College is a Mind and Body Experience - Part 1

Now that Michigan College Application Week is over, students will move to financial aid planning and selecting where they will go to college. This process can be stressful for students, which can adversely impact one's well-being. Stress is a state of strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. If unattended, stress pressures will worsen and eventually compromise a student's abilities in a multitude of ways. For example, stress can impact students in how they think (e.g., memory problems, constant worrying, poor decision-making), how they feel (e.g., overwhelmed, irritable, depressed), how they act (e.g., drastic changes to eating and sleeping schedules, withdrawing, use of substances to cope), and how they experience their bodies (e.g., aches and pains, frequent colds).

If you work directly with students as a high school counselor or college adviser, take a moment to think about your students and how they have experienced stress in the past.

While the steps of college application, financial aid planning and preparing for college enrollment are similar for all students, the pressures associated with each of these steps will result in unequal and higher levels of stress response depending upon a student's individual circumstances. Students living with trauma are more likely to feel heightened levels of stress during any step of the college application. This includes but is not limited to: students who have experienced or currently are experiencing homelessness, are veterans with PTSD, grew up in extreme poverty, are navigating college applications without the guidance of a trusted adult who has known them for many years, and students whose childhood was marked by abuse and neglect and placement in foster care.

The link between stress and trauma is best understood as a continuum of functioning. At one end of the continuum is "healthy and normal" functioning where individuals express normal mood fluctuations and maintain normal levels of activity and routine. At the other end of the continuum is "severe and persistent functional impairment" where a student experiences panic attacks, excessive fatigue, or suicidal thoughts; and, often have a history that includes a clinical mental health diagnosis. While the number of students at the severe end of the stress-trauma continuum is small, the lessons we can learn from them about how students respond to stress are great.


Earlier I stated that stress is a state of strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. Trauma, in turn, is the case of people's bodies getting stuck in a physiological stress response. In other words, stress and trauma both are sensory or bodily experiences. While Bessel van der Kolk, noted psychiatrist and researcher in the area of post-traumatic stress, points out the conventional treatment for traumatic stress is "talk therapy," or cognitive approaches, a more direct response to help students process a stress response is a sensory or bodily-based approach.

How do we help students process stress in this way? Stay tuned for Part 2 where we discuss the difference between a cognitive and sensory response.

Yvonne casual 399x600Guest Author: Yvonne Unrau, Ph.D. Professor of Social Work and Director of the Center for Fostering Success at Western Michigan University

Posted: November 18, 2014

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