Sunday, July 29, 2012

No Need to Panic: The Art of Chilling Out

In addition to academic studies, many college students are learning about their limits with respect to stress and frustration.  As noted in a previous post, college is a time of new demands on many levels, which means adopting new stress management skills if one hopes to do well in life.


This learning is sometimes marked by peaks of anxiety and stress, of feeling overwhelmed, and of outright panic.  This can happen even in those for whom things are going well.  How a student manages these intense periods can make the difference between improving a situation or making it dramatically worse.  You can make things worse by impulsively acting on feelings of panic.  So let's talk about how to turn a stressful moment into an opportunity to make things better.


To manage peaks of stress one must learn to master physiological arousal, strong emotions and negative thoughts.  Most folks are aware of our body's built-in circuits of arousal, the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response in reaction to threat.  By the time someone reaches college, this system has been initiated countless times, and is so hard-wired as to be very rapid and even outside consciousness.  And therein lies the problem.  It has become a reflex for many, and their perception is they can't do anything about it.  But this is not true.  What many do not know is that our bodies also have built-in relaxation responses.  Just as our bodies and brains can mobilize against perceived threats, so too can they calm and slow down in order to access higher cortical processes or problem-solving.  This slowing down is essential for accessing our memory and use of judgment.  Panic is good for running, but horrible for higher thought.  If you've ever gone blank during an exam you know what I am talking about here.


So, here are some ways to calm down in a moment of intense stress:
  • First, manage your breathing.  Sit down somewhere, and uncross your arms and legs.  Place one hand on your abdomen.  If you are breathing correctly that hand will rise and fall as your diaphragm muscle extends downward, allowing your lungs to fill with air.  Fix your gaze on a point in front of you, or close your eyes.  Slowly inhale through your nose, and slowly exhale through pursed lips.  Depending on body size, the breaths should be around three to five seconds apart.  In order to breathe well one must concentrate on these steps, and that is part of the secret because doing so is incompatible with worry or negative thoughts.  The other part of the secret is breathing of this type delivers a higher rate of oxygen to our brains than what occurs when we panic.  And oxygen makes our brains happy.  Keep breathing all the way through the wave of stress until you notice it is diminishing.  Practice your breathing at least daily, and every time you notice your earliest warning signals for stress and anxiety.  If you get good at it, you can abbreviate some of the steps and quickly enter a deeply relaxed state anywhere, at any time.  You can also learn more about helpful breathing.
  • If you like imagery, close your eyes after your breathing and hold any image that you find peaceful, serene or relaxing in your mind's eye.  As you hold that image try to capture all the detail in the objects, sounds or smells of this place.  If you get distracted, don't worry about it, just keep going back to that image.  Another secret of stress management is taking yourself elsewhere, away from your troubles, in your own mind.  This acts like a reset button which clears the noise in our heads.
  • Stress has physical components which increases tension in our muscles.  You can address this by tensing and relaxing, in alternating fashion, muscle groups from your toes all the way up to your head and face.  Create tension, for example, by clenching your fist as tightly as you can for a few seconds.  Then let it go, letting your hand fall as loose and limp as a wet noodle. And notice the contrast, the slightly warm or tingling sensation which comes from relaxing a muscle group.  The sensations are usually quite enjoyable.
  • All of this is the easy part.  The harder part involves addressing our negative thoughts, our "stinking thinking".  Catch yourself engaging in typical thought patterns when under stress: magnification of problems, seeing problems as catastrophic, internalizing or personalizing problems, or hopelessness.  You can address these by saying to yourself "I am not thinking clearly.  I need to focus on one thing I can do today that will move me in the direction I want to go."
  • Stress management is not complete until we examine what caused us to panic in the first place.  Such reactions occur for fairly specific reasons, such as over-extending ourselves,  poor preparation or coping skills, or perhaps failing to establish or uphold our personal boundaries in some way.  Once you are in a calmer state, and thinking more clearly as a result, spend some time problem solving about what needs to change.
Once these skills are developed a sense of confidence and resilience can be achieved.  Frustration tolerance will also increase such that future stressful moments are less likely to produce intense, reflexive reactions.  Like any skill, this takes practice, and there is no shortcut.  The skills are not a "cure" for what caused panic in the first place; that must be addressed through good judgment and decision-making.  But the skills are important management tools, the building blocks of which you already possess.  They simply await your time and attention.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

College is a Trip

"We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us." -Proust


College is way cool, no doubt about it.  There are intellectual explorations and pursuits, exposures to a wide variety of people and cultures, sporting events, rich theatre and music opportunities, tons of ways to meet, socialize and party with folks from all over the world, and on and on.  The college years are a great time to learn and otherwise benefit from these experiences, and many students take full advantage of the possibilities.


