Christina Curley, Georgia Southern University
Editor’s Note: For further conversation on ways to combat fears that can affect an advising situation, join us for the September 12th webinar, Building Advisor Competency: Facing Fear and Creating our Best Professional Selves.
Advisors are tasked with helping students succeed, yet every semester there are students who disengage, avoid obligations, refuse help from advisors and other campus resources, and suffer academically as a result. While there may be several reasons behind a student’s choices, it is also possible this avoidance behavior is a matter of instincts. Perhaps when students disengage and procrastinate, they are merely trying to survive in the face of stress and fear.
When faced with a perceived threat, the body has an acute stress response, releasing cortisol and certain hormones, activating what is known as the fight or flight response (Chancellor-Freeland, Chang, & Szabo, 2015). Flight is often the reaction to fear, in which case, the body attempts to flee from danger—whether it be physical or psychological (Lebel, 2017). Students who are struggling in classes may feel their self-worth is being threatened by difficult tasks or concepts (Doménech-Betoret, Gómez-Artiga, & Lloret-Segura, 2014). They could be afraid of confronting the disappointment of their professors or advisor, and therefore do not schedule or attend meetings. Students who were always successful previously may simply be afraid of trying and failing, uncertain of what that might mean for their identity (Dweck, 2006). For these students, the flight response may translate to skipping classes, not asking their professors questions, not scheduling an advisement appointment, procrastinating on important tasks, or giving up entirely. Unfortunately, while this may be a short-term solution to escaping danger, it ultimately is only harming the students more and preventing them from reaching their goals.
The release of stress hormones does more than create a choice of fighting or fleeing. There is a physical response to heightened cortisol including, “increased heart rate, suppressed immune function, and inhibited digestion” (Chancellor-Freeland et al., 2015, p. 226). In other words, students may actually become physically ill. Students who are ill often skip class or put off studying in an attempt to rest and recover. This is actually counter-productive as their actions put them even further behind and increase their long-term stress. Moreover, many students do not recognize the link between their illness and their situation and therefore make no efforts to rectify it with different actions.
This pattern of behavior can be destructive. While students are trying to protect themselves from perceived threats, they are only perpetuating the threatening situation. Perhaps they miss so many classes that it is difficult to catch up. They miss out on available resources such as tutoring centers, their professors, and their academic advisor. Their grades may suffer. Their lower GPA may mean they do not qualify for their majors or graduate school. They may lose scholarships or financial aid. They may face academic probation or suspension. Situations get worse and, naturally, the threats become even greater.
How can advisors help students out of this self-destructive spiral? First and foremost, by being supportive and modeling confidence and composure. When presented with a stressful situation, people look for cues from others on how to respond. Panic and fear can be contagious, whereas calm and supportive cues can minimize paranoid thoughts and actions (Lebel, 2017). When discussing problems with students, advisors should maintain a calm demeanor. Simple cues such as relaxed shoulders, an open posture, and a smile can set the student more at ease in the moment. Once the student is more at ease, advisors can begin asking open-ended questions and making observations to facilitate more self-awareness in the student.
While a complete shift in mindset might require more extensive counseling than is appropriate in a regular advisement appointment, simply providing a quick explanation of the link between a student’s actions and the fight or flight response could provide just enough enlightenment to spark that shift. Students may be relieved to hear an explanation such as survival instinct, rather than laziness or apathy. Once they see their responses as natural, even biological, and not just a character flaw, they could be more confident in finding solutions. Advisors should be careful not to label these responses as unavoidable, but rather, understandable. This explanation for their choices should not serve as an excuse, but as encouragement to make changes. Once students understand the reason they are naturally inclined to procrastinate, avoid challenges, and withdraw from undesirable situations, they can begin to rethink their responses.
When people have confidence in their abilities, they are less fearful in tackling obstacles. If they are less fearful, they are less likely to have a flight response (Lebel, 2017). Advisors can lead students to discover their own strengths and abilities by practicing strengths-based advising. This approach increases student confidence and motivation and gives them a better sense of direction by focusing on positive attributes and abilities rather than weaknesses and past failures (Anderson & Schreiner, 2004). Advisors need not fully adopt a new model of advising to implement pieces of this approach. Just taking the time to ask a few open-ended questions focused on student strengths can provide the affirmation and encouragement a student needs to feel more confident and less likely to flee from a problem or perceived threat.
