Responding to Student Springtime Anxiety: Easy Techniques for Building Resilience
By Dominique Maas and Katrina (Katie) McKenzie
While the fall semester is traditionally a busy time in college career centers, it seems the spring often brings about more anxiety and stress for students. In our work, emerging themes often include seniors thinking about impending graduation and the job hunt, juniors concerned with finding the “perfect” internship that will lead to the “perfect” job, sophomores feeling pressured to declare a major, and even first-year students feeling they are already “behind.” However, the strains of transition and related challenges can affect clients at all ages and stages.
Resilience is defined as “the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” (Merriam Webster, 2014). Research shows that resilience in college students is typically not yet fully developed (Leary & Rossier, 2012). As career counselors, we are in a unique position to help individuals identify and build upon their strengths, reframe challenges into opportunities, and help advisees become more resilient. Here are two techniques to identify strengths and build resilience, created by Doug Hensch of the DRH Group (Reivich & Shatte, 2002; Seligman, 2015) and used with students at our institution. These activities could easily work with students and clients of all ages, at all times of year, but can be particularly helpful with stress that accompanies the winding down of the academic year.
Three Good Things
This exercise encourages students and clients to notice the role of their personal strengths in everyday occurrences.
Each day for the next week (or until your next meeting with them), have the individual write in a journal three good things that happened. We encourage students to think, even on the worst day, what good things can they say? Something as simple as “1) I got up this morning 2) I worked 3) I got home safely” will do.
Have the student or client write out a short explanation on their role, if any, in each positive occurrence. Ideally, students will have some examples of personal agency (e.g., “I got a good grade on a project, because I planned in advance to get it done”).
Ask them to identify and describe any themes in the positive events they wrote about, as well as their own contributions.
By focusing on recent events, we have found that students are able to recognize their own abilities, validating how they have contributed to positive results, which can be useful in overcoming adversity, and building resilience.
Our students often view situations as “all or nothing” (e.g., things will either be ‘perfect’ or ‘completely awful’). This exercise encourages students and clients to imagine shades of grey and begin planning a next step.
Have your advisee draw three columns on a piece of paper. Label them Column #1 (farthest to the left), Column #2 (farthest to the right) and Column #3 (Middle).
Have them write down their current uncertain or stressful situation, likely the reason they have come in to speak with you.
In Column #1, encourage your advisee to think of the worst-case scenario for their situation. Have them play out the situation in tiny increments towards a final outcome with the most extreme results they can imagine. For example, “I am having trouble finding a job, which means I will have to move back in with my parents after graduation, which means I will live in their basement, which means I will be sad and lonely and have no friends.” So, from Point A ("I am having trouble finding a job"), they've managed to get to Point Z ("I will have no friends").
Ask them how likely they think the extreme outcome is to happen. Ask if they have seen or experienced any instances that contradict their assumption. For example, “Do you know other people who may have felt this way but still have managed to get jobs and keep their friends?”
Next, go to Column #2 on the far right. Start with the same Point A ("I am having trouble finding a job") and encourage them to think of the best-case scenario. For example, “I am having trouble finding a job, so I'm asking a lot of people for assistance and making good connections. Since everyone knows I am having trouble finding a job, soon someone will probably knock on my door and offer me my dream job.”
Ask, how likely is this to happen? Again, challenge their assumptions and discuss any known exceptions to the foreseen outcome.
Finally, go to Column 3 in the middle: the most-likely scenario. Ask them to brainstorm what they think is most likely to happen next in their situation. For example: "I will find a job that will at least be a good starting place, and will allow me to continue exploring what I might like to do in the future."
Below Column 3, have the student write out action steps that could help them prepare for the most likely scenario (e.g., networking with a specific professor or conducting an informational interview).
We live in a changing and challenging world. Clients need to learn strategies for coping with pressure and adapting to circumstances outside of their control. Building resiliency teaches a skill that will serve all clients well as they encounter adverse experiences throughout their life.
Leary, K. & DeRosier, M. (2012). Factors Promoting Positive Adaptation and Resilience during the Transition to College. Psychology, 3, 1215-1222. doi: 10.4236/psych.2012.312A180
Reivich, K., Shatte, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor. New York: Broadway Books.
Seligman, M. (2015). Authentic Happiness. Retrieved from https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/learn/educatorresilience
Dominique Maas, M.A., is a career counselor at Georgetown University. Dominique earned her master’s degree in Counseling and Development, and her bachelor’s degree in psychology from George Mason University; and before working at Georgetown, she worked as a career counselor and career course instructor at George Mason University. You can contact Dominique at firstname.lastname@example.org
Katrina (Katie) McKenzie, M.A., is a career counselor with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a Bachelor’s Degree in Japanese Language and Literature. Previously having worked with Career Services at Washington University in St. Louis, George Mason University, and Georgetown University, she is currently based in the Chicago area.
Paul Timmins on Sunday 04/19/2015 at 11:47 AM
Love these suggestions -- thanks, Dominique and Katie! I totally agree with you: students visiting our office in the spring often have a lot of uncertainty in their near futures, so I love having tools like you've written about.
Tara Iagulli on Wednesday 05/20/2015 at 05:51 PM
Excellent article. I love the specific exercises with examples of context. This is taking cognitive behavioral therapy and applying it to career counseling which I don't see many university career services people do. I really appreciate your work and I know you are making an impact on students. I work with graduate students and they are beyond anxious in the spring semester.