Outreach: leaving home

Luke* was leaving for college in four weeks! He had gotten into his top choice school, picked his schedule, bought a mini-fridge and toured his dorm room. He wanted to feel happy and excited for his future but truth be told, Luke was in a panic. He was having trouble falling asleep as his mind was racing with an endless string of “what ifs.” What if I can’t find the science building? What if my roommate doesn’t like me? What if I can’t keep up with my classes? What if I don’t have anyone to go to dinner with? And ultimately, what if I’m not cut out for college? He was also scolding himself for not knowing how to do everything he thought he would need to know how to do once living on his own. He worried about not knowing how and when to get his car inspected, how to find a doctor if he gets sick, how to file taxes for a job he planned on getting and how to pay bills and do his laundry.

Luke had been to Outreach two years earlier for help with anxiety and felt like he needed a tune-up before heading out to college. He met up with his counselor, who quickly helped him get back up to speed. They discussed that probably a lot of incoming freshmen have some worry and trepidation. After all, going off to college is a big step, and there are going to be many new situations and challenges to face. The counselor helped Luke realize that all the “adult” tasks he feels unequipped to do are learned through experience and there has to be a first time for everything. To lessen the anxiety, they discussed how to seek out information and support. Even though Luke may not be living with his parents, he realized he can still call them for advice on how to take on some of these new responsibilities. He also made a list of things he wanted to learn or accomplish before leaving. This included doing a few loads of laundry.

The counselor then helped Luke to challenge the “what if” thinking that was increasing his feelings of anxiety. They used cognitive therapy techniques such as imagining the worst that can happen. For example; if I can’t find the science building I’ll just ask someone and be late, I’m not going to be lost forever. If I don’t have anyone to sit with at dinner, I’ll eat by myself and then try to meet people in my dorm to hang out with in the future. When Luke began to question his abilities, he would counter his distorted thoughts about failure with more truthful thoughts such as, “I have always worked hard,” and “I know I can pass if I keep to a study schedule.” There were times when there was no specific anxious thought but Luke still felt a general uneasiness in his body. That’s when his therapist reminded him that he can shut down his body’s reaction to stress by using the deep breathing and mindfulness techniques that they practiced in session.

*Luke represents a typical Outreach client. Details do not correspond with any specific case in order to protect client anonymity.

Outreach Teen & Family Services is a nonprofit, confidential counseling service. We offer counseling and educational programs to children and parents that are affordable, accessible, and discreet; all within a welcoming, supportive environment.

This column is made possible in part by the Mt. Lebanon Police Association.