The 'empty heart' sickness that afflicts many college students

Liu Xiaolin
Loneliness and a sense of meaninglessness, not wanting to die but not knowing what to live for either ... "Empty heart" sickness affects a good number of college students today.
Liu Xiaolin

Podcast: EP32

Loneliness and a sense of meaninglessness, not wanting to die but not knowing what to live for either, a lack of supportive values ... These are some of the traits affecting a good number of college students today, an affliction termed "empty heart" sickness.

The mental struggle, first highlighted by Peking University psychology professor Xu Kaiwen, mostly affects college students who were always straight-A students but have experienced a significant drop in college.

The 'empty heart' sickness that afflicts many college students

"Empty heart" sickness is affecting a number of today's college students.

"It's a mental disorder caused by a lack of values, which leads to identity issues," East China Normal University psychology professor Wang Chenbo explained.

Wang added that many people adapt well to change or loss and can heal themselves. Those who did not take the time to establish the meanings of their own lives are the ones who suffer.

"Adolescence is a time when people form solid identities, whether they are rebels or have conflicts with their parents," he said. "If one does not take the time to actively explore the meaning of life and instead accepts the value imposed on him or her, it may very well result in identity foreclosure and thus trigger the mental disorder."

With October 10 marked as World Mental Health Day, Shanghai Daily caught up with Wang to learn more about the ailment affecting students now.

The 'empty heart' sickness that afflicts many college students
Courtesy of Wang Chenbo

Psychology professor Wang Chenbo

Q: What exactly is "empty heart" sickness?

A: It is a common saying that is not found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). According to professor Xu, it is a mental disorder caused by a lack of values, which leads to feelings of loneliness and meaninglessness. Having spent almost their entire life living up to others' expectations, those suffering from this illness fail to find their own meaning in life when they enter college, resulting in complete loss and difficulties with self-identification.

Professor Xu delivered numerous public speeches on the illness from 2014 to 2016, with Peking University students serving as prominent examples. They were probably straight-A students all their lives before becoming the last ones in class when they started college. This massive drop destroyed their foundation, causing the sickness.

Q: So it's not the same as depression?

A: Yes. The main symptoms of depression are sadness and loss of happiness and interest in everything. According to the DSM, the psychological Bible, "empty heart" sickness is almost certainly diagnosed as depression. It does, however, happen to a specific group of people who have a higher education and have been successful their entire lives. When it comes to a pivotal moment in their lives or the time to plan their own future, the method they always use, which is based on social recognition, no longer works. As a result, they are befuddled.

Q: Has there been an increase in this illness among Chinese college students in recent years?

A: Throughout the years that I've been teaching psychology at East China Normal University and Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, I've seen many students who are always fired up and, for the first time, begin to consider the meaning of their lives. It was at those times, late at night, that they looked up into the sky and realized they might have some mental issues. It frequently manifests as anxiety, especially in today's rapidly changing society. I once gave a lecture and said that sometimes youth is meant to be wasted, which struck a raw nerve with the students sitting below. They suddenly realized they had been too hard on themselves all along. So, yes, there are many students around us who are experiencing the symptoms.

It could be related to our home education. Parents of the Generation Z have been hard workers since they were children, battling their way up the career ladder. They are demanding of their children while providing little love, education and unconditional positive regard – a Carl Ransom Rogers concept that means supporting and loving the children no matter what.

Similarly, our fundamental education places a high value on academic performance, with little emphasis on the allure of knowledge itself. Furthermore, the dominance of utilitarianism may lead to a unified single value system.

However, this does not necessarily imply that society is becoming more depressed. In many ways, the Generation Z has demonstrated diverse value orientations. During the process of setting these values, some vulnerable children who try hard but don't get good results may get upset.

Q: What are the consequences?

A: They would become less motivated in the future, with no interest in studies, life or work, which are symptoms of depression. However, standard depression treatment does not work on them. Because when a person has strong doubts about the worth of life, he or she will devolve into this nihility in philosophy. He or she is completely self-consistent in logic, making it difficult to change. One cannot adapt to society unless they have a strong sense of reality.

"Empty heart" sickness is most common when a person is exploring the meaning of life with changing values. According to developmental psychology, teenagers should form a strong sense of self between the ages of 12 and 20. Teenagers with "empty hearts" clearly fail, leading to identity confusion.

After graduation, when they land a job that suits them and see an increase in income, they gradually develop a solid sense of reality. If they keep hitting a brick wall, the situation may deteriorate. Recently, it has become more difficult for college students to find work, owing in part to the coronavirus pandemic. If they can't get out of this void, things could get dangerous.

Q: Is this emptiness connected to the term "mental friction?"

A: Yes, it very well could. "Empty heart" kids lived their entire lives based on the expectations of others – straight-A students, good boys or girls of teachers and parents. As they grow older, they want to maintain their appearance, maintain their social connections, and be extraordinary. If all of these fail, the emptiness that everything is for naught arises.

The period when they are still struggling to be recognized is referred to as "mental friction." The friction is the result of all the effort they've expended trying to bend their own wills in order to meet expectations.

The 'empty heart' sickness that afflicts many college students

"Empty heart" kids lived their entire lives based on the expectations of others. As they grow older, they want to maintain their appearance and social connections, and be extraordinary. If all of these fail, the emptiness that everything is for naught arises.

Q: How does social distancing affect symptoms?

A: During the pandemic, people experience mental distress. Isolation measures, such as online education, will make one feel trapped and helpless. There will be loneliness if you are isolated in a physical space. I saw a couple of old men standing in a circle a few days ago, watching the others play poker. That is how strongly social connections work. The connection is made through physical eye contact and the presence of others. The same is true for college students. Face-to-face communication cannot be replaced by an online class.

In addition, we live in the Internet age. It allows people to connect with people all over the world. There are many talents out there, extremely excellent peers, and the wider world has a huge impact – how can I not be like that?

It's very easy to deny yourself if you don't have a strong heart. When you're in your teens, you always feel like you're the center of the universe, and you have this heroic complex. People my age become more realistic and realize we're all just regular people.

Q: So, how do we treat it?

A: I would recommend cognitive behavioral therapy, such as talk therapy, to help them accept themselves better – to reduce comparison and lower expectations, as well as to care for themselves and accept themselves as they are, good or bad. It may take some time to really get to them. Once trust is established and they begin to open up, the therapist will challenge their beliefs in order to change their unreasonable perceptions.

Previously, after we went through the slide of "empty heart" sickness in my lectures, there were always a couple of students who stayed behind after lectures and wanted to chat with me. I recall one of them, a sophomore, completely denying himself – rubbish college, rubbish major, and himself a total piece of garbage. He's been working hard and keeping a full schedule since he was a child. He occasionally just wanted to take a break and play video games for 30-60 minutes. He used to beat himself up all the time. Why not discipline? Why squander time? Why not put in more effort?

"Do you feel happy when you play?" I asked. He said yes, but then he started blaming himself for not sticking to the schedule. This is pure self-torture.

More lectures like this, I believe, can be inspiring. They may fall in love with psychology and seek out books, and perhaps they will learn what it means to be completely accepting and will be able to relax, cut themselves some slack, allow themselves to waste some time, and accept the fact that they may or may not achieve a specific goal. Life may be a long race, or it may never be a race at all.

Some emerging alternatives, such as meditation and art therapy, can temporarily and rapidly calm emotions. It may be easier to accept new ideas after venting. People's minds are strange; sometimes epiphanies occur during the course of art therapy.

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