Anxiety and Stress

Posted: January 10, 2018 in Uncategorized

Exam Meme

Recently, my wife and I were chatting with some friends over sushi about the rise in student stress and mental health issues in general. “Do you notice,” a friend asked, “that kids seem to be stressed out these days? What do you make of that? Like, are you seeing that in your classes?”

I’ll begin by saying that stress and accompanying anxiety are real. Other mental health issues are also real. I believe I can safely say that teachers try to walk that line between “suck it up” and sensitivity. Example: A student says they can’t write my test because they are experiencing stress or anxiety. What do I do as a teacher? Do I tell them, “You’re right. Tests are stressful. Good luck!” or do I tell them, “I’m sorry that you are feeling that way. Write it when you are feeling better.” Life is filled with stressful situations, so at what point is the stress too overwhelming and when do students need to simply “deal with it”?

I mean, is the student in the above example trying to get out of my test or are they really struggling? My suggestion is to engage in a conversation about how they’re feeling. A simple, “Tell me what you are most anxious about when it comes to the test” can uncover a quick “I didn’t study” to more complex and deeper explanation as to what is really going on.

But why now? In other words, why are stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues such big issues all of a sudden? I’m not THAT much older than my students and I don’t remember this ever being discussed when I was their age. Does life suck all of a sudden? Can we blame this on technology too? (Actually, in our sushi conversation, this possibility was brought up by my wife – her point was that many students don’t know how to communicate well with each other in order to get help. Their emotional fix is through “likes”). Are students putting too much pressure on themselves or is there pressure put on them from other means?

I assume there is simply more research on the subjects, so the awareness is becoming more important. But then we are faced with over-diagnosis, unhealthy drug treatments, and pathologizing what would be considered “normal” behaviours.

I watched a video, which I immediately shared with my students, by Dr. Mike Evans (an associate professor of Family Medicine at the University of Toronto – he is currently helping with Health Innovation with Apple in California). In his short video, he highlighted the differences between positive and negative stress. Too much stress is obviously negative, but healthy stress can help you perform at your best (he references athletes), as well as develop your coping mechanisms and problem-solving skills.

So, perhaps the key is *drum roll*…EDUCATION! Maybe we need to teach students HOW to cope with stress and different strategies that may be helpful. My school has recently hired (as of September 2017) a professional in the field of mental health who is on-campus every day and is available for students to seek help from if need be. Our school has also adopted a wellness week (timely, since exams are next week), which includes a variety of activities during lunch that are free for students to engage in. These activities range from sports to therapy dogs.

If you Google coping strategies for stress, there is a long line of suggestions (less caffeine, more sleep, breathing exercises, keep a diary, etc). However, it never seems to be that easy of a fix. As Dr. Evans suggests, we need to change the way we think about stress and understand that it’s normal, but that we cannot escape from it.

 

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