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Adopting cognitive behavioural therapy principles for stressed students

2020-01-18

In competitive settings like university, what can we do to keep ourselves from falling into procrastination and self-handicapping?

BY DEVIN BOX | ADVICE

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Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

 

During my post-secondary career, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a wide variety of students. As my peers and I learned and grew together, most of us were subconsciously sorted into a student archetype: there are the frat boys and party animals, the cocky overachievers, the coffee addicts, and so on. 

However, the type of student I want to highlight here are the ones who always count themselves out before things even begin. The ones who stop showing up to class a week before an exam. The ones who say things like, “I didn’t study at all,” or “I’m going to take this class again anyways so it doesn’t matter.” 

It’s hard to put a finger on this type, but let’s be honest, we’ve all met this student and maybe even became one during a stressful time. I even remember some of my peers admiring their character; it almost seemed as if they were wearing “mental armor” that allowed them to shrug off any test anxiety or threat of disappointment. 

But this style of behaviour is remarkably similar to a phenomenon known as self-handicapping. By erecting a barrier of low expectations, this student can externalize failures and internalize successes. For example, if they predict they might perform poorly on a test, the student may engage in self-defeating behavior such as purposefully studying less or attending a party the night before. They may also create obstacles or excuses by becoming ill or avoiding sleep. This allows them to divert the cause of failure onto something external and out of their control. 

This strategy is employed to preserve self-esteem in the face of potential failure and has been observed in everything from academics to sports. The competitive nature of academia can exacerbate threats to self-esteem and increase the occurrence of self-handicapping behaviour. With this understanding, what might have appeared as “mental armor” quickly begins to fade, revealing a range of vulnerabilities underneath: a fear of failure, a fear of uncertainty, and poor self-esteem.

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Coping strategies are physical or mental efforts that are employed to tolerate or minimize effects from stressful events. While some coping strategies are useful, (think taking a bubble bath, going on a walk, or meditating), other strategies such as self-handicapping can be more dangerous and are known as avoidance strategies. 

Coping and avoidance strategies are defined separately in the psychological literature, but they can often be hard to differentiate in real life. Generally speaking, mechanisms that border more on avoidance are associated with adverse outcomes; a common example is substance abuse. Although substance use may provide temporary relief, they can also have detrimental long-term affects to mental and physical health. 

Avoidance strategies do not internalize and fix issues, rather, they mask, delay, or neglect them. Now if one of your peers showed up to their exam drunk, you’d have obvious cause for concern. Whereas, the reason we don’t sound the alarm when they self-handicap is because we don’t immediately recognize this as a dangerous strategy.

The intricate relationship between attitudes and behaviours can explain how self-handicapping can lead to long-term detrimental effects. Attitudes (our feelings towards something) and behaviours (our actions) affect one another in a reciprocal manner. A good example is someone just starting their exercise journey. By disciplining themselves to go to the gym regularly, their behavior can positively affect their attitude towards exercising. Over time, as positive attitudes and feelings develop, it becomes easier and more enjoyable to exercise. 

In our case with the self-handicapping student, the academic environment brings out behaviours that will negatively affect their attitude. For example, when a student self-handicaps and does poorly on an exam, their conception of their own skills and ability becomes more uncertain. This can lead to more self-handicapping, a lack of confidence, and negative self-worth. 

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A potential remedy to this issue operates by using the same relationship, but in reverse. This means combating unhealthy behaviours by introducing positive attitudes using the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT is a psychotherapy technique used to identify and change the thoughts, attitudes, and behaviours that cause stress. This technique is most often taught by a licensed professional but can easily be adopted by anyone. CBT helps you recognize what are known as distorted thoughts – exaggerated and irrational thoughts known to cause negative feelings and behaviours. 

The 17 major thought distortions 

  1. Mind reading: Assuming that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence for their thoughts.
  2. Fortune-telling: Predicting the future negatively.
  3. Catastrophizing: You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful that you will not be able to handle it.
  4. Labeling: Assigning global negative traits to yourself and others.
  5. Discounting positives: Claiming that positives in your life are trivial.
  6. Negative filtering: Focusing almost exclusively on negative events or things.
  7. Overgeneralizing: Perceiving a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single negative event.
  8. Dichotomous thinking: Viewing people or events in all-or-nothing terms.
  9. Shoulds: Interpreting events on what you believe they should be rather than focusing on what it actually is.
  10. Personalizing: Attributing a disproportionate amount of blame to yourself for negative events, often failing to see the contribution of others.
  11. Blaming: Focusing on others for the source of negative feelings, refusing to take responsibility for changing yourself.
  12. Unfair comparisons: Interpreting events in terms of standards that are unrealistic.
  13. Regret orientation: Focusing on what you could have done better in the past, rather than what you can do better now.
  14. What if: Asking yourself a series of ‘what if’ questions that you can never get a satisfactory answer to.
  15. Emotional reasoning: Letting your feelings guide your interpretation of reality.
  16. Inability to disconfirm: Rejecting any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts.
  17. Judgment focus: Viewing yourself and others in terms of arbitrary standards that categorize things into ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘superior’, etc. instead of judging based on individual characteristics.

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These thought distortions skew our perception of reality and can encourage self-handicapping and other destructive behaviours. Learning to challenge and change these thought distortions is key to CBT. Here is a simple walkthrough using the “student before a test” example.

  1. When you are feeling anxious, distressed, or nervous, take a moment to write down what you are feeling, and associate it with a level of stress (e.g. 0-100 scale).
  2. Write down what happened to you, and what your automatic thoughts were in that moment (e.g. “I am so going to fail this test. This always happens. I’ll never be an A+ student.”)
  3. Look at the categories of distorted thoughts and write down any that you see matching your thoughts (In the above example, you would write “fortune telling, dichotomous thinking, labeling.”)
  4. Now look at the evidence for and against your thought. Ask yourself what someone might say who disagreed with you, and analyse their argument.
  5. Then reconsider the situation and write down your new thoughts (e.g. “I am just nervous for a big test, but that is natural. I can still perform well.”)
  6. Then re-write your level of stress afterwards; the level should decrease.

By slowing down our thinking and challenging our unhelpful thought patterns, we can begin to recognize that self-handicapping behaviours may be a reflection of negative attitudes shaped by unrealistic thought distortions. Using the principles of CBT, we can now reverse the downward slope of self-handicapping and become more in control of our attitudes, which in turn, help create healthier behaviours, improve our academic performance, and reduce stress.