So, here we are in 2020, and in the past few months we have seen great despair across our country as communities and families have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the start of this pandemic, media alerts of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic shattered the safety of billions of people around the world. This triggered state-dependent, survival functioning behaviors such as anxiety shopping (e.g., hoarding food and toilet paper, etc.). Thus, the strain and disruption that COVID-19 has caused our nation is undisputable.
Recently, however, that strain has been further amplified by the tragedy in Minneapolis when George Floyd died by asphyxiation while in police custody, causing the subsequent unrest across the country. How are these traumatic events affecting our students?
While it is true that school can increase the amount of stress and anxiety in a student’s life, it is also true that students may be dealing with anxieties outside of the school setting. Besides having to balance course loads, students can also be struggling with employment issues or work-related stressors and social and family concerns. On top of that, the media floods the news with warnings of mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters, adding to students’ anxiety. This can result in what is known as emotional contagion, which is the psychological occurrence of experiencing other people’s emotions and related behaviors.
We may have experienced this phenomenon from being around someone anxious or depressed, only to notice later that our anxiety levels are increasing or our energy levels are being sapped. However, emotional contagion can happen at a large societal or global scale, as we have seen with COVID-19 and the tragedy in Minneapolis.
Students only need to turn on the TV or go online to read about traumatic events that shake their sense of security and personal safety. The flooding of emotions can interfere with students’ ability to learn and thrive and perform academically. For example, the human brain functions in a hierarchy. The higher thinking parts of the brain, called the neocortex, function at optimal levels only when subcortical (lower) parts of the brain are not in high alert, attending to internal or environmental threats or stressors. Since the basic needs of safety and security are being met, activity in the brain can be allocated to higher brain functions such as reflective and abstract thinking required for learning math and other college subjects.
However, if students are reporting emotional stressors such as feeling overwhelmed with everything they have to do, “overwhelming anxiety,” sadness, depression or loneliness, the brain will naturally divert activity (energy) from the neocortex (higher brain functions) to more subcortical (lower) or primitive parts of the brain that modulate and attend to distressing emotions. The shift in activity (decreased neocortical activity) to more primitive areas of the brain leads to a reduction in abstract thinking, reflective thinking, problem solving, and critical thinking skills, which are essential to learning academic subjects found in college.
How can this influence academic performance? A survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at students who received mostly Ds and Fs. About 1 out of 2 reported feeling sad and hopeless and 1 out of 5 attempted suicide.16 Other studies have also shown a connection with mental health concerns such as depression and suicidal thoughts and a decline in academic performance, including lower grade point average.
Solution to the Problem
Of course, I’m not suggesting that students isolate themselves on a deserted island (by avoiding people and media) or ignore reasonable, global warnings. In fact, isolation would be counterproductive, since interpersonal connection and support are key to helping our bodies deal with stress. The goal is to learn ways to prevent emotional contagion, such as:
· Learning to relax your body as you listen to highly emotionally charged information
· Staying positive (if appropriate, smiling can help)
· Trying a news fast. Once you are informed of the situation, take a break from additional news or media
· Surrounding yourself with things that make you happy
· Finding meaning by reflecting and being grateful for all experiences, both positive and negative
This will help prevent the shifting of activity (decreased neocortical activity) to more primitive areas of the brain. As a result, we can access neocortical functioning such as reasoning, abstract thinking, and reflection to best address any concerns that might be directly threatening our safety.