Starting College: Stress Less!

Pointers for Parents and Their Kids Starting College
Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, L.C.S.W.

What is the greatest challenge facing a student going off to college?

Coping successfully with the transition of leaving the familiar world of one’s youth for a world that requires acting more as an adult. Moving to college is a challenging lifestyle adjustment for everyone, even though some people are naturally better able to deal with the stresses of change.

What would you say accounts for the difference in people’s coping skills?

Some people are constitutionally more resilient, more hopeful and optimistic. Believing the world can be trusted and that they have a secure place and purpose in it, they tend to adapt well to change, are not easily wounded by setbacks, and quickly get back into the game after being knocked down. Other people struggle more. They are very reluctant to give up old habits and routines, even with the promise that what follows may well be more fun and satisfying than what came before; and can be thrown considerably off course when something goes wrong. Sometimes such differences in temperament can be seen in babies. Some are just sunnier naturally, less irritable, and more easygoing than others, and these qualities can persist throughout life.

Happily, though, research also suggests that resiliency can be taught. All people—and of course that includes college students—can learn strategies to better respond to change and adversity.

What are the essentials one needs to know to become more resilient?

First and foremost, a person needs to feel that he or she is acknowledged and valued by others. We know from people who have experienced emotional trauma that the ones who feel heard and understood recover more easily. Resilient people view themselves as valued by others, which adds to their sense of competence and helps them manage well in a changing world.

How can we apply these lessons to the stresses of college?

Students who create a network of relationships with people who care about them tend to adapt better and bounce back more easily after setbacks. So, during this time of transition, if you’re far from home, make sure to stay connected to family and friends from camp, temple youth group, and other places where you’ve experienced the feeling of belonging. Also, look into joining Jewish, socially conscious, or political organizations on campus where you’re likely to connect with people who will involve you in the cause and give you a sense of being needed and appreciated. Giving back through tikkun olam is a great reminder that each of us is unique and has a role to play in making the world better. And when you make new friends at school, a good way to feel a sense of home away from home is participating with them in familiar traditions and customs, such as celebrating Shabbat and other Jewish holidays. All of these choices will likely bring you into contact with supportive people who will listen, advise, and fortify your resilience.

Many students are stressed out because they feel they have to be perfect in how they look, what grades they get, how well they fit in, how athletic or talented they are, etc. Can Judaism offer them some guidance?

In Judaism, perfection isn’t even a possibility for human beings. Our biblical heroes are not flawless saints; they are individuals who encountered God and led our people forward even as they struggled with envy, feelings of incompetence, doubt, anger, and confusion. Moses, for example, felt insufficient to the task of leading the Israelites because of his speech impediment and lack of confidence in his ability to lead. Moses was imperfect, yet remains a heroic figure.

For college students, the quest for perfection can add to the risks associated with being away from home. Some students turn to addictive strategies to cope with stress and feelings of inadequacy: alcohol, drugs, binge-eating or drinking, self-mutilation, self-starvation, unhealthy sexual choices, extreme exercise, Internet 24/7, and the like.

How can Judaism help us avoid such self-destructive behavior?

Judaism teaches that each of us is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Each of us is of infinite value, placed on this Earth to serve a mission only we can fulfill. Sometimes, when we have no idea how else we might help ourselves, we attempt to ease emotional suffering by doing things that may ultimately harm our bodies. The key is to recognize that we and our bodies are deserving of infinite care and kindness, and to remember that there are positive and calming ways of coping with emotional turmoil.

Of course, there are times you may not even know what it is you’re feeling and why you’re feeling it.

So what do you do if you don’t know what’s bothering you?

The first thing to do is talk about it with someone you trust, because as you speak you are likely to discover the real sources of distress and therefore be able to figure out real remedies. For example, you might be feeling lost because of a romantic relationship or deep friendship that went sour and is now over. But after you speak for a while about this, you might realize your feelings are not just about the breakup, but also a reaction to a combination of factors, such as the homesickness and loneliness that people typically feel after they’ve invested their energies on one relationship at the exclusion of other possibilities in an unfamiliar place. Yes, this intense relationship is a loss, but once you make new friends and get involved in new activities, the loss will feel far less acute.

