Last night I received an email from a student asking for extra time to turn in an essay. She is a nursing student, finishing her senior year at home, away from her friends, away from the structure and rhythms of university life to which she had become accustomed.
Over the past few days I have received a number of messages like this, students asking for an additional day or two to turn in an assignment, or more information about some requirement, or perhaps even just reassurance that they are on the right track.
Special requests from students are not uncommon at this time of year. Usually a grandparent has just died, or the student has a bad cold, or several large assignments are due at the same time.
But this year is different. The emails generally begin like this: “I know I will not get credit for this assignment if I turn it in late, but . . .” What follows is not an excuse, it is a plea for help. And the students asking for help are often the ones who are the most responsible. They are working 12 hour shifts in a hospital or nursing home or stocking shelves every night in their local grocery store.
Because so many of my students are going into the helping professions—like nursing, teaching, and social work—I generally talk to them about preparing for burnout, especially in the fourth or fifth year after graduating. I never thought they would be experiencing burnout before they graduate. But that is what is happening this year.
I recognize it because it is happening all around me. Friends are telling me about how they wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about the future, worrying about their parents, or their children. They worry about whether they have enough savings. They worry about getting back to work. They wake up in the morning exhausted. The daily decisions they are making are more important than ever, yet they feel their capacity to make good decisions is diminished. Even those with lots of time complain they can’t get anything done.
Dr. Amit Sood, author of The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, points out that anxiety and stress do not arise solely due to outside circumstances, they arise because our brains are not adapted to the demands of life in the modern world.
We cannot control many of the external circumstances of our lives, however, we can learn to control our responses. So, the question is: how can we respond to circumstances in ways that allow us to live happier, less stress-filled lives? How can we take what we have been given, both the good and the bad, and make the best of it?
Dr. Sood maintains there are four things the brain craves when it is fatigued: rest, calories, motivation, and uplifting emotions. The easiest of these to get is calories, which is why we tend to snack more when we are experiencing stress. The one we tend to overlook most is uplifting emotions, and all it takes is a small amount of time and attention.
To learn more about how to refresh a tired, distracted brain, you can go to Dr. Sood’s webpage, The Resilient Option. There you will find a number of suggestions, like the Morning Gratitude practice.
It goes like this: When you wake up in the morning, instead of getting right out of bed or thinking about the tasks waiting to be done, think about someone who cares about you. Close your eyes lightly and picture that person’s face. Think about how that person has touched your life. Send this person your silent gratitude. Think of another person who cares about you. Look into that person’s eyes. Send him or her your silent gratitude. Picture your eight-year-old self. Send that child your silent gratitude. Think of someone who has passed away. Give that person a virtual hug. Send him or her your silent gratitude.
The key to the gratitude exercise is love.
Love is the most powerful of the uplifting emotions. It changes the way we think about ourselves and others.
I don’t know what to tell my students about their future. Nobody of my generation has ever been through anything like this before. Any assurance I might give them about the long-term effects of the coronavirus on their community, their health, or their job prospects would be a guess.
But I do know that the skills and abilities they are learning right now will be even more important in the years to come. The world is going to need competent, dedicated, responsible professionals more than ever before.
Even more than that, the world is going to need people of compassion, people who are formed by love and willing to invest that love in the well-being of others.
Love encourages us to take responsibility for those around us and to become a larger, more substantial presence in the world. Love dispels our fears and makes us bold. Love calls us into life, whatever the future holds.
April 16, 2020