College life: misconceptions of stress – Got Anxiety?
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
This is the second in a four-part series from the Barmanns on the topic of college student stress and its associated mental health consequences.
Many students believe that stress and anxiety is something to avoid at all costs. They frequently make statements such as, “I’m under a ton of stress” and “I’m so stressed out every day.”
These remarks are revealing in terms of how students perceive stress. Viewed as a stimulus, stress represents something that one needs to directly interact with, such as academic responsibilities, roommate relationships, etc.
When stress is perceived as a response, examples would include one’s reactions to life events, such as chronic headaches, anxiety, or some other undesired physiological or emotional response.
Even more important is how one perceives their relationship with stress and anxiety. Research indicates it is not stress itself that causes negative consequences for people; instead, it is one’s perception of stress as either threatening or challenging in nature.
PERCEPTIONS OF STRESS
When dealing with stress or anxiety, the default strategy is to resist it. We frequently tell patients in our clinical practice, “What you resist, persists.”
We also explain that stress and/or anxiety is something all of us need throughout our lives. Think about recent life events you experienced which were very important to you; times when you needed to be successful, such as gaining entrance into your No. 1 college choice.
Stress and anxiety, at the right “dosage,” are needed to help push you through the task at hand. The degree of stress, however, needs to be at a moderate level; too high a dosage will typically prevent us from achieving success.
Studies show that those who perceive stress as threatening not only suffer from more serious medical conditions, but also do not live as long as those who perceive stress as a challenge.
College students who possess an internal locus of control believe that they are NOT passive recipients to negative life events. Nor do they endorse the belief that, “things happen to me, I don’t make them happen.”
Students who view stress as challenging, rather than threatening, soon find themselves enjoying the benefits which result from this belief, such as enhanced cognitive performance, improved focus, the ability to take in enormous amounts of new information, and the capacity to meet the many unpredictable demands life throws at us.
Resilience is defined as, “the ability to quickly adapt and recover from stress and adversity.” Clearly, to have resiliency as part of our psychological arsenal, is quite an asset.
So, how does one acquire this much needed trait to help deal more effectively with life’s challenges?
Resilience is developed through a learning process, involving a series of negative life experiences that require a person to quickly adapt and recover, in order to move forward.
These life events are typically experienced directly, and/or indirectly (i.e., observing role models demonstrating various ways they successfully recovered from adversity).
To acquire resilience, one needs to learn communication skills, conflict resolution skills, methods for negotiating diversity, emotional regulation, and building tolerance for handling various life stressors.
THE RESILIENT ONES
College counseling centers report that many of today’s students appear to lack the degree of resilience necessary for successfully coping with the many stressors associated with academic and social-interpersonal challenges.
What type of student possesses this essential attribute, and how did he or she acquire it? These students can be found among the more than 5 million first-generation collegians, most from immigrant families, so poor they can barely afford textbooks and meal plans.
They endured a lifetime of financial hardship, worked several jobs in high school, never owned a computer, had parents who never went to college, and directly experienced a great deal of other hardships, unknown to their classmates.
These hardships paved the way for attaining toughness, creative problem-solving resourcefulness — in a word, resilience. These same students who entered college believing they could not compete, suddenly found themselves significantly more skilled than their over-parented, privileged classmates, along with a work ethic which could simply not be matched.
Once these students shifted their mindset from focusing on their “skill deficits” and perceived inadequacy to be successful in college, they soon began to realize that what they initially viewed as weaknesses, were now viewed as tools of empowerment.
These first-generation college students were not the ones attending weekly therapy sessions on campus. They were too busy spending countless hours in medical school labs discovering cures for fatal illnesses.
We visited a Senior Vice President at one of Incline Village’s most successful businesses, and asked what type of college graduate he tends to employ?
He stated, “I no longer hire the ‘privileged’ kids. I look for those who suffered a life of adversity, those who never had parents running interference for them, kids who had to fight for everything they earned in life and learned how to solve problems on their own.”
Translation — the resilient ones!
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Barry may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org; visit anxietytreatmentinclinevillage.com to learn more.
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