In Wake of Unrest, Expert Offers Students Advice on Ways to Cope and Thrive

August 24, 2017

Officially, Tim Davis is the executive director of student resilience and leadership development in the University of Virginia’s Career Center.

He is also a licensed psychologist and has some important tips for students who may still be struggling after the deadly events of Aug. 11 and 12, when white supremacists marched on Grounds and wreaked havoc on the streets of Charlottesville.

This week, he spoke with UVA Today about the advice he wants students to hear.

Q. What are some healthy coping mechanisms students can employ during distressing times?

A. It’s important to find their community, to find a group of people with whom they feel safe expressing their thoughts and feelings.

It’s also important to know your boundaries, so things don’t inundate you. We know that if you surround yourself enough with intense things that feel awful, it starts to affect mood. Be aware of what’s happening in your emotional life.

We should be mad and we should be sad, but when that starts to permeate your entire experience, then we will not be coping well.

Q. How can students shift their mindsets?

A. Students, as best they can, should find ways to “come up for air.” Coming up for air is getting into a good book, going to a student-sponsored event, bingeing on a couple of episodes of “House of Cards.” I always say to students, if you love to work out, work out; if you are religious, pray; if you’re a Buddhist, meditate; if you’re a biker, bike. Find what brings pockets of positive emotion into your experience and focus on those things.

They may not feel as good as they normally do, and you might not be able to step away from this horrible thing our University had visited upon us. That’s OK, but do your best to give your brain a chance to take periodic breaks.

Q. Any other basic life tips to help with stress?

A. Oh, yes. This is the stuff that has the most return and is least often actually done.

One is get exercise. We’ve seen all kinds of data that shows that when you are working out, your body is better able to tolerate negative emotion and manage your mood. It helps get all the right chemicals flowing through your brain and through your body.

Secondly, make sure that even if you don’t feel like it, that you are eating three square meals a day. Your body does not have what it needs to cope with emotional intensity if it’s not nourished properly. That’s when we get more susceptible to anxiety.

Third, don’t allow yourself to compromise your sleep habits if you are upset. At least put yourself in bed. Turn the lights out. If you struggle to sleep a little bit, that’s OK. At some point, your body is wise enough that it takes over and gives you what you need. Sleep hygiene is really critical. It is really related to anxiety management. And we know college students don’t sleep enough.

Q. How can students support one another?

A. One of the most important ways students can do that is using their skills of humility –  being able to put the other person first, to be of service to other students who need support. Understand the importance of really listening and being invested in what the other person is thinking and saying and experiencing. That’s a mindset that is hard to achieve in intense times.

Any student who has had a friend or a professor or an adviser sit down in front of them and make their thoughts and feelings the most important thing in the world, I’m sure, has experienced a sense of relief or release from whatever is distressing them.

Q. What good can come from this?

A. Scholars have looked at the relationship between experiencing adversity and mental health and what they found is that we actually need adversity in order to be emotionally resilient and mentally healthy. Our brain gets stronger and smarter in reaction to challenge. If we are not challenged with some negative life events, we don’t get the opportunity to develop ourselves, develop our brains and figure out new strategies we need in the future to encounter our own biases and address those.

If we are too comfortable, we are more susceptible to being overwhelmed when adversities do come. What scholars have found is that people who have experienced very few negative life events don’t have very good mental health outcomes.

We know one of the healthy ways to cope is to be a committed advocate for change. As students try to help us heal as a community, they are going to be more effective healers in the future, and they are going to be more resilient so they can do more good in the future.

Q. What resources does the University have for students who need more help?

A. Students and parents alike should feel free to reach out to the Office of the Dean of Students. University Counseling and Psychiatric Services, or CAPS, is also a tremendous resource. I want students to know if they are in the moment suffering, especially if it starts to get in the way with their ability to engage with people and their coursework, CAPS is there on a walk-in basis. It won’t be the initiation of therapy, but it’s there as kind of a problem-solving session to come up with a plan on how to cope.

I also want to encourage students to use Madison House’s HELP line, an anonymous call line run by trained students, for students. (Administrators say the line will become operational Sept. 11.)

Q. Do you have any advice for parents?

A. I would say, “Trust the strength of your children.” To varying degrees, they are going to go through discomfort from this, but it’s going to be forming and shaping their young adult children. Trust that they have the strength to navigate this with one another, as young adults. Trust that they will come to you when they need to, but don’t over-care for them right now. Be there for them; ask how they are doing, but trust in their resilience and the strength in their community of peers, because I see that happening in the student body.

Hold on; just don’t hold on too tightly.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications