When my friend found me, I was sitting on the floor of the women's bathroom underneath the hair dryer sobbing and hyperventilating. My long, overpriced rented graduation robe bunched up around my waist and the ridiculous hat they make you wear in Ireland when you get your Ph.D. was sitting crooked on my head. I used toilet paper to wipe the tears — and smeared makeup — off my face. My friend had seen me run out of my graduation ceremony a few minutes earlier and came to check on me, realizing something wasn't OK. She was right — it wasn't.
After three years of incredibly hard work, I was finally graduating with my doctorate. My parents and sister flew in from Ohio to see it happen. Thankfully, my panic attack didn't really kick in until after I walked across the stage and received my diploma, but when I couldn't catch my breath or stop crying, I knew I had to get out of that auditorium — fast. And that's when I pushed my way through my row of fellow graduates and ran up the aisle, out the door and into the bathroom.
There I was, having just completed the highest academic degree in my discipline — going from a Ms. to a Dr. — and had people around me who loved me and traveled a long way to see me graduate. Yet everything felt completely hopeless and pointless, and after trying to suppress it, everything came gushing out during my graduation ceremony. All the speakers went on about our exciting futures and all the great things we'd do, but at that point, I had been looking for a job for a year and a half with no luck at all. They acted like this was some joyous occasion, but in reality, I had to leave the safe nest of academia and try to find work in a country where no one was hiring.
On top of that, I've never been one for forced fun or mandatory happy occasions, like New Year's Eve, birthdays or office parties — and graduation was no exception. People kept (appropriately) congratulating me and smiling, and each time they did — or worse yet, asked about my future plans — I felt worse. I didn't have any good news for them, so I'd smile back and nod politely, thanking them, but secretly wanting to scream.
Of course, being anxious about graduating and the future is a perfectly normal and reasonable response to not knowing what's ahead. Dr. Adam L. Fried, a clinical psychologist practicing in Phoenix and assistant professor of psychology at Midwestern University, has worked with clients getting ready to graduate and has seen a range of responses, including excitement, relief and pride alongside anxiety and fear.
"I tend to think about graduation (especially college graduation) as a type of life transition — these are often associated with both positive and negative emotions," Fried tells SheKnows. "The negative ones are often related to uncertainty about what their future life will look like (including a lack of predictable patterns), changes in expectations and concerns about whether this major life transition will lead to happiness."
Causes of graduation-related anxiety
In my experience, as someone with sometimes-debilitating anxiety, facing the unknown — whether it's trying to find the bathroom in a new office or navigating post-college life (which, yes, could involve unemployment) — is a major trigger. Fried says that some graduates experiencing intense feelings of uncertainty and apprehension about their future — including what they’re going to be doing after graduation — is perfectly normal. Many also may feel anxious about leaving an environment that has become comfortable for them and where they finally feel secure in their role as student as well as what graduation means for them socially, he adds.
"Many graduates I have worked with experience anxiety related to fears that the emotional and other support (from parents, advisers, instructors, etc.) they have relied on for so many years will suddenly not be available, and they will be left on their own to navigate adult roles, such as finding work and supporting oneself, living independently and creating new relationships," Fried notes.
In addition, he says that the graduation ceremony itself can be a source of anxiety because — in addition to everything else — some students have to plan for complicated family dynamics (such as parents who are divorced) in an effort to avoid or minimize conflict. This can involve having to think through who is going to sit where, who you are going to celebrate with and when and how to avoid negative interactions and resentments.
"These anxieties can sometimes exacerbate all of the emotions they are already feeling about graduating and transitioning to a different life role," Fried explains.
Strategies for dealing with graduation anxiety
Although there's no magical method for getting rid of your anxiety at graduation (or any other time for that matter), Fried has some helpful suggestions. Though he says there isn't a lot of research specifically looking into graduation-related anxiety, in his experience, students often have difficulty reconciling their actual feelings about graduation, which can include anxiety and fear, with what they believe they’re expected to feel, such as pure excitement, accomplishment and pride.
"Students often express that they shouldn’t feel anxious or fearful or that they are the only ones who are approaching graduation with trepidation and dread," Fried explains. "I have found it helpful to let students know that it’s not unusual to feel a mix of emotions or even sometimes just the negative ones and talk to them about what aspects of graduation they find to be the most anxiety provoking."
In other words, giving voice to these insecurities may be a way to help cope with them. And then there's the dreaded, "So, what are you going to do now?" follow-up question. For this one, Fried suggests that students try to set some boundaries with family members around these discussions, especially around graduation time.
As for me, I wish I could say that that there was something in particular that helped with my graduation-related anxiety aside from finally getting a job, but I can't. And even after that, my brain found plenty of new things to be anxious about. The main thing to remember here, though, is that anxiety around any major life transitions — like graduation, starting a new job, major relationship changes — is perfectly normal, and acknowledging and addressing these emotions is a good first step toward dealing with them.