Sit. Stay. Practice.

 

Elizabeth Cracco, Ph.D.
Director Counseling and Mental Health Services

Typically the pace of business at Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) is “go go go.”
Shuttling about campus managing matters internal and external to our office it is pretty much life on the run, with rare moments of stillness. So, I am not sure why I was so surprised by the struggle I had to manage myself through what turned out to be a 3 hour talk by the well known author and Buddhist Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. Resisting urges to check my cell phone and breathing through the slight wave of panic when Sister so and so was on her 6th verse of a song about a river in Vietnam. This was all very uncomfortable. Finally at about the one hour mark I let go.
And a funny thing happened. I survived. I relaxed. I was O.K.
Similarly, many students coming to campus (either for the first time or even returning students) are challenged by a radical shift in environment, pace, and expectations. These concerns are reflected in the already hundreds of calls to CMHS this year where anxiety is the most frequent presenting concern. Perhaps more than uncertainty about their academic abilities (we know we have just admitted the most academically talented class in the history of the institution), or their futures, I believe students are uncertain about their ability to tolerate and move through
discomfort.

Inexperienced Waiters

In a generation of instant answers (thank you Google) our tolerance for waiting is pretty low, and perhaps even more so for this generation. Let’s face it. At least our generation had some forced practice in delayed gratification. When I went to college we had a hall phone (no cell or texting 247), and my romantic other at that time went to West Point. I’m pretty sure it was a month before the allotted 10 minutes of phone time! Remember when we thought it a great luxury to be able to rent movies (no instant view)! I remember graduate school and combing through the stacks, standing at the photocopier for hours (not full PDF’s instantly available).
I am not wishing to return to the stacks, but for the vast majority of students today, getting comfortable at college
requires an unfamiliar amount of wait time and not a small amount of discomfort.

Shooting Ourselves With The Second Arrow Of Suffering

Practitioners of Cognitive Behavioral Psychology have known for years that anxiety is not so much a product of direct stressors, but more so of our associated thoughts about those stressors. First year students are infamous for engaging in classic cognitive distortions. If you are on the other side of the distressed phone call you are familiar with catastrophizing (with a bit of all or nothing thinking mixed in for good measure) which goes something like this: “I can’t find anyone to go to lunch with”. “EVERYONE else has someone to go to lunch with.” “I will always eat alone.” “I am NEVER going to make friends here.” And then the globalized thoughts that REALLY increase risk for negative psychological outcomes, “I am no good. I am not as good as. I am bad.” Thich Nhat Hanh referred to this as the second arrow of suffering. In other words we have the original arrow eating lunch alone is not really that fun and then we invite the more painful second arrow by rehashing and expanding the first event in our minds.
(As a side note, suffering is a word used often in this literature, and therefore I employ it in this article, but you may prefer to substitute with words such as distress or discomfort.)

East Meets West

So perhaps Thich Nhat Hanh and other practitioners of Buddhist psychology have something to offer these stressed
out Huskies as we consider the ways in which controlling thoughts may alleviate suffering. (By the way, did you see the study released recently reporting that Hartford was the 5th most stressed out city in the nation?!! That stresses me out!) I present these here with two goals in mind. First, that these may apply to any distress you and/or your student may experience in the transition back to school, and second to highlight the programs and services at CMHS that utilize these basic concepts to assist your student in difficult times. That said, here is what I took away from my three hours on a hard wooden bench that I think may apply
  • Sit
  • Breathe
  • Practice
  • Learn how to suffer well: Handling strong emotions

Sit, Breathe

The cutting edge of psychological research tells us that attempting to talk through or rationalize through anxiety is largely ineffective, which is important to know if you are the person on the other end of the cell phone. When we are anxious the more primitive limbic system is in “fired up mode” which triggers those logical and rational parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex) to go off line fascinating stuff that we don’t have time to dive into here. Suffice it to say that research suggests using the body to calm the mind is much more effective than using the mind to calm to the mind. For Buddhist Monks this apparently involves lots of sitting, chanting and breathing, which works for many college students as well. When I teach First Year Experience classes, the meditation segment regularly gets the most positive reviews, and students express surprise that they can willfully shift their state of mind. For others, movement is a more effective pathway. At CMHS we encourage and/or offer all of these modalities. Depending on what students enjoy, walks, runs, Zumba classes, martial arts clubs, are all among regular referral recommendations. In addition, CMHS continues to offer Yoga Based Stress Reduction Group, Daily Stress Management Clinics, Experiential Therapy Group, and on line MP3 Guided Meditations, all of which utilize the power of breathe and/or movement to help students manage emotions.
To read more about these services explore our website counseling.uconn.edu

The Benefit Of Practice

Practice is an opportunity to get familiar with how things go and what to expect with the purpose of
anticipating challenges and figuring better ways of navigating.
Whether it is a complex piece of music, or a cross country race course, taking on a new challenge is always painful at first, but typically gets easier with time. And even when we have experienced past competence, continual practice is needed even in breathing! Two years ago the CMHS staff dedicated ourselves to weekly meditation practice, and I could much more easily slow down and calm down. I am out of shape in this department and need to return to practice. We have to keep in mind that our new students may have minimal practice in independent living and adjusting to new environments. Without the benefit of experience they may be less familiar with the ebb and flow of distress. Current distress is not necessarily understood to be relative or temporary by late adolescents.

Learn To Suffer Well

Thich Nhat Hanh made the salient point that suffering is unavoidable.
I wonder if our students know this or more importantly whether they (or we) accept it. Denial and resistance leave us ill prepared for challenging times. For example, how many of you have post Irene skills and equipment and how many of you in denial may be buddying up to your neighbors who practice acceptance during the next weather event?
Acceptance allows us to better anticipate and handle the strong emotions that come with suffering. We wish it were not so but so it is. At CMHS our work in general begins at a point of accepting suffering. When a student calls in distress, we do not argue with their distress. We absolutely DO move from there to coping.
Services such as our Coping Skills Group specifically coach students in an array of strategies for coping with emotional challenges and building distress tolerance.

Finally, a large part of our work at CMHS is assisting the campus community in distinguishing discomfort from crisis. We must remain vigilant in our message that sitting through discomfort does not mean suffering alone. We are intentional and active in efforts to create therapeutic connections through our vibrant Group program, through our student organization Active Minds, and through outreach efforts to connect to families and faculty. If you have concerns or questions about your student’s adjustment to college, please reach out by calling us at 860-486-4705 and one of our staff members will be happy to consult!
And until then, breathe and practice!