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A Mental Health Game Plan for College Students and FamiliesRob Danzman, MS, NCC, LCMHC
At the beginning of each semester since he started college, Jonathan would go through the same process. He’d buy a day planner and mentally commit to getting organized so he could finally have that ideal semester.
“This will be the semester I finish as well as I start!” Jonathan would say. A semester that doesn’t lead to self-loathing. It was all sincere. He really did want to be that great student and make himself and his parents proud. But we know how this story goes.
Within two weeks, he was already behind in several classes. He justified this by blaming a problem with the enrollment in a few classes. Then there were some early fraternity commitments. Every semester started with the same problems that popped up and kept him from getting to class and work completed. It was turning into yet another semester where Jonathan lost motivation.
Jonathan is just one example of this all too common early semester struggle.
We use the term all the time to describe intention, drive and achievement but few of us really understand what motivation is and how we lose it.
Motivation is essentially brain chemistry and nothing more. As neuroscientist Dr. D. F. Swaab stated (and titled his bestselling book), We Are Our Brains. Motivation is not something outside of us.
When we talk about the brain chemistry of motivation, we’re primarily referring to a little chemical package of decarboxylation of dehydroxyphenylalanine, or dopamine. This neurohormone triggers motivation (or more accurately — activation).
Dopamine is released whenever something good happens to us. It’s released anytime we are pursuing a goal and we believe we’re headed in the right direction. Dopamine is not released when we get rewarded. The pleasure we get from dopamine is not obtained by accomplishing our goals but through the process of achieving them. The path is more important than the destination.
It’s almost like the goal doesn’t really matter, neurologically speaking. We are STILL going to get pleasure (again, neurologically) from dopamine by simply putting in the effort. It’s only released when we perceive we’re on our way to achieve something (or to get a big reward). Dopamine reshapes our brains (neuroplasticity) so that when released, our brain wants to continue in that same direction hoping for more dopamine release.
Once again, we go back to the brain. Anxiety, depression, substance use, poor sleep, poor nutrition and lack of exercise all mess with our motivation system.
Anxiety makes us afraid to take chances, trying to convince us there’s a monster stalking us around every corner.
Depression sucks our energy and makes it hard to imagine benefits from our behaviors.
Drugs disrupt our brains by filling the nerve endings intended to receive naturally produced neurohormones.
Poor sleep keeps our brains from cleaning out the junk from the previous day and amplifies the psychological conditions already present.
Poor nutrition makes it difficult for our bodies to manufacture the necessary chemicals to keep things running smoothly.
Lack of exercise allows our muscles and brain to atrophy, making us less resilient and more likely to stagnate.
With so many things that affect motivation, it’s no surprise so many college students struggle with it. I’ve decided to limit our exploration of motivation issues to focus on a few key areas for college students and their parents.
Perhaps surprisingly, the origin of motivation issues for many college students starts freshman year. Most students up to that point have spent years studying and sacrificing throughout middle and high school for the big goal of getting into that perfect college. Then all of a sudden the goal is reached and they get accepted into a good school. This huge thing they’ve been working towards for so long has been achieved. Now what? What is the big thing they’re working towards next? They have a mental fatigue and even a type of boredom with sacrifice. They may start to look a little depressed.
Remember, our brains prefer the process more than the goal. The pursuit of and the work towards the goal matters more than the goal itself. The pursuit is what gives us meaning. It’s the benchmarks we can see coming up (anticipation) and then the relief and pride that follow after each benchmark is met.
Those hours spent studying or working extra hard on that paper in relation to something larger is what provides meaning or, maybe a bit more psychologically speaking, provides us with an identity and sense of self (I am a student, I am an athlete, I am a musician). This identity isn’t something we simply do, it’s who we are and it dictates most of our behavior from the clothes we buy to the car we drive. It’s what family members ask us about at holiday parties and it’s how we compare ourselves to friends.
What happens when the work is done and we’re accepted into a college? Our identity as “college hopeful” vanishes. And with it our sense of purpose. We’re no longer fighting the good fight and sacrificing for something larger like getting into a good school. It’s not healthy for life to be solely defined by big goals and corresponding identities. Granted, there is a cultural norm that our identities are defined by the goals we achieve (or at least talk about).
I was a terrible student in elementary, middle and high school. I didn't do anything like skip class or get high in the bathroom but I rarely did homework and I always felt behind. I was always nervous during school — every day. I was anxious about papers I hadn’t finished and assignments I’d forgotten at home. I don’t remember being a bad kid, just unmotivated. I’d rather be outside with my neighbor playing basketball or riding bikes.
