8 Ways to Manage the Stress in the College and Career Planning Process

By BigFuture and The Jed Foundation (JED)

Well-Being Community

Planning for your life after high school can be really exciting. Sometimes it can feel like you’re sitting on top of the world. Other times? It can feel like the world is sitting on top of you.

You or the caring adults and friends in your life may be asking you all kinds of questions you may not have answers to yet: What’s your plan after high school? Do you want to go to college? Which colleges are you applying to? What do you want to be when you grow up?

It can seem like every question is an interrogation of your plans for your future. It’s a lot. And, no, you can’t control what your aunt is going to ask you at the family BBQ or even the fact that this is a year when people expect you to have some big answers to big questions. What you can control is how you take care of yourself and manage the stress of it all.

Taking the space and time you need to understand what you want during this process makes it more likely that you’ll find healthy solutions that work for you.

Below are 8 ways to do just that. Find and focus on those that work best for you.

  1. Press pause when you need to. Anytime you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, take a minute (or hour or day) to engage in gentle self-care and give yourself the space you need to gain better understanding and perspective before taking action.
    The Jed Foundation and PINK have put together an entire online hub with all kinds of ways you can press pause and connect with yourself and what you want in any given moment—and in the future.
  2. Get organized so you feel more in control. You can’t choose what colleges, programs, or jobs will accept you. But you can feel some control over the process of applying for them. Getting clear on what you want—and need to do—can relieve a lot of the stress you may be feeling.
    Think about what you’re responsible for in the process, and then break those responsibilities into small, manageable tasks you can accomplish and check off the list. When you try to do too much or set unrealistic goals, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. By being realistic about what you can get done and prioritizing so you can tackle one thing at a time, you can feel the relief of knowing things are getting done and that you have a handle on what still needs to happen.
  3. Connect to the present moment. Stress and anxiety come from worrying about what might happen in the future or rehashing what has happened in the past. But, usually, in the present moment, things are calm and not stressful. There are many ways to bring your focus to the present moment. Try one of these and figure out which ones work for you:
    • Box breathing: Inhale calmly for a count of 4, hold at the top of the breath for a count of 4, exhale slowly for a count of 4, and then hold at the bottom of the breath for one more 4-count. You can trace a box in your hand as you do this and repeat until you find your nervous system calming down and you feel more settled. Here are other breathing exercises to try.
    • Meditation: Meditation can seem intimidating. But it can take many forms, and it doesn’t mean you have to sit still and clear your mind of all thoughts. You can do it at almost any time and in any position (except maybe while driving).
      Wherever you are, find something to pay attention to. It could be your breath as it comes in and out of your nose or makes your belly rise and fall. It could be the sound of birds outside. Or it could even be a tree or some other object you focus your eyes on. Then, notice when your mind drifts from your point of focus. It will happen a lot because your mind’s job is to be busy. But that’s good, because it gives you a lot of chances to notice your mind has wandered and return to your focal point.
      Try 1–5 minutes at first and build up from there. You’ll notice that it gets easier and easier to find yourself in the present moment. You can also use guided meditations on apps such as Headspace, InsightTimer, and Calm.
  4. Be a stress detective. Often we find ourselves on auto-pilot, going about our days taking care of everything that comes up as it comes up, without really stopping to notice what we’re feeling—what makes us feel more stressed, what helps us feel relaxed. At the end of your day, take a few minutes to jot down notes in an app or journal about what happened that day and how you felt. Pretty soon you’ll get clues to the people, places, or things that ramp up your stress and the parts of your life that make you feel calm. Then you can scale back on the stress-causing stuff and lean into the more relaxing.
  5. Take a time-out. Whether it’s questions from your relatives or social media posts from friends about where they are in the planning process, you do not need to pay attention to all the things all the time. Take a break from conversations or social media feeds that ramp up your anxiety, and make space for time with people who relax you and channels that show you content that makes you laugh, calm down, or just think about something else.
  6. Move it out. Exercise—and that can just be walking your dog—is an awesome way to lower stress. That’s because it releases feel-good chemicals in our brain that tell our nervous system to chill out. Think about the kinds of movement that feel good to you—running, walking, dancing alone in your room, a dance or fitness game on your gaming console, yoga on YouTube, biking around your neighborhood—and try them out when you feel stressed. See which ones help you find a more peaceful state and then try to do them regularly.
  7. Get good rest. It can be hard in the life of a modern high schooler to find enough time to sleep—all those extracurriculars, classes to study for, social engagements, and group chats—but you’ll enjoy and be better at all of the things you have to do when you do. During sleep, your body and brain repair themselves and prepare for another day. When you don’t sleep enough, your body and brain are too tired to think clearly and manage stress.
    Aim for 9–10 hours a night, but make sure you at least get 8. If you don’t believe it’s that important, get 8 hours or more for a few nights in a row and keep track of your mood the next day. Pretty quickly, you’ll see how much being rested can help with your stress levels.
  8. Always know there is help. Stress is part of life, and we all go through it. The activities in this article should help you lower it. But, if they don’t, or if you find that stress is making it hard to go about your everyday life or just making you feel really bad, it’s a good idea to reach out for support to manage it.
    A mental health professional, like a school counselor, can be a good place to start. That’s what they are there for. Sometimes the college application and career planning process can feel like survival of the fittest, but those who are truly strong and ready for their future are people who know when to get support if they need it. That is a skill that will help you through this year, the next, and for the rest of your life. Practice it.

Learn more about how to get support when you need it.