At the same time, however, many students seriously underestimate the stresses and strains that result from this time in their lives.  During college there are incredible demands placed upon a student’s intellect, physical well-being, social skills, spiritual or philosophical orientation, and sense of personal responsibility.  This is true whether that student is from Manhattan or Opp, Alabama.  Every student I have ever known (including yours truly!) has had to endure an adjustment period during the crucial first semesters of college, and often during the subsequent years as well.  Some have roommate problems.  Some party way too much.  Some are overwhelmed by their new-found autonomy or freedoms.  Some struggle with isolation.  Some have to manage the negative behaviors of others.  While many students negotiate through these stresses productively, albeit fitfully, others experience meltdowns of one kind or another, and truly have trouble functioning well as a student.  Grades may suffer.  Conflicts with friends or family may emerge.  Depression or anxiety may root and take up residence in the psyche.  Though students may not realize it, college is a microcosm of the world at large, but compressed in both space and time.  What happens here can establish precedents for the future.  College is a trip, indeed.  It is a funky but delightful journey during which learning can occur in every dimension imaginable.

Some students arrive on campus with plenty of tools in their survival kit.  Caring parents.  Good health.  Sufficient funding.  Supportive friends.  Others seem to have been given tools of little value, sort of like a duffle bag with a pearl necklace, a chocolate cake, and a catcher’s mitt, and all for an excursion into the Amazon!  A few unfortunate students appear to have no tools at all.  Just as I have never yet met a student who didn’t have to adjust, so I have also not met a student who could not overcome such limitations.  I have known courageous, admirable students who were nearly homeless, or who were afflicted with a nasty medical or mental condition, or who were abandoned or abused, but succeeded nonetheless.  My hat’s off to these folks; they had more than their fair share of troubles but in the end weren’t defeated.

So college is a trip, and there are some tricks students need to know about in order to reach their destinations with sanity intact.

1.    Prepare for the adjustment.  Think ahead about what you will need, then find out where you can get it.  Manhattanites will need variety.  Oppians will need familiarity.  If you didn’t have to study in high school, well, get ready to.  If your parents did everything for you, learn how to do it yourself.  And so on.
2.    Quickly figure out the nature and source of your stress.  Are you strung out because you’re not sleeping?  Because your roommate is messy?  Because you can’t concentrate?  Because you’ve never been good at math?  Stress has origins.  Find out how it started.
3.    Get the support you need.  Every problem, and I mean every problem, has a solution.  Granted, some solutions are difficult.  But don’t freak out!  Instead, calm down, define the problem, and then learn what person or resource or service you need.  Need tutoring?  Chances are your school has it.  Need time management skills?  There is someone who can help.  Need to choose a major?  It's covered.  Need someone to talk to?  Counselors are here for ya.  Just take a look at the web or campus directories.  I’m always a little amazed at how many students don’t look for or don’t know what resources await them, or worse, choose not to use them.
4.    Don’t wait!  Do the first three steps early.  Don’t wait until your homesickness turns into depression, your public speaking anxiety becomes panic attacks, or your stress leads to insomnia or substance abuse.  If you get what you need early, chances are good it won’t take long to overcome the problem.  If you wait, it can take much, much longer.  Don’t believe the lie that it isn’t “normal” to have problems.  I have yet to meet anyone who didn’t have a few.

To take the college journey well, students need to periodically examine their survival kits.  Make sure the needed tools are in there.  If unsure, ask someone who’s been around.  Wisdom and a good deal of fun are there for the taking, if students care enough to equip themselves for the ride.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A View Inside the Minds of College Students

Several years ago, a colleague provided a series of web postings written by college students.  The posts, if my memory is correct, were gathered in random fashion from a variety of public internet sources.  My memory definitely has failed in one important respect; I can't recall who provided these or exactly when I received them.  I apologize for that.


These snippets are simply too good, however, to not record them in some way.  They provide a glimpse, unsettling at times, into the minds of students.  The comments provide us with a sense of what their worlds are really like and therefore some guidance on how we, all of us, might assist them with their needs.  Spelling and grammatical errors are preserved as these too are a window into the state of the authors.  Here we go...


