Predicament of the student community in a pandemic: Can positive psychology help?
Five months ago, students all across India were bustling about in their respective academic institutes, walking about in groups, their laughter, chatter and murmurs resounding in the corridors. They sat in classes, some genuinely interested, some pretending to listen and some not paying any attention! The days went on: more classes, more interesting stories to share and more memories made to take back home. But suddenly, everything changed. One fine day, they did not have to attend school or college anymore because a viral pandemic wreaked havoc throughout the world. Some children were in the middle of taking examinations when everything came to a standstill. We moved from a world of socialization into a world of social distancing almost overnight. At first, it may have seemed to students like a welcome break from the hectic routine and monotony, but as it became evident that there was no knowing how long this would last uncertainty filled the air, and with it came anxiety.
Before understanding the problems of the student community, we need to understand who this community is comprised of. There are the neurotypicals or the so-called normal individuals; then there are individuals with disabilities of a physiological or neuro-psychological kind, and then there are individuals with purely psychological problems such as anxiety or depression. Each type of individual presents with a different set of problems. The restrictions brought on by the pandemic would not affect everyone in the same manner: a child with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is affected very differently from a child who lives in an abusive home to whom their school was a safe haven. Similarly, a ‘normal’ college student is affected very differently from a student with say, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). However, for the ease of making this article inclusive and more generalized, we can take up a few common problems every student is facing as an effect of the pandemic.
1. Feeling trapped at home
As students, we often don’t realize the quality of freedom we get. It is so easy to be independent and make our own choices when the rest of our family is not around. But this pandemic has led to everyone having to stay home and therefore ensure one’s own safety and the safety of their loved ones. The freedom to choose to leave home or to stay home is gone. This change was abrupt and with no forewarning. This situation can easily lead to the sensation of being trapped. Waking up every day and seeing the same four walls and the same few faces can have a devastating effect on mental health. Going to an academic institution is not just about education or learning, it is about meeting friends and teachers. It gives a sense of respite and rejuvenation, however in the current state of affairs, it may seem like we have been robbed off of this happiness and freedom. These feelings and thoughts may lead to further negative sensations like feeling out of control or feeling helpless and hopeless. Having to constantly be at home without the opportunity for a change of location can be very emotionally debilitating for all.
2. The Monotony
Life before the lockdown or the stay-home order came with a routine which comprised of many different activities that took place in many different locations. After the stay-home order was imposed, a new routine had to be made. However, this time, everything was to take place inside the same few rooms. Activities such as shopping or watching a movie had to be done online now, not from the comfort point-of-view, but as a compulsion or imperative. Many schools and colleges took the initiative to hold online classes to keep the students engaged. However, those were to happen at home. Internships and tuitions were held online. In short, all our activities moved to an online platform. Which basically means, all the time was spent either at a desk or in bed and in front of some form an electronic gadget. Hence, a totally unprecedented monotony set in as days turned into months. Students were hardly experiencing anything new. Sure, the learning did not stop but not being around classmates during class can be a very sad affair. Monotony also often leads to feelings of sadness and hopelessness because the idea that things may change seems to be diminished.
3. Online classes
A major concern for most students and educational institutions was “Can online classes be held at all?” because it cannot be taken for granted that every student has access to a computer, smartphone or to the internet. Online classes can be a source of anxiety and anger for most students because there is no promise that their internet connection will not falter. They might not be able to attend class for no fault of their own or they might not be able to submit an assignment because of an unfortunate app-crashing incident. Online classes may also be a source of despair because although the teacher is teaching and the student is listening, there is no emotional exchange between the teacher and the students or among the classmates. Learning was always meant to be fun and maybe for some learning has become drab and uninteresting because of the shift to the online modality.
