Understanding Post-college Depression

Is it normal to feel lonely after college? When Brianna Baker earned her bachelor’s degree in spring 2019 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill she felt lucky to have a job lined up. Many of her peers didn’t. Still, the job as a public health analyst at a large corporation wasn’t her first choice for her post-college life.

Baker, now 24, had expected to go directly to graduate school. When that didn’t work out, she found herself in a job that was exciting, but also “nerve-wracking and lonely,” she says. “Working as part of a huge team with no peers close to my age made me feel like a very little fish in a big pond.”

In college, Baker had excelled in her double major of psychology and interdisciplinary studies. She was used to her identity as a high achiever. At work, however, she was often given tasks she didn’t know how to do.

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“That learning curve was a lot for me to take in. I’m an overachiever, and I wanted to do well, but I really didn’t know how. It was the type of learning that just takes time. That was a big adjustment for me, and it was stressful,” Baker says.

She also felt alone. Her close group of college friends had scattered to different states and futures. “My social life felt like it had been ripped away,” Baker says. She tried to stay connected through social media, but it fueled her feelings of anxiety and made her feel bad about herself.

“It seemed like [all my friends] were thriving and being able to do very well. But I didn’t have a new car or an apartment with a city view. I couldn’t post about working on my master’s degree or my doctorate. I felt mediocre,” she says.

After a few months, Baker found herself sad, stressed, and lonely much of the time. “Life just felt like a series of letdowns,” she says. “I had a lot of ideas about what life after college was going to be like, and the reality wasn’t at all what I expected.”

Post-College Distress Is More Common Than You Think

The sadness, loneliness, and anxiety that Baker felt after her college graduation are uncomfortable but not uncommon, says Libby O’Brien, PhD, a licensed professional counselor and American Counseling Association expert.

“The first thing to understand is that you’re not alone,” O’Brien says. “Feeling anxiety, depression, or some degree of ‘stuckness’ and discomfort after graduating is normal. It’s a change, and change can be very challenging to negotiate. You don’t necessarily know what comes next.”

Feelings of distress after college don’t always rise to the level of a diagnosable mental health disorder, says Tanya J. Peterson, a nationally certified counselor and mental health educator who has authored seven self-help books on anxiety.

“Often these feelings of depression and anxiety are temporary, but major depressive disorder or an anxiety disorder are also possible,” she says.

If you’re a recent college grad, here are some reasons you may feel anxious, depressed, or alone.

Your vision of post-college life and its reality don’t match. “Recent graduates are often coming off a cliff of high expectations,” O’Brien says. “You think ‘My life is about to begin.’ Then the image you have of what that looks like may fall short.”

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You feel pressure from yourself and others. You may hear a lot of “What comes next” questions from well-meaning friends and family. “It’s small talk, but it feels like pressure,” Peterson says.

Pressure can also come from within. “It’s an amazing achievement to earn a degree and you may feel internal pressure to continue to succeed,” O’Brien says. “This may be particularly true for first-generation college students and individuals of color, who may feel their family’s dreams are set on them.”

You’ve transitioned abruptly into the adult world. “College often gives you a safety cushion between adolescence and full-on adulthood,” Peterson says. “Now it’s time to get a job, pay back loans, and start meeting all the other all expectations and responsibilities of adulthood. That can cause a lot of angst.”

Your friendships and social life have changed. Graduation often means the loss of your busy social schedule with a close group of friends. After college, you or your friends may relocate and move on to different career paths. With that whirl of activity and familiar support gone, you may feel isolated and lonely.

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The pandemic has already made you feel anxious and alone. For many, the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has magnified the anxiety and distress that can make post-college life feel like an emotional black hole.

“COVID-19 means college students instantly lost much of their access to friends, classmates, and professors. They may have lost an internship or other opportunity,” Peterson says. “Now they’re emerging from college into a world in which businesses are downsizing. That’s a lot of uncertainty and isolation to deal with.”

Symptoms of Post-College Depression

Post-college depression and anxiety can cause a mix of unpleasant emotions. You may feel:

  • Uncomfortable with yourself or your life and not know exactly why.
  • Stuck or unmotivated, without knowing how to move forward or what you want to do.
  • Unworthy, incapable, or as if you’ve disappointed yourself, your family, or your friends.
  • Isolated and unsupported in a new job, city, or educational program.
  • Lonely for friends and family.
  • Angry at yourself because you haven’t achieved what you expected or at others because you feel they’ve created a barrier to your goals.
  • Irritable or edgy.
  • Like your emptions are on a roller coaster.
  • Exhausted and overwhelmed.

