Between You and Me: Struggling to Adjust

By Katherine H. Smith M.S.Ed., M.A. Created: February 5, 2012 Last Updated: February 20, 2013
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Dear Kathy,

I am starting graduate school after not being in a demanding academic program for two years. I am starting to feel stressed out due to the social implications of this new lifestyle, especially since most of my courses require me to be in the spotlight for class participation, which often requires me to be the center of attention.

As I am not comfortable when the light is on me, and I have a strong competitive streak and desire for complete mastery of every subject matter, I am finding it challenging and stressful to feel comfortable living up to the demands of academic excellence, as well as comfort and confidence in the social aspects of the program.

I particularly feel that it is sometimes hard for me to know how much I should listen, pay attention, make eye contact with the professor, take notes, smile and be sociable, or remain aloof and low-key. I am also having trouble figuring out how to develop my self-confidence in a social setting, since I want to be comfortable and relaxed in my own shoes … but I do not know the best method of accomplishing this feeling of self-assurance, ease, and supreme calm.

I am wondering if I should purchase an online e-book that teaches me how to improve my self-confidence, but overall, the demands from all areas that I have listed are beginning to unnerve and worry me about my competence as a human and a functional, responsible individual.

Are these feelings normal? How can I overcome some of my problems, and what exactly do you think is the matter with me?

Please suggest any methods that will help me have the best, happiest, most satisfying, and calmest experience possible in a way that leaves me feeling fulfilled rather than drained and demoralized.

Thanks a lot in advance for any help and insight.

Struggling to Adjust


Dear Struggling,

You are clearly bright and academically oriented. Kudos to you for maximizing your intellectual potential in graduate school. Life transitions are stressful for all of us. Experiencing anxiety as you adjust to your new environment is completely normal. I suggest you take student life one day at a time and give yourself permission to achieve your goals incrementally. In lieu of striving for “complete mastery of every subject matter,” allow yourself to strive for excellence. Your personal best is far more attainable than perfection.

My advice is to make an appointment at the school’s counseling center in order to process your anxiety with an experienced clinician. Additionally, join one or two student organizations that interest you. Attending meetings and related activities is a low-key way to meet other people, many of whom are likely addressing similar issues.

Consider joining the professional association in your field of study. Students who join at a reduced membership rate are afforded the opportunity to network with established professionals. The more people you meet, the greater the likelihood that you will make connections with others who have at one time or another faced the issues you are currently dealing with.

Additionally, I suggest scheduling a complete physical with your primary care physician. If you do not presently have a doctor with whom you can schedule an appointment, ask for a referral at the school’s health center. At your medical appointment, ask the physician to evaluate your eating and sleeping habits. If you are routinely eating fast food on-the-go and pulling all-nighters, I strongly urge you to adopt a lifestyle of healthy self-care. Treating your body with respect will provide you with emotional, as well as physical, benefits.

Lastly, consider adding regular exercise to your life as a way of combating stress. An energetic Zumba class or a long bike ride on a scenic path may be just the anxiety-reliever you need as you navigate this new chapter in your life. Keep me updated as you overcome your current struggles. I have full confidence in you!

Until Monday,

Katherine H. Smith combines her 46 years of life experience, 18 years of marriage, and raising 5 children, with an M.S.Ed. in guidance and counseling and an M.A. in marriage and family therapy. To address your concerns, please send your letters to Please include a contact phone number and e-mail address.

Information provided in this column is not intended to be used as a substitute for specific medical or psychological advice.


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