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Unlike shorter events such as natural disasters or other traumas, the COVID-19 pandemic does not provide a “clean break” to indicate that it is over, making it difficult for many people to understand what they have experienced. This is especially true for first-year college students who are getting used to the student environment in the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused many colleges to temporarily close, said Jordan Booker of the University of Missouri.

Booker, an assistant professor of psychological sciences, and his colleagues in the new study show that storytelling, or storytelling, can be an effective tool for helping people make sense of such events. Specifically, researchers found first-year college students used stories to express themselves more personal growth and opportunities to grow in their young lives in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic reported less stress and more confidence in their schoolwork both in the spring of 2020, when many students were in quarantine, and a year later, when most students returned to campus.

“Humans are natural storytellers, and storytelling is a rich and conscious way for us to make sense of our lives,” said Booker, who is based in MU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Broadly considered, we expect this view to translate into the experience of the pandemic as well. But when we asked these students to provide detailed information early in the pandemic in a clear and organized way, we found that they struggled. Developmentally, we would normally expect them to do a good job of that, but in this case it’s hard to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.”

Typically after a major traumatic event, Booker said, narrative researchers like him are able to observe people using narrative to express thoughts about what happened.

“People tend to differ in their approaches to storytelling, and those differences are important,” he said. “Traumatic experiences are very painful, but they often involve a ‘clean break’ that marks the end of the experience and a chance to make sense of things. However, this was not the case with the pandemic. COVID-19 has affected our lives for several years now.”

Initially, a team of psychology researchers from MU, Emory University, the University of Kansas, the University of Utah and Western Washington University expected the pandemic to be a short-lived event, so they wanted to capture the moment in time of what life was like for these students. They then planned to follow up over time, as they had done with other major traumatic experiences, to see if there were differences in how people approached the narrative. These changes would allow researchers to anticipate any ongoing recovery in students’ lives.

However, while that aspect of the project didn’t materialize as they had hoped because of the ongoing pandemic, Booker said the larger idea of ​​their project remains.

“We were able to broadly examine personality or individual differences in the way students told their stories and whether those differences could help us predict how they coped with or adapted to the pandemic,” he said.

For example, the narrative showed that some students expressed growth from their pandemic experiences, Booker said.

“In a way, we can think of telling stories in the midst of life’s broad obstacles like a pandemic as an opportunity to say, ‘You know, I’ve made it this far, I can totally handle this,'” he said. “That was the case with some students.”

For example, one a student wrote:

“…I learned more and accomplished more in my daily schedule than I did in face-to-face classes. As a very productive person, it was a shift, but something I think helped me mentally. This explains not only my dedication to the school, but also the fact that I have accepted the understanding that sometimes you need to take a step back and do a lot of work. It shaped not only the way I study and think, but also who I am as a person.”

Booker also said that while some students have experienced growth, they have seen some students struggle with how to move forward or make a “way forward.”

For example, one student wrote:

“Staying at home most of the day makes me feel unmotivated and I feel like I’m not moving forward in my life. I like being around my family, but not all the time [ …] I feel it has made me lazier and more unhealthy.’

A lifelong interest in storytelling

Booker’s interest in psychology began during his junior and senior years of high school after he took a psychology course that included reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. At that time, his interest in psychology was broadly defined. After initially entertaining the idea of ​​entering the medical school and pursuing a double major in psychology and biology with a minor in medicine and society, he decided that medicine was not for him.

“While I was trying to figure out what was next for me, some colleagues approached me and suggested that I do something with research,” he said.

Booker appreciated the science of development and how certain emotional and social skills are developed in children. He previously worked as an undergraduate and graduate student at the Virginia Institute of Technology, working with Julie Dunsmore, who is now a professor of psychology, health and learning at the University of Houston. Booker then wanted to expand his skills to be better prepared for his role as a professor. So he became a doctoral student at Emory University and worked in the lab of Robin Fivush, who is now the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology and a co-author of the narrative study.

“Robin is a thought leader in bringing life stories, particularly through narrative approaches, into psychology,” Booker said. “So I had experience working with her in her lab for about three years, and through that experience I was able to combine my existing interests in emotion and personality with a growing interest in how personality is important in young people’s lives. The stories encompass all of these elements. People tend to talk about their lives in fairly comparable ways, but they tend to differ in how these experiences are processed, and these differences tend to be important to how people function on a day-to-day basis.”

The study was published in Psychological science.

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Additional information:
Jordan A. Booker et al., Early Effects of College Interrupted: Considering First-Year Students’ Narratives of COVID and Reports of Adjustment During College Lockdowns, Psychological science (2022). DOI: 10.1177/09567976221108941

Citation: Storytelling helps college students relieve stress, boost confidence during COVID-19 pandemic (2022, October 11) Retrieved October 11, 2022, from relieve stress. html

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