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Cognitions Versus Actions: Stress and Coping Efforts of Community College Students in West Texas, USA

Virginia J. Mahan

South Plains College, Tex, USA

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Eastern New Mexico University, NM, USA

Paper Presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lahti, Finland 22 - 25 September 1999

Abstract

This paper explores the responses of 201 community college students who completed a researcher-devised questionnaire, Coping: How I Manage Emotions and Respond to Adverse Situations (CHIMERAS). Based on the Thoits’ (1991a, 1991b) more complex model of coping, a refinement of the transactional paradigm (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), the CHIMERAs consists of 43-items related to coping strategies, as well as two sections inviting open-ended responses with regard to stress and coping. Participants indicated that they experienced a moderate amount of stress over the last year, most predominantly from school-related stressors, followed by family, relationship, and financial difficulties. Findings suggest that students primarily employed cognitive modes of coping, focusing either on the problem situation or the expression of their emotions. These coping strategies included analyzing the situation, listening to music, praying, making a decision, and wishing for a magical resolution or fantasy solution. In contrast, participants used few behavioral strategies to alter the situation or regulate the emotions. Implications are discussed.

Introduction and Purpose

Stress refers to the process by which individuals perceive and respond to particular events, termed stressors, which they appraise as challenging or threatening. Stress may be either physically and/or psychologically detrimental to a person. As Holmes and Rahe (1967) suggested that stress is commonly associated with school attendance, the research at hand explores stress and coping in community college students in West Texas, USA. The intent of this study was twofold: (a) to pilot this preliminary version of the CHIMERAS on a convenience sample and subsequently refine the instrument for use with a more geographically broad sampling of students, and (b) to illuminate the stressors encountered by community college students, as well as their responses to these stressors (i.e., their most prevalent coping strategies). This study also examined the degree to which students encountered stressful events.

Background and Theoretical Framework

The present study is grounded in the transactional model of coping. Emerging in the late 1970s, the transactional paradigm (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) highlights conscious, purposive cognitions or behaviors, rather than subconscious ego defense mechanisms and personality styles, as did the psychoanalytic perspective of the ego psychologists (Folkman, 1991; Lazarus, 1992). The transactional model specifies a tripartite process of cognitive appraisals, emotional responses, and efforts to cope with the stressor. For the purposes of this study, then, coping refers to the "person’s cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage (reduce, minimize, master, or tolerate) the internal and external demands of the person-environment interaction that is appraised as taxing or exceeding the person’s resources" (Folkman, Lazarus, Gruen, & DeLongis, 1986, p. 572). Pearlin and Schooler (1978) have suggested that coping responses fall into three general categories: responses that (a) directly change the problem or situation from which the stress ensues, (b) alter the meaning of the situation or reinterpret the problem, and (c) manage the emotional distress provoked by the problem.

Of particular note, the transactional model’s definition of coping refers simply to the efforts to manage demands and is therefore neutral with regard to and independent of outcome. Hence, the definition includes no implication as to the success or failure of the response. Coping efforts, then, may prove to be either adaptive or maladaptive. In addition, coping responses may be active or passive, as well as direct or indirect (Barrett & Campos, 1991).

Instrument, Procedures and Methods

Participants, 201 community college students from West Texas, USA, completed a researcher-devised questionnaire, Coping: How I Manage Emotions and Respond to Adverse Situations (CHIMERAS). Based on Thoits’ (1991a, 1991b) more complex model of coping, a refinement of the transactional paradigm (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), the CHIMERAS consists of 43 verbal frequency items related to coping strategies. The CHIMERAS also includes two-items, measured by a linear, numeric scale, regarding the students’ level of stress over the last year, as well as the level of stress associated with the most stressful event encountered in that time frame. Additional sections invited open-ended responses with regard to the most stressful event experienced during the last year and examined means of coping not included in the questionnaire.

Data Analysis

Data was first analyzed with regard to participant demographics. In addition, a frequency analysis of the total scale by item and an exploratory factor analysis was performed.1 Qualitative analysis isolated thematic statements from the open-ended responses regarding students’ most stressful events over the past year, as well as means of coping not otherwise specified in the research instrument. Categories were created based on the statistical occurrence of specific key phrases.

Findings and Conclusions

Descriptive Statistics

Two hundred one undergraduate community college students, 67 males and 134 females ranging in age from 17 to 48 and with a mean age of 21.6, completed the CHIMERAS. Of the participants, 3.5% self-identified as Native American Indian, 58.7% as White, 2% as Asian American, 2.5% as Black, 28.9% as Hispanic, and 2.5% as Other. Two percent of participants chose not to provide data on ethnicity.

