Ask Dr. P. | My parents disagree with my major and career plans

Ask Dr. P.


My parents want me to be a doctor but I have no interest in the medical field. What should I do?


Your parents have their dreams for you, and you have your own. Sometimes both sets of dreams coincide or overlap, but more frequently, they go off in separate directions. Their dreams for you may be the result of unfilled desires they had for themselves and/or their hopes that you will have a rewarding and prestigious occupation. Or they may truly believe that you would be happiest in the medical field rather than somewhere else. Regardless of their motives, you can’t live your life constantly trying to meet their expectations.

While you are a product of your parents’ or caretakers’ upbringing, you are a unique person with values, interests, and aptitudes of your own. Your unique characteristics were acquired biologically (you are not a biological carbon copy of either parent), in schools, and in partnership with your peers, among other places. You are different from your caretakers and often these differences are substantial, that is, they affect the kind of career you would be ideally suited for.


What can you do about career conflicts with your parents/caregivers?



One of the first things you can do is get some career counseling at your college or university to discover what your career-related interests are. The information you will learn about yourself will be helpful in talking with your parents about your choices of a college major and/or career.

Generally, as part of career counseling, you will take at least one paper-and-pencil test. The most frequently-used career test is the Strong Interest Inventory, which is composed of 291 questions, and takes about 35 to 40 minutes to complete. Following the scoring, you will receive a profile that compares your answers with successful people in over 260 occupations. That way you will have an opportunity to see how your interests fit in with theirs.


The Strong Inventory assesses which of these career types you most resemble.

Doers are active, hands-on, adventurous people who like to be outdoors. Civil engineers, veterinarians, and firefighters fall into this category.

Thinkers, on the other hand, are analytical, theoretical, and inquisitive people interested in research. As you might expect, scientists, professors, and police detectives are among the Thinkers.

Creators have a strong need to express themselves in some way and are often found in the Arts, e.g. actors, artists, musicians, and architects. They are artistic, imaginative, and free-spirited.

Helpers are caring, supportive, and collaborative people who gravitate to people-oriented professions, such as teaching, medicine, psychology, and social work.

Persuaders are influential, ambitious, and enterprising people who run business organizations (lawyers, school principals, and police officers are also in this category).

Organizers are usually the behind-the-scenes workers who handle all the details. They are practical, orderly, and efficient, such as accountants, computer programmers, bankers, and librarians. Ordinarily, Organizers prefer to stay out of the limelight.



The next thing you can do is talk with your parents about your career interests. Schedule a time and place away from your house, such as a restaurant or park, where reason and calm can prevail. If you are correct about having no interest in the medical field, your Career Profile from the testing will be useful ammunition in defending your position. As you talk with them, it will be helpful to have an alternate career or two in mind. That way they will be reassured that you are behaving in a reasonable and mature way about your future.

In any event, you can use this opportunity to talk with your parents or caretakers about yourself and what your interests and values are. Be prepared to handle any objections they might raise about your preferred path (e.g., you won’t make a lot of money or you won’t have any job security). Parents tend to worry about their children’s safety and financial security before they think about job satisfaction, especially if they themselves had a rough time making it, that is, they didn’t have a lot of money and worked hard for the little they had.

While there is no guarantee that your first discussion with them will be successful, it will at least open the door to future talks, provided the first meeting didn’t generate a lot of bitterness. Remember that your parents had very different experiences than you have had, and as a result, see the world much differently than you do!

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to convince them of your perspective. And that is okay, just as long as you try to maintain respect and affection for them while pursuing your own dreams!


I'm Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working with college students. I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers in Chicago, and was the first in my family to go to college. Click here to learn more.

A new Ask Dr. P. column will be published every Wednesday


Ask Dr. P. | How to Increase Your Confidence

Ask Dr. P.


I feel like everyone else is smarter than I am. What can I do to feel more confident?


Lack of self-confidence, or low self-esteem, is a concept that is used to account for almost everything in the psychological realm--from a common bout of nerves to a very serious episode of psychosis. Everyone seems to agree that you can't have too much self-confidence and that too little of it isn't a good thing. Even the super-cocky and self-righteous narcissists are believed to be suffering from low self-esteem underneath their bravado.


What is self-esteem?

Valuing or caring about yourself and believing in your worth as a person define self-esteem. If you are high in self-esteem, you feel self-confident and proud of some aspects of yourself, whether your appearance, personality, sense of humor, generosity, intelligence, or some other trait. On the other hand, if you are low in self-esteem, you are quite self-critical and prone to downplay your positive qualities, exaggerate your negative ones, and create in your own mind a very distorted self-portrait.


How realistic is your feeling that everyone else is smarter than you are?

It’s probably not realistic at all.

For one thing, intelligence is not a unitary trait but a combination of many individual factors, such as verbal, numerical, spatial, visual-motor, memory, and abstract abilities, among others. This means you could be very smart in one or more of these areas and even below average in others. Since you’re already in college, the chance of you being “below-average” in all of these abilities is very, very small. Realistically, as a college student, the worst you can be is below average in one or two of the skills related to academic success. If so, then you may need tutoring in those areas where you lag behind, but it does not mean that you are not as smart overall as the person sitting next to you in class.


Ask yourself why you’re so self-critical

Most of the time, self-criticism comes from highly-critical parents or caretakers, whose judgments of you were quite flawed. In other words, their perceptions of you (e.g., that you’re dumb) may have little to do with you objectively, and more to do with their own frustrations about how little they accomplished in life.

Unfortunately, you became the object of their anger, a position that you didn’t volunteer for and didn’t deserve, but what happened is that you internalized their criticisms (which is how your "inner critic" was formed) and you became your own worst enemy. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” What she was trying to say is that you don't have to accept comments from others that make you feel bad about yourself.

Low self-esteem can also come from unfair comparisons with another person in the family. Sometimes, a very gifted sibling becomes the basis of comparison. A brother or sister with unusual talent in math or music, for example, may be the one in the family who got most of the attention growing up. And you were left feeling “not as good as” the person who got all the attention, even though you have talents of your own.


What can you do about feelings of low self-esteem?

1. Disagree with your inner critic

If you find yourself thinking that you’re not very smart, disagree with those thoughts by saying to yourself “That’s not true!,” and replace your inner critic with positive thoughts, such as “I’m smart in these areas----” or something similar. Do not let your mind go down negative pathways. Instead follow up with something positive about yourself that you know is true.

2.  Love yourself!

Even though the phrase sounds like a cliché, loving and caring about yourself are very important components of self-esteem. Loving yourself means valuing your accomplishments, enjoying your successes, and taking good care of yourself. Even the biblical injunction, “Love your neighbor AS yourself,” commands you to love yourself along with your neighbor. It doesn’t say “instead of yourself.”

3. Think about what you have accomplished

What strengths do these accomplishments demonstrate?

If you did a great science project last semester, that probably means that you have an aptitude for science. If you went out of your way for a friend recently, that suggests you care strongly about others, and are probably suited for a career in one of the helping professions. In other words, identify your strengths and keep them in the forefront of your mind, especially when you doubt yourself.

4. Visualize your success

Think about yourself as an intelligent person succeeding academically and/or professionally. Visualizing yourself succeeding often helps you overcome the obstacles you believe are in your path.


Like everyone else in this world, you are unique —there is no one quite like you, so learning to value your specialness is necessary to succeed in this crazy world of ours!


I'm Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working with college students. I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers in Chicago, and was the first in my family to go to college. Click here to learn more.

A new Ask Dr. P. column will be published every Wednesday


Ask Dr. P. | Work-Life Balance

Ask Dr. P.


How can I balance school with a social life?


A personal/social life is a necessity, not a luxury. While getting good grades is vital to your academic success, taking care of the rest of you is essential to your overall well-being and happiness. Running at full speed for long periods of time creates stress, but slowing down at times to enjoy the people and activities around you is the best antidote to burnout and depression.

Some time management and study skill principles can be very useful in juggling your school and personal worlds:


Schedule breaks

The most productive people around you know how to fit a myriad of rewarding activities into their busy schedules, and they do so by scheduling their lives to some degree. From my own personal experience, I know the value of a semi-scheduled life. When I was at my busiest with deadlines galore, I was able to survive with some life-sustaining breaks in the work routine. At the very least, I managed to save Saturdays for exercise and social activities, such as playing tennis and outings with friends in the evenings. Without those welcome breaks, I would never have made it through challenging times.


Study two hours for every hour in class

With respect to your academic world, the basic rule of two hours of study time for every class hour is still a good one. That means if you have 15 hours of classes, you should plan on an additional 30 hours of study time per week. Try to schedule study time for the same class at the same time each week so that you can develop habits around studying (habits are much easier to deal with because you’re on automatic pilot and don’t have to wrestle with yourself about when to study). It’s a wise idea to schedule about 2 hours to work on writing a paper, about one hour for reading a chapter, and much shorter periods (15- 20 minutes) for memorizing material.


Memory aids: meaningfulness, organization, and repetition

Keep in mind that you can remember better the material you are learning if the information is meaningful, organized, and repeated. To make it meaningful, you need to try and understand what you are studying and relate it to material you’ve already learned. Organization also helps; creating an outline or numbering some of the items will aid in retention. Because of all the memorizing involved in anatomy courses, medical students often rely on rhymes and other memory devices to make it easier to remember all parts of the human body.



