By Jane Bowden
It’s graduation day. You’ve just received the diploma you've been working toward for years when President Kathryn Foster announces, “I now present to you the Class of 2020.” As you throw your decorated cap in the air and all of your friends and family members cheer from the bleachers, you suddenly feel a wave of dread as the reality of adulthood hits you — what the hell do I do now?
As commencement approaches, it’s common for graduating students to experience Post Commencement Stress Disorder, a condition in which individuals have anxiety about life after college, according to Psychology Today.
“Seniors can have so many feelings as they approach graduation: anxiety, excitement, disbelief, sadness, trepidation, relief or even terror,” said Dr. Jonathan Murakami, a licensed psychologist and coordinator of clinical training at the College. “They might not be feeling only one of these emotions, but they may feel a mixture of them or move from one feeling to the next.”
Psychology Today reports that the symptoms of PCSD, which can arise before and/or after graduation, include sleeplessness, irritability, feeling unable to control life and avoidance of everyday activities, such as spending time with friends.
Despite the mixed emotions that adulthood brings, these feelings can be managed. Here are a few ways to navigate the anxiety that life after graduation brings.
Normalize Feelings of Anxiety
Ask a senior how they’re doing during their last semester of college, and chances are they’ll jump through hoops just to dodge the topic altogether.
Instead of avoiding feelings of anxiety, Murakami said students who are graduating should embrace their feelings, even if they’re negative, and normalize what they are going through. This means thinking, "This is hard, and it's okay that I am having a hard time with this. It does not mean I'm weak,” rather than “Everyone else feels this way, so just suck it up.”
“Openness and acceptance towards a feeling, even a negative one, can help seniors manage their negative feelings,” Murakami said. “This helps them decrease negative judgments towards the emotion or towards themselves for even having negative feelings in the first place.”
Find an Outlet
Whether a person is in the midst of overwhelming anxiety or looking to manage their feelings before they arise, finding an outlet can benefit their mental health. This can mean exercising, practicing creative hobbies and talking about their emotions to a friend, family member or therapist.
Allyson Vilanova (’19) said that after graduation, it’s important for people to continue their self-care routine in order to avoid burnout.
“As someone who is new at a job, you want to be putting all of your time and effort into it, but at a certain point, you have to realize that you need to make time for yourself as well,” Vilanova said.
The months, and even years, following graduation often involve a lot of change, so developing a solid, go-to routine can help alleviate that feeling of lost control.
Make a Plan
For many students, most of their post-graduation anxiety stems from fear of the unknown. Do I want to go to graduate school? Where am I going to work? What am I going to do if I don’t find a job? People’s minds tend to overthink when their futures aren’t totally set in stone.
To stop the cycle of overthinking, Murakami suggests planning ahead. Whether it be going to the College’s Career Center to discuss options after graduation or scheduling a therapy appointment before feelings of anxiety arise, the sooner a person plans ahead, the easier it may be to handle the transition from student to working adult.
“Planning ahead can begin by just asking oneself what has been important to them during their time at TCNJ, like friends, learning, staying active and being involved in the community,” Murakami said. “(They can) identify small steps they can take to include these elements in their post-graduate life.”
Appreciate Where You Are Now
From the last time they get their student ID scanned in Eickhoff Dining Hall to dancing at their final Thursday-night Rho, a student who’s graduating might feel pressured to take advantage of every opportunity in order to make the most of their time left at the College. This can heighten feelings of anxiety and F.O.M.O. (fear of missing out).
To minimize that overwhelming pressure, students should remind themselves to embrace moments as they happen, be thankful of the memories they’ve made and appreciate the people who surround them.
Justin Cook (‘19) shared that seniors should encourage themselves to participate in experiences that can only be found at college.
“The key is to make sure you’re always doing something you can’t do away from school — taking initiative, meeting new people, creating or learning,” Cook said.
Maximillian Burgos (‘19) agreed, adding that having a limited amount of time at college can encourage a person to step outside of their comfort zone.
“Get out there and do something that creates good memories and builds you as a person,” Burgos said. “Be bold. Take charge of your life. Find meaning in the smallest of moments, and you'll be happier.”
Drop the Comparisons
Regardless of what stage of life a person is in, comparison is inevitable, especially during the months following graduation. With social media feeds full of peers sharing that they just landed their dream jobs or are getting engaged to their long-time sweethearts, it’s difficult to avoid feeling insecure and hopeless.
However, it’s normal for a graduate to struggle at finding a job, or even a job that they love.
“You have the rest of your life as a working adult, so there is no need to worry if your dream job doesn't happen right after college,” Vilanova said. “I was way too set in finding a job I wanted to work at forever, but really all I needed to figure out was what I was doing right now.”
From students and graduates alike, Burgos said being happy doesn’t depend on a degree, job or annual salary — it starts with treating oneself with kindness.
“Just treat yourself like the kid you'd hope to raise,” Burgos said. “You're not perfect, not even close. You won't always do things on time, but that's okay. Even if you're 10 percent better each week, that adds up.”