Something changed the January before my high school graduation. Something clicked and I started caring enormously about school work. Was it a bit too late for a respectable GPA? Yup. But I kicked into gear and worked my butt off until the very end.
Fast forward several years and my graduate school experience was very different than K–12 years. I had a fantastic GPA, did all my work with enthusiasm, and was eventually inducted into the honor roll society.
While it’s challenging to consider all the variables at play, I think the most significant influence was having meaning. In graduate school, I was laser-focused on my goal of becoming a therapist and had been since undergrad.
In my earlier years, there was absolutely NO larger goal to be motivated for. Other kids, even in elementary school, seemed like they showed up for some purpose. Not me. I was just along for the ride. Through middle and high school, there was nothing after graduation. There was no college in my future — it was never discussed and not really something important in our home. The only motivation for doing work was to avoid getting into trouble with the teachers whose judgment I feared.
Many researchers no longer believe there is such a thing as laziness. When we fail to start or finish something, researchers increasingly find it’s more likely to be a functioning problem than a choice problem. A functioning problem can be thought of as how we interpret outside information or how we process that information.
Sometimes there are other conditions outside of our control that, on the surface, may appear to be laziness. Chronic fatigue, social anxiety, Adjustment Disorder, low self-esteem, Anxiety Disorder and depression are all very common obstacles that inhibit motivation at a neurochemical level and look like laziness.
Other times, there are structural obstacles. A good example is the fireplace in my house. I had the brilliant idea to rip the old gas fireplace out and install a new one...a year ago. But once I disconnected it and pulled the metal box from the wall, I realized I didn’t know enough to do the wiring or run the new exhaust out the exterior wall.
I’m not lazy but I am definitely lacking knowledge. On the outside, I can imagine that my in-laws might view me as a slacker who never finishes house projects. As motivation expert Dr. Devon Price (professor at Loyola University of Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies) said in a 2019 Inc.com interview, “Situational constraints typically predict behavior far better than personality, intelligence, or other individual-level traits. ”
Honestly, I think that I am lazy sometimes. Sometimes when I wake up and it’s cold outside I just don’t feel like going for my run. Is that better explained as a symptom of anxiety, depression, lack of information, etc.? Heck no. I’m choosing the easier, more comfortable path (rewarded by staying in bed) and avoiding the nasty, dark weather (cost).
But wait! There’s more — and it gets a bit psycho-complicated here but hang with me. In those early morning moments, something complex is going on. I’m actually doing a (very, very fast) cost-benefit analysis. My brain is trying to figure out “What are the long term benefits of me going for my run? What are the benefits of staying in bed? What are the costs of going for a run? What are the costs of staying in bed?” In a second or two, it answers ALL of these questions and the algorithm spits out a response: STAY IN BED! or GO FOR A RUN!
Your college kiddo’s brain is having the same debate whether it’s for attending class, starting that big paper, or taking care of any other number of responsibilities. It always comes down to the cost-benefit analysis.
Sleep will often win because we’re already doing it and it has the added benefit of being a fantastic avoidance tool since we’re essentially unconscious. Add in anxiety, depression, lack of information, etc. and the cost-benefit analysis of getting things done skews WAY more towards the not-doing-the-hard-thing outcome.
The starting point for most college students struggling with motivation has to be action. We often think we need to work on our thoughts and feelings first and then our lives will change. It’s actually quite the opposite.
Rather than trying to not feel depressed or anxious, I encourage my clients to pick the smallest, simplest behavior that could lead to increasingly positive behaviors. For example, if a client can put their feet on the floor as soon as they wake up rather than checking their phone, there’s a much greater likelihood they get out of bed which increases the likelihood of going to the bathroom, getting dressed and getting to class.
The focus has to be on the behavior, not thoughts and feelings. Let’s look at a few other ways we can get ourselves moving.
Develop your "growth mindset." It’s one of the most important attributes to finding that internal ignition switch that pushes us. A growth mindset is a way we see and interact with the outside world as well as our future. It’s a lens through which we look out at choices and review past events. It makes us thrive on challenges and see failure as an opportunity for growth and for enhancing existing skills.
In contrast, a "fixed mindset" assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability can't be changed. The fixed mindset makes us believe that success is exclusively the reward of inherent intelligence. With a fixed mindset, success and avoidance of failure become the way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled — which becomes our identity.
