Emotional Health and Happiness

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain the common causes of anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions in college-age people.
  • Describe changes you can make in your life to achieve or maintain emotional balance.

Your emotional health is just as important as your physical health and maybe more so. If you’re unhappy much of the time, you will not do as well as in college or in life as you can if you’re happy. You will feel more stress, and your health will suffer.

Still, most of us are neither happy nor unhappy all the time. Life is constantly changing, and our emotions change with it. But sometimes we experience more negative emotions than other times, and our emotional health may suffer. If you think your life is being affected by negative emotions, consider visiting Counseling and Veteran’s Services for free personalized counseling.


Anxiety is one of the most common emotions college students experience, often as a result of the demands of college, work, family and friends. It’s difficult to juggle everything, and it’s common to end up feeling not in control, stressed, and anxious.

Woman with hand to her headSome anxiety can be a good thing if it leads to studying for a test, focusing on a problem that needs to be resolved, better management your time and money, and so on. But if anxiety disrupts focus and makes you freeze up rather than take action, then it may become problematic. Using stress-reduction techniques often helps reduce anxiety to a manageable level.

There are five types of more serious anxiety:

  1. Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by chronic anxiety, exaggerated worry and tension, even when there is little or nothing to provoke it. The person may have physical symptoms, especially fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, muscle aches, difficulty swallowing, trembling, twitching, irritability, sweating, and hot flashes.
  2. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions), repetitive behaviors (compulsions), or both. Repetitive behaviors such as hand washing, counting, checking, or cleaning are often performed with the hope of preventing obsessive thoughts or making them go away.
  3. Panic disorder is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress.
  4. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.
  5. Social phobia (or social anxiety disorder) is a persistent, intense, and chronic fear of being watched and judged by others and being embarrassed or humiliated by one’s own actions. The fear may be so severe that it interferes with work or school, and other ordinary activities. Physical symptoms often accompany the intense anxiety of social phobia and include blushing, profuse sweating, trembling, nausea, and difficulty talking.

If you feel your anxiety is like any of these, see your health-care provider.


Depression, like anxiety, is commonly experienced by college students. It may be a mild sadness resulting from specific circumstances or be intense feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Many people feel depressed from time to time because of common situations:

  • Feeling overwhelmed by pressures to study, work, and meet other obligations
  • Not having enough time (or money) to do the things you want to do
  • Experiencing problems in a relationship, friendship, or work situation
  • Feeling unhealthy or not in control
  • Not having enough excitement in your life

Frog looking into mirrorDepression, like stress, can lead to unhealthy consequences, such as poor sleep, overeating or loss of appetite, substance abuse, relationship problems, or withdrawal from activities that formerly brought joy. For most people, depression is a temporary state, but severe depression can have crippling effects.

Not everyone experiences the same symptoms, but the following are most common:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Irritability or restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Insomnia, early morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating or appetite loss
  • Thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts
  • Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems

If you have feelings like this that last for weeks at a time and affect your daily life, it’s time to see your health-care provider.

Suicidal Feelings

Suicidal feelings, which can result from severe depression, are more common in college students than in the past. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death in American college students (after accidents). In most cases, the person had severe depression and was not receiving treatment. Recognizing severe depression and seeking treatment is crucial.

Depression can strike almost anyone at any age at any kind of college.  In reality, anyone can be ill with severe depression and, if not treated, become suicidal.

Warning Signs for Suicide

  • Being depressed or sad most of the time
  • Having feelings of worthlessness, shame, or hopelessness about the future
  • Withdrawing from friends and family members
  • Talking about suicide or death
  • Being unable to get over a recent loss (broken relationship, loss of job, etc.)
  • Experiencing changes in behavior, sleep patterns, or eating habits

If you or a friend is in a crisis and needs help at any time, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Call for yourself or for someone you care about. All calls are confidential.

If you think someone is suicidal, do not leave him or her alone. Try to get the person to seek immediate help by calling the hotline number.

Tips Emotional Health

  • Exercise, relaxation techniques, and stress-reduction methods can improve your emotional state.
  • Connect with others.
  • Understand that negative emotions are often temporary. You may be feeling bad now, but it will pass in time.
  • If you’ve just become a college student, know that the first semester is usually the hardest. Hang in there. Once you’ve developed effective study habits and time management skills, each semester will be easier and happier than the one before.