At the beginning of a lecture on the effects of stress, I told this story to my class:
One day a farmer’s donkey fell down into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided the animal was old, and the well needed to be covered up anyway; it just wasn’t worth it to retrieve the donkey.
He invited all his neighbors to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly. Then, to everyone’s amazement he quieted down.
A few shovel loads later, the farmer finally looked down the well. He was astonished at what he saw. With each shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing. He would shake it off and take a step up.
As the farmer’s neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and happily trotted off!
So what’s the moral of the story?
Life is going to shovel dirt on you, all kinds of dirt. The trick to getting out of the well is to shake it off and take a step up. Each of our troubles is a steppingstone. We can get out of the deepest wells just by not stopping, never giving up! Shake it off and take a step up.
One student raised his hand and said, “That was great story professor, but being a student in college today has its own set of stressors.”
Ahh, the perfect opportunity for a discussion that relates to the topic and has meaning to the class. Dare I take the challenge and meet this potentially hot topic head on?
OK, I’ll bite, I asked the student if he would share with us the stressors he was referring to.
“Well to start, feeling intense pressure to obtain high grades, especially if you’re in a program that may connect with career opportunities, taking final exams, trying to establish some kind of social life and dealing with the costs of college.”
More hands rose to the occasion, single parents balancing work, school and family, how layoffs forced career changes and with those changes meant going back to school, and what about after graduation, will I be able to find a job in my field of interest?, and don’t even start me on the topic of student loans. The class was beginning to sound more like an AA meeting, with individuals sharing their fears and concerns about the stressors of being a student.
It was stress in action and needless to say the discussion became how these stressors affected the students personally.
Following up on our discussion in class, I came up with some interesting facts about stress and college students.
- Associated Press conducted a survey in 2008 on college student stress at many colleges throughout the United States. The survey found that four out of ten college students report they feel stressed often. One out of five say they feel stressed most of the time. One out of four students report experiencing daily stress and one in ten report thoughts of suicide.
- The American Freshman Norms report from the Fall 2010 was revealing in terms of trends in college student attitudes, health, and stressors. Looking at the trends in the last two and a half decades, students’ perception of their own mental health has been on a steady decline. In 2010, males and females’ perception of their own emotional health hit the lowest marks in twenty five years, decreasing approximately 13% for both males and females from 2009 to 2010.
- The Spring 2013 edition of theNational College Health Assessment, where the average age of those survey was 21 years, reported that almost half (46.3%) of all undergraduate students surveyed felt trauma or overwhelmed in regard to their academic responsibilities. Almost half of students surveyed reported they have more than average or extreme stress.
We live in interesting times, the rapid acceleration of technology and social change. The emergence of the internet, smart phones, Facebook, Twitter and other social media technologies have fundamentally altered the social fabric and the ways we relate. Our students live in a hyper-connected world which gives them ever more access to an endless array of choices and information that can be overwhelming and confusing. Psychological research on choices shows that in many cases, more choices lead to more anxiety. In addition, we now have endless access to information that might be psychologically disturbing, via constant news of troubling stories.
Yes, college can be extremely stressful. It is, in many ways, a rite of passage, but with that comes much adjustment difficulty.
This student’s response given in a Blackboard assignment seemed to really encompass the fears and the concerns that many of our students have.
“There is an enormous pressure to know what you are going to do with the rest of your life when you leave school. People say that it is okay to not know what you want to do, but there is this unspoken expectation. You are expected to have university lined up, or an internship, or a job. I just can’t imagine what I want to do with the rest of my life. That in itself makes me feel unsure and helpless.”