How often have your heard your son or daughter complain about how much “stress” they have? Perhaps you’ve made suggestions about how to “manage” or “reduce” their stress. These kind of conversations may include an unspoken assumption that stress is something negative that we should aim to eliminate; however, new research suggests that changing our beliefs about the nature of stress can play a large role in whether it can have negative or beneficial effects.

What do students mean when they say something is “stressful?” Without realizing it, students often perceive academic or social situations as a measure of how smart, talented, or likable they are. They may believe they have a “fixed” amount of intelligence or social aptitude that cannot be improved with practice. If they don’t meet their expectations for a grade or for how many friends they make during their first semester they might experience fear, shame, or hopelessness about the future.

Those who view stress as harmful tend to engage in avoidance:

  •   Focus on getting rid of feelings instead of taking steps to address the source of stress
  • Turn to alcohol or other substances or addictions to escape the stress
  • Withdraw their energy and attention for whatever relationship, role, or goal is causing the stress

Those who view stress as helpful engage in proactive responses:

  •   Accept that the stressful event has occurred and is real
  • Plan a strategy for dealing with the source of the stress
  • Seek information, help, or advice
  • Take steps to overcome, remove, or change the source of stress
  • Try to make the situation better by viewing it in a more positive way

Many students believe that experiencing such emotional distress will prevent them from taking a step to change or improve a disappointing academic or social situation such as going to a professor’s office hours, having a conversation with a roommate, or looking over a test on which they did poorly. Over time avoidance and procrastination can become a habit that increases the chances that students will suffer the negative consequences they were trying to avoid in the first place.

The most meaningful and important aspects of our lives are often accompanied by demands on both our minds and bodies. When students are taught how to reinterpret “stress” as “excitement” or “readiness” they actually perform better in demanding situations such as public speaking or test taking. If you hear your son or daughter complain about how their heart beat faster before a class presentation or a difficult conversation with a roommate be careful about using the terms panic attack or anxiety disorder to describe an experience that is common for many individuals. Instead, remind them that these are signs that their bodies are getting ready to do something meaningful and important rather than a signal that something bad is about to happen.

The next time your college student expresses distress about the challenges he or she is facing consider asking the following:

  • Think of a difficult situation when you were worried about the outcome but persevered anyway. What did you do to get through it?
  • What personal resources did you draw on, and what strengths did you use?
  • What could this experience teach you about how to deal with adversity?
  • How did this experience make you stronger?
  • How could you apply this experience to what you are facing now?

Additional resources:

  • McGonigal, K. (2015). The upside of stress. New York: Penguin Random House.

Karen Forbes, PhD
Director, Lafayette Counseling Center
(610) 330-5005