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Stress

Helping Students Cope With Coronavirus Stress

Four tips on how students can get the most out of stress management tools.

Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Stress among both high school and college students has been at unprecedented levels, manifesting in historically high rates of mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression. And then coronavirus hit. It’s too soon to fully grasp the psychological toll of students' abrupt removal from school and shift to remote learning, not to mention potential job losses, family strife, illness, and loss of loved ones. While I think it’s safe to assume that students need help managing stress during these very stressful times, I’ve also heard it firsthand in my work with college students these past two months.

Source: Persistence Plus, LLC
Source: Persistence Plus, LLC

Curious about what evidence-based stress management tools (SMTs) might be available, I spent the weekend reading several peer-reviewed studies on interventions shown to mitigate student stress (see references below). Each SMT I encountered was unique in its duration, mode of delivery, and underlying psychological theory for helping students to cope with stress. Some components of effective SMTs included:

  • Personalized feedback based on students’ stress levels, mood, and coping styles
  • Mindfulness training
  • Stress management guidance from both experts (e.g., academic faculty) and peers
  • Practical applications of stress management techniques, such as taking control of events that you can change in the moment (i.e., present control)
  • Problem-focused and emotion-focused coping techniques

Given the heterogeneity of these successful SMTs, I could write a book chapter about the pros and cons of each approach. But rather than do that, I want to share with you the lessons I drew from this research about how to best implement an SMT, regardless of its particular characteristics, so that students gain the most from it.

1. Meet students where they are. The SMTs I reviewed connected with students through a variety of digital media, including websites, smartphone apps, text messages, Facebook, and online learning management systems (LMS). No delivery method is inherently superior to any other; the key is to embed the SMT into whatever portals students already touch every day. Now that students interact with their schools entirely virtually, tools could be made available within an LMS or online course materials, as part of a Facebook class group, or even through links delivered periodically via text or email. Ease of access should be your number-one priority—dropping an SMT into a separate website is not going to attract the attention of busy and stressed-out students.

2. Minimal monitoring can produce maximum usage. An SMT is no good if nobody uses it, so most of these studies included some degree of monitoring to ensure the validity of the research. For example, email reminders to use an online SMT led to students averaging over two hours of access in a two-week period; reminders from an eCoach led students to complete three-quarters of app-based learning modules. On the flip side, only 43 percent of students used an LMS-embedded mindfulness-training tool when not monitored.

To enhance the impact of minimal monitoring, nudges toward the SMT could incorporate behavioral science principles, such as norming the use of the SMT or guiding students to make a plan to use the SMT via implementation intentions. These nudges, of course, should be sensitive to student privacy and clearly relate that you’re monitoring whether and not how the tool is being used. But students who are reticent to take advantage of an SMT or have it consistently slip their mind may greatly appreciate a little nudge.

3. Re-create in-person experiences whenever possible. Across the SMTs, students most appreciated hearing advice from others on stress management. This advice took many forms:

  • Videos from experts on stress and coping
  • Narratives from older peers about challenges they faced in school and how they overcame those stressors
  • Connecting with an eCoach who could provide guidance and feedback about stress management techniques
  • Peer dialogue and support via Facebook groups

During this time of social distancing, it may be quite tempting to provide asynchronous, online SMTs replete with surveys and learning modules. But even with the current barriers to bringing people together, we should strive to re-create the social interaction necessary for optimal well-being.

4. Learning skills is not the same as using skills. The most surprising revelation from these studies was the degree to which learning new stress-management skills did not easily translate to increased well-being. In many cases, students’ self-reports of improved global mental health were not supported by psychometrically valid assessments of their stress, anxiety, and depressive affect.

It seems that having these skills at their disposal made students feel better, but they weren’t necessarily using them or using them effectively. SMTs that provided guided practice on using these techniques in real-life situations and advice on pitfalls that students may encounter produced better results. When assessing an SMT, consider how it helps students to connect newly learned skills to the appropriate moments in which to use those skills so that they maximally benefit.

Students nationwide need a lot of support right now dealing with myriad academic, financial, and social stressors, and schools have been forced to innovate around remote interventions for students in distress. Whatever support strategies schools develop today will remain relevant throughout the ’20-’21 academic year, as students will still face the stressful fallout of this pandemic. Moreover, even open campuses will need online resources, including SMTs, in order to fully support students while respecting social distancing. So consider the four guidelines above when selecting and implementing an SMT that will work best for your student body.

References

For additional resources to help students handle stress and mental health issues during COVID-19, check out The Jed Foundation, The Steve Fund, and The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.

Cavanagh, K., Strauss, C., Cicconi, F., Griffiths, N., Wyper, A., & Jones, F. (2013). Behaviour Research and Therapy, 51, 573-578.

Chiauzzi, E., Brevard, J., Thum, C., Decembrele, S., & Lord, S. (2008). MyStudentBody—Stress: An online stress management intervention for college students. Journal of Health Communication, 13, 555-572.

George, D. R., Dellasega, C., Whitehead, M. M., & Bordon, A. (2013). Facebook-based stress management resources for first-year medical students: A multi-method evaluation. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 559-562.

Harrer, M., Adam, S. H., Fleischmann, R. J., Baumeister, H., Auerbach, R….Ebert, D. D. (2018). Effectiveness of an internet- and app-based intervention for college students with elevated stress: Randomized controlled trial. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 20(4), e136.

Hintz, S., Frazier, P. A., & Meredith, L. (2014). Evaluating an online stress management intervention for college students. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62(2), 137-147.

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