A big project can seem overwhelming which (surprise, surprise) makes it more likely we’ll put off starting it. Plus it's hard to connect with that sense of accomplishment since the payoff (the final grade) is sooooo far away.
When professors ask advice on how to develop their curricula to encourage the most successful outcome for students, I tell them to break projects into smaller pieces with smaller point values with specific due dates throughout the semester.
One client last semester had a class that only had three graded projects/tests/work. That’s a significant proportion of the class spread over very few items. I can hear it now from old school faculty… "I shouldn’t have to hold the students’ hands to help them get through the course.”
Of course not, but what I'm talking about is not holding hands and coddling. It’s the science of how we get stuff done. If I told that same professor he was only going to get one paycheck per year, he’d be furious. Not just because of having to budget very differently but also because those biweekly paychecks provide a dripping incentive to keep working.
Whatever the project, academic or otherwise, if it's a big one, break it into smaller pieces.
Along with breaking things into smaller chunks, I encourage students to do whatever they’re doing 100%. I’m not talking about effort but attention. If you are studying, study! Put the phone away and schedule at least 60 minutes of undistracted time.
Be 100% present. It’s easiest to be present when distractions are not competing for your attention. Look, it’s really hard to stay focused when you’re not super into the subject, but it’s nearly impossible if the phone is sitting right next to your book or laptop.
College students can share their accomplishments with parents, friends or whomever is in their little tribe. Having that external validation (reward) lights up multiple parts of our brains such that we want more of those positive thoughts/feelings again.
Our ultimate goal is to move away from dependency on external rewards but for this initial phase when college students are really stuck, intentionally setting up external rewards is essential.
Hook your life to someone who’s crushing it. I don’t mean turning into some stalker-ish fanboy. Surround yourself with YouTubers, podcasters, writers, professors, ANYONE who is leading a life you want.
Regular doses of inspiration from people doing great things can provide a bit of meaning and purpose until we develop our own. This makes me think of David Goggins. I won’t share his whole bio here but suffice to say this guy really did come from nothing and built an amazing life for himself...but only after he started searching for a role model.
We are not islands, so until you’ve got that fire in your belly intrinsically pushing you, find inspirational people to get you through.
Finally, here are some behaviors to avoid which compromise motivation:
The paradox is sometimes the less parents do the better. Yes, you read that correctly. Parents' most effective strategy is often to back off and give the space for their kids to rally.
I’m not talking about giving up or not caring. Love and random text and phone calls are so crucial. Besides, I couldn’t convince you to stop caring anyway.
I am encouraging you to apply your energy more effectively. Instead of asking “How’s your engineering class going?” consider saying, “You don’t talk about your engineering class anymore” and then adding, “What are some things keeping you from being more successful in that class?”
Bam! When asked how things are going, EVERY student will use the “F” word — “fine.” Don’t bother. Let’s skip ahead. We already know things are very not fine. So let’s figure out specifically what’s in the way.
Hint: it’s almost always related somehow to motivation. Parents: reduce the quantity and increase the quality.
Next, try focusing on the obstacles (anxiety, depression, lack of information/data, etc.) and the measurable outcomes (grades, GPA). When parents dial up the curiosity (“What’s keeping my college kiddo from getting stuff done?”) and dial down the judgment (“Wow, they’re so lazy!”) parents move towards greater understanding and improved outcomes.
There is some interesting (and not all that surprising) research that shame and blame make procrastination worse.
Without a compass heading, it’s hard to be committed to the process. Parents generally have a strong sense of purpose. But we didn’t always.
We forget it takes time to cultivate that alchemy of purpose and college kids often struggle in these early adult years of finding it. Parents have an opportunity to provide nurturing and some gentle nudging to help their kids find purpose.
Purpose doesn’t have to be some celestial life mission saving the whales or curing cancer. It might be something more proportional to young adult-ness. Relationships can provide purpose. Getting into grad school or landing that job from the internship could be something that provides a compass heading.
Ask your kids what matters to them. Start that dialogue about meaning, purpose and values. Talk about how what matters to you has evolved or adapted over time.
Finally, parents can practice patience. It took years for your college kiddo to feel so unmotivated. It may take years to find that spark again. The irony is that by blaming a college student’s motivation issues on laziness we are ourselves being, well...lazy. The lack of motivation is complicated, so dial up the patience and cheerlead the processes in life as much as possible.
Help your student take the best possible care of themselves and get support when they need it.