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Zen Stones

Operational Definition: What is Calmness?

Calmness refers to a general resistance to stress, whereby students who score low on this factor are more likely to become stressed and those who score high are less likely to do so.


Based on a review of the stress and coping literature generally (e.g., Endler & Parker, 1999; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), as well as college-specific stress literature (e.g., Dyson & Renk, 2006; Park, Armeli, & Tennen, 2004; Pierceall & Keim, 2007; Struthers, Perry, & Menec, 2000), and even the consideration of research in high-stress industries (e.g., Clegg. 1999; Deary, Watson, & Hogston, 2003; Edwards & Burnard, 2003), ISSAQ’s model of stress includes two important factors: Calmness and Coping Strategies.


According to this research review, what we often perceive as “stress” is a complex phenomenon. It begins with a perception that current stimuli in one’s life exceed their resources. For example, a student who is attempting to finish a big assignment, meet expectations at a job, and fit in socially has high demands on their time, energy, and other resources. If they perceive this demand to exceed those resources, stress can ensue. Specifically, Calmness assesses the general tendency for students to have this perception that the events in their life are exceeding the resources available to them.


Empirical Relationship to Success (Does it Predict Student Success?)

The results of empirical studies relating student stress and outcomes in higher education are mixed. Two large-scale meta-analyses (O'Connor & Paunonen, 2007; Poropat, 2009) found neuroticism - the personality domain most closely related to stress and anxiety - to have essentially zero correlation with student outcomes. Additionally, Markle et al. (2013) found no relationship between students' sensitivity to stress and first-semester GPA, retention, or grades in entry-level math or English courses.


Other studies that focus more specifically on student stress and coping have found a complex relationship between stress, other factors, and student outcomes. For example, Dyson and Renk (2006) found that stress interacted with factors such as masculinity, femininity, and coping strategies to predict depressive symptoms. 


Thus, it is likely that Calmness alone is a notable predictor of success, but rather should be considered in combination with other factors, such as Coping Strategies, Sense of Belonging, Self-Efficacy, and access to other resources. For example, Piercall and Keim (2007) found that stress and coping interacted in predicting student drinking behavior.

Practical Relationship to Success

When considering stress in practice, it is important to remember the “Yerkes-Dodson law,” which describes a nonlinear relationship between arousal and performance (first described in Yerkes, & Dodson, 1908). That is, if arousal is too low, people are unmotivated and under-perform. If people are too aroused, stress ensues and performance suffers. 

When applied to students, one can easily imagine that, if a student has zero stress, that could be an indication of disengagement. Conversely, if a student is overly stressed, negative outcomes such as anxiety or problematic coping mechanisms may be more likely. Thus, all things being equal, a moderate amount of stress (or, in this case, “Calmness”) may be best.


The other important factor to consider in relation to Calmness is coping. As mentioned, students who perceive stress (i.e., score low in Calmness) are not immediately susceptible to many of the negative outcomes associated with stress. If a student perceives a stressful situation, the next factor to consider is how they cope with that situation. As the section on Coping Strategies discusses, there are adaptive coping strategies (i.e., those that help to solve a problem) and problematic strategies (i.e., those that do not address the problem and therefore lead to negative outcomes, such as anxiety). 


Thus, what we perceive as stress for students truly emerges when a student encounters one of two situations:

  1. They perceive stress and feel they have no mechanism with which to cope;

  2. They perceive stress and their coping strategies are problematic.


How do I help students improve in Calmness?

Calmness is a Strategy Factor.

This means that providing direct feedback, tools, and resources can help students build this skill.

When students are struggling with stress, there are three key steps to keep in mind:

  1. First, determine whether the student's stress and anxiety are sufficient to warrant more intensive support. In this case, connecting a student with counseling resources is essential.

  2. Otherwise, the approach should consider both Calmness and Coping Strategies. Connecting the student with resources to handle their overall reaction to events, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction, can provide Calmness strategies (see the Student Resource Hub).

  3. A guided conversation about Coping Strategies is equally important (see Coping Strategies Student Resource Hub, also). Since no one ever avoids stress altogether, developing approaches for how to respond to stressful situations must also be a focus.



Clegg, A. (2001). Occupational stress in nursing: a review of the literature. Journal of Nursing Management, 9(2), 101-106.

Deary, I. J., Watson, R., & Hogston, R. (2003). A longitudinal cohort study of burnout and attrition in nursing students. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 43(1), 71-81.

Dyson, R., & Renk, K. (2006). Freshmen adaptation to university life: Depressive symptoms, stress, and coping. Journal of clinical psychology, 62(10), 1231-1244.

Edwards, D., & Burnard, P. (2003). A systematic review of stress and stress management interventions for mental health nurses. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 42(2), 169-200.

Endler N.S. & Parker J.D.A. (1999). Coping Inventory for Stressful Situations (CISS) Manual (2nd ed.). Toronto: Multi-Health Systems.

Lazerus R. & Folkman S. (1984) Stress Appraisal and Coping. New York: Springer.

Park, C. L., Armeli, S., & Tennen, H. (2004). The daily stress and coping process and alcohol use among college students. Journal of studies on alcohol, 65(1), 126-135.

Pierceall, E. A., & Keim, M. C. (2007). Stress and coping strategies among community college students. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 31(9), 703-712.

Struthers, C. W., Perry, R. P., & Menec, V. H. (2000). An examination of the relationship among academic stress, coping, motivation, and performance in college. Research in higher education, 41(5), 581-592.

Yerkes, R.M. & Dodson, J.D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology. 18 (5): 459–482.

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