In addition, remember that sleep is a key component of memory. Sleep is a critical element in the coding of material from short-term memory into long-term storage in your brain. If you don’t get enough sleep, you’ll lose it, that is, you’re more likely to forget what you studied so hard to learn.


Effective reading

In reading a chapter, the Survey Q3R method can be very helpful.

SURVEY relates to looking over the chapter (what are the headings?; are there questions at the end?) to see how the chapter is organized.

Q deals with QUESTIONS, that is, asking yourself questions about the material so that you get more involved in the information.

The first R relates to READ, that is, reading the chapter to answer your own questions, the second R deals with RESTATE or rephrasing the answers in your own words, and the third R means REVIEW.

All of these steps are designed to increase your learning of the chapter materials. If you like to highlight with a yellow marker, don’t do a lot of highlighting because it will make it harder for anything to stand out.


Organized writing

Before starting to write a paper, the best thing to do is create an outline and jot down points you want to include under the appropriate headings. That way, you will have an organizational scheme beforehand to aid you in writing a logical and coherent paper rather than a rambling one.


Personal/social time

If you figure that you have 168 hours in a week (24 hours/day), 49 of which you devote to sleep (7 hours/night), 45 to classroom attendance and studying (15 credit hours + 2 hours study time per credit hour), and 42 hours to meals, showers, laundry, and walking to and from classes, that leaves 32 hours for your personal/social life, which can be divided into a few large chunks and some smaller ones.

You can figure out your schedule any way you choose, as long as you utilize the 32 hours or thereabouts for your personal and social needs. For example, Saturdays could be your break day away from schoolwork, in which you fit in your exercising and time to socialize with friends. Or, you may prefer to take a few afternoons or evenings away from the hard work of studying. If you don’t like to over-schedule yourself, you may want to consider giving yourself periods of “free time,” that you use in whichever way the spirit moves you.

If you need to have a part-time job, the allotted time for your social life, unfortunately, will be reduced. Nevertheless, use whatever time is available to socialize and/or engage in non-school related activities.

Remember that taking time to pursue whatever restores your energy and motivation is absolutely necessary for your mental health!


I'm Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working with college students. I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers in Chicago, and was the first in my family to go to college. Click here to learn more.

A new Ask Dr. P. column will be published every Wednesday


Ask Dr. P. | Navigating life back home

Ask Dr. P.


How can I navigate my life back home when I feel different from my family and friends?


In college, you have likely been having eye-opening experiences in a world that is very different from the one in which you grew up. The classes you are taking, the other students, and the professors are stimulating your thinking in new ways that may challenge your old beliefs. You are very much in a period of transition in which you are trying to reconcile the new information you are learning with the values from your family and community.

Back home, the people you know are probably not experiencing life-changing events like you are. Most likely, they are living their lives in much the same way they were as when you left for college. While they have maintained their regular routine, you are returning home after an extended time away. Only in your case, you are not coming back from the Army or a long residence abroad, but from a mind-expanding experience (that’s what college is) that can change you forever.


How can you relate to people back home?

Even though you feel different in many ways, there are still aspects of yourself that will never change. Some of your interests and values will undoubtedly stay the same.

And in relating to others, whether it’s back in your hometown or on your college campus, you always need to find the common ground (what you share right at that moment). From engaging in chit-chat with strangers to discussions with friends, finding the common ground is often the jumping off point to a meaningful conversation. It could be as trivial as the weather you are both experiencing, the long line you are now standing in, the train delay, or the class that you are both enrolled in.


Finding common ground at home

It can be many things: the shared experiences, the pranks, the people you loved, the games you played, the grade school teachers you hated, and so forth. Sports are often the bond that endures for men, regardless of generational and/ or career differences. Many men can talk about sports, watch them on TV, or play them for hours on end. For women, the common ground can be one of many things: family, food, clothes, exercise, a religious community, and/ or the media. Finding the common ground is the basic strategy for most relationships.


Talking about college

With family and neighborhood friends, you will find that some of them are interested in your experiences at college, while others are clearly not. Because your family and friends back home might not know much about college, they can find it difficult to identify with your world on campus. And, their lack of understanding can result in a profound sense of disconnect and loneliness for you. Over time, you will discover that your closest friends are the ones who do share your beliefs and values.

However, trying to talk about your college experiences with a few of your friends and family is important so that you can maintain some of these emotional connections. Your good friends will appreciate learning something new, while those friends who had only a superficial or self-centered investment in you won’t be able to tolerate your new learning or your new way of being. In addition, some of your family or friends may feel threatened by what they perceive as your superiority, “so you think you’re too good for us,” or they may feel less important to you now that you have other relationships.


