How College Students Cope with Traumatic Events

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.

Reference:
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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  • Karie

    Karie

    June 13th, 2012 at 3:28 PM

    From my own past experience I did not find college to really be all that stressful. I mean, maybe I was a little more focused and driven than some of your average college students, but it just wasn’t overwhelming and difficult for me like it was for a lot of my peers. But my parents and high school teachers I think had done a great job at getting me prepared for what the classes and the environment was going to be like so I did not experience that overwhelming culture shock that so many college freshmen deal with. It kind of became like second nature pretty quickly for me. Maybe if more students were as well prepared ahead of time as I was then there would not be all of the stress and anxiety that you hear about so many dealing with.

  • Ben D

    Ben D

    June 13th, 2012 at 5:17 PM

    The abilty to be flexible and to cope has to come from the home, and it is going to be even more advantageous to have become this way before even entering college.
    But this can be supplemented by good programming on behalf of the colleges too. The faculty and staff have to get involved in the lives of their students to make sure that they are able to handle the events that college can set upon them. They can’t take a sit back and see kind of attitude. The colleges have to be more proactive and provide students with resources that will help them deal.

  • Shay

    Shay

    June 14th, 2012 at 5:17 AM

    Well I don’t know about the rest of you but I know how I dealt with trauma when I was in college- I drank- and I think that’s how most other college students will handle that too. I’m not saying it is the right thing to do, but when you are that age, that’s what feels right and easy.

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