People may accept that stress is “part of life,” but this acceptance often falls short in countering the real struggles students face in their coursework and professional development. Where does that leave those in undergraduate academia, who are looking for ways to cope with these intense experiences?
To discover more about stress and its implications in an undergraduate context, I sat down with Furman’s resident stress researcher and health psychologist Dr. Cinnamon Stetler. Stetler is a Professor of Psychology at Furman with an interest in researching how stress affects the body, such as with raised cortisol and its effects.
Overall, Stetler says she is most interested in the ways stress “can reduce or promote disease risk and in understanding patterns of physiological changes over the long term.”
But how do we define stress? Stetler confirmed that stress has many manifestations.
“It’s a huge construct everyone is familiar with,” Stetler said, “but it's hard to define in a way that captures everything.”
Stetler identified a few major areas or factors that can contribute to “stress.” Stress may be caused by an event - impactful, yet singular. Stress may result from a slew of demands - persisting and many. Or, stress may stem from an enduring perception about others, oneself, or an environment. But she emphasized that at its simplest, stress is the perception that our capabilities are insufficient to overcome our current context or challenges.
“It’s important to remember that not all stress is bad,” Stetler said, “it can serve to help motivate us, so long as the demand does not exceed our capacity to cope.”
Stetler noted how especially significant the ability to cope can be for stressors that are outside one’s control. There is a lot students can do to mitigate stress—of all the stressors out there, college possesses some of the most controllable. For example, tests can be studied for, and a course can always be dropped. However, there are factors impactful to students that cannot be controlled and that a college environment may exacerbate.
“College is hard enough with resources and financial support,” Stetler said, “so for say, first-generation students, it can make the experience all that more difficult.”
She added, “On average, research has shown that in undergraduate contexts, historically under-represented in a higher ed context—such as Black or Native American—predominantly white institutions can also be stress-inducing.”
On the flip side, Stetler said that research has routinely shown that when a person’s social needs are met, their wellness is also supported.
“Community is a job for Furman as a whole,” Stetler said, “and while this may not speak to everyone, common experiences can be very important.”
Community became a common theme in our discussion of stress in higher academia. While a lot of coping mechanisms are common knowledge—diet, exercise, sleep—belonging and social wellbeing may be more overlooked.
“When our ties to a group are threatened, we experience something called social evaluative threat. When we do not have the quality or quantity of social ties that we want, we experience loneliness. Both social evaluative threat and loneliness are stressors; they trigger the same fight-or-flight response in the body,” she said.
Social evaluative threat, according to Stetler, is defined as perceived rejection by others.
She cited social evaluative threat to be so significant to our physiology that it can increase the risk of viral illnesses like colds.
Social evaluative threat also ties into fears of academic and social inadequacy that many students experience. We seek the approval of friends in social settings, and professors in academics, and become stressed when we observe a lack of it.
“Students may perceive a lot of judgment from faculty and each other not often addressed in the research literature, but it’s an important and under-appreciated stressor.”
She empathized with feelings of academic judgment, remembering her own undergraduate experience, but clarified that most professors are at Furman because they want to connect with students and help them grow.
To counter the stress of evaluative threats common on undergraduate campuses—especially those like Furman that possess a competitive academic and social atmosphere—Stetler reiterated the necessity of self-compassion.
For Stetler, part of self-compassion is a realization of our common humanity and personal needs. She explained that if we remember what we are motivated by, and can in turn be motivated by others, we may be more capable than we realize when it comes to withstanding or surmounting stress.
Stetler imparted that if there is one thing to keep in mind, it is that resources are available and that maintaining connections with others and sticking to our personal values is key to working with, rather than against, ourselves.
“We are not automatons,” Stetler said, “It’s okay to stop and take a break.”
“It’s all easier said than done,” Stetler said. “We can’t control what happens, but part of college, part of life—at least for me—has been learning about yourself and about ways to respond.”
The bottom line is: college is stressful; life is stressful; but if we possess the necessary support within ourselves and from others, we can make these experiences easier to respond to. Never suffer in silence, and never accept that things cannot be better.
The Counseling Center/Trone Center for Mental Fitness (located beneath Earle Health Center, open Monday-Friday from 8:30-12:00 and 1:00-5:00 daily). Make an appointment at https://forms.furman.edu/view.php?id=967589 or call 864-294-3031 during the listed hours.
Connect with a club of common interest on syncDIN: https://furman.campuslabs.com/engage/organizations
Headspace is an all-encompassing app for mindfulness.
Liberate is a mindfulness app developed by people of color, for people of color.
The Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
On-demand Mental Health Support at Furman: 864-294-3031 (select option #3)
Text a trained counselor on the Crisis Text Line (text “HOME” to 741741)
Peer-to-peer support is available for free online on the slack chat 18 Percent
For students of color, text The Steve Fund for specialized support (text “STEVE” to 741741)
For LGBTQ students, text the TREVOR Project Lifeline for specialized support (text “Start” to 678678, call 1-866-488-7386, or access a computer chat at thetrevorproject.org/get-help-now/)