Three conversation strategies to put in your repertoire

1. In trying to share your college life with people back home, remember to listen to what they have to say.

2. When expressing your own perspective, use the pronoun “I” frequently, as in “I learned [x],” “I believe [x],” or “I am excited about [x],” rather than “You should…” or “You need to…” Your ideas and beliefs are your own; they are typically not facts or edicts from on high. Furthermore, the use of “I” is less threatening to the other person, especially when you’re talking about highly emotional topics, like politics in today’s world.

3. Keep in mind that an ideal conversation consists of both the stating of your opinion while acknowledging the other person’s perspective. It would sound something like this: “I know you believe that [x], however, I believe that [y].” While this sort of listening and asserting is hard to achieve in ordinary conversation, you need to be open to the other person’s ideas while still conveying your own thoughts!


Some of your friends and family members back home will probably wind up being a part of your life forever, while others will fall by the wayside. In the process of sorting through your old relationships, try to hang on to the ones that are mutually beneficial and let the others go, especially the ones that are destructive to you.

As for the people who have no interest in what you have to say, spend as little time as you can with them, unless family obligation or duty dictates otherwise. You need to have supportive individuals around you, with whom you can exchange ideas and feelings, so that you can continue to feel valued throughout your life.


I'm Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working with college students. I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers in Chicago, and was the first in my family to go to college. Click here to learn more.

A new Ask Dr. P. column will be published every Wednesday


Ask Dr. P. | Feeling ashamed of your background

Ask Dr. P.


I’m the first in my family to go to college. Why do I sometimes feel ashamed of my background?


If you're the first in your family to go to college and you grew up in a household that is financially poor and/or has low levels of education, feeling ashamed of your background is quite understandable and common.

In working hard to fit into a world that is very different from the one you grew up in, varied aspects of your background can be a source of conflict or shame. You may, at times, feel ashamed of the way your family/caregivers speak, their poor grammar or vocabulary, the topics they talk about, their manner of dress, or what you consider to be their overall lack of sophistication. Your brother’s loudness may seem gross and boisterous to you and your sister’s clothes may appear flashy and in poor taste. Furthermore, your neighborhood may be located on the “wrong side of the tracks” or your religion may be different from the campus norm.

While you are in the process of changing and adapting to a college environment, your family and caregivers have probably stayed the same. Thus, you are becoming different from them - a different person with different interests and values - a reality that often feels like betrayal to them. As you struggle trying to fit into both worlds, people back home are trying to understand what happened to the son or daughter, brother or sister, they knew some time ago.


What can you do about feelings of shame?



First of all, accept your feelings for what they are – a means of establishing your independence and becoming your own person. Undoubtedly your feelings will change over time, but the more you deliberately try to get rid of feelings, including shame, the more likely they are to stick around. Self-acceptance and deeper understanding of the world and people around you are the best ways of changing and moving on.



One thing that you can do is to try and see the strengths of your family and caregivers. Maybe your mother was hard working and your father very conscientious. Maybe your primary caregiver was the life of the party or your aunt was very religious. Or, maybe the people around you were very family-oriented and self-sacrificing. In my case, my mother was very warm and affectionate but quite passive and helpless. My father, on the other hand, was an angry alcoholic, but he was quite intelligent and competent in many ways. Neither parent was all-bad. I was fortunate because I got some of their best qualities and few of their worst.

In the process of growing up with your family and/or caregivers, you became someone who has some wonderful qualities. Ask yourself where these characteristics came from?

Some of your positive personality or character traits undoubtedly came from influential people in your life, and for that, you can be thankful.

As for those positive qualities that you developed on your own, you can justifiably feel proud of yourself.



Next, consider the values of the two worlds in which you now live (college and home). Which values within these two worlds are positive?

In the college environment, the positive values are many. Among them: love of learning, a determined quest for truth, disciplined scholarship, acceptance of diversity, team spirit, and friendship. However, some negative values also reside in the world of college, often manifested more by peers than professors. Materialism, making money, “looking cool” through excessive drinking and sexual exploitation, inordinate competitiveness, and a phony sophistication that devalues honesty, often run rampant on college campuses today.

In contrast, your family and/or caregivers may be good people characterized by moral integrity, kindness, and good will, even if they lack the kind of worldliness that you now admire. If, on the other hand, your family has few redeeming qualities, then it is up to you to establish your own values based on your experiences, mentors, the best your college has to offer, and your own religious or spiritual beliefs. Here, your college chaplain or cleric can be helpful in establishing or reinforcing the kind of values by which you want to live your life.

It is important to become your own person and not a caricature of collegial or familial qualities.

I'm Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working with college students. I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers in Chicago, and was the first in my family to go to college. Click here to learn more.

