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Change the Story on Stress

Change the story on stress

I was inspired by a TED talk by Kelly McGongial on “How to Make Stress your Friend” I was so inspired that I completely changed the way I teach stress to middle school students, how I chose to interpret stress and how I talk to my students when they believe they are stressed.

Kelly McGongial is a psychologist who has worked with people for many years telling them stress is bad for your health. After a study with over 30,000 participants was published, she changed her mind. The study found that “believing” that stress was bad for your health was the precursor to bad health due to stress. Those that didn’t identify stress as being bad for them did not suffer poor health due to stress.

If we are able to think and act positively to stress we limit the constriction of blood vessels and we limit the physical effect of stress on our body. Kelly speaks about the difference between the constriction of blood vessels when people are stressed and how the blood vessels have a relaxed response when we think positively about stress.Therefore, new research says that, stress is only bad for us if we believe it to be that way.

It was big enough statement for me to have a look at myself as a teacher and the messages we were sending students. My grade 7 students were embarking on a discussion. Most of the health information I could find was about how we needed to not be stressed, how it was bad for us both physically and mentally. The curriculum shared with students, all the consequences of being stressed: anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation, anger issues and suicide. Health curriculums also address “stress busters” or “how to deal” tips for students to limit stress. However, these tips rarely address or attempt to change the core belief that stress is bad and it is bad for our health.

So how are we trying to change the story?

School being stressful is ingrained in most of our thinking. Students are told by their parents, teachers and even their peers that the next phase of schooling is more stressful than the current. As a class we decided to attempt to change the story, our new story was that school was not stressful, we accepted that we would feel stressed but that we would learn to identify our personal bodies response to stress and by positive thinking and the use of stress busters, act, think and respond differently.

We started by watching Kelly’s TED talk and Scholastic’s youtube channel, “How to Deal with Stress” video. “ This video took Kelly’s TED talk and simplified it, Berna addressed the science behind stress and the reasons why our bodies respond to the oxytocin hormone released during this time. In a fun and entertaining way she provides two stress busters for students “Spartan” and “twerking.” Following us watching the video, I set the students a task that requires them to “Spartan” – start the task straight away and “twerk” use their friends for support. The task is to read up on a mental health topic for our favourite health website – kids health. They are to produce their own “how to deal” video and have it uploaded in only 20mins. The activity is designed to have kids identify the stress responses they feel in their bodies and to act on them. Once we can identify how our body responds to stressful activities we can start to change our thoughts and actions. This activity always has a “lightbulb” moment for the participants. Many students realise the importance of starting something “Spartan” instead of procrastinating. They realise that procrastination is them being overwhelmed by the feeling of stress, that stress is normal belief and not something they can easily control.

Following this we embark on a conversation over many weeks on how we can attempt to change our core belief that stress is bad for us and that school is stressful.Here are some of our tips and takeaways.

  1. We begin each class with 5mins of mindfulness activity. Students can choose between mindful colouring, mindful journaling or mindful meditation. Participating in this activity alleviates the emotions and connections to the previous class, allows time to learn to focus, be still and to minimise the thoughts of the commitments they have in school. It also allows the teacher to disengage from previous class energies, focus themselves to the aim of the lesson and take time to breath and center themselves for the next task. Stop Breathe Think is an app that can help teachers implement meditation easily into their class environment.

  2. Identify your body’s stress response, interpret its message and act on it. Students frequently give examples of being stressed before a test. Their heart rate rises, they breathe heavily, we discuss how this response is the body’s way of increasing oxygen levels to the brain which allows the brain to function at a greater capacity.

  3. Positive mantras or beliefs. Students are to identify a mantra or belief that they can repeat to themselves when they get overwhelmed with stress. “I am not stressed but my body is telling me to act on something, what is it” With positive mantras students can be mindful of their body and thought process.

The surprising outcome of this unit was the outcome of the following unit. The unit switched to nutrition and students were in charge  of their own assessment, they could chose whatever assessment they prefered touse to demonstrate their understanding of nutrition. When the assessment became “stressful” you could hear students saying to each other “spartan” it or “twerk” find a friend or discuss it with someone. There also was a 100% on time turn it in rate.

The conversation that school is not stressful is worth starting.

Stacy Wallace-Cunningham

Health & Wellness Educator at Lincoln School Buenos Aires



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