Too many college students face challenges for which they are emotionally ill-equipped to handle. By mid-autumn when students get their first real feedback on their academic performance, is when college counselors see the first big spike in anxiety. And in general, anxiety on college campuses is on the rise. Why? There’s a lot more going on for students than buying books, writing papers, playing sports, and pledging fraternities and sororities.
A 2013 survey from the American College Health Association of over 123,000 students across 153 campuses confirmed that over half of students feel overwhelming anxiety, and about a third experience intense depression, sometime during the year. Almost a third report that their stress has been high enough at some point to interfere with their academics—lowering their grades on exams or courses or projects—and 44% say that academic or career issues have been traumatic or difficult to handle. The majority of college students don’t get enough sleep, and half say that they’ve felt overwhelmed and exhausted, lonely or sad sometime during the year.
Students need real emotional skills. There is a large and growing body of research that suggests that the skills of emotional intelligence—the ability to reason with and about emotions to achieve goals—are correlated with positive outcomes across the entire age spectrum, from preschool through adulthood. Emotions affect learning, decision-making, creativity, relationships, and health, and people with more developed emotion skills do better. Among college students, skills of emotional intelligence are linked to engaging in fewer risky behaviors whereas self-esteem is not.
When college students are aware of what they’re feeling, they can make conscious decisions about how to manage those emotions, rather than escalate, act out, or medicate. When they identify emotional patterns and clearly see preceding triggers, they can employ strategies to manage the things that “set them off.” When students are anxious and pressured, they can use strategies to calm themselves and proceed on tasks with lowered anxiety. When they are more masterful at reading others’ cues, they’ll be better able to resolve interpersonal conflicts. They might not be able to solve the problem, but they can have empathy for the other person, de-escalate, and take care of themselves.
Imagine trying to solve complex mathematical problems without the tools of algebra or calculus. Emotions are constantly at play—you’re probably having some right now—but every day we ask our children, ourselves, and each other to solve complex emotional problems with few real tools. An ongoing education in emotions from preschool through college, based on the emerging field of emotion intelligence, will go a long way toward equipping our youth for adulthood—and easing the journey along the way.