A new Ask Dr. P. column will be published every Wednesday


Ask Dr. P. | Useful Strategies for Dealing with Depression

Ask Dr. P.


What can I do about my depression?


About depression

In contrast to anxiety’s excessive energy, depression leaves you depleted and lacking motivation. Often you don’t want to do anything, especially your schoolwork, when you’re depressed. You may feel like sleeping or watching TV for hours on end. Nothing seems worthwhile and you want to give up on yourself and your plans to complete college.

Depression is a mood disorder characterized by many of the following symptoms: feelings of sadness, crying for no apparent reason, poor appetite or overeating, insomnia or hypersomnia, low energy or fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, poor concentration or difficulty making decisions, feelings of hopelessness, diminished interest (or pleasure) in most activities, and/or suicidal thoughts.

Depression can come on suddenly or lurk in the background for months before becoming apparent. It has been reported that 33% of college students had felt so depressed some time in the last 12 months that it was difficult to function. When depression occurs in college, it is often in response to a big disappointment, such as a poor grade on a test or a break-up with a romantic partner. The trigger, or the disappointment, can unleash a whole host of negative thoughts and feelings about yourself, such as “I knew I wasn’t smart enough for college” or “I knew I wasn’t attractive enough or lovable enough to have a lasting relationship.” Self-disparaging thoughts and feelings like these create a vicious cycle, that is, more negative thoughts lead to more depression, which, in turn, leads to more negative self-evaluations.


What can you do when you’re feeling “down”?



One of the most important things you can do is reach out to others, that is, friends and family, and talk with people you trust about how you feel. Even if you don’t want to talk to anyone, do it anyway, but make sure they are trusting individuals who have your back.

Don’t isolate yourself! Being in contact with others reminds you that you are a valued member of this world and that others care about you.

Besides that, wise friends or family members can offer useful advice about how to handle the problem you are experiencing.



Make sure you do at least a couple of things each day that give you a feeling of accomplishment. The tasks you perform can be anything, big or small, that lead to a feeling of mastery. The tasks can be ordinary ones, such as doing a crossword puzzle or an easy homework exercise for your Algebra class. They can also be more challenging, if you find such activities to be a source of motivation for you.

Overall, you need to remind yourself that you are a competent person capable of many things.


Bring back pleasure into your life.

Too often, people lose their zest for life when they are doing little besides hard work.

If you are burned out, re-introduce some of the things in life you used to enjoy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an ice cream cone in your favorite flavor, a funny video, or a game of ping pong, as long as you find it gratifying or fun in some way. Doing things that bring a smile to your face or cause you to burst out in peals of laughter is always good for you, but especially when you are down.



While there are many explanations as to the cause of depression, including family history, one non-genetic viewpoint is that depression is anger turned inward. That is, instead of feeling angry toward the individual(s) or cause(s) where it belongs, you turn that anger toward yourself. Often you can’t directly confront the person you’re angry with, but what you can do is write about it. In a journal, ask yourself, “Am I angry with someone?” If so, write about that anger there. On a positive note, getting in touch with your anger can be energizing and motivating.

As one elderly gentleman recovering from a period of depression once said,

“Madness is better than sadness because when you’re mad you can do something; when you’re sad, you don’t feel like doing anything at all.”

And, he was right.



Lastly, but most importantly, seek out help from the university counseling center when your depression persists for more than a week. There, you can talk with a counselor about what is bothering you and get appropriate help in the form of talk therapy and/or medication.

Sometimes, depression is caused by high levels of chronic stress.

So, reducing anxiety becomes an important part of treatment. Whatever the recommendations, you will feel better that you have someone in your corner (the counselor), who will be there with you as you get back to feeling like yourself.


I'm Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working with college students. I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers in Chicago, and was the first in my family to go to college. Click here to learn more.

A new Ask Dr. P. column will be published every Wednesday


Ask Dr. P. | Useful Strategies for Dealing with Anxiety

Ask Dr. P.


How can I deal with my anxiety?


In the highly stressful world of college life, anxiety is as common as exams and presentations.

While a moderate amount of anxiety can be helpful in improving your performance, high levels can be debilitating. When anxiety is very high, it is difficult to concentrate or remember much of what you studied. Excessive stress is not only painful but it is very unhealthy over the long haul. Thus, managing your anxiety level before it gets out-of-hand becomes critical.

What is anxiety?

More than 25% of college students report anxiety symptoms and more than 40% of freshmen say they feel overwhelmed by all the work facing them. Anxiety is the main reason students seek psychological counseling at their university counseling centers. In contrast to fear, which occurs in response to outside dangers like a stranger chasing you, gunshots ringing out in the night, and/ or tornadoes ready to hit your hometown, anxiety is a reaction to internal or psychological dangers. When you’re fearful of being rejected, shamed, humiliated, or exposed to the world as inadequate in some way, you get anxious.

