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Stress is Good: embracing stress, not fighting it

May 29, 2018 Leave a comment

Stress-can-actually-be-good-for-me-YAY-300x300We talk a lot about stress as something negative, something to be avoided.  Students tell me all the time how “stressed” they are as if it is something entirely negative.  The reality is that often stress is an appropriate response to a situation.  A student should feel stress, particularly when going into an exam.  If you do not have stress, I would be even more concerned.

Stress tends to have the impact that you expect it to have.  If you believe your stress is harmful it is more likely to be harmful and if you believe your stress is a resource we can use it to activate the energy and focus we need to overcome challenges.

Stress is not something that happens to us, instead, think of it as something that happens within us.  It is a subtle distinction, but if we think of it as something internal rather than external being forced upon us, we feel a greater sense of control and ownership over how we use it.   Dr. Kelly McGonigal, an expert in the field of “science help,” recommends that we do not attempt to directly fight the physiological responses that we have to stress, but instead subtly reframe it in a way that is positive.  Thus, instead of trying to calm ourselves down, we should see the surge of adrenaline, energy, etc that often comes with a stressful situation as an indication of excitement.  Indeed, at times of stress, our bodies and minds are in a state of excitement.  While it may feel unreasonable to convince yourself in those moments to be calm, it is not unreasonable to convince yourself to view your emotional and physiological response as excitement.

Further, it is important to remind ourselves that stress is fundamentally linked with what we care about and what we value.  If we view the stress we encounter in each day as a part of eudaimonic well-being, then we will be have the courage and resilience to grow from stress and realise its critical role in self-realization.  (Eudaimonic wellbeing is an alternative to hedonic happiness; it focusses more on human flourishing including self-realization, values, and purpose and less on the pursuit of pleasure that is associated more with hedonism.)

We can use this perspective on a daily basis when dealing with the inevitable stress that is associated with doing a university degree.  By reframing our thoughts on stress and seeing stress as something we can harness and use to our advantage rather than something that is happening to us and is innately negative, we will be able to help alleviate some of the more destructive consequences that the negative view of stress has on our academic, physical and psychological well-being.

The reality is, stress is an essential part of a fulfilling and productive life.  If we had no stress, we would not have the pressure and motivation to get up and do anything.  Stress is what gets us going, it is what helps us be energetic and engaged at the right moments.  The goal should not be to eliminate stress, but to get better at interpreting stress as a productive tool.

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What you seek you will find

March 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Broaden and Build Theory

What you seek you will find – If you are looking for problems you will find them.  If you are looking for positives you will find them.

I see every day the instant impact that positivity or negativity has on individual and collective outcomes and trajectory.  I frequently coach my students to frame goals as something they want to achieve rather than something that they are hoping to avoid. For example: “I hope I master this course content and get a good grade” vs.  “I hope I don’t fail.”

By focusing on the positive you can feel your entire body change.  A student when talking about possibilities tends to sit up more, make more eye contact, smile more, and  has a visible energy.  That same student when talking about his/her fears becomes not just mentally but also physically closed off.  He/she will slump down more in the chair, has a harder time making eye contact, sometimes I even see nervous twitching like legs shaking etc.

Dr. Frederickson talks about the amazing impact of positive thoughts in her Broaden and Build theory.  This theory illuminates exactly what I have witnessed in others and what I feel in myself when faced with a challenge.

In order to ensure that you are supporting a work/study environment that promotes creativity and innovation, it is important to work hard to protect and encourage positive emotion and perspectives.  One way that I do this is ensuring that when we are working as a team on resolving a problem or improving a service, that we focus first on un-analysed idea generation.  By protecting the brainstorming process from the negative emotion that can result from instant analysis, we are helping people to feel safe in sharing ideas, broadening the thoughts and actions that we will consider, and generating an upward spiral of energy and creativity that is more likely to result in multiple good options.

I recognise that, particularly in a university setting, there can be a strong desire to analyse and critique everything as soon as it is put on the table.  However, if the desire to point out flaws, impracticality, budgetary constraints, etc. can be delayed until a second stage of consideration, then you are allowing for a cross pollination of ideas, and for people to feel open to sharing. You can reassure all involved that we will get to the analysis stage; we can look at all the data points you like, but just not yet.  Furthermore, this focus on the positive not only assists in the short term idea generation and problem solving, but also ensures that as a team we have longer term success, well-being and resilience.

