception around change and uncertainty, it also means creating supportive environments that encourage open, non-judgmental discussion around stress. In such an environment, stress becomes normalised and de-stigmatised—processes that go some way to protecting individuals against excessive rumination and negative meta-emotion (i.e. feeling stressed about being stressed). To really effect change around the psychological wellbeing of students, it is important that universities take a holistic approach, generating insights not just to a select few individuals but to people at all levels of the university while also ensuring that adequate support systems are in place.
There are also some immediate, practical steps students might take to mitigate feelings of anxiety that arise following university transitions. As well as finding someone to talk to, such as a peer supporter, a tutor, a supervisor, or a counsellor, keeping in contact with people from home can also help. Albeit, these lines of contact should not hinder your involvement within your new community; it is best to strike the right balance between doing new and uncomfortable things, so they can become familiar and comfortable, and not always hurry back to the familiar.