4. Examinations and graduation
Probably the biggest source of debate during these last few months has been board/college/university examinations, how to conduct them and whether to conduct them at all. It is all very well, wanting to test a student’s merit but during a time like this, it becomes a little unjust as it is very difficult for students to focus on studies. During a time of anxiety about physical health, forcing students to prepare for examinations puts a lot of pressure on their mental health and may cause excess anxiety, panic attacks or even depression. Many students even worried themselves sick to a point of a breakdown wondering whether they would have to take exams, whether they would be graduating, so on and so forth. Many institutions decided on conducting online examinations and that in itself is a major challenge because of all the appliance-related and internet-related predicament that surround students anyway. It is therefore safe to say that exam related anxiety has taken a major toll on the mental health of students.5. Career
This is a very pertinent area of worry for students in the final year of college or even school. All academic institutes have delayed the admission process mainly because results had not been declared. Competitive examinations could not be held. Even when certain results were declared they were on an averaging basis as many of the examinations could not be held. A few college examinations have still not been held. Therefore, a common area of crisis for the students is their career, future prospects and professional life. Many students may have been feeling a sense of powerlessness over their own lives because of the difficulties related to joining any higher studies course. They may be feeling that 2020 is a year that sets them back. Many students were ready to venture into the professional world and compete in the job market, however that scenario is also not very lucrative at the moment. Therefore, there is a general feeling of downheartedness and dejection over the career prospects. Facing a pandemic in itself is hard. It is a situation without precedence in our lifetimes. Education and career-related tribulations make life harder for the youngsters. However, there is always a way to deal with one’s negative thoughts and emotions. Positive Psychology is one branch of psychology of which certain tenets can be used to help oneself out in times of distress. Martin Seligman in 1998 formed this school and he laid emphasis on the concept of a ‘good life’. Positive psychology deals with mental health and well-being as opposed to focusing upon only mental illness. It tries to understand what makes life happy and meaningful.
In 2011, Martin Seligman proposed his theory of Well-Being: The PERMA Model, where he described the 5 main building blocks of a good and meaningful life as Positive feelings, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments. These five factors may also help in dealing with the stress and unhappiness that the student community is facing.
i. Positive feelings
It is very important to find one happy moment each day or something that one can be grateful for. Gratitude is a very important aspect of positive psychology. It may be hard to find something to be grateful about every day, but it is not impossible. Find something that made you feel good, grateful or made you happy every day and put it into a jar or a journal. Doing this regularly can help in building a more positive outlook in life. Or even if it doesn’t, it would still give you a moment of pleasantness and bliss every day and break the chain of feeling sad and dejected for a while. Consciously cultivating gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, empathy, etc. can genuinely help to bring about more positive feelings and build resilience too.
Engaging in any one activity a day which makes you happy is very helpful in turning a sad day into a rather happy one. The engaging task need not be very impressive. It needs to be one that gives you comfort or makes you feel relaxed. It may be creative, it may be some form of self-care, it may be cultivating a new hobby or honing an old one but engaging oneself in a pleasure-giving activity is very crucial. It helps to build self-confidence and to feel more in control of one’s thoughts and emotions.iii. Relationships
The pandemic was a time that helped some people connect, while it tore apart many relationships. Reaching out and connecting with trusted friends and family members lessens the burden that one is bearing. Relationships are a necessary medium to feel better during a hard time. Speaking about one’s problems will not make the problems disappear but will definitely help in feeling emotionally lighter and somewhat loved and cared for. Usually, during hard times, people tend to curl up into a ball and move away from others, but this results in loneliness which makes recovering from the negative feelings doubly harder. Seeking out social support is important, especially during a shared crisis like this pandemic is.
It is very important to find meaning in life to help one feel more optimistic. Since the pandemic has provided us with more spare time, one could use it for some self-reflection. Besides introspection, meditation, prayer, spirituality, social service and creativity, to name a few, can help in finding a meaning or a purpose to one’s life. Not only will finding meaning help you feel more energized and positive, it will make you feel like there is something you can give back or pay forward.
It might be hard to accomplish bigger tasks during the pandemic situation, however, smaller tasks can easily be pursued and completed. Online workshops, finding a new hobby or challenging oneself to do something new can all have an additive effect on the total well-being of the person. Again, if you don’t feel like doing something new, looking back on prior achievements can help in building self-confidence. It can be a great motivating factor in pursuing further endeavors.
In conclusion, it is important to find positivity in one’s life. However, it is equally important to realize that there is a fine line between healthy positivity and toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is promoting happiness while negating sadness or dismissing negative feelings as unreal. However, negative feelings such as anger, resentment, sadness, anxiety, jealousy, hatred are as real and as human as happiness, forgiveness, love, kindness, etc. and it is normal to feel this entire range of emotions. Therefore, healthy positivity is realizing that things will be bad sometimes, that you will feel sad or angry or anxious at times and that life can be ugly too, but it is not the end. Life is not about feeling joy all the time, it is about finding something that makes us feel hopeful and content, so we have something to look forward to and carry on.