Can you think of a time when you were sitting in a meeting and you or someone else had an idea that was instantly shut down?  “Well we tried that last year and it didn’t work” . . . “We don’t have the budget for that” . . . “There is no way the administration will approve that” . . . . How did you feel?

Neuroplasticity

February 12, 2018 Leave a comment

nNeuroplasticitynoun

mass noun

  • The ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury.

The idea that our minds are not just set, unchangeable, static, makes so much feel possible.  I have grown up in a world that encourages us to believe that talents and abilities are innate, that we are “gifted” or “a natural”.  Further, if we have to work too hard at something it is an indication that we are not naturally gifted in that area and therefore are unlikely to every become really good at it.

Josh Waitzkin states, “The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability we will be brittle in the face of adversity.”  I agree entirely with this statement and see it play out on a daily basis with the students that I council.  If we believe that struggle and effort are indicative of inability, then we will give up when things get hard.  Instead, if we believe as Rick Hanson asserts, that “Failure is the most essential step to success” then we will be able to embrace adversity as a necessary part of growth.

Furthermore, if we use our mind to change our brain, to change our mind for the better, then we will be able to harness our full potential and become resilient when we face challenges.  Hanson, refers to this sort of thinking as self-directed neuroplasticity.  This concept feels very liberating and empowering to me as it allows us to defy what seems to come naturally and instead to master, whatever we set our minds to – quite literally.

I have started talking with students about neuroplasticity.  It is interesting to observe how few of them have heard of this and how many of them hold onto the belief that struggle and effort are a sign of inability and weakness.  Having this dialogue with students I have seen an instant impact on their ability to look at the next week of exams: the struggles, the doubts, the hard-work that lies immediately in front of them, and to see it not as an exercise in futility and self-doubt, but instead as an opportunity to transform their brain, in meaningful ways.  To literally form new neural connections, and pathways, to impact the chemistry, structure and function of their brain in a way that sets them up better for learning, success, and resilience.

Nearly 70% of university students battle loneliness during school year, survey says

September 12, 2016 Leave a comment

National survey found students felt ‘very lonely’ and ‘so depressed that it was difficult to function’

By Teghan Beaudette, CBC News Posted: Sep 09, 2016 4:00 AM CTLast Updated: Sep 09, 2016 4:00 AM CT

A new study of Canadian university students found more than 66 per cent reported feeling “very lonely” in the past year.

A new study of Canadian university students found more than 66 per cent reported feeling “very lonely” in the past year.

As university classes start up this week, officials are already working hard to stave off a major contributor to poor mental health among students — loneliness.

A new study of Canadian university students found more than 66 per cent reported feeling “very lonely” in the past year.

And the problem was worse for female students, with nearly 70 per cent feeling very lonely at least once in the last year, compared with male students at 59 per cent.

More than 43,000 students were surveyed for the National College Health Assessment.

It found about 30 per cent of students “felt very lonely” within the last two weeks.

The study also found nearly half of the students surveyed felt debilitatingly depressed in the past year.

44 per cent said they “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

It’s something counsellors on Winnipeg campuses are well aware of.

David Ness, director of student counselling at the University of Manitoba, said he expects to see students struggling with loneliness come into the counselling centre every year.

“They’re on a campus with 30,000 students, several thousand employees — there’s all these people around, but you still feel lonely,” Ness said. “You have to have the individual skills to connect with someone.”

He said it seems to be worse after the Thanksgiving break, and he thinks the increasing social anxiety rate in youth is a contributor. He also thinks electronic devices are contributing to students having difficulty making connections.

Ness recommends joining student groups or reaching out to counsellors or student mentors.

‘You can feel really isolated’

At the University of Winnipeg, the student association is in the middle of a week of events to try to get students to connect before things get really busy.

