By Professor Tom Filsinger
The second half of the semester is upon us and it seems to move much faster than the beginning as students have projects to complete, papers to write, and there’s a mad rush to finish the semester strong and bring grades up.
This frantic pace inevitably leads to greater stress. The challenge is how to harness the energy of stress to finish strong instead of being distracted by stress to the point where it becomes debilitating.
Is stress an enemy or friend? It all depends on your point of view.
Stress is defined as a state of mental or emotional strain resulting from demanding circumstances. Stressors refer to stimuli that cause stress.
All students (and if fact every living being) experiences stress in day-to-day life. There’s nothing unusual about stress, but how we respond dictates to a great degree how effectively we will cope.
In psychology we refer to people who cope effectively with stress as having a trait called psychological hardiness. Hardy people are resilient and cope with stress in productive ways, turning the emotional energy of stress to their advantage. In other words, coping with stress effectively is all about personal empowerment.
The concept of psychological hardiness was introduced by Dr. Salvatore Maddi several decades ago. He believed that hardy people know how to think clearly and solve problems in productive ways. They take personal responsibility for their actions and work towards goals optimistically. Research on many groups, including students, has supported Maddi’s ideas that hardiness predicts success and adaptive coping.
What are the main factors of psychological hardiness and how can students apply them?
First, people who are hardy have an internal locus of control, which means they feel in control of their life and circumstances and act in accordance with those beliefs. These people do not blame external circumstances for their setbacks. They attempt to learn from mistakes and move forward. For college students, this means knowing exactly what professors expect from them for assignments (and finding out if they aren’t sure), preparing for exams in productive ways and working hard under the assumption that hard work pays off.
Second, people with hardy personality are committed to attaining their goals. They don’t give up. For students this means they don’t wait for success to come to them, they work hard to be successful. Goal-directed activity must be consistent with few lapses, like missing classes or handing in late papers.
Third, people with psychological hardiness view stressors as challenges to be overcome, not problems that are overwhelming. Obstacles become opportunities for growth. Viewed in this manner, succeeding despite pressures and stress becomes a badge of honor.
I can apply this third principle to my own life when I was an undergraduate student at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.
I was a very grade-conscious student and my personal standard was anything below a “B” was unacceptable. Not that I never got a “C” grade in college, there were a few times, but I always strived for higher grades.
In one disappointing semester I received mid-term grades for my five classes and ALL of them were “C” grades. I was devastated! I had yet to learn about the concept of psychological hardiness, but my response was a resilient one.
When the depressing day at college was over and my classes completed I got in my car and drove to the most upscale restaurant with the best food I could find. Price was no object. This was going to be a celebration dinner! What was I celebrating? That it was all uphill from here. I vowed to commit myself to bringing my grades up, to controlling my destiny through effort and looking at these setbacks as challenges to be overcome. And there’s a happy ending. All my grades went up by the end of the semester, pushing my GPA well over the 3.0 mark.
Learning to cope with stress productively is a process that never ends; life is full of stressors at every stage. Implementing strategies and adopting healthy attitudes in college can carry over to much of your life, but the key is, it’s up to you!
Northern Arizona University nurtures a very supportive environment. You are surrounded by people that care very deeply that you are successful and fulfilled.
Best of luck this semester and in the future!
Tom Filsinger is an Associate Professor of psychology and a faculty member in the Psychological Sciences department at Northern Arizona University. He currently teaches several courses including Psychology of Personality and Social Psychology.