Stanford psychologists and health professionals offer advice to freshmen

Sept. 19, 2014, 12:00 p.m.

For any incoming freshmen at any college, the first term is a major transition – and also a major challenge. Many students experience isolation, unhappiness, and most painfully, the feeling that other students are simply better than they are. At Stanford, this also known as the infamous “duck syndrome”: the illusion of a calm external appearance, with a frantic private work ethic similar to a duck’s treading feet hidden underwater.

Research done by Stanford psychologists and health professionals offers potentially comforting advice – these experiences are far more widespread than a student might expect.

The Daily talked to various Stanford psychologists to hear what they had to say about the freshman transition as well as basic steps that students can take to significantly increase the chance of a positive transition.


Mindset matters

Something as basic as the frame through which one views his or her experience can have a significant impact on the college transition and beyond.

Alia Crum, assistant professor of psychology, has done a number of studies investigating the idea of stress mindset – whether an individual views stress as something toxic to his or her well-being or as something that can enable one to deal with challenges in an optimal fashion.

Although Crum does not deny that stress can have negative effects, the optimal “stress-is-enhancing” mindset is built upon research demonstrating that stress can help strengthen the body, allow for increased memory and mental function, and can allow those who experience it to become better people. Crum has helped to demonstrate that stress mindset is a meaningful variable distinct from other elements of an individual’s life.

“Even controlling for how much stress you have and what you’re doing to kind of manage the stress,” Crum said. “Your beliefs about stress predict your health and well-being over and above those things.”

Crum has also helped to show that stress mindset can be easily changed, and that it can be demonstrated through physiological measurements. In a study done with university students in a stressful situation, a positive stress mindset was shown to promote healthy regulation of cortisol, a hormone critical in controlling the fight-or-flight response.


We create what we fear

The freshman transition is most likely especially difficult at Stanford as a result of the high level of performance associated with the school, according to Sarah Meyer, manager of operations for the advising branch of the BeWell@Stanford wellness program.

“I think with students here, there’s the additional expectation and – I don’t want to say stigma, but just the heaviness that surrounds the name, the gravitas, maybe, that surrounds the name of Stanford,” Meyer said.

Meyer has several pieces of advice for incoming students. For one, Meyer encourages students to ask themselves simple questions like “What makes me happy? What calms me? What makes me feel most like myself?” She recommends students should integrate an answer to those questions into their day, so as to provide a familiar footing for this new part of their lives.

Based on her work with adults, Meyer notes that we tend to create what we fear. Individuals often construct vivid fantasies of potential failures, which may spiral into self-fulfilling prophecies; a person afraid of damaging a romantic relationship through awkward behavior may well become so insecure as to ruin the relationship.

To counter this tendency, Meyer suggests that students should think about the future in terms of who they want to be and how they want to live. She finally stresses the importance of being in the moment; although our minds pull us in many directions, taking a deep breath can allow us to center ourselves in the present.


Flipping a switch

The importance of an individual’s perspective has been also been investigated by professors Greg Walton and Geoff Cohen, who were looking at minority students stigmatized by negative stereotypes regarding intelligence.

Walton and Cohen designed a brief session in which new freshmen were assured that the difficulty of the transition was a struggle for many students, and due to the situation rather than their personal faults. These students were then asked to write and film a reminder of this fact for other students.

This simple session led to a dramatic increase in the academic performance, health and happiness of minority students compared to students who hadn’t received this encouragement. Ironically, at the end of college, only a small percent of students actually remembered the contents of the activity they had done that day.

“I often think about [the change in mentality] with the idea of flipping a switch,” said Shannon Brady, doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education who works with Walton and Cohen. “I think that there’s times where after we learn something, we really can’t imagine what the world was like before we learned it.”

Brady notes that this intervention is based on the idea of pluralistic ignorance – the false perception that an individual is the only one to be going through something when many people are going through it as well.

Brady encourages students to recognize that many of their private struggles, such as difficulty connecting with other students, are shared by many of their peers. The challenges associated with the transition lessen over time for most students, according to Brady; students should recognize that they will likely find friends, academic habits and extracurricular satisfaction as the college experience unfolds.


The suppression paradox

The concept of pluralistic ignorance is highly relevant to the work of psychology professor James Gross. According to Gross, students arriving at Stanford are suddenly exposed to a high-intensity environment unlike their previous experiences and tend to feel like impostors.

“[It is common that] each person will come in thinking that they’re the only person, in fact, who may be stressed and feeling out of their league,” Gross said. “But the truth is that many, many, if not most people who are coming in to Stanford are having just that reaction.”

Gross has investigated the prevalence and consequences of emotional suppression: hiding one’s emotions despite feeling those emotions inside one’s self. Gross oversaw a series of studies that demonstrated that people are more likely to deal with negative events alone, and conceal them afterward, than they would with positive events.

Despite knowing that they themselves were hiding negative experiences, many students did not think that others were doing the same; students consistently underestimated how many college peers were going through difficult experiences and often overestimated the number of peers having positive experiences. According to Gross, this contributes to the prevalence of “duck syndrome” at Stanford.

“Everyone is mutually freaked out by everybody else [and] doesn’t show it, and I think just getting that basic fact out there is hugely important,” Gross said.

Gross also conducted a study with the Class of 2004 that displayed the harmful effects of emotional suppression. Looking at evaluations in the summer and fall of their freshman year, students who suppressed more had less satisfying social lives, less support from parents and friends and felt less close to others. Ironically, despite suppression presumably motivated by social norms, a student’s suppression had nothing to do with how much they were liked by other students.


Hope and help

Together, the work done by these researchers paints a paradoxical but ultimately hopeful picture of the freshman transition: students go through difficult times that they often keep to themselves, falsely giving the impression to others that their lives are cheerful and free of strife. The more one participates in this, the more depressed one feels.

However, staying centered in the moment and being open about one’s own emotions leads to a greater chance of happiness. Understanding the universal nature of transition difficulties is essential; just by knowing that everyone is going through these experiences, the burden is shared rather than taken alone. Finally, by thinking of stress as a spark rather than a stumbling block, one will be best equipped to deal with encountered adversities.

“In the end, we only get stressed about things that we care about, part and parcel with the definition of stress. And any great movement then involves some stress,” Crum said. “So if you’re denying the fact that you’re stressed, you’re also denying the fact that there’s real challenge and opportunity in being an undergrad at Stanford.”


Contact Skylar Cohen at skylarc ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.

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