The Making Sense of Science column is a partnership with the University of Maryland School of Public Health, Department of Behavioral and Community Health, Center on Young Adult Health and Development.
Stress during college is inevitable. College administrators, faced with unprecedented levels of student distress, sometimes feel pressure to take the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to supporting students. It is frustrating that no matter how many painstakingly planned tabling events, therapy dog pop-ups, and “make your own stress ball” tutorials we provide, college students will still have to navigate a variety of adverse experiences, be thrown curve balls, be betrayed by friends, question their own competence, and be forced to make uncomfortable decisions. However, what can sometimes only be realized after years of life experience, is that the road to success is paved with failures and disappointment. The funny thing is that the college years are over way too soon, and when students look back on college, most will remember the time fondly, including both the times of struggle and of growth.
The scientific literature has a lot to say about stress, coping strategies, and resilience, which will be the focus of this article. How can we make sense of all of it and how can we base what we do on college campuses on science? We’ll begin by looking at resilience as a process that requires not one “ability” but a set of skills that can be developed during the college years. The research shows that college students utilize a variety of coping strategies when they encounter stressful situations. The key is to match the coping strategy with the situation and then learn from the experience, no matter what the outcome. Next, we’ll dive into what the scientific literature says about the impact of group-based interventions that have been designed to improve resilience among college students. Finally, we’ll suggest some ways to integrate resilience promotion activities into the fabric of academic life.
Resilience is often defined as the overall ability to effectively cope with heightened stress or adverse life circumstances. Individuals who are highly resilient not only adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, or significant sources of stress, but can achieve an even greater level of functioning as a result. This ability not only to bounce back, but to emerge even stronger after failure and disappointment is referred to as “thriving” and is considered the ultimate goal (Gerson & Fernandez, 2013; Steinhardt & Dolbier, 2008). Being consistently resilient is associated with greater levels of well-being and lower emotional distress (Campbell-Sills et al., 2006; Joyce et al., 2018; Macedo et al., 2014; Rutter, 2006). This being said, stressors stemming from injustice, violence, and other societal threats ultimately must be handled upstream, so that no student is exposed to these traumas. This is where a coordinated team of expert campus practitioners is key, and required, for whole campus wellness. While it can be tempting to delegate resilience efforts or programming to the health or counseling center, it requires commitment from every corner of campus. Academic faculty, the financial aid office, and dining and residence life staff all observe student stress, in all its forms, every day, and all have important roles in creating a welcoming and supportive environment.
Rather than thinking about resilience as a single ability or situational need, it might be more useful to think about it as a process with several stages, each involving a set of skills which can be developed as young adults gain more experience. In the first stage, one must appraise the level of severity of the stress or threat. Is it something that requires immediate action or is it something that is extremely annoying but requires thoughtful consideration before responding (e.g., different opinions of a “clean” living space)? What is required here is a combination of cognitive appraisal skills (understanding the severity of the threat as well as one’s level of control over the threat) and emotional regulation skills (not over-reacting emotionally), so that the most appropriate response can follow to resolve the situation.
Next, one must choose from a toolbox of coping strategies to mitigate the situation (Schwarzer & Schwarzer, 1996). While many advocate for being proactive in all situations, sometimes the best course of action is to let things sit, or to engage in distracting, but healthy, activities that do not involve rumination or directly trying to problem solve the situation. Pausing like this appears to be especially useful in situations that are beyond our control. More proactive strategies, sometimes called “approach strategies” are very useful in situations in which we have a higher degree of control. Some scholars (Addison et al., 2007, 2009) have conceptualized coping strategies as falling into two primary categories—”problem-focused” strategies (e.g., seeking social support or professional assistance) versus “emotion-focused” strategies that relate to the way you respond emotionally to the problem. Others resist the idea that coping strategies can be lumped into these categories and have suggested assessing a wider variety of coping strategies (e.g., humor, religious coping, acceptance, denial; Carver, 2013). The takeaway message here is to encourage students to self-reflect on what they tend to use in different situations and learn to use other types of strategies to manage stress. Understanding if and when it is appropriate to dial back a heightened emotional response takes practice. Giving students the skills and space they need to problem solve can help build their confidence. When a student seeks assistance, it could be beneficial for staff, faculty, and even parents to facilitate solutions rather than attempting to fix the problem for them.
“The scientific literature has a lot to say about stress, coping strategies, and resilience. How can we make sense of all?”
