UNLV senior Olivia Williams is preparing to embark on the writing career of her dreams.
That’s why she enrolled in Stress, Coping, & Resilience: A Communication Approach, a new course taught this semester by Tara McManus, an associate professor of communication studies.
Williams plans to pursue a master of fine arts in creative writing and one day open a publishing house. She knows achieving her goals will require her to push through stressful moments and navigate all sorts of relationships.
“When I come to class, I know I will walk out with a better understanding of how ingrained stress is in our day-to-day lives,” Williams, 22, said, “but I also leave feeling prepared to address it and look out for new sources or ways to cope, which I think is the key.”
Stress is everywhere. It can bubble to the surface in disagreements with a co-worker or linger amid difficulties at home.
“For better or worse, stress and uncertainty are things that never go away. We’re never going to resolve them in our existence, so learning to cope, learning to manage them effectively, really become necessary for us,” McManus said.
McManus’s research focuses on how humans use information and engage in social support to manage difficult situations.
“I am really interested in stress and uncertainty. How do we choose to manage stress? How do we choose to turn to others when we manage stress, and why do we choose to try to manage it ourselves? Humans are so diverse and we’re so unpredictable. We all do it in different ways and respond in different ways.”
She educates students on how stress affects hormonal, emotional, and physical responsesas well as why activating resources to respond to the threat of stress — otherwise known as coping — can help in overcoming stressful situations.
Students explore the effectiveness of social support. They complete digital journals on their daily stress experiences and create public communication messages to demonstrate what they’ve learned. They’re learning how to translate complex ideas into easy-to-understand messages. McManus encourages students to disseminate these messages to their friends and peers through conversations or social media.
“In a lot of ways,” she said, “by simply managing and learning to manage the stress effectively, we become better at it.”
A New Class at the Right Time
Though it’s been in the works, the class arrived at a unique moment for students, who still may be grappling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
College often requires younger students to confront situations and stressors they’ve not previously faced. However, the pandemic has exacerbated those challenges by worsening mental health struggles, financial difficulties, and job losses for some students, McManus said.
“What COVID did was help me recognize the level of stress that students were having and the difficulty that they were having in confronting and managing it,” she said. “I started realizing, in talking to my colleagues both here at UNLV and other universities, that students in a lot of ways are not aware of all the resources they have.”
As a result, McManus took a skills-oriented approach to the new class. On a recent day, students analyzed a case study, examining how family structure and past experiences can affect responses to stress. While students worked in groups to understand the behavior of the characters in the study, they shared their own experiences and bonded, offering each solace or advice.
McManus connected the real-life examples to the course material.
After analyzing the case study, Maurice Freeman, a multidisciplinary studies major, commented on how his experience differs from his younger classmates’ responses.
Last year, Freeman, a senior who returned to UNLV this spring after a long hiatus, spent 10 days in a coma following a medical procedure.
Recovering from that harrowing experience has been a journey, and along that journey, he has challenged himself to grow academically. He solicits his peers’ input, offers advice, and talks about his experiences.
“Being that I wanted to learn something, the fact that the class was small, it gave me an opportunity to ask questions out loud, to gather information, to ask questions of the instructor,” said Freeman, 40.
Freeman said so far he’s learned the difference between stress and anxiety, and he’s gained insight into how he handles stress differently from some of his classmates.
At the end of the semester, Freeman believes he’ll be able to reflect on course lessons to decide whether he can apply them to his personal challenges.
“My thing is: How do I live a little bit longer? How do you deal with these things?” he asked. “How do you best cope with these things in order to best suit your going forward in life?”
Williams said she knows that when she becomes stressed, she gets overwhelmed.
Identifying that response allows her to engage in healthy coping behaviors, such as taking a break or making a list of things to do. If she needs to get away from the task, she reads or listens to music.
The lessons learned can be taken straight from the classroom into everyday life, she said. She intends to carry them with her as she tells other people’s stories and crafts her own.
“Stress is something we will never not feel,” Williams said, “and by finding healthy ways to cope, we can build up our own resilience to it and lessen stress's impact on living our best lives.”