Or, for example, you might be thinking, “I’m an academic failure; I don’t have what it takes to make it at this school.” But after you speak for a while about how you’re doing in your various classes, you might realize that you’re upset about not being able to master just two courses, calculus and chemistry. Once you’ve identified the problem—that you’re struggling in courses requiring math skills—you can acknowledge that you are succeeding in other classes, and think about times in the past when you overcame a specific academic problem. You might talk to a parent, who could remind you that in elementary school you didn’t think you could learn your multiplication tables, but you did, with some additional help. From there, the logical next step would be to engage a math tutor on campus: a professor, a teaching assistant, someone at a learning center, or a fellow student. You might also choose not to take two courses requiring math skills in one semester.

There are three messages here: 1) discussing and thinking over a situation often clarifies what our real worry is and then how we might find relief; 2) the difficulty we’re dealing with now is not a predictor of how things will always be; and 3) almost always, we do have the ability to find the resources to assist us. None of us have to manage everything on our own, which is precisely what Judaism teaches.

How so?

Think back to that scene of Moses telling God he can’t speak for the Israelites because of his speech impediment. What’s God’s answer? God reminds Moses that he will not be alone, that God will accompany him to Pharaoh. God also tells Moses to request and seek help: “There is your brother Aaron the Levite…. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth…. Thus he shall serve as your spokesman.” God doesn’t try to convince Moses that he can do everything on his own or that Moses is a good speaker, but points to an alternative—Aaron can serve as Moses’ mouthpiece.

Moses does as God says and becomes an exemplar of resilience. Resilient people face their demons by connecting to sources of love and support and by seeking out trusted and knowledgeable others who can help them. For college students facing a tough situation, this may mean remembering and reconnecting to God, family, and friends; and consulting with RAs, rabbis and staff at Hillel or KESHER, and/or the counseling staff at the college’s health-service center.

Any other thoughts you’d like to offer to help manage stress at school?

I’ll leave you with these:

1. Get enough rest, eat nutritiously, and exercise at a healthy level. Eating a balanced diet (energy in) and exercising regularly (energy out) will make you feel healthier, and feeling good physically and emotionally go hand in hand. The rabbis think of food as tightly connected to the soul. Next time you’re grocery shopping, think of it as going on a spiritual mission!

2. Be open to trying out new, safe, and healthy ways of managing stress. Great choices are praying, practicing yoga or meditation, keeping a journal or writing poetry, drawing or painting, and playing a musical instrument. And do seek out another person who shares your enthusiasm for the activity to keep you both on track.

3. Reduce your fear and anxiety by openly talking about your fears with caring people. That’s one of the best ways of coping and coming up with solutions—and helps us remember that we’re not alone; our individual struggles are part of the human experience.

4. Get help when you need it. Call or meet with a relative, a peer counselor, a teacher, a rabbi, a professional from the student health service, a resident advisor, or someone else you trust; or visit the JED Foundation. This is especially important for students who are struggling with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, and other serious concerns. You can find the support, relief, and guidance that will diminish your suffering and help you get back on track.

5. Focus on keeping perspective and finding hope in the midst of a hard situation. When we have hope, we’re more resilient. And try to follow the strategies of resilient people—they tend to view difficult situations as temporary and limited in scope rather than as permanent and pervasive.

6. Seek out sources of inspiration for you, whether they’re personal stories, songs, poems, or prayers, such as Naomi Levy’s from Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration (Knopf: New York, 2002):

When I panic, God, teach me patience.
When I fear, teach me faith.
When I doubt myself, teach me confidence.
When I despair, teach me hope.
When I lose perspective, show me the way—
Back to love, back to life, back to You. Amen