Struggling? Stressed?: Adopting a positive attitude to challenges

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Students at UBC are often well-versed with the myriad of resources available on campus. Throw one of us a problem and we can often quickly spit out a resource that we know our peers and ourselves can access:

“Feeling sick?” “Go to the doctor?”

“Not getting the grade you want in classes?” “Get a tutor.”

“Can’t decide on your major?” “Go to Academic Advising.”

“Experiencing emotional and mental distress?” “Go to the Counselling office.”

I’m sure you have repeatedly heard these suggestions, but do you ever feel as though you are still not find yourself in a position where you want to be in life, or at least heading there? We all know that there are resources out the for us to rely on but why is it hard to for us to sometime take the first step in seeking help? Why do we often avoid addressing our problems until they grow bigger, and lead ourselves onto the path of self-destruction?

I am guilty of this. Throughout my university career, I have been fully aware that I have a fear of speaking up in a room full of people. I often have ideas that I would like to share and verbalize but the fear of being judged and ridiculed by the people in the room has often held me back from speaking up. I have over-thought and assumed that I should only speak up when my ideas are earth-shattering, ground-breaking and revolution-inducing. In other words, if I can’t solve the Somali refugee crisis in Kenya in one breath during the discussions for my politics class, then I probably shouldn’t say anything.

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As a history student, participation in class discussions and seminars are crucial for they typically account for a quarter of the final grade. I know that I am not the only student struggling with speaking up in classes and that this is a common problem among students that most professors are aware of. I remember flipping through the syllabi for my courses and noticing that there were disclaimers being included where professors mentioned that they were open to helping students improve their speaking skills. There were moments when I thought that this might be a good opportunity to work on my weaknesses but oftentimes, I just let them pass by. I saw this opportunities for four years straight and now, at the completion of my undergraduate studies, I wonder if I will ever come across such opportunities again.

My missed opportunity to address my fear of speaking in classes has definitely cost me a lot, and I am sure this is one of the many opportunities where I have – intentionally or not – missed. We see an example of this pattern in many other aspect of our lives. A bad lifestyle choice that leads to deteriorating health. A lack of engagement in classes that lead to a decline in academic performance. A personal problem that overwhelms us which ultimately exploded into a full-blown crisis.  

So why do we often ignore our problems and not take any action on them? Why do we allow great opportunities to slip us by?

Not seeing the opportunity – and the result it entails

Our brain has a negative bias, meaning that we are much more inclined to think of negative thoughts by scanning and spotting them. Luckily, we can train our brain to do the reverse with some mindfulness practice. In the book The Happiness Advantage, positive psychologist Shawn Achor theorized the “Positive Tetris Effect” which is a psychological approach where we can train our brain to make use of the opportunities around us by seeing more possibilities with the power of positive thinking. I did not see how reaching out to my professors in this case will benefit me greatly and serve me well beyond my academic career. Had I done so, I can only imagine the academic and professional progress I would have undergone since then.

To maximize our growth, we should always take a step back and assess the opportunities we see around us – even if they may seem miniscule.

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The need for quick fixes

A single visit to the doctor will not immediately cure you – you’ll have to attend follow up appointments, incorporate some lifestyle changes and monitor your health for an extended period of time. Nor will a single tutoring session, a counselling appointment or an advising meeting solve any problems or challenges that you face.  It is important to recognize that while the first step to seeking help will not immediately solve your problems, the actions that you take thereafter will determine if you can overcome them. I know that a single session in office hours with one of my professors will not automatically make me a confident speaker. It will take a lot practice, and probably some very public failures, for me to be highly comfortable in speaking in class discussions. As such, we should see the first step in seeking support as a direction that we work towards to and a habit that we must consciously maintain.

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A lack of growth mindset

Our brains function on two basic channels: fixed and growth mindsets. A fixed mindset is a way of thinking where one believes that their talent is innate and predetermined. A growth mindset, on the other hand, affirms that one can improve their skills and capabilities. Adopting a fixed mindset is dangerous as it discourages us from growing by seeking opportunities and taking on new challenges – an important mechanism that that allows us to fully embrace the “Positive Tetris Effect.” I frequently saw the participation component of my history classes as another “disadvantage” that I have to curb. Rather than approaching it with a healthy attitude where I could experience growth, I felt like it was an experience that I just had to “tough it through” because that was the only way to go about it. Similar to positive thinking, adopting a growth mindset is a work ethic/habit that needs to be developed and consistently worked for. But with taking smalls steps as you work towards your goal, it is habit that will serve you well in the long run when developed.

I may have finished my undergraduate journey but I am sure there are many other opportunities for me to improve my public speaking skills. Co-hosting a podcast as part of my summer position at the Chapman Learning Commons has been a good step first for me to practice my speaking skills in an “official”context. Whenever you are faced with a challenge, remember to take a moment to reorient your thinking and attitude to the issue. Just a bit of pivoting, and a constant effort to stay in the right direction, will make a BIG difference!

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