Stress, The Student and The Brain: Introduction
David Hesketh, MSc (Neuroscience/Education)
I was standing in his research office. The clinical white walls were dressed with graphs, photos of brain cells and diagrams of cellular processes. “Stress is the next hot topic (in brain research)” declared my professor of McMaster University Medical Centre in Canada. As a young neuroscience graduate student, I pondered this with a certain awe. But I have to admit, I really didn’t understand what he was talking about. In spite of my lab coat ‘status’ that allowed me the freedom to roam the corridors and study in this state-of-the-art hospital, I was pretty green, pretty naïve.
In my teaching years that followed, as a laboratory biology, chemistry and math teacher and as an administrator and principal, I gave little heed to his words. But I did experience plenty of stress! It was 20 years after that day in Dr Niles’ office, when I was criss-crossing South Africa speaking in hotels for a health and wellness company, that the ‘penny dropped’. Stress, my research was showing me, was the primary source of ill-health. I started my own research into the impact of stress on the body and the brain, the great coordinating organ of body function, consciousness and experience.
The questions came fast and furiously to my mind. Why do we get stressed? How does it turn into health conditions? What can we do to reduce its impact? And, recognizing personally how my emotions could hijack my clarity of thinking when I got stressed, I began to investigate the relationship of stress to thinking and intelligence.
In a nutshell, here’s what I’ve discovered. Stress is a learned, biological and cognitive reaction to a perceived threat. It is triggered by circumstances that are linked to subconscious experiences we have had, mostly in early childhood. That means we become wired for stress by conditioning.
This led me right back to my roots as an educator. What can we do to help students, parents and education professionals to minimize stress? For, as we shall see, stress is at the root of every human problem and behaviour. So, if we can reduce stress levels with children, teenagers and adults, we empower greater efficiency (less error), performance and creativity because our students will be more focused, successful and content. This will in turn build a greater peace within the individual which will contribute outwardly to global peace.
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