Female
I've dropped a lot of courses. I've also failed a lot of courses. I don't know my material. I feel like I haven't learned anything. I'm not competent. I've ruined my life. I don't know what I'm going to do. Maybe I will work in fast food for the rest of my life.
I feel like such a loser. I skip final exams. I waste thousands of dollars.
I'm not smart enough. I'm not hard working enough.
I have no future. I can't do anything. I may as well be dead. I'm useless.
My parents should kick me out and leave me homeless. I don't deserve all that they've given me.
I wish I could start over, from the very beginning. I've messed up big time. I've ruined my grades.
I'm getting old. I'm going nowhere. I don't want to face life, it's too scary.
I'll never graduate. Even if I graduate, I'll do nothing with my degree.
I should just die or something. :-(


Male
So, I failed my midterm. I huge 45%. The frustrating thing is I know what I'm doing. It's not like I just didn't study, or not go to class, I did all of that. My prof was even like "What happened?" I didn't do so well on my last quiz, and I'm pretty sure I didn't do well on the one we just had. For awhile now I've been feeling like school is impossible for me. Now, it feels like it is. I don't want to keep going, but I'm afraid of dropping out. I don't konw what to do...


Female
A couple students including me talked our professior into extending our test date! Heehee! Good for me! I need an extra week!


Female
i go to university and this is my last semester of classes, or at least, that's the plan, before i do my internship and then one math class in the spring. howveer, my past practice of doing the bare minimum of what's required of me as a student (even less than the bare minimum when it comes to studying for test or reading), has been doing me wrong this semester especially. i have met a guy who has been screwing with my emotions, whether on purpose or not, it doesn't matter i guess. but i am soooo scared that i won't pass some of these classes and then i'll have to stay another semester, here in this wretched town. but i have no energy again. it's like i wish i could be one of those students who can not study and get all a's, but i am not. but although i know my end goal, getting my degree, which as it turns out, again has to be put off till the end of next fall, for other reasons, i cannot seem to focus on that enough to complete my studying, or at least to put more effort into it. i have no job, so it's not time restraints. i don't have a car, so it does take convincing to get myself to walk to campus, if i need to, and i have been skipping more...and i don't know...does anyone here ever just feel like quitting school, just lie around and do nothing? but then again, that's exacly what i do anyways. i guess i am just here to conplain and ask if anyone else feels like they just do the minimum required of them as students.


Male
I'm done! My brain is full. It's really sad because the my presentation is less than 2 minutes. What do you do when you just can't stuff anymore in???


Female
I love school!  All the people, the energy, learning, the professors, and everything except the very few parking spaces. LOL I have my first exam in a week, gotta study this weekend. :-)


Female
I'm sooooooooooooooo nervous! My classes start tomorrow. What if I'm not good enough? What if I fail? What if....? (this coming with someone who has never gotten lower than an A-) uggh. I hate this feeling.


Male
Classes started up again yesterday. I only have the one class on campus, the other is online. The one class on campus is taught by the same lecturer as the summer math class I just finished. She said we could call her late last week for our grades. She told me I could come by her office and see my final exam, and get my grade.
I haven't done either of those things.
Today I finally emailed her, asking for my grade. She just emailed me back, but I'm too afraid to open it. I know it's going to be awfully close, and I can't stand to see it.
I know, and my T tells me that it's going to be OK to get a B. She says she thinks it would be very good for me to get a B.
I'm too afraid to open the damned email.
I guess it's better than finding out in person, and crying in front of her.


Male
I woke up yesterday with sore throat, nausea, aches, etc. Still feel yucky.
And I sat down in front of an exam that did not look at all familiar. Not much that looked like anything I had ever seen before. I get depressed when I'm sick anyway, but that just made it that much worse.
I'm pretty sure I won't have an A on the exam. I am currently hoping only that I did well enough to allow me to get an A in the class. I think I can miss 65 or so points, out of 200.
Of course, when I got home again, I could think of how to work out one of the problems. I did get the right answer to that problem, but I had no idea how to set up the equation. {sigh}
I really don't want this to be the time that I find out what happens if I don't get an A. I don't know that I can handle that right now.
Maybe school is too stressful for me.


Female
I was just diagnosed bipolar ultradian rapid cycling 6 weeks ago, with social phobia 1 week ago, and while I'm getting treatment, none of it is really working yet!! My psychiatrist is confident I'll be ready to go back to school in 5 weeks but I'm soooo scared!! It's like, I don't know if I can handle being in school but if I don't go what do I do? Be a college dropout? Ugh.


As you can see, most of the posts reveal a sense of being overwhelmed by academic demands, some to the point of hopelessness.  Another, perhaps more troubling, theme is that few of them wrote about seeking or asking for help.  For this and many other reasons college mental health services are an absolute necessity for students.  Ideally, these services will be well-resourced and thoroughly and repeatedly advertised across campus, in a variety of media.  Students tend to dismiss information when they perceive they will not need it, then suffer from a lack of information when troubles visit them.  Institutional support of the mission of college mental health is a vital ingredient to student success, as we see so clearly in the messages provided above.