Stress in School

Most definitions of "stress" start from the idea of an ancient hard-wired physiological fight or flight mechanism in which thoughtful analysis of a situation is too slow to aid survival. Even in the animal kingdom, however, this resource is used very sparingly: a lion at a certain distance, especially when one's lookouts are on duty, presents little immediate threat, so essential grazing can continue. If every remote threat were responded to with thoughtless panic, the animal would flee from its food resource or engage in an unwinnable battle and in either case, perish.

Recognising signs of stress in bodily responses and thinking is useful to train a person to take stock of the real threat level and develop effective coping responses. Methods can include breathing and relaxation techniques, promoting positive "self-talk" and various forms of behaviour practice to gradually re-experience situations formerly perceived as threatening, without alarm. Where anxiety is persistent and/or severe it would be wise to seek assistance from a suitably qualified practitioner who can advise and support you over time.

However, stress is lived in a social context and even the "internal voice" is often about others' presumed views and judgments. Therefore thinking about stress as residing within the individual is a limited viewpoint and likely to miss crucial information to do with relationships. For young people in school, this is particularly important as they try to gain acceptance - ideally as themselves rather than for "fitting in". The consequences of not being accepted within the peer group can lead to over-compensation - a driven desire to achieve in another way - and at times can be catastrophic, since children who experience isolation, rejection and ridicule can feel despairing and avoid school altogether or even take their own lives.

In the background, as children go through developmental changes and face a raft of demands in school, their families are also changing - and sometimes problems there become the foreground. So, strong and apparently "irrational" reactions to apparently mild stressors might turn out to be entrely understandable once the fuller picture becomes clear. Such thinking ought to be part and parcel not only of schools' pastoral support system but also of their approach to discipline.

Another common model for examining stress is that of resource:demand imbalance. Again this approach has its applications. On the resource side of the equation, students might get in touch with under-used capabilities, including better work organization and time-management. They might also recognize that their coping resources are depleted, for example through lack of sleep - a variable 5- 7 hours instead of the 8-9 they probably need in mid-teens. Some attempted solutions to the cope with perceived demands can also be self-defeating, such as such as escapes through alcohol, smoking, drug use and time-wasting distractions.

On the demand side of things, the first step is to take a measured look at what the demands actually are and indeed whose they are. Many students have to wrestle with pleasing parents, impressing teachers, living up to a clever brother or sister, before they can think clearly about they want themselves. A good form teacher or Head of Year ought to be able to help with this.

They might also help to break tasks down into realistic and achievable smaller steps which is far better than the sense of doom associated with "resolutions". It is important to recognize that the demands really might be too much and "something has to give"- far better to drop a subject than risk your health.

Finally, life's not all about work and achievement - so when you look at how you spend your days make sure there's plenty of time for fun, activity and doing nothing in particular!

Have a look at this additional resource for stressed or anxious young people.

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