Text Size

Stress of college and family expectations becoming overwhelming

answered 01:56 PM EST, Wed November 02, 2011
-- filed under: | |
I am under so much stress at school right now I feel like I can’t take it anymore. I’m a first generation Laotian American doing chemical engineering and I swear my whole family’s hopes and dreams are weighing me down and I am worrying so much it is making it hard to focus on my studies. I almost feel like I should just flunk out so everyone will stop wanting so much of me. I need to get in control of my stress and pressure but I seriously have no money for any kind of therapy and it seems ridiculous to ask my parents who are working so hard to give me this opportunity for anything more. What can I do on my own to calm myself down so I can feel more relaxed and be able to study once again?

Art Matthews Says...

Meeting parental expectations can be difficult for anyone, but especially for students who come from cultures where the family's needs are validated more than the individual's. Nearly all of us have faced a moment in our early adulthood where we ran into the same dilemma you find yourself in now, but not all of us would feel the same level of distress at thinking "I'm not going to meet my family's expectations."

Don't give up on finding affordable help just yet. If you are studying at an American University, there are frequently free (or extremely low cost) counseling services available for students. Sometimes those services are located in a campus health center and sometimes they are stand alone services connected to a student affairs or student services department. These services are confidential and no record of having used those services is a part of your academic record. Of this I can assure you as I work full time for a medical and health sciences graduate school as a mental health counselor. My records are never a part of any student's academic record and I must hold client confidentiality or face legal and ethical consequences.

If your school does not offer counseling services and you have insurance benefits, check to see if you have mental or behavioral health benefits and if so what your co-pay or co-insurance amount would be. You may be surprised that the actual amount you pay for services is not the therapist's stated fee. I also have a private practice and accept insurance. When I contract with the insurance company, the amount I am allowed to bill is set and I cannot collect more from the client than what the co-pay or co-insurance allows. For the insurance I am on, the typical co-pay is $15 per session.

If you do not have insurance, you may qualify for your state's health care system benefits and low or no-cost services. Or you may be able to find a local therapist or agency who offers a sliding scale fee based on your income. If you are like most graduate students, you aren't working outside of a graduate assistantship or fellowship, so your income will place you in a low-fee scale.

For self-directed activities to promote stress management and refocusing, it's important to manage your self-care. That means: diet, activity/exercise, social connections, rest/sleep, time management, relaxation and recuperation.

Diet: avoid fast foods. I know that time and lack of options may seem to dictate your dietary regime but some time management and planning can allow you to eat better and feel healthier. Avoid foods high in sugar, corn-syrup, fat and processed wheat. Eat raw fruits and veggies and low fat proteins: fish, chicken, legumes, and my new favorite, non-fat Greek yogurt. Skip energy drinks and caffeine.

Activity/Exercise: I recommend yoga as one of the best activities for anxiety and stress because it incorporates breathing, stretching, exertion, and mental discipline. Outside of yoga, look at a daily regimen of 20 minutes to an hour of cardio activity and moderate weight lifting. Emphasize the cardio more.

Social Connections: being in a college or university setting usually means lots of clubs, organizations, groups and people. I tell my students every day to avoid the instinct to isolate and hibernate. Get out and be with people. Talk, share, open up. You may be surprised to know you aren't the only one going through this same experience. It's a very common experience for children of Asian immigrant parents to experience the kind of stress you describe based on expectations. Seek out a group of students who are like you in that regard and start a social support group of your own. Sharing an experience with others in the same boat somehow allows us to put it in a more reasonable perspective.

Rest/Sleep: graduate studies and sleep often seem diametrically opposed forces, but proper rest and sleep are necessary for the brain to function at top efficiency and for students to learn new material. Avoid working out late in the day. Don't take work or study to bed with you. Start shutting down about an hour before bed by lowering (turn lights off, turn electronics off, take a shower or bath, stretch and do breathing exercises. Look for audio recordings of meditations for sleep or relaxation. Turn alarm clocks away from your bed so you don't do the "countdown" to your day every time you roll over and are aware you are awake. If you begin worrying, tell yourself "Now is not the time to handle that. Now is the time for rest. I will pick that up tomorrow when it's time." Also replace the thought "I NEED to sleep." with "I am going to rest." Put your mind and your body in the most relaxing position possible so that -- even if you don't sleep -- you will get the maximum benefit from resting that you can before your day starts.

Time management: do you manage time or does time manage you? Use your smart phone, laptop or computer to synch up your schedules and to-do lists. Break big projects down into smaller bits and focus on what you need to do now rather than how much has to be done for the whole project to be completed. If you aren't sure how you manage time, start by keeping an activity diary and find out what you actually spend time doing and look for ways to eliminate unnecessary time-wasters. Place boundaries on friends and family who eat up your time and energy. Avoid Emotional Vampires.

And last but certainly not least, relaxation and recuperation: I would highly suggest getting Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn's book "Full Catastrophe Living" and begin reading about Mindfulness Meditation and the philosophy of the ancients on the practice of Zen and living in this moment. You can find mindfulness and other meditation groups that are free using sites like MeetUp.com

You've created a conflict in your own mind that if both sides are true, you cannot win: "I must meet my family's expectations" and "I cannot be successful in my studies." Probably both are not true. If you did not meet your family's expectations, you would survive, make other choices and move on with life. If you were not able to make it in your program of study, you would survive, make other choices and move on with life. Challenge yourself on the validity of each statement: "What is the evidence I will not meet my family's expectations? Do I really have to meet their expectations? What is the evidence I can't make it in my program? Would changing my program really mean failing at life?"

A free resource for you might also be the Mood Gym: http://www.moodgym.org/welcome/new/splash This site is a self-directed The Mood Gym "aims to help you identify problem emotions and show you how to develop good coping skills for the future. It's free, fun and interactive.

Your distress about your parents expectations suggests you are not living in the now but focusing on "Future" and "Others". Both of those distractions from Now Awareness leave you with the feeling of distress -- anxiety -- and do nothing to actually help you to perform as a student. Time to build awareness of how YOU are creating the stress you live with and creating the intention to change the content of your thinking to be more reasonable, rational, realistic and beneficial.

You are using the whip to motivate yourself, not the carrot. You need to ease up on yourself, because your own expectations are the only ones you have control over. You can't control what others expect of you. You can tell yourself the truth, that it's not the expectations others have of you that is the problem, it's the expectation you have that you must meet their expectations that is the problem along with the certainty of the catastrophe that will ensue when you don't.

You can only do your best, but doing your best means getting out of your own head and re-focusing from "Future" and "Others" to "Here and Now." By focusing your attention on Now and on your responsibilities as a student rather than on worrying about not meeting your family's expectations, you will be able to be successful (and possibly end up meeting their expectations as a byproduct.

Try a bit of assertive communication too. If you find your family is constantly voicing their expectations or reminding you of obligations, respectfully ask that they not do that as it's becoming a distraction to you to think about dishonoring them or not meeting their expectations. Confirm for them that you are doing your best and have every intention of being a success.

Here are some great quotes that could be motivating to you:

"What other people think of me is none of my business." - unknown

"Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Life doesn't require that we be the best, only that we try our best." - H. Jackson Brown

Email It Send this page Print It Print friendly page Subscribe Subscribe to this topic category

Page last updated Nov 02, 2011

Counseling: Featured Experts
All Experts

Join Thousands of Readers

who receive our weekly recovery newsletter.

This website is certified by Health On the Net Foundation. Click to verify. This site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information:
verify here.

Find Treatment
Browse by region »