As we close in on a year of quarantine due to COVID-19, college students across the country continue to adjust to the social distance mandates at their respective campuses. The majority of colleges and universities restructured the fall semester to allow students to participate in virtual classes both on and off campus while limiting in-person contact. These changes, which provided students and their families additional safety precautions, left individuals without social contact and resources to manage stressors. Developing individual coping strategies to implement during the spring semester will allow students the opportunity to understand and accept difficult thoughts and feelings. This psychological flexibility encourages students to focus on responding in a values-consistent way in the present moment, rather than being bogged down by negative thoughts, feelings, and avoidance behaviors.
Psychological flexibility is the capacity to fully experience thoughts and emotions in the present moment and actively choose to respond in a values-consistent manner. In order to adopt a psychologically flexible lifestyle one must attend to the present moment, without attachment to specific positive or negative thoughts. Values consist of anything that brings vitality and meaning to your life (e.g., family, friends, spirituality, physical well-being, service to others).
Compared to the general population, college students have a tendency to experience more anxious and depressive symptoms (January, J. et al., 2018. Prevalence of depression and anxiety among undergraduate university students in low-and middle-income countries: A systematic review protocol. Systematic Reviews, 7(1), 57. https://systematicreviewsjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13643-018-0723-8). Students are expected to learn to independently juggle their time, interpersonal challenges, and workload with minimal guidance or supervision. While individuals are learning remotely, they may not have immediate access to campus mental healthcare providers or the financial means to seek services through their insurance networks or to see a clinician out-of-network. They also potentially face significant disadvantages as they apply for jobs or internships, due to both limited job experience and employment opportunities as a result of COVID-19.
Meditation is one way to connect to the present moment; individuals may immerse themselves in a yoga practice, as well as mindful walking, eating, or a grounding practice. While these activities have the side benefit of being relaxing at times, they also promote an awareness of internal and external sensations while focusing on something in the moment, like the breath or a specific body part. Detaching from thoughts is another coping tool that can be practiced easily. Our minds provide us with an unending dialogue of judgments, opinions, facts, and commentary, and it is difficult to lower the volume at times. Rather than try to ignore negative thoughts, which only succeeds in strengthening the connection of those thoughts and negative feelings, research suggests that mindfulness approaches help you to acknowledge the thoughts and encourage your mind to move on from them. Try responding to a negative thought with “Thank you for the feedback, mind, I’ll take that into consideration.” Another tactic is to change the voice of your internal dialogue; when we hear thoughts in our own voice, they sound very definitive, whereas if the voice sounds like a popular character or has a different accent the thoughts might sound less impactful. Try practicing with some neutral thoughts about the weather or a television show and then move on to other thoughts that have more of an emotional implication.
Please read the following experiential exercise as a demonstration of perspective taking and noticing: Imagine an individual driving their vehicle through a busy intersection. They come to a stop as traffic is backed up in multiple directions, listening to car horns honking around them. The individual experiences immense frustration as they are late for an appointment and feels helpless as there is no alternate route available. Picture yourself as this driver, possibly imagine the last time you were stuck in traffic and allow yourself to notice any feelings that come up for you (e.g., anger, frustration, anxiety). Now, picture a helicopter monitoring traffic, low enough to observe the traffic, but high enough that the pilot cannot determine minute details. As the pilot, imagine that you can see the traffic patterns that led to the current roadblock, and notice if you will, a feeling of detached curiosity about the situation. You might notice feelings of empathy for the drivers who are currently stuck in traffic, and possibly reflect on times where you were in a similar situation. Once more, please allow your imagination to shift and picture yourself watching the entire scene on a television. On the screen you can see the cars and the helicopter, and notice the various thoughts, feelings, or judgments that arise. As someone watching the situation unfold through a television screen, can you step into the shoes of the drivers or pilot? Can you also develop an awareness of yourself observing the situation on television, and another self that is noticing you observing, and so on? This ability to shift in perspective is just one example of the power we have in our daily experiences; allowing yourself to step out of your immediate experience of a situation and into an observer role provides you with separation from the thoughts and feelings connected to the event and offers a vantage point to appropriately problem solve and respond.
As you read, think of a situation that is currently creating stress in your life. Thoughts of uncertainty after graduation, judgments about your ability to adhere to social distancing guidelines, or feelings of hopelessness that life as before will not return may come to mind. Now shift your perspective and notice yourself experiencing these thoughts and feelings. The practice of continually shifting from the “experiencing self” to the “noticer self” leads an individual to develop a higher sense of self in the moment. This means that there is a “you” who has thoughts, and a “you” who observes the “you” who has thoughts; therefore, you are not your thoughts.
Ultimately, practicing strategies that detach our sense of self from thoughts and feelings encourages one’s connection to the present moment, which gives the individual the opportunity to engage in values consistent behavior. College students can become entangled in their self-narrative, which is heavily influenced by their immediate environment as well as lifelong perceptions and judgments. Disconnecting from these can empower individuals to lead a meaningful, value driven life.
As a college student preparing to return to the spring semester, allow time to consider what and who is important to you. Explore what characteristics are meaningful to you in your relationships with friends, family members, peers, professors, and prospective employers. Are you acting consistent with “how you want to be” within each of these relationships, across situations, and how you want to see yourself? If not, determine what specific steps forward you can take that are consistent with the kind of person you want to be, moving toward what and who you care about. Take time as well to be kind to yourself, recognizing that all of this can be difficult, uncomfortable, and scary at times. You may notice these thoughts because you care. We often experience stress when we connect with what matters to us. Self-compassion will help guide you through this, allowing you to accept the discomfort that shows up. With this wisdom, acceptance, and committed action, continue to move forward.
Lead author, Ashley M. Zultanky, PsyD, is a clinical psychology Post-Doctoral Fellow at Behavior Therapy Associates and Michael C. Selbst, PhD, BCBA-D is Executive Director of Behavior Therapy Associates in Somerset, New Jersey. They can be reached at azultanky@BehaviorTherapyAssociates.com and mselbst@BehaviorTherapyAssociates.com and you can visit their online website at www.BehaviorTherapyAssociates.com.