Limiting anxiety during the college admissions process

Spring is college admission season, with acceptance notices popping up in inboxes and mailboxes and high school students committing to a school for the fall semester.

This can be both a joyful and nervous time. And for those students who are particularly anxious about getting in to their top pick — or depressed over getting rejected — Dr. Jill M. Emanuele has some advice: “Your whole self-worth is not tied to you getting into a particular school.”

Emanuele is a clinical psychologist at the Manhattan-based Child Mind Institute who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy and works primarily with adolescents. We talked with her about anxiety and the college admissions process.


What is your practice like this time of year?

I do see kids who are applying to college, ones who haven’t already gotten in for early admissions, experience an increase in anxiety. This is something that we check in with them about, especially if we know they are waiting for letters from colleges. It’s currently going to be part of the conversation. If they have anxiety, it might increase this time of year.


What are your tips for teens going through the college admissions process?

For students, what we would try to do during this time of year is teach them some anxiety management strategies. We would teach them deep breathing to help calm their body down, to recognize that anxiety is an emotion — it has a beginning, a middle and an end. In the moment you don’t have to be suffering as much as you already are. Really what’s happening to them in the moment in time is their thoughts are running away from them, they’re fearing the worst that’s possibly going to happen. We teach them to recognize that it’s out of their control at this point. The letter or email is not here yet. We try to teach them to enjoy life in the present moment, that there’s nothing you can do to control the outcome of this moment, and worrying and being fearful is not going to change that.


What are signs that someone might need professional help dealing with anxiety?

Anything you see that differs from the norm and that starts to last beyond a day or two you should pay attention to. You’re going to start seeing this time of year people getting less sleep. Maybe their appetite is going up or going down, they might withdraw a little bit, or might start to be more social. They might not be able to focus or concentrate on homework. They may be feeling sad or down more so than typically. They may be engaging in more impulsive behavior. They might be making statements like, this is the end if I don’t get into this college. These things may point to signs to talk to someone, particularly if it’s longer than a period of a few days.


Are anxiety disorders on the rise?

It’s hard to measure that because of people who are undiagnosed or haven’t been seen for treatment. Of all the kinds of mental health disorders, [anxiety disorders] are the most prominent kind seen in both children and adults in this country. It’s becoming hopefully more the norm to be more upfront about mental health disorder. People are more open about talking rather than hiding.


How can anxiety affect teenagers in particular?

When the admission process is tied to their sense of self-worth, if your getting into a certain college determines your worth for the rest of your life — that’s a mindset you really want to try to change. That’s an extreme way of thinking. We want to change the way people think, so they’re not suffering so much.


How do you do that?

A popular treatment we do is cognitive behavioral therapy, looking at how the thoughts that we have — the way we perceive the world — affects the way we feel, which then affects the way we behave. A common example to give to people, New Yorkers in particular, is if you’re standing in the subway and someone steps on your foot. A popular way of interpreting this is, the person meant it, which leads you to be angry and you might yell at the person. Another thought is, maybe they didn’t mean it, it’s crowded, which leads you to be mildly annoyed but calm and move on with your way. The way you interpret your world affects how you go about living in your world. If is going to lead you to feel very nervous and very sad if you don’t get in, we want to change that to, “I’m still a worthwhile person, I will go to some college, my life is not over, my life is just beginning.”