Focus is the key to flexible coping for college students who experience traumatic events, says Isaac R. Galatzer-Levy, Ph.D., of the PTSD Research Program at NYU School of Medicine, and author of a recent study. Galatzer-Levy evaluated the coping flexibility of college students as they progressed throughout their 4 years of higher education. He chose this time in the participants’ lives because it represents a significant life transition. College students experience many life stressors that are unfamiliar to them. Students attending universities often have academic, financial, and emotional strains that they did not face during their early adolescence. Additionally, exposure to alcohol, drugs, and sexual encounters can cause additional traumas in the form of arrests, illnesses, violence, and even deaths.
To understand how students’ coping strategies develop over the course of their college careers, Galatzer-Levy followed 155 college students from their freshman year until graduation. He found that over half of the students (50.6%) experienced a potentially traumatic event (PTE) during their first year in college. The results also revealed different classifications of students, specifically, high distress and low distress. Galatzer-Levy discovered that the low-distress students were better able to cope with PTEs than the high-distress students because of their ability to focus. Galatzer-Levy said, “Our results indicate that the ability to focus attention on distressing material and the ability to focus attention away from that same material aided adaptation in meaningful ways.”
In particular, Galatzer-Levy found that the students that exhibited the ability to focus on the trauma and also focus on forward progress were the most likely to have flexible and adaptive coping strategies that aided in their well-being and decreased their overall stress. This suggests that one way in which college students can diminish their psychological distress is to strengthen their capacity to flexibly cope by focusing on the present and future conditions relating to the traumatic event.
Galatzer-Levy, I. R., Burton, C. L., Bonanno, G. A. (2012). Coping flexibility, potentially traumatic life events, and resilience: A prospective study of college student adjustment. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 31.6, 542-567.
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