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Your body can react to anxiety and depression, as well. You may have:

You may notice changes in your behavior. To cope with depression or anxiety you may:

  • Overuse technology and spend hours gaming, on social media, or scrolling through webpages
  • Exercise too much or too little
  • Overeat unhealthy foods
  • Consume too much alcohol or caffeine or use reactional drugs

Accept Your Feelings and Let Go of Guilt

To get past the feelings of sadness and anxiety that can crop up after college graduation, you first need to recognize and accept how you feel.

“You may feel you should keep up a go-get-them face and attitude. But that means you’re avoiding what’s going on inside,” Peterson says. “Instead, take a pause and listen to yourself, and drop the labels and the judgement. When you acknowledge and accept your feelings you can get over that hurdle a lot faster.”

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For Zipporah Osei, recognizing that her sense of anxiety and disappointment was linked to the recent changes in her life was key to feeling better.

“I wasn’t enjoying my new job or new city as much as I expected,” says Osei, who graduated in May 2020 with a degree in journalism from Northeastern University in Boston. Soon after, she moved to New York City to work on a research team for a major media outlet.

“At first, because everything was so new, I didn’t really know what was causing these feelings,” she says. “Over the summer I took a break from my own writing to get in a better place. But, by fall, I still wasn’t feeling like writing. I realized I wasn’t mentally in the place I wanted to be.”

It was then that Osei, now 24, “got intentional about processing the feelings I was going through and not just ignoring them.”

COVID-19 meant there was little Osei could do to change the restrictions on who she could see and where she could go.

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“I had to shift my mindset and remind myself of the good things I had going for me,” she says. “I really leaned on my family and friends to get through, even though I couldn’t be physically with them.”

She also realized that her feelings of anxiety and depression made her feel guilty.

“As a first-generation graduate, I expected to feel really good when I reached this milestone. But I didn’t,” she says. “But reading about how this happens to a lot of people and talking to friends who were going through similar issues helped me get to the other side.”

Within a few months, Osei felt more optimistic about the future and her place in it. Her advice? “Don’t beat yourself up for feeling this way,” she says. “With time and effort, you can feel better.”

Tips for Helping With Depressed Feelings

O’Brien and Peterson offer this advice to help ease post-college feelings of distress, loss, anxiety, and sadness.

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Build healthy habits. Eat nutritious food, get enough sleep, and exercise in a way that’s good for your body. “When you attend to your overall wellness, you’re better able to navigate feelings of anxiety and depression,” O’Brien says.

Stay connected to friends and family. Reach out for emotional support from those who care about you. Even if you can’t see them in person, connect regularly through text, phone, or video, Peterson says.

Make new connections. Friendships can shift with time, distance, and the changes adulthood brings. To forge new relationships with like-minded people, tap into your hobbies and passions, Peterson says.

Engage in things that are meaningful to you. “Having a sense of purpose can help you cope with negative feelings,” O’Brien says. “If you’re not yet employed or your job is more about what you’re getting paid to do, then consider volunteering for something that brings meaning into your life.”

Practice mindfulness.Meditation is a great way to tune into the mind and allow it to rest,” Peterson says. “If formal meditation is not for you, you can still be mindful. Practicing mindfulness simply means bringing your attention to the here and now, paying attention to whatever you’re feeling, and choosing how you’re going to respond in that moment.”

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Set achievable goals and take small steps toward them. “This can mean taking 30 minutes to polish your resume or to do a job search,” Peterson says. “Sometimes when we set goals we want to achieve them right away to make up for what we think of as lost time. But when we do that, we often fall flat.”

Brianna Baker used a combination of these techniques to get past her feelings of distress after graduation. She joined a gym, made new friends, set small daily goals, and limited her social media time. She also started a blog about her post-college experiences and to be a voice for social justice and systems-level change.

“Writing the blog was cathartic for me. Staying off social media helped me stop comparing myself to others and to start doing things for myself instead of for outside validation,” says Baker, who is now pursuing her doctoral degree in psychology.

When to Seek More Help

Many people get through post-college depression and anxiety with time and help from family and friends. Others need more support.

If your feelings disrupt your life or if the way you think about yourself is markedly different than it was a few weeks or months ago, it may be time to seek help from a therapist, counselor, or another health care professional. If you aren’t sure how to find the help you need, talk to your primary care physician or family doctor, O’Brien says.

If you ever feel like you want to hurt yourself, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. You can speak with a trained crisis worker or chat with one on the website 24/7.

“No matter how bad your stress, anxiety, depression, or external situation, they can always be helped,” Peterson says. “If you are thinking you are beyond hope, it’s time to reach out.”

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