The most common of all anxieties is “performance anxiety” and its twin sister “test anxiety.” In both these instances, you are afraid of failing, of looking stupid or dumb, of letting others down, of being humiliated by your incompetence. Performance anxiety is likely to occur anytime you are doing something that is important to you—whether you are giving a speech in class, performing on the basketball court, playing your musical instrument for an audition, trying out for a part in a play, or taking a test. In all these examples, the fear of failure can run rampant with accompanying physical reactions such as trembling hands or voice, butterflies in your stomach, frequent bathroom runs, and pounding heart. While you are not running from a tiger in the jungle, your body reacts as if you are, and the anxiety that stems from psychological danger is just as real and intense as the fear about impending physical peril.

What can you do about anxiety?

The best thing you can do is to pursue some type of relaxation training, such as muscle relaxation training, mindfulness, positive imagery, meditation, yoga, or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which strives to change unhealthy thinking patterns that often accompany strong emotion. Be aware that not all of the relaxation strategies will work for you, but if you find one or two that do, work hard on perfecting them for yourself.

Relax your muscles

You might find that learning how to relax your muscles (one by one) will reduce the physical tension you feel. If so, following along with an audio guide, podcast, or YouTube video that gives you detailed instructions on how to relax is worth a few minutes of online research. Along with this, practicing diaphragmatic breathing (slow and deep breathing) for 10-15 minutes each day would be a quick way of getting your heart and body to quiet down at any time, but especially right before a test or a performance.

Practice positive self-talk

Self-talk (a part of CBT), which entails saying soothing things to yourself, like “calm down,” “it’s no big deal”, or “you’ll survive” can be helpful.

Recall positive imagery

Positive Imagery, that is, thinking of a positive scene (walking in the woods, sunbathing on the beach, your favorite vacation) can be a way of distracting yourself to calm down.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness entails focusing on an objective reality, and not the many catastrophic fears in your mind. When you're highly anxious, the reality of the situation gets overlooked and you get lost in overblown and imaginary dangers. Looking the catastrophic fear in the eye, that is, asking yourself "what is the worst thing that can happen?" and then coming up with a plan for dealing with the catastrophe, such as, "so if I fail, I'll take the class again," can reduce the intensity of your anxiety.

Just before my many talks, I have found that focusing on something objective, such as someone in the audience or my Power Point slides, for a few minutes before the presentation took my mind off myself, calmed me down, and enabled me to pursue the rest of the talk with very little anxiety.

Practice mindfulness and muscle relaxation right now with
Propeller Collective's "Mindful Moment" video on YouTube:

Overall, try out different techniques to see which ones will work for you! If your anxiety level continues to be high, go to the university counseling center as soon as possible to see what the staff recommend. The very act of talking about your difficulties with a caring staff member can be helpful, as is anxiety-reducing medication. If you can reduce your anxiety level to a manageable burst of energy, you can improve your performance and feel good about what you have accomplished.


I'm Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working with college students. I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers in Chicago, and was the first in my family to go to college. Click here to learn more.

A new Ask Dr. P. column will be published every Wednesday


Ask Dr. P. | Becoming aware of your mental health

Ask Dr. P.


How can I become more aware of my mental health?


Before trying to increase your awareness of your own mental health, it is important to be reasonably clear about just what is mental health. While it is difficult to define because no single definition encompasses all that it is, I’m going to try. I can say with assurance that you are more likely to know what it is when you don’t have it. Just as with physical health, you’re not aware of your health until you feel sick. Similarly, when you’re feeling anxious a lot of the time and/or depressed, you know that you’re not experiencing the epitome of mental health.

What is mental health?

Mental health is a state of well-being that can be characterized by positive feelings and thoughts, self-awareness, adaptive behavior, and the absence of psychological symptoms. Most of the time, you feel happy and enjoy life, which is not to say that you never feel sad, disappointed, jealous, or angry but the negative feelings don’t dominate your life. And, you don’t experience the symptoms covered in column one to any serious extent. In addition, you are not consumed with worry, not obsessed (have recurrent thoughts) about something, and/or not sad a great deal of the time. If this is the case, you know that you’re probably doing okay.

I say “probably” because many times you might not be aware that something is wrong, but your body or your behavior will be a dead giveaway that something is amiss. You may have difficulty concentrating, sleeping, or eating. You may have ongoing stomach or headache distress. Your friends may tell you’re drinking too much or have a short fuse, that is, you get frustrated or angry easily. On the other hand, you may be too quiet, too withdrawn, and too uncomfortable with your peers, all of which make social events very uncomfortable.