Stress and Stressors

On the 7-point linear, numeric scale (1 = almost no stress; 7 = extreme stress), participants indicated that they experienced a moderate amount of stress (m = 4.53) over the last year. This stress was most predominantly the consequence of school-related stressors, followed by family, relationship, and financial difficulties. The three most commonly cited school-related stressors involved: (a) starting or returning to school; (b) the pressure involved in admission to a college or a particular college program, as well as the adjustment associated with admission/rejection; and (c) difficulties with juggling school work with job and home responsibilities, as well as leisure activities. Other school-related stressors entailed problems related to difficult classes and testing and exams. Relationship-related stressors most frequently involved a "relationship going bad": marital problems, splits in close relationships, or abusive partners. Family-related stressors included problems with both children and parents (e.g., the divorce of parents and arguments or conflicts with parents). Financial stressors revolved around reduced budget due to working less in order to attend school, lack of child support, and inexperience in paying bills and maintaining a budget. Five percent of participants also mentioned moving away from their hometown as their most stressful event during the preceding year. In addition to the aforementioned stressors, participants cited other categories of stressors, including job-related difficulties (e.g., layoffs, unemployment, pressure due to understaffing, and change of jobs), unplanned pregnancies, legal problems, and car trouble as contributing to the most stressful situations they had experienced over the last year.

The categories revealed as including students’ most stressful events, ranked in order, are shown in Table 1, along with the percentages of students who mentioned each. Students related that, in dealing with their most stressful event over the last year, they experienced moderate to severe stress (m = 5.35 with 7 = extreme stress). Moreover, participants indicated that stress was associated with medical problems such as bulimia, hair loss, hives, and insomnia.

Table 1

Stressful Situations Cited by Students, Ranked in Order, Along With the Percentages of Students Mentioning Each as Their Most Stressful Events

1) School-related (26%)

starting or returning to school,

the pressure involved in admission to a college or a particular college program;

and the adjustment associated with admission/rejection;

difficulties with juggling school, job, home, and leisure activities;

testing and exams;

difficult classes.

2) Family-related (17%)

parenting of offspring;

parents (e.g., the divorce of parents, arguments with parents).

3) Relationship-related (15%)

a "relationship going bad": marital problems, splits in close relationships, or abusive partners.

4) Financial strains (10%)

reduced budget due to working less to attend school;

lack of child support;

inexperience in paying bills and maintaining a budget.

5) Moving (5%) away from hometown

Cognitive Coping Strategies

Participants related that the most frequent means by which they managed a stressful event was to analyze the situation, a cognitive strategy targeting the situation. Other efforts to cope with the stressful event included listening to music, praying, making a decision, and wishing for a magical resolution (i.e., a fantasy solution). The five most commonly employed methods of coping are shown in Table 2, along with their means and standard deviations. These findings indicate that students primarily employed cognitive modes of coping, focusing either on the problem situation or the expression of their emotions.

Behavioral Modes of Coping

In contrast to their preponderant use of cognitive coping strategies, participants employed few behavioral strategies to change the situation or regulate their emotions. The five least commonly employed methods of coping are shown in Table 3, along with their means and standard deviations. Only rarely did participants report using over-the-counter, prescription, or illegal drugs. Students almost never obtained a massage as a physiological means to manage the stress-induced tension and regulate emotional reactions to stress. Given "that sexual behavior may also be associated with the stress and coping processes" (Folkman, Chesney, Pollack, & Phillips, 1992, p. 218), participants’ reports that they seldom either used sex to relieve tension or took legal/illegal substances suggest that their patterns of coping at least sidestep the more maladaptive strategies.

Table 2

Means and Standard Deviations of the Five Most Commonly Employed Methods of Coping

Variable Mean SD Mode/Target of Coping Strategy

analyzed the situation

2.060

1.009

Cognitive/Situation

listened to music

2.185

.125

Miscellaneous

prayed/spoke to God

2.261

1.275

Cognitive/Expressive-Emotions

made a decision

2.397

1.087

Cognitive/Situation

wished for a magical solution

2.467

1.429

Cognitive/Situation

or resolution

     

Note. On the verbal frequency scale, 1 = Always, 2 = Often, 3 = Sometimes, 4 = Rarely, and 5 = Never.

Table 3

Means and Standard Deviations of the Five Least Commonly Employed Methods of Coping

Variable Mean SD Mode/Target of Coping Strategy

went for a massage

4.614

0.880

Behavior/Physiology-Emotions

used illegal drugs

4.609

0.969

Behavior/Physiology-Emotions

took over-the-counter/

     

prescription drugs

4.538

0.940

Behavior/Physiology-Emotions

played an instrument

4.533

1.029

Miscellaneous

left the situation permanently

4.130

1.142

Behavior/Situation

Note. On the verbal frequency scale, 1 = Always, 2 = Often, 3 = Sometimes, 4 = Rarely, and

5 = Never.

Active/Passive and Direct/Indirect Coping

Findings suggest that in this sample of students, coping responses were predominantly passive. Active behavioral measures to alter the problem situation or regulate the emotions (e.g., consulting a counselor, reading literature about the problem, permanently leaving the situation) were employed far less than strategies that were aimed at controlling, both cognitively and perceptually, the meaning of the circumstances in order to diminish their potency as stressors. In other words, participants did little to directly change the problem or situation from which the stress ensued, instead focusing more on altering the meaning of the situation or reinterpreting the problem. Participants only sometimes took direct action by discussing the problem and freely expressing their feelings with the other person(s) involved in the problem situation. However, those participants who did report that they talked to family members to obtain advice were likely to also discuss the problem with and freely express their emotions to the other person(s) in the situation (i.e., what the second author termed "verbal catharsis"). In contrast, participants who daydreamed or fantasized about expressing their true feelings were also likely to cry freely when alone, eat differently, and simply wait for their feelings to pass, none of which serve to change the stressful situation.

