Coping with the Unexpected
Being away at college can feel like being on a desert island – even though students are surrounded by resources and people, when unexpected problems arise, one can feel all alone and unprepared.
Signs and Symptoms
The 'unexpected' or crisis at home can take many forms: a change in financial support, a natural disaster, an illness or death of a loved one, etc. Common emotional reactions include panic, shock, and depression. Besides these emotional reactions you may also experience physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, or back pain, as well as behavioral changes including:
- Changes in sleep (either difficulty sleep or difficulty getting out of bed)
- Changes in appetite/eating (overeating or loss of appetite)
- Loss of motivation/concentration
A Balancing Act
We all have a set of coping strategies to help us manage life stressors, and usually these strategies are adequate. Imagine putting all of your stressors, (academic, relationship, financial, etc) on one side of a balance and all your stress resources (friends, family, spiritual community, etc) on the other. For the most part we have enough stress resources to help us manage the day-to-day stressors in our lives. When the unexpected happens, however, our lives can get unbalanced, either by losing access to our stress resources or by having added stressors. During a breakup, for example, students often feel that they have lost an important coping mechanism, since they can no longer lean on their partner for support.
Managing Unexpected Events
There are 3 components to managing unexpected events: Keeping things in perspective, Problem-solving, and Connecting or Reconnecting with stress resources.
Perspective-Taking: Keeping things in perspective is often one of the hardest but most necessary strategies to use. When the unexpected happens, it is not unusual to focus on how disruptive this is and we can easily overreact. It is important to give yourself a few minutes to step back and see this development in the bigger picture. This can help to clarify the impact of the unexpected event, to identify possible avenues to take, and to start to develop the beginnings of a gameplan.
Problem-Solving: While unexpected events can disrupt our everyday functioning, the negative impact is compounded when we are paralyzed by unanticipated stressors. Students sometimes talk of feeling that they are “spinning their wheels” because they feel keyed up but don’t know what steps to take, which amplifies feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Taking time to identify small steps to just begin the problem-solving process can be enough to break the cycle.
Increasing Stress Resources: We need access to a wide range of resources in order to best meet the demands of daily stressors; these include the physical (adequate diet, sleep and exercise), emotional (support from family and friends), psychological (hobbies and activities that we find pleasurable and relaxing), and spiritual (church groups, religious rituals, immersing oneself in nature). The paradox of unexpected stressors is that we often pull away from stress resources just when we need them most. For example, we think family or friends don’t want to see us unhappy, we think we don’t have time to sleep, exercise or relax, or we think others can’t understand.
Increasing stress resources can mean reconnecting with activities, people or rituals that may have dropped out of your life. On the other hand, increasing resources can also mean adding in or developing new activities, people or rituals. In addition to your personal resources, the University of Oregon has several offices that provide services to help deal with the unexpected:
University Counseling and Testing Center
Student Health Center
Dean of Students Office
Office of Financial Aid
Office of Undergraduate Academic Advising