Other aspects of mental health have to do with positive personality traits like optimism, resilience (being able to bounce back from negative experiences), and openness to new experiences. Having a “glass half full“ attitude is healthy, as is agreeableness (not always but most of the time) and conscientiousness (fulfilling your obligations). Looking forward to each day as a time of new possibilities is a great attitude that is correlated with positive mental health.

Horace, an ancient philosopher, once wrote, “Take as a gift whatever the day brings forth.”

Experiencing joy each day by doing some things that you really enjoy is a wonderful way of safeguarding your mental health. Making wise decisions, that is, not acting impulsively and paying attention to the long-term consequences of your behavior, is also important. In addition, the quality of your relationships with others (your sensitivity, your empathy, your reciprocity) is a reflection of your mental health.

Increasing awareness of your mental health

Pay attention to your feelings

Taking at least 15-30 minutes a day, usually before bedtime, to look at how your day went, can be very valuable. You can use this time for self-reflection, that is, trying to figure out how you felt all day and whether you met your own personal goals. Keeping a daily log of your feelings, or journaling, is a great way of keeping in touch with your emotions—an important component of mental health. Paying attention to your thoughts (are you consumed with negative thinking or are you reasonably optimistic?) is also extremely worthwhile. If you felt stressed and unhappy, this is the time to be kind to yourself and prepare yourself for a new day. If you didn’t meet your goals, now is not the time to hit yourself over the head but rather to tweak your goals to make them more realistic and attainable. You can meditate, pray, or simply relax during this break time for yourself.

Dreams: The royal road to the unconscious

Paying attention to your night dreams is also extremely worthwhile in gauging your own mental health. Sleep incidentally is your body’s healing mechanism - both for your physical and mental health - so don’t skimp on it. Sleep strengthens your long-term memory by consolidating your short-term memory into long-term storage.

At night, your psyche attempts to solve your daytime problems by searching for solutions that will work for you. Thus, your night dreams are usually an accurate mirror of your emotional life and what you are struggling with, in terms of desires, fears, and conflicts. The dreams are not literal translations of your issues, but rather symbolic ones. So, if you’re running away from danger in your dreams, you need to look at what feels dangerous in your daily life. If you’re basking in the Caribbean in your dreams, you are looking for a wonderful break from the drudgeries of daily life. Look for the themes in your dreams and they will give you a new perspective on the daily status of your mental health!


I'm Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working with college students. I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers in Chicago, and was the first in my family to go to college. Click here to learn more.

A new Ask Dr. P. column will be published every Wednesday


Ask Dr. P. | What can I expect when I see a counselor for the first time?

Ask Dr. P.


What can I expect when I see a counselor for the first time?


Once you’ve decided to seek counseling, you’ll set up your first appointment.

You can do this by contacting the counseling center over the phone, in person, or sometimes online. At different campuses, the counseling center may go by different names, such as “Psychological Services” or “Psychological Clinic.”

If you need help right away, tell the contact person that you need to talk to someone right now. That person will see if anyone is available and, if not, they may refer you to a phone hotline that is staffed by volunteers to help students in crisis.

Your student fees usually cover on-campus counseling services, but the number of sessions per semester may be limited depending on the counseling center’s policy. If you prefer to seek psychological help off-campus, just ask for an approved list of counselors in the area from the counseling center or the Dean of Students. For off-campus assistance, you will need to use your health insurance to pay for services.


Now that you have taken the courageous and often trembling first step of making an appointment, what can you expect from this point on?


1. Paperwork

Generally, the first thing you will encounter at the counseling center is some paperwork. Sometimes this is done by phone but it usually occurs during the first visit, which is typically called an “intake session.” You will be asked to share basic demographic information and to complete a checklist of symptoms or presenting problems. The checklist covers a range of concerns college students typically bring to counseling centers, from concentration difficulty to sleeping problems. Occasionally, intake paperwork will also include a brief personality assessment that is designed to get a snapshot of how you usually operate.


2. A meeting with an intake counselor

Once you're finished with paperwork, you will meet a counselor for the intake session, which usually takes about an hour. The purpose of this meeting is to get a sense of how serious your problems are and what kind of help you need. The intake person may be a different person from the one you will eventually be assigned. If you have a preference as to the sex, race, or cultural background of your assigned counselor, you can make that request at this time. If such a counselor is available, the counseling center will try to accommodate you.

The counselor will ask you questions such as, “What brings you to the counseling center?” or “How can I help?” to get an idea about what you have been struggling with. The counselor will ask about the severity of the problem, duration (how long it has been going on), and what you have tried to do in the past to solve the problem. The counselor will also ask about your family, friends, interests, school history (how well you did in the past), medical history, and your strengths/ weaknesses.


