The reality of debt can be overwhelming.
Four years ago, I was lying on the floor at my parents' house, phone in hand, staring at the ceiling. I'd just spoken to the company financing my student loans about repayment plans. I felt like I was trying to breath through a straw, and an impending sense of doom.
To say I was stressed is an understatement. It felt like a panic attack. It took over a year of living at home, paying the price of rent toward my loans, and a lot of pep talks before I could look at my student loan balance without my chest tightening and feeling the urge to hyperventilate.
Student loan debt is the among the highest consumer-held debt, second only to mortgage debt. The average college graduate in the United States holds $37,172 in loans upon finishing their undergraduate degree. That amount has increased exponentially over the last 10 years, growing by 62% to $1.5 trillion nationally. Further, stagnated wages do little to help recent graduates make meaningful progress in repaying them, so often new graduates feel as though they are stuck.
"This is incredibly common as more and more students are graduating with much larger debt than any time in history," explained neuropsychologist and Columbia University faculty member, Dr. Sanam Hafeez. "When you graduate college and land an entry level job but are forced to live at home to pay back a hefty student loan you feel trapped. This leads college grads to feel suffocated and anxious."
It may be difficult, but it's better to know what you're dealing with. The more you can know about your loans, the less stressed you may feel about the situation. "Stress and anxiety arises when we are fearful about the unknown, so the more you learn about the debt and payment options, timing, and how you can seed up the process, the more clarity you will have and the less stressed you'll feel. When you know what you're dealing with, you can then explore possibilities," Dr. Hafeez told Refinery29.
While exploring your options, managing anxious thoughts is key. Sometimes the most basic things are the best solutions: getting enough sleep, remembering to eat, being active, and spending time with people you're close to whether that is friends, family, or both. Remember: Life doesn't start after you pay off your loans. "Once you have a basic repayment plan, you must remember that there is more to life than paying back your loans," said Dr. Hafeez before adding that finding support among others with student loan debt can not only be reassuring, but also a great source for ideas and solutions.
We all experience anxious thoughts from time to time, but if you find yourself unable to get your mind off your student loan debt, it might help to speak to an expert. Dr. Hafeez explains, "When the anxiety is interfering with day to day life, where you can't eat, sleep, focus, hold down jobs, feel depressed, hopeless are using drugs and alcohol, excessive partying then consider seeing a professional."
Your student loan debt might feel like an insurmountable obstacle between you and moving on to the next stages in your life, but it can be overcome, and there are so many great things you can do in life in the meantime. Focus on the solutions to your problems, breath, and in my case, remind myself that enjoying life doesn't start after I'm debt free.
If you are experiencing anxiety or depression and need support, please call the National Depressive/Manic-Depressive Association Hotline at 1-800-826-3632 or the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.