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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What a Psychologist Recommends If You Feel Alone in Your Suffering

By Angela Duckworth — April 29, 2020 1 min read

My husband lost his job, and I’m really worried about paying our bills. When my friends complain about having too many video calls, I feel like they don’t understand what I’m going through.

The current crisis is hitting everyone in different ways. Are you laid off or not? Are you caring for a sick family member, or is everyone under your roof healthy? Since everyone is experiencing this pandemic differently, you might feel there’s a lack of empathy all around.

In this crisis, each of us has a choice between feeling like nobody understands how we feel or, in contrast, feeling like we’re all suffering together.

I say this is a choice because what we pay attention to influences how we feel. If you pay attention to differences among us, you feel alone. If you pay attention to shared burdens, you feel supported.

Twenty years ago, a study conducted at West Point examined biomarkers of stress. The scientists who conducted this study expected stress to be highest during the first brutal summer of training—the weeks when cadets are most likely to quit. In fact, measures of stress at that point were not remarkable at all. Instead, they spiked later on, during final exams.

Why?

The scientists surmised that when the cadets went through summer training, they paid attention to aspects of the situation that were “us against them"—the challenges that everyone was in their own way struggling to surmount. In contrast, during final exams, the perception was that cadets were competing against each other.

When you feel like nobody understands how you feel, remember that in the most fundamental sense, it’s “us against the pandemic.” Your suffering is in some ways unique but in other ways universal—and supporting each other is the foundation of resilience.

Angela Duckworth, the founder and CEO of the education nonprofit Character Lab, is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow Character Lab on Twitter @TheCharacterLab.


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