Post-Commencement Stress Disorder: The After(college)life

by Lindsay Allen

Thousands of excited and anxious new graduates donning caps and gowns will clutter the floor of the Petersen Events Center on April 27, 2014. Surrounded by smiling friends and classmates, and presumably tearful relatives sitting courtside in their Sunday best, the graduates will experience the roller coaster of emotions that only a Commencement Convocation can provide. While most graduates will be eagerly throwing their caps in the air, releasing themselves from the stress of homework deadlines, all-nighters at Hillman, and demonic professors, some grads will be found hunched in their chairs beneath all the excitement, clenching their caps to their chests in panic and asking, “What now?”

The latter type of graduate is experiencing an increasingly common condition informally dubbed “Post-Commencement Stress Disorder” (PCSD). PCSD symptoms can set in during the final months of senior year, at Convocation when graduation feels “official,” or weeks, even months, after graduation. Initial signs may be trouble with sleep or concentration, irritability, or loss of interest in socializing with friends and family. After graduation, this stress could develop into feeling scared or sad about the future, feeling a loss of control over life, or feeling a lack of support. With expectations of achievement coming not only from oneself but also from family members and society in general, recent graduates could potentially face the feeling of failure if they believe they are not living up to the societal definition of “success” during their job search.

Though “commencement” signals the start of a new beginning, graduates could also be mourning the end of their college career, feeling as though the best time of their lives is behind them. Life outside the comfort of campus, where grads were once given the freedom of adults yet still nurtured as children, leads to the confusing sentimental combination of both excitement and fear of the unknown. With today’s notorious unemployment rates added to this stress, the diploma, which should foster feelings of achievement and opportunity, now raises feelings of insecurity, regret, and hopelessness. The “danger zone” alone, the demoralizing gray area between graduation and the first job, is enough to send chills down even the most accomplished student’s spine.

The stress of a major life change is a normal source of tension for a recent grad, yet there is also the danger of pathologizing normal behavior, or treating a completely normal stress as unhealthy. “I would be more concerned if graduating students weren’t a little worried,” explained Robyn Smith, a licensed counselor. “Without a bit of worry, people would not necessarily be motivated to take action.”

It's important for anxious graduates to remember that they are not alone — every single one of their classmates is feeling varying extents of PCSD; graduation is undoubtedly a stressful transition between major chapters of life. However, a fear of the unknown should not discourage graduates from confronting the future: April 27 is coming whether Pitt seniors are ready or not. Though planning for life after April may seem overwhelming, graduates do not need a full plan of action to feel successful. Completing a small task each day, such as updating their résumés or researching and contacting a potential employer, can combat feelings of stress. It's also important for new job seekers to remember that there isn’t only one route from entry-level to dream job: open-mindedness could be a new graduate’s best virtue.

Licensed psychotherapist Bernard Luskin, Ed.D., claims that the biggest cause of PCSD stress stems from not having a new goal in mind. “I remember feeling somewhat detached and sad when I graduated from my doctoral program,” said Luskin. “Sound crazy? Wonder why anyone would feel sad after such an achievement? That’s just it. After working toward a goal for nearly 10 years, achieving it can be a letdown. Sometimes you don’t feel any different, even if you thought you would. And, once you achieve a goal, it's time to look ahead for a new goal.” This unsettling ambiguity of post-grad life that causes graduates’ stress and fear of the unknown can easily be alleviated, Luskin says, by not shying away from but rather focusing attention on the problem.

“Everything you focus on expands,” insists Luskin. Focusing on taking pride in achievement, setting new goals, and planning out ways to reach these goals are the first steps to overcoming PCSD and living a happy, rewarding post-college life. Focusing on stress and fear of the unknown will result in graduates clenching their graduation caps, stuck forever trying to hold onto their college lives."