How College Students Can Find a Silver Lining in a Pandemic

Adversity can increase savoring, teach coping skills, and build resilience.

Posted Aug 24, 2020

As a professor and as the mom of two college students - one a senior doing remote learning away from his school this fall, the other a sophomore living on campus but taking both live and on-line classes this fall - I’ve approached the start of the fall semester with some trepidation.  And of course I’m far from alone in having such concerns.

Much has been written over the past few weeks about the move to on-line learning and what may be lost in the process. But research in psychology tells us that experiencing difficult life events – and a global pandemic certainly counts – can actually lead to substantial benefits.  In fact, people who have experienced a stressful life event - a divorce, death of a loved one, serious illness, or natural disaster – tend to be better equipped for life and happier than those who haven’t experienced any major stressors. 

How can that be?  One explanation is that those who have really struggled are better able to appreciate the simple pleasures of life. Researchers at the University of British Columbia first asked nearly 15,000 people to rate how much they tended to savor positive experiences. For example, you might savor a chocolate bar by imagining how good it will taste, taking very small bites, and really concentrating on how fabulous it feels in your mouth. They then asked people how many adverse events they had experienced.  Those who were still in the midst of struggling with a divorce or severe illness or injury reported a lower ability to savor positive experiences.  But those who had made it through reported higher levels of savoring.  This tells us that experiencing—and overcoming—negative life experiences can actually increase our ability to enjoy simple pleasures.  So, college students may come to better appreciate the joy of spending time with a friend in person - even while wearing a mask - or participating in a class discussion - even via Zoom.

August de Richelieu/Pexels
Source: August de Richelieu/Pexels

Research points to the fact that adversity can actually increase resilience, the ability to respond to negative experiences in a productive way.  Stressful experiences can help immunize people against future stressors, and can push them to develop and practice strategies for coping with challenges.

Now, an essential question is whether greater resilience is possible for all students – or only some.  It’s certainly true that those who naturally approach life’s challenges with an optimistic mindset will be more likely to find value in this pandemic.  But we can all learn to engage in thoughts and behaviors that help us develop greater resilience, no matter our natural tendency.  How? As the American Psychological Association points out, increasing resilience is like building a muscle – it takes time and effort. 

Here are strategies we can use to help students come out of this pandemic with greater resilience – both by modeling these strategies ourselves and by helping our children adopt good strategies themselves. 

First, practice self-compassion. Some people obsess about and ruminate when bad things happen – and it’s certainly easy to get in this negative mindset these days.  But people who keep things in perspective have lower levels of anxiety and depression and feel happier and more optimistic overall about the future.  So, help students acknowledge their loss, and encourage them to cut themselves a break.  Maybe that means taking a class for a “pass” instead of a letter grade, or writing a decent instead of excellent paper.  For ourselves, maybe that means acknowledging we won’t use this pandemic as a time to write that best-selling novel or reorganize the basement. 

Second, set and maintain a routine.  Uncertainty is hard for us all – and there’s much that we don’t know and can’t know, including – most importantly – if and when things return to normal.  But what we can control is our daily lives, and exerting that control helps us feel happier.  Create and follow some routine, including exercise, meals, work blocks, and relaxation time.  Reliable schedules and routines give us a sense of structure and normality, which help reduce anxiety during this unsettled time.

Philip Ackermann/Pexels
Source: Philip Ackermann/Pexels

Third, cope your way.  There’s a measure used in psychology that categorizes people into “monitors” – who thrive on hearing all about potential health threats – and “blunters” – who instead avoid and minimize such threats.  Neither approach is good or bad.  Instead, people feel better when they use the approach that fits their preference.  So, figure out if you want to follow the daily COVID-19 rates in your state and latest political polls, or prefer to turn off these updates and stay blissfully ignorant – and respect the choices made by others.

It’s easy – as a professor trying to help my own students cope with this new normal and a mom trying to support my own sons – to focus on what’s been lost this year:  that semester in Italy, a sports season, a summer internship.  But let’s focus instead on the potential gains.  My hope is that this pandemic is teaching college students some very important life skills, and that they will return to college - either in person or remote - this fall as kinder, more resourceful, and more resilient.