“It’s still a scary place for a lot of students. Your first year coming here, you can feel really isolated,” said Kevin Settee, the student association’s president. “You’re in classrooms, then you have to go home and study, and you’ve got to do your research and write your papers, and usually a lot of that happens in isolation.… It can get lonely.”

Students from Northern Manitoba or out of province are often leaving their family and friends for the first time, Settee said.

David Ness, University of Manitoba

David Ness is the head of counselling services at the University of Manitoba. He says every year, students come in struggling with loneliness on campus. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

Some Canadian universities are tackling loneliness directly and not just as a contributor to poor mental health among students. The University of Calgary has developed resources for lonely students to let them know they’re not alone and where and how they can get help.

Jan Byrd, who directs the University of Winnipeg’s wellness and student life program, said the university has first year students move into dorms a week early to help them adjust.

“We do quite a few things differently to welcome our first year students and try and alleviate that loneliness,” said Byrd, pointing to activities like group movie nights, bowling, city tours and appointed peer mentors.

“We know that students are more likely to stay here and persist and do well in their studies if they have a network of supports, so we try and create many opportunities so people can make a network and make connections on campus so that things don’t hit a crisis,” she said.

The university doesn’t want to “medicalize loneliness” because, Byrd said, it’s a perfectly normal feeling, but “there are those students for whom things don’t get better.”

When that’s the case, the university has psychiatrists and nurses on staff to help.

Ness, Settee and Byrd all recommended joining student groups as a way to stave off loneliness. The U of W had more than 70 groups last year, and the University of Manitoba tracks extracurriculars and puts them on students’ transcripts as an incentive to participate.

Ness said counsellors can help students develop coping skills and figure out exactly what is causing them to feel bad.

Ness and Byrd said students should reach out before it reaches a crisis point.

In the past two years, the University of Winnipeg has increased counselling services on campus and changed the student health care program to include more money for mental health services.

Sustainable Motivation and the Power of Passion

February 26, 2016 2 comments

a-passion-your-life-passion-in-lifeMerriam-Webster dictionary defines Motivation as “a force or influence that causes someone to do something”. However, the power of motivation and its ability to be sustained is much more complex and slightly different for each individual. Sustainable motivation is one of the greatest factors in one’s ability to achieve a goal or complete a task. So, if you are finding yourself struggling to get something done, drained by the process, distracted, disinterested . . . it is likely because you have not tapped into a sustainable motivation for doing what you are doing.

I see brilliant and competent students struggle daily to achieve at even a moderate level. Part of the problem is that we often frame our motivation for doing something in extrinsic terms (coming from outside of us). I want to complete this degree because I have been told that it will most likely result in stable employment. I need to complete this course because it is a required course for this degree. I need to do well on this exam so that I can get a good grade in this course, so that I can complete my degree and gain employment. As Thomas Koballa states in his article “Framework for the Affective Domain in Science Education” “Students with performance goals often are preoccupied with gaining social status, pleasing teachers, and avoiding “extra” work.”

Wow, no wonder if those are your motivations that you are having trouble finding the energy to complete the tasks necessary. The trouble here is that what is referred to as the affective domain is not factoring in to this equation. The affective domain is that part of our existence that arises out of emotions, feelings, values, and opinions. It is the part of us that evokes passion; it is an intrinsic motivator. Rather than attempting to motivate yourself towards achieving an extrinsic goal, like doing well in a course so that you can progress in your degree, I suggest framing your goals in a way that taps into your affective domain. Why do you care about what you are doing? Think about the context, the potential for impact, how it aligns with your skills and interests.

The energy to keep going despite hardships, to push through even with conflicting priorities and complex challenges needs to come from within. So if you are having trouble relating on an emotional level and seeing the purpose of what you are doing, take some time to explore that. Talk to others that are passionate, go and speak to your instructor about the course material. I can guarantee that your professors have passion for their subject matter as they have likely dedicated a large portion of their lives to the study of it.

See your degree as more than a sequence of equations, principles, theories and facts that need to be memorized and mastered, see it as a pursuit of knowledge that can have an impact on your life and the lives of others. No matter what you study, bring your values, opinions, feelings and passions into the subject matter. In doing this, you will be far more likely to want to get out of bed in the morning, go to class and learn.

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