Refinement of the Research Instrument

According to participants, the most common coping responses not included in the questionnaire include: (a) displacement of aggression ("broke meaningless objects to relieve stress," "I sometimes hit things such as walls," "I take it out on other people," and other such aggressive acts toward people or property); (b) distraction through participation in social activities (e.g., going to clubs, concerts, dances, dining out, movies, and parties) and staying busy with work and hobbies (e.g., "I overload my free time so I don’t have to think about it" and "overextending" oneself), and c) social withdrawal and self-isolation. Moreover, a small number of participants (3%) indicated that they managed stress by soaking in the bathtub. Consequently, these additional coping strategies will be added in future revisions of the CHIMERAS.

Implications

Given that over one-fifth of students withdraw from the aforementioned community college each year (e.g., the student attrition rate for the Division of Arts and Sciences was 21.76% in the spring of 1996 and 22.76% in the spring of 1997), it would behoove community college personnel, particularly the counseling services, to provide instruction regarding ways that students can expand their repertoire of coping skills, thereby better managing the stress that may lead to dropping out of school. As previously mentioned, however, one of the coping strategies employed least often by students was the seeking of social support. More specifically, participants rarely consulted a counselor, therapist, minister/priest/rabbi, or other authority figure. Thus, the participants in this sample were unlikely to contact counseling services. Consequently, it may be left to counselors to reach out to students by providing programs in the residence halls, student union buildings, and for student clubs and organizations. In addition, counseling services may incorporate training in stress reduction into extant orientation services, attendance at which is mandatory for new students at the aforementioned community college. Not only may pamphlets for later reference be distributed at this time, but counselors may begin to establish rapport with students, personally inviting them to seek support from counseling services at a future date, if need be. Students, then, may feel more comfortable approaching counselors at a later date. In a similar vein, instructors in psychology, health, physical education, and other related fields may serve to educate students as to inexpensive physiological means of handling stress, such as the benefits of exercise, massage (local schools of massage offer services at significantly reduced rates that are affordable for most students), meditation, relaxation techniques (e.g., Benson, 1975), and writing journals, letters, and poetry to facilitate emotional catharsis.

Significance of the Study

The transactional model of coping is a contextual, dynamic, process-centered approach to coping. Implicit in this paradigm is the assumption that coping is amenable to change. Therefore, when provided with a student profile from the CHIMERAS, counselors may be able to instruct students as to more adaptive coping strategies. In addition, the transactional model of coping examines cognitive and behavioral coping efforts aimed at managing specific stresses arising in specific environmental contexts. Accordingly, the CHIMERAS may serve as a useful instrument to explore regional and global variations in student stress and coping, as well as possible developmental differences. .

References

Barrett, K. C., & Campos, J. J. (1991). A diacritical function approach to emotions and coping. In E. M. Cummings, A. L. Greene, & K. H. Karraker (Eds.), Life-span developmental psychology: Perspectives on stress and coping (pp. 21-41). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Benson, H. (1975). The relaxation response. New York: Morrow.

Folkman, S. (1991). Coping across the lifespan: Theoretical issues. In E. M. Cummings, A. L. Greene, & K. H. Karraker (Eds.), Life-span developmental psychology: Perspectives on stress and coping (pp. 3-19). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Folkman, S., Chesney, M. A., Pollack, L., & Phillips, C. (1992). Stress, coping, and high-risk sexual behavior. Health Psychology, 11 (4), 218-222.

Folkman, S., Lazarus, R. S., Gruen, R., & DeLongis, A. (1986). Appraisal, coping, health status, and psychological symptoms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 571-579.

Holmes, T. H., & Rahe, R. H. (1967). The social readjustment rating scale. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 11, 213-218.

Lazarus, R. S. (1992). Foreword. In M. Perrez & M. Reicherts (Eds.), Stress, coping, health: A situation-behavior approach: Theory, methods, applications (pp. 5-9). Seattle: Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer. Pearlin, L. I., & Schooler, C. (1978). The structure of coping. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 19, 2-21.

Thoits, P. A. (1991a). Gender differences in coping with emotional distress. In J. Eckenrode (Ed.), The social context of coping (pp. 107-138). New York: Plenum.

Thoits, P. A. (1991b). Patterns in coping with controllable and uncontrollable events. In E. M. Cummings, A. L. Greene, & K. H. Karraker (Eds.), Life-span developmental psychology: Perspectives on stress and coping (pp.235-258). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

 

1our appreciation goes to Greg Keane for contributing to the quantitative analysis of the data.

This document was added to the Education-line database 23 September 1999