Managing the Emotional Roller Coaster

This past weekend, I took an evening walk and realized that, although nothing looks terribly different just yet, I was able to feel the cool bite of fall in the air for the first time this year. Then I thought — once again, it’s time to say goodbye to summer and welcome the start of another academic year. For some of you, that means returning to familiar faces and places, but with the added promise of a year full of new classes, people, and other experiences. For those of you just starting out at UO, it means the beginning of an entirely new chapter of your life. Although our experiences may be different, we are all looking at an upcoming time of change.

As a psychologist on campus, one of the things I find myself frequently hearing from students is some variation of, “But I hate change!” I hear this as an acknowledgement that change can be scary and hard. Research tells us that even the changes we welcome, such as going off to college or beginning an exciting new relationship, generate stress. This is something we don’t acknowledge often enough, particularly when it comes to the college experience. Too frequently, cultural myths (e.g., “college is going to be the best four years of your life”) prevent us from openly discussing the reality that like any experience, college is complex, and its beginning, middle, and end are often characterized by both highs AND lows.

Maintaining a realistic perspective while navigating the upcoming changes is one coping skill that can support your emotional well-being. Another important part of that process is allowing your experience and your feelings to be what they are, without the added pressure of trying to fulfill any “shoulds,” “musts,” and “ought tos” your brain may have accumulated over time. Here are a few other tips for handling the stress of change to temper the pitch of what can be an emotional roller coaster:

  • Get the amount of rest that feels right for your body. Remember that either too little or too much sleep can take a toll.
  • Eat balanced and nutritious meals that make you feel good, and use your hunger and fullness cues to guide when you start and stop eating. (Research supports the idea that our brains require key nutrients to maintain mental health.)
  • If you use mood-altering substances, try to balance enjoyment with thoughtfulness. It might be helpful to check in with yourself periodically by asking: Has the intake/frequency of my use changed recently? Am I using to manage stress? Have there been any negative consequences as the result of my use? Am I using to avoid difficult emotions? If you answer “Yes” to one or more of these questions, it might be time to re-examine your use and make some changes.
  • Get in some type of exercise every day. Start where you are and gradually build up to 20 minutes of physical exercise each day. This can make a tremendous difference in mood for many of us.
  • Make your physical well-being a priority. Get routine check-ups and see your doctor when you’re ill. (When you’re feeling physically well, stress is less likely to trigger emotional distress.)
  • Do something that is enjoyable and/or that makes you feel accomplished each day. When we make time for fun and feel good about who we are and what we are doing, we feel better in general.
  • Finally, reach out for support when you need it, whether that’s from a friend, family member, or a campus resource like the Counseling Center. Don’t wait until you are floundering, emotionally or academically. There are many free services on campus designed to help you thrive and succeed.

All of these steps are key in laying the groundwork for being able to handle change more comfortably. Take excellent care of yourselves, and may you each have a year that fulfills and challenges you in the ways that contribute to your growth!

Susie Musch, Ph.D.

Staff Psychologist