Delayed Reactions | Navigating College Blog

by Meg Evans

Going away to college can be overwhelming at first. Being in a different place, away from family, and having so much to do… it’s a lot to handle. Even after it looks like everything has settled into a manageable routine, that may not mean the adjustment period is over.

When I started college, I thought that it was going pretty well after the first month or two. My roommate was friendly, I knew how to get to my classes and meals, and the coursework didn’t seem too hard. There was some annoying stuff, like the ugly flickering fluorescent light tubes in the dorm and the noisy people down the hall who always wanted to party all night; but I thought I could deal with that, too.

One day in November, while I was standing in line in the crowded cafeteria, I just burst out crying for what seemed like no reason at all. I hadn’t been feeling sad about anything in particular, and I wasn’t worrying about my grades or for any other reason that I could identify. As far as I could tell, my life had been going along just fine. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. What was wrong with me? Had I suddenly developed some mysterious new illness for which I needed treatment?

I was advised to go talk with one of the school’s counselors, which I did; but the counselor didn’t seem to have much of an explanation for what had happened, either. After a while, I decided that it was just something I was never going to understand. I didn’t give it any more thought until many years later.

Then something similar happened after my husband and I bought our first home. Getting used to a new place and having to manage the money carefully was a challenge, but I thought it was all under control. I decorated the house for our first Christmas there. One afternoon, when we were getting ready to go out, I got my coat and started to put on my scarf. All of a sudden I literally didn’t know what to do with this fuzzy soft thing I was holding. I couldn’t remember how to wrap the scarf around my neck. I ended up walking outside just holding the scarf, wondering what the heck had gone wrong with my brain.

Eventually I realized it’s not all that unusual for people to have delayed reactions to stressful events. The human brain is very complex, and there’s a lot going on beneath the level of awareness. When we are putting most of our conscious energy into coping with a new situation — whether it’s going away to college or something else — we may not be aware of just how much subconscious effort goes into it as well. Every now and again that subconscious processing takes up the equivalent of too many CPU cycles and causes weird glitches to happen, just like on a computer. It doesn’t mean there is necessarily a major problem (although anyone who is having suicidal thoughts or other serious issues certainly should seek help), nor does it mean we can’t deal with change. It just means we’re human.