Stress is something that students, indeed all of us, experience on a daily basis. For young people, it is brought about not only by academic demands but also peer/social, family and other relationship challenges. Additional triggers can include family financial challenges and its residues, crime, loss and death, amongst others. And with the advent of modern technologies and access to instant information, those stress levels are set to climb higher due to ‘Digital Stress’ (as will be discussed in a later section). In fact, stressful living has become so pervasive that many of us don’t know we are stressed. We perceive a life of stress the way a fish would experience swimming in water. In other words, we don’t know the difference.
More than ever, stress is being heaped upon our young people without giving them the coping skills to manage it. Many are just left to figure it out for themselves. And then, kids get even more stressed. And we have all heard of, if not experienced, the sad, ugly or devastating consequences to families and communities as a result. It is my assertion that understanding stress, its mechanisms and teaching kids (and people, in general) techniques of how to put stress in its rightful place, needs to be at the forefront of a) how we support our growing young people at schools and, in the future, b) how to redesign our education systems to provide a balanced approach to education and life itself.
Research shows that stress is the precursor to almost all physical, emotional and psychological ailments, the symptoms of which, alarmingly, are showing up in our kids on an increasingly frequent basis and at younger ages (ADD/ADHD, school and exam anxiety, panic attacks, childhood depression, eating disorders, drug use, digital addictions, bullying, etc.). The most logical solution to this would be to decrease the pressure on children. Yet, our systems, our governments, regulatory bodies and institutions are trying to stay ahead in a world of fierce competition and so, are they, and we, swept along in this inexorable race to ensure success.
From a strictly academic point of view, stress has been shown to compromise optimal brain function, inhibiting the attainment of the full potential of individual intelligence. The most striking effect of stress is upon thinking; the brain function upon which we all depend to achieve every goal, whether large or small. When stressed, we react: the functions of which are coordinated by the lower, more primitive parts of our brain. When this happens, we literally lose access to the higher thinking faculties of the more responsive, reasoned functions of the higher, more evolved brain. This process is called ‘Downshifting’, the subject of Part 2.
Next: The 5 Primary Regions of The Brain