Another way to increase confidence and minimize the flight response is by meditating on past successes (Lebel, 2017) and practicing positive self-talk (Mansson, 2016). This helps with emotion regulation and can prompt students to act rather than disengage or withdraw in times of stress (Lebel, 2017). Again, an educational approach can be beneficial. Advisors can take the time to explain the power of these techniques so that students are equipped to use them. Advisors can also help students remember successes by reminding them of things they have already accomplished, such as passing certain classes, earning scholarships, or even having been accepted to college in the first place. The student and advisor can work together to create mechanisms for documenting success, such as journaling, blogging, or creating folders for saving success stories. Developing mantras and affirmations students can repeat to themselves in times of stress is also useful. The best approach will vary by student, so advisors should be flexible in how they provide support to each student. They should gauge what the student is most receptive to and move forward with that technique.
Even in the face of highly stressful circumstances, students are capable of managing negative emotional experiences so that they respond in proactive ways, rather than avoiding or withdrawing from the situation. Being proactive can protect from harm by making a threat less likely to occur, rather than having to face it directly (Lebel, 2017). Advisors can help students reappraise their situation to see the bigger picture and the long-term consequences of their actions, so that they understand the value of a more proactive stance. They may need help realizing that their actions are actually exacerbating their circumstances.
Advisors can then initiate the brainstorming process for new ways to approach the academic threats students are facing. For example, if a student is worried about failing a test, rather than trying to ignore the problem, meeting the professor to ask questions can alleviate the fear. Essentially, advisors can guide students to use their fear to direct positive action (Lebel, 2017), such as asking questions, seeking feedback from professors, and getting an earlier start on completing tasks. In this way, students are far more likely to be academically successful and less fearful in the future.
Goal-setting is one of the most effective ways to combat procrastination and other flight-like responses (Fries, Grunschel, Schwinger, & Steinmayr, 2016). Detailed plans which include ways to handle difficulties that might arise can provide a roadmap for handling stressful situations (Lebel, 2017). With a path and plan mapped out, students can more confidently choose to respond productively, rather than fleeing and hiding from their problems. Advisors can work with students to create academic success plans that identify goals, action plans, possible obstacles, and steps to overcome them. While this may not be a new practice for many advisors, pairing this with a discussion of the fight or flight instinct and the need for proactive responses could yield better results. Students may be more receptive to the entire concept if they understand the value of it. Goal-setting can also give value to a student’s efforts, illustrating the connection between unpleasant or threatening tasks and the student’s long-term success. This practice will emphasize the importance of addressing avoidance behaviors, as it is shown to be in direct conflict with accomplishing goals.
The fight or flight instinct is not unique to students or academic stress, but it might not be a connection the students have previously made. When advisors recognize the link between this biological instinct and student behavior, they can better educate, mentor, and guide students to a healthier and more productive response to stressful situations.
Christina Curley, M.Ed.
College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
Georgia Southern University
Anderson, E. C. & Schreiner, L. A. (2004). Strengths-based advising. The Gallup Organization. Retrieved from: http://strengths.southmountaincc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Strengths-Based-Advising.pdf
Chancellor-Freeland, C., Chang, A., & Szabo, Y. Z. (2015). Locus of control predicts cortisol reactivity and speech performance in response to acute stress in undergraduate students. College Student Journal, 49(2), 225-236.
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Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Fries, S., Grunschel, C., Schwinger, M., & Steinmayr, R. (2016). Effects of using motivational regulation strategies on students’ academic procrastination, academic performance, and well-being. Learning and Individual Differences, 49, 162-170.
Lebel, D. (2017). Moving beyond fight and flight: A contingent model of how the emotional regulation of anger and fear sparks proactivity. Academy of Management Review, 42(2), 190-206.
Mansson, D. (2016). Exploring college students’ expressed concern about their academic performance. College Student Journal, 50(1), 121-129.
Cite this article using APA style as: Curley, C. (2017, September). Survival in the face of stress and fear: How the advisor can respond to fight or flight in student behavior. Academic Advising Today, 40(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]