The Student’s Toolbox for Coping With Frustration
July 25th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
Frustration is a common reaction to situations in which we feel (or perceive) that circumstances and events are beyond our immediate control or there are roadblocks that prevent us from accomplishing a task or goal. Occasional periods of frustration can be productive if they prompt new ideas and solutions. But continued frustration can have an adverse and long-term effect if it not addressed.
For college students, ongoing and unresolved frustration can damage working relationships with other students (and their instructors), ultimately leading to anger, discouragement, disengagement from the class, retaliation, withdrawal from the class and/or dropping out from school. It is important for your progress in class that you recognize when you are frustrated and deal with it before it becomes an unmanageable problem.
How It Begins for Students
Frustration in the workplace has gained attention recently, especially with a new book, The Enemy of Engagement, Put an End to Workplace Frustration–and Get the Most from Your Employees, by Mark Royal and Tom Agnew. The authors point to demands for higher productivity and increased performance among employees, without the needed support from their employers, as a reason for this issue. Royal and Agnew also indicate that frustration has a negative impact on employees’ energy and enthusiasm, which affects their performance. They conclude that “where strong motivation to succeed is not paired with similar levels of support in the work environment, employees can be expected to respond in one of three ways – most often within a time span of 12 months or less: Break through. Break down. Break away.”
As I read this description of workplace frustration I could easily translate it to the classroom because students experience frustration for many of the same reasons – and the effects are very similar. Frustration is a silent or internalized emotion that is difficult for instructors to address as they are only in class with students for scheduled time periods. It is even more difficult for an online instructor to accurately assess as they do not have an opportunity to interact face-to-face with students. Of course some students may express their concerns so that instructors are given a clue that they need attention.
Students usually begin each new class with a positive outlook or at least a hope that everything will go as planned. Along the way they may have unresolved issues or unanswered questions, an inability to comprehend the instructions for an assignment, unmet expectations, or they did not receive an expected grade. These kinds of situations begin the process, where feelings of dissatisfaction come into play and the longer those feelings continue, the more likely they become agitated and frustrated. Once frustration sets in, it can derail self-motivation and upset working relationships if it is left unchecked.
I conducted an informal poll of students in one of my classes to find out their thoughts. I posed the question “what causes you the most frustration as a college student?” Highlights from their responses are as follows:
• When an online instructor isn’t available or present in class
• When I need help and can’t reach my instructor
• When my questions aren’t answered in a timely manner
• If the instructions are unclear and I can’t figure out what I need to do
• When I don’t know what’s expected of me as a student
• When I cannot receive clear guidance from my advisor
• I do not like the feeling that I am not making progress
• If one of my instructors doesn’t offer helpful feedback
• When I’m working hard but my grades aren’t improving
The Frustration Cycle
As you can see from the students’ responses, frustration often occurs because they are not receiving support, guidance, feedback, and clarity – and it is usually due to an issue of unmet expectations. This condition creates a feeling of helplessness, which establishes a continued cycle that is hard to break if it is allowed to continue. When students get frustrated they often believe they have few options and are without an avenue to vent their feelings or if they do, it is done inappropriately – usually through comments and complaints to other students. Ongoing frustration leads to resentment and then students look for confirmation of how they feel so they can confirm the rightness of the frustration rather than look for a solution. This is a powerful emotion, one where students feel they are not getting anywhere, and ultimately it creates stress and anger.
Strategies for Dealing with Frustration
When I talk to students about the issue of unmet needs and expectations, or any other condition that creates a feeling of frustration, I find that many will attribute how they feel to other factors – stress, anxiety, or fear – and this makes it difficult at times to pinpoint precisely what needs to be addressed. However, at the root of most issues like this is an element of frustration that can be dealt with as a means of minimizing any damaging long-term effects.
1. Learn to Acknowledge It
One of the reasons that feelings get out of control is simply due to not recognizing what is going on with our thought processes. We develop emotional reactions and strong feelings as a response to conditions and circumstances, without conducting an occasional self-check.
Judith Orloff, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of Emotional Freedom, has developed a helpful self-assessment tool, Frustration Quiz: How Frustrated Am I? The following list of questions is included in that quiz and will help you determine how you are feeling and coping:
• Am I often frustrated and irritable?
• Do I typically respond to frustration by snapping at or blaming others?
• When the frustration has passed, do I usually feel misunderstood?
• When I'm disappointed, do I often feel unworthy or like giving up?
This is just the first step to working with feelings of frustration. Once you acknowledge that you have to address it, you can use the next strategy.
2. Take Control
Instead of feeling helpless about circumstances, consider what you can and cannot control. When students feel they do not have adequate resources, support, or feedback – they often reach a sticking point. If the situation is beyond their immediate control and helplessness sets in, it is usually accompanied by a belief that they have done all they can and they stop trying. It is helpful for students to remember that they are in control of their thoughts and the actions they take. For example, if you cannot find what is needed to complete a task, or you are unclear about the requirements, it is your responsibility as a student to ask for assistance.
It may also be helpful to find an appropriate method of expressing your feelings. Don’t assign blame but state what brought you to this point. When a student sends me an email and describes the steps taken to work through a problem and the point where frustration set in, I have a good indication of the cause and how to provide assistance. If I receive an email that tells me the instructions are unclear and the student cannot continue, I don’t know if an attempt was made or what caused a sticking point.
3. Manage It
By taking control of your thoughts and actions, you are also taking responsibility for your role in the learning process and you will feel less frustrated and more involved. You have to deal with moments of frustration before it turns into anger and you reach a point of no return. Judith Orloff, M.D. suggests that frustration can be transformed by practicing patience. That does not mean you have to become passive or simply resign yourself to the issues that caused these feelings. But it does indicate that you are taking the time necessary to evaluate the cause and you know when it is the right time to take appropriate action.
You are going to experience many emotional reactions as a college student simply because there will never be a standard method of teaching by any of your instructors or a guarantee that your efforts will result in an outcome that meets your expectations. There will be situations that challenge you and times when your progress may not be going as planned. But every time frustration sets in, you can look into your toolbox for techniques that help you cope – even if it is only a matter of recognizing your emotional response and addressing it on the spot.
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