3. Exploring solutions together

From this broad array of information, including the paperwork you completed earlier, your counselor will gain an understanding of your problem as well as what can be done to improve your situation. For example, if you went to the counseling center because you’re anxious and worried about failing out of school, you and the counselor will decide how widespread your fears are, how realistic they are, and what can be done about them.

In this example, questions that a counselor may consider include:

  • Is your anxiety keeping you up at night and /or interfering with your ability to study?

  • Will relaxation training help or is your anxiety too severe?

  • Will cognitive-behavioral strategies, such as examining your thoughts about failing and working to change them, be worthwhile?

  • Would medication for anxiety be useful?

Exploring these and related issues are among the many considerations in trying to help you, but what will work best for you is a function of personal factors, including your personality style and your motivation to change. Typically, at the end of the intake process, your counselor will make recommendations that you're free to accept, modify, or reject. While you alone can make the decision as what will work best for you, it is wise to be open to the counselor's recommendations.

In spite of the normal anxiety you may feel in starting this whole process, going to see a counselor is often the start of a marvelous journey towards personal growth and greater overall satisfaction in life.

I'm Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working with college students. I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers in Chicago, and was the first in my family to go to college. Click here to learn more.

A new Ask Dr. P. column will be published every Wednesday


Ask Dr. P. | Should I see a psychologist / counselor?

Ask Dr. P.


How do I know when I should speak with a psychologist / counselor?


In short, anytime you need help with your feelings and/or your behavior.


Any of these signs is a good reason for reaching out to a professional:

  • Feeling overwhelmed or anxious a lot of the time.

  • Having trouble concentrating on schoolwork, having difficulty with eating or sleeping, or very worried about a personal problem.

  • Experiencing uncontrolled bouts of crying, unexplained periods of sadness, or crying for no reason. These behaviors are signs of depression that often require professional assistance.

  • Getting angry easily or being hostile to your friends or family.

  • Drinking heavily or using drugs regularly.

  • Feeling overwhelmed by studying. Study skill assistance, that is, help with time management (how much to study and when), how to take notes, how to take tests, and how to read a textbook, may be sought at a university counseling center.

  • If a roommate or teacher recommends it. Often, a respected friend or mentor sees things in us that we are not aware of.


Seeking professional help is one of the smartest things you can do.

It doesn’t mean you are crazy, weird, or immature, but just plain wise. If you lived in New York City, for example, seeking professional assistance would be a sign of your sophistication, not mental instability. I say that because attitudes about seeing a psychologist or a counselor vary depending on where you live and on your family’s cultural values. Regardless of geographical or familial attitudes, seeking professional help is a very worthwhile pursuit. 

Talking to a counselor is one way of sorting out your problems and gaining a new perspective. Very often, the very act of talking to an objective person (a sounding board) reduces some of the tension and you can gain clarity.

When problems overwhelm us, they are difficult to see clearly.

The problem feels lost in a fog or a sea of contradictions and seems unsolvable, when realistically the problem needs to be reframed or thought about differently so it can be approached more rationally. 

For example, if you are anxious about failing a course, the anxiety about failing can be overwhelming and blind you to some productive solutions, such as talking to the instructor about your difficulties with the material, getting a tutor, or dropping the course before the deadline. Similarly, if you are having roommate problems, learning how to communicate more clearly without defensiveness can be very helpful. Communication strategies can make the difference between ongoing conflict and peaceful resolutions.


Going to talk to a psychologist/counselor is almost never a mistake.

At the very least, it will be a new experience. At the most, it will be a life-changing event. If your problem is minor, it will be solved quickly. If more major, it will take more time and persistence. Know that all the material from counseling is confidential and is not available to the rest of the university, unless you give permission to release any of it.

The very act of going to see someone for help is a sign of your courage and determination to grow and change in positive ways.

Being “open” versus “closed” to new experiences is a positive personality trait that has been correlated with all sorts of other positive outcomes, such as creativity, friendliness, and overall success in life, so developing openness is decidedly worthwhile.


I’m Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist who has been practicing psychology in a variety of settings for over 50 years. Throughout the 80s and 90s, I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers (Roosevelt University, Chicago; and the University of Illinois at Chicago), where I worked with college students, many of whom were the first in their families to go to college.

In addition to my work in university counseling centers, I was Chair of the Psychology Department at Roosevelt University, and Supervising Psychologist in several medical schools, psychiatric hospitals, and mental health clinics over the years. I am also the author of two books on romantic love; Too Close for Comfort: Exploring the Risks of Intimacy; and Adult Children of Divorce: Confused Love Seekers. Since leaving the university setting in 2001, I have been in private practice seeing clients, most of whom are successful professionals but are struggling with some aspect of their personal lives.

I was the first in my family to go to college.

A new Ask Dr. P. column will be published every Wednesday