The last stage involves objectively—to the extent that is possible—reflecting on the experience. What happened, what was the response, and how did the situation play out? Was the stress exacerbated based on the response, or was resolution achieved? This is probably the hardest part for young people because sometimes it is uncomfortable to reflect and realize that a different decision might have been more appropriate. Sometimes the only thing to do is to chalk up the situation or failure as a learning experience. What the research shows is that individuals who move past these situations with a level of self-compassion and realization that no one is perfect, fare much better emotionally than those who internalize failure and berate themselves over it. Smeets and colleagues (2014) discuss the concept of a “common humanity,” the acceptance that we all encounter challenges and are imperfect in our actions. Developing mindfulness skills, which include stepping back and observing, and even accepting the present moment for what it is, can address the tendency to “over identify” or dramatize negative events. This could be particularly applicable to college students, who at times lack emotional regulation skills, can be reactive, and prone to ruminating. The process of learning from failure, disappointment, and realizing that one has the competence to move on despite adversity is key to achieving resilience. The young adult years are developmentally an ideal time to lay a solid foundation of these skills that can carry forward into one’s personal and professional life after college.
Research on Resilience Interventions
Research on strengthening resilience has received more of the spotlight recently given the rising concerns related to adolescent and young adult mental health. Readers that are interested in learning more about the research that has been published in this area are referred to two meta-analyses that summarize the results of resilience interventions (Blessin et al., 2022; Joyce et al., 2018). While the research was inclusive of a variety of populations, seven studies focused on evaluating interventions to improve resilience specifically among college students, with the majority utilizing small samples of traditional-age undergraduates (Akeman et al., 2020; Galante et al., 2018; Gerson & Fernandez, 2013; Houston et al., 2017; Roig et al., 2020; Smeets et al., 2014; Steinhardt & Dolbier, 2008). A strength common to all these studies was the use of an experimental design, which means the group who received the intervention was compared with some sort of control group. Self-report surveys were administered prior to and after receiving the intervention. Another strength of the research is that all utilized valid measures of resilience, coping strategies, depression, and emotional status.
Although these interventions varied with respect to specific programming content, four primary domains emerged: a) mindfulness enhancement; b) exercises to change thinking patterns and perceptions of stressful events; c) growth mindset exercises that reframe challenges as opportunities for growth; and d) the importance of seeking out resources.
Let’s take a closer look at two studies as they are illustrations of interventions that appear to have a positive impact on college student resilience. Steinhardt et al., (2008) investigated the effectiveness of a four-session program, with each session lasting two hours. The sessions focused on educating students about coping strategies, taking responsibility for actions, choosing appropriate responses to challenges, and self-leadership. Compared with the control group, the intervention group scored significantly higher a week after the intervention on measures of resilience, effective coping strategies, self-esteem, self-leadership, and positive emotions. Depressive symptoms, negative emotions, and perceived stress were lower among the participants who received the intervention compared with the control group.
A more recent study was conducted by Akeman and colleagues (2020) to examine the effect of a different four-session resilience intervention. The intervention started with the idea that all students have “mental toughness,” and that the goal of the program was to show students how to access and optimize it through learning how to shift their mindsets and build their skills. Interestingly, a key thread throughout the program was learning how to identify and set goals and know there are obstacles to achieving them that are under one’s control, and others that are not. The program also included mindfulness exercises, checking in with an “accountability buddy,” discussion of unhelpful automatic responses to stress, and how to recognize and shift away from negative thinking patterns. The way the material was delivered offered ample time for discussion, practice, and homework. Much of the work was done between sessions. Just like the earlier study, participants and controls were compared before and after the intervention. After the intervention, participant scores on depressive symptoms and perceived stress were significantly lower compared with a control group. There was evidence that the intervention improved emotional regulation skills and students’ ability to identify and change their negative thinking patterns. Interestingly, no group differences were found for students’ beliefs about resilience or anxiety symptoms.
There are important caveats to the research on resilience interventions. In general, the research utilized small sample sizes and therefore, analyses to understand how the interventions impacted different types of students was not possible. Moreover, short-term outcomes were assessed. Longer-term follow-up on participants would be required to determine if the effects observed are enduring, and if these interventions positively impact outcomes like mental health service utilization, academic performance, or persistence in school. Although validated measures of resilience were used in these studies, it would be more accurate to measure responses to stressful situations in real-time. In the absence of a challenge, self-reported measures of resilience are somewhat hypothetical. In short, we lack a “stress test” in resilience research, like how cardiologists measure the functioning of your heart while running on a treadmill.
