Learning to Cope: Tackling the Stress Mess on Campus

By Clara Kobashigawa, News Editor

   Typically when students think of stress, they imagine anxiety, school, and depression. Today the word “stress” is constantly tossed around at family dinners, teacher meetings, and student conversations. Kids normally think of stress as a negative term associated with school, homework, and busy schedules. Students such as senior Josh Baginski believe that stress can alter your mindset, making you toss and turn at night.

   “Stress is bad because it’s an involuntary response that is counterproductive to the task at hand. Being super stressed the night before a big test makes it so you can’t fall asleep, or being super stressed before a game makes you play worse,” Baginski said.

   Though we think it is a negative, stress may be a natural, innate blessing in disguise.

   “Stress is a response that evolution has wired into us to help us survive. It demands that we respond to something in the environment,” Diana Divecha, a developmental psychologist and research affiliate of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, said.

Mitroff Student Stress Cartoon

Cartoon by Christine Mitroff

   While chronic stress can lead to mental health issues, a little bit may not be too bad. According to the inverted “U” model created by Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1908, the amount of stress can be thought of as an inverted “U” graph (see graphic). A certain amount of pressure drives students to study harder, finish the last math problem, or read the final chapter. However, too much pressure can lead to anxiety or depression.

   “I think a little bit of stress can help someone get work done and perform well,” Acalanes psychology teacher Lauren Allen said.

   Divecha agrees with Allen that a certain amount puts pressure on students and people in general to perform at a high level; however, too much is not healthy.

   “There is optimal stress; it is what helps us perform, inspire, achieve, and master. There is a good range of stress,” Divecha said. “It is when it is on all the time that we get into a situation called toxic stress. It is when the stress system never gets to recover and then it starts harming our biological systems and our mind.”

   According to Divecha, stress can cause unsettling emotions and lead to an unhealthy mind frame. Stress can also be defined as a feeling that one is not able to handle the events or environment.

   “Stress is a feeling that you don’t have the resources to cope with the events that are occurring in your environment or internal events,” senior research scientist at the New York University (NYU) College of Nursing Noelle Leonard said.

   Stress is something a person experiences in response to a stressor. The function of our ability to respond to the stressor is partially based on our resiliency. 

   As society has evolved, many believe that stress levels have increased. Christina Bradley, the Postgraduate Associate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, believes that the pressure to go to a prestigious college has put a burden on many students, causing them to be stressed.

   “In my work with high school students, it does seem that stress levels are rising even for high schoolers,” Bradley said. “The expectations for excellence seem to have risen over the past few decades and more and more high schoolers are feeling the pressure to go to top college.”

   Acalanes social studies teacher Jed Morrow agrees with Bradley and believes that due to the increase in population rate and the lack of increase of colleges, universities are becoming more competitive than ever.

   “I think stress has increased over the years. It has to do with college admissions; we have the same number of [California State colleges] and [Universities of California] as we did many years ago,” Morrow said. “The college system has not grown sufficiently and it’s crowded and harder to get in and they are making more demands on students than they have in the past, so that causes stress.”

   NYU’s Leonard has found that in numerous studies, high school exhausts students and pushes them past their breaking point. The stress in high school can lead to even more issues in college.

   “What we have been seeing and hearing is that by the time students get to college, they’re exhausted because particularly the last two years of high school are so pressured that by the time they get to college they are so worn out,” Leonard said.

   It is well known that high school stress comes from busy schedules, massive homework loads, and extracurricular activities. However, some of the other causes of stress are less obvious. According to Divecha, the rising economic inequality influences parents to put pressure on their children to succeed.

   “The economic environment feels more threatening to parents and parents are wired to prepare their offspring to survive in the environment as they perceive it,” Divecha said. “Animals on the savanna, their strategies are to protect their offspring for survival and humans kind of do [that] in the larger sense. If we parents feel as if it is a very competitive landscape out there we are going to parent in a way that we think is going to help our kids survive.”

    Bradley believes that it is hard to pinpoint stress on one party. Parents, teachers, or students are not individually at blame, but as a whole they unknowingly work together to create student stress.

   “I don’t think you can blame stress on any one party. Students become stressed by many different sources: teachers, parents, themselves, friends, society, et cetera. One of the main causes of stress in my opinion is expectations,” Bradley said. “When students are constantly trying to reach expectations that others or themselves have set for them, it seems to increase stress levels.”

    Divecha argues that college industrial complex adds pressure to students and the increase stress shortens the innocent period of adolescence.

   “[Colleges] have colluded to make parents believe that they are so selective that students will have to twist themselves into pretzels to thread that needle of admissions,” Divecha said.

   While assigning less homework is an obvious way to ease pressure on students, there are other more obscure ways to reduce stress levels.  Leonard believes that by meditating, even if only for a few minutes, students can calm down for a moment.

   “A lot of meditation is accepting what is happening in the moment because so much of stress is related to the future: future tests, college, etc. What happens with stress is that you are missing the moment of your high school,” Leonard said.  “Everyone, parents, schools, and students, need to be engaged in mindfulness. We can’t just put the responsibility of coping with stress on [students].”

   Divecha agrees that taking a moment to recoup does wonders and also advocates for recognizing feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression. According to Divecha, research shows that a student’s emotional life is most predictive of ultimate success, not their intellect, and that schools should foster an environment to support that.

   “I think the systems need to recognize this and students can make changes in their day life. This can be done just by naming feelings or by recognizing them. Once you know what you are feeling and why you are feeling it you can make a conscious choice to upregulate or downregulate it,” Divecha said.

   Acalanes school nurse Dvora Citron believes that managing our stress levels may be easier than it seems.

   Citron said, “We can’t always control the sources of stress, but we can try to better equip ourselves to manage them by our health and wellness on a daily basis.” 

   She recommends doing this by maintaining a stable nutrition, sleeping, and keeping active. Also, she believes that students should try to have sources of happiness, gratitude, and compassion so that there is something to brighten your spirits.

   With multiple counselors, weeks dedicated to mental health awareness, and mindfulness activities, students, teachers, and counselors are trying to reduce the amount of pressure in school. Acalanes is proactive in trying to reduce student stress.

Healthy Kids, WASC, and Challenge Success surveys have identified it as a problem, and Acalanes is focusing on attacking the epidemic, according to Acalanes Associate Principal Andy Briggs.

   Briggs said, “ I feel like we are addressing it. You can see it in our schedule, there is a lot of talk adjusting calendars, there has been talk of putting wellness centers at four of the districts.”

   However, there is always a chance for schools, even Acalanes, to grow and expand their support for stressed students. Leonard strongly believes that schools focus on aiding support for their students and teach students to defeat the illness.

   “Stress is part of life, but particularly when you think about high school it is supposed to be a learning environment. Not just learning chemistry and calculus but how to deal with the world,” Leonard said. “If we aren’t teaching our high school students how to effectively deal with pressure from many people or multiple pressures than we are not educating them appropriately.”

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