While the interventions show promise regarding resilience outcomes, no impact was seen on the level of anxiety or worry, at least for the studies that measured that particular outcome. This finding suggests that different types of interventions are needed to reduce anxiety among college students.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these studies excluded individuals who had a diagnosis of a condition that required ongoing management. It is tempting to lump all mental health problems among college students on one continuum ranging from “very well” to “serious concerns,” but that might be over-simplifying. It might be best to think about two groups of students, each with their own continuum of needs. There are students without an existing mental health diagnosis who might respond well to resilience interventions as well as efforts to bolster the supportiveness of the environment. While strengthening resilience is also a goal for students with a mental health diagnosis, the intervention to achieve that goal might look different in its intensity and might require that individuals with clinical skills are available to deliver such interventions on an ongoing basis. Musiat (2014) describes promising results of a comprehensive intervention for students at high risk for mental health problems that focused on recognizing and modifying unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviors. In addition, for students with a diagnosed condition, facilitate access to ongoing quality mental health care are needed.
Key Takeaways from the Research on Resilience Interventions among College Students
A major message from the research reviewed is that resilience can be strengthened, and that practice of these skills is critical. As much as we might hope that an inspirational quote will lift the mood of a college student—we have several plastered to our office bulletin boards—we need to encourage practice of resilience skills as much as possible. Just like any skill, attitude is important, but practice is essential for improvement. The more we practice a healthy skill and make it easy to accomplish, the more it will become our go-to strategy and using “not-so-good” strategies, like drinking or other forms of substance use, will be less automatic. Moreover, it might help to encourage students to monitor their own behaviors when it comes to how they react in the face of adversity. Self-reflection will help a student keep track of their own “automatic” tendencies and consider alternative, more positive coping strategies if needed.
Because students with serious mental health concerns were not included in the studies reviewed here, the effects of these group-based resilience interventions might not be the same for them. It is prudent, therefore, to provide a wide range of services and referrals to address the full continuum of mental health needs of students. More research needs to be conducted to understand which kinds of students might be responsive to which types of interventions to improve resilience. As academic institutions, advancing the research on resilience and ways to improve college student skills should be seriously considered.
Going beyond Group-based Interventions: Are there other ways to promote resilience among college students?
It is encouraging that resilience appears to be modifiable using group-based interventions, though not without a considerable amount of effort. Most of the interventions involved multiple weekly sessions of at least an hour. While four weekly hour-long sessions might not be feasible in all situations, that level of intensity might be necessary to attain desired results. It remains to be seen whether or not colleges have and are willing to invest enough resources to scale-up these sorts of multi-session interventions to implement on college campuses. Campuses concerned about the logistics of this type of intervention could consider offering the same topics as standalone workshops or engaging in the challenging task of evaluating what other programs currently exist (such as first-year experience courses) and be willing to sacrifice other content (or share it in another way) to make room for this important issue. If implementation is especially challenging, the existing literature provides a solid foundation for designing other interventions that could be further evaluated on college campuses. It might be possible to implement the material in creative ways, such as through curriculum infusion. Faculty, often faced with students distraught over grades and exam scores, are ideal intervention partners. Incorporating exercises where students write reflections on what they performed well on and “not so well” on could be effective for increasing both well-being and academic performance. Perhaps simplest, all faculty should be informed of the benefits of resilience approaches (tapping into their natural interest in research), of opportunities to host guest lectures with resilience programming, and ways to promote existing campus offerings throughout the semester. Parents, too, should be involved in these conversations. Students who feel like they have “failed” are often most afraid of disappointing their families. If parents can be provided with information on how best to communicate with their student when inevitable stumbles occur, perhaps some of the immense pressure students feel can be lessened, making room for a growth mindset. Even population-level efforts, such as campaigns that normalize, even “celebrate” failure and growth, could spark important conversations.
Whatever approach is implemented needs to be evaluated in some way, at the very least to document the degree to which students are engaged in the material, and ideally, to measure desired outcomes before and after the intervention.
As higher education professionals, we are concerned by the rising proportion of students who are experiencing serious mental health concerns and are searching for ways to encourage adaptive coping strategies. The research shows us that resilience skills are modifiable if students are given tools and resources. Promoting resilience skills might require efforts that go beyond student affairs and counseling professionals and involve a variety of stakeholders, including academic assistance centers and faculty. Promoting inclusion and tolerance and finding ways to promote a sense of belonging on campus is critical. Consideration should be given to examining campus resources and the systems that students encounter to make them easier to navigate. For example, creating efficient systems for registration and other academic processes, finding various offices on campus to help with specific issues, can help alleviate some frustration. But plowing away all possible sources of stress is unrealistic and unproductive. Encountering various kinds of challenges and experiencing stress is inherent in college life. By setting manageable step-by-step goals, utilizing appropriate coping strategies, understanding what is and what is not in our control, reflecting on experiences, and moving on with a sense of accomplishment, students can gain the practice required to achieve resilience that will last well beyond their college years.
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