What is stress?
We all experience stress and know the feeling, but what exactly is it? We need to better understand stress itself to respond in a healthy way.
The World Health Organization defines stress as, “A state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives… The way we respond to stress makes a big difference to our overall well-being.”
Stress is an important aspect of being human that helps us do important things like stay alive and handle responsibilities in life. The medical and psychological communities recognize two kinds of stress: eustress (positive) and distress (negative). The pressure we feel as a deadline approaches is eustress nudging us towards essential action. Parents can even experience it on behalf of their students who may not be concerned about when things are due or getting started early.
The problem is the healthy eustress that motivates us can deform into distress that prevents us from making progress. Distress can hijack good intentions, derail the best laid plans, or even convince us that we are not good enough.
The key is learning how to leverage positive stress like a superpower and overcome the obstacle of negative stress.
How can we manage negative stress?
Prolonged distress can negatively impact our physical and mental health making pre-existing conditions worse or even causing new ones. Learning how to decrease negative stress is essential for our long-term health and success.
Call it by its name: Negative stress
It’s easy to accuse ourselves of being “bad” students, parents, or employees when we struggle with normal activities. Sometimes low performance is the result of poor preparation or even laziness that should be addressed.
Other times, when we struggle to focus on the task at hand, miss deadlines, or lash out at those around us, we aren’t simply failing at our duties or in our relationships. Something deeper is happening in our minds and bodies that we didn’t notice until its worst effects are in the open. Anyone can have a bad day, but bad weeks or months signal that healthy stress has denatured into negative stress.
Begging your student to try harder won’t be enough. Help them recognize that negative stress has taken over to begin the process of managing it.
Care for your body
Our minds and bodies are connected. What we put into our bodies and what we do with them affects our mental and emotional health. When high stress turns into negative stress, care for your body by getting more sleep, exercising regularly, and eating healthier.
Your student will feel like junk food and binge-watching is an escape, but those mechanisms prevent our bodies from responding well to stress. Don’t skip the workout. Don’t pull multiple all nighters. Caring for your body is essential.
Communicate instead of isolate
Negative stress is isolating. It can cause us to treat those around us poorly by being irritable or impatient. Although short-term isolation feels calmer, we are pushing away help from those who care the most about us. Your student’s quickest reflex to stress is most likely retreating to their room and shutting others out.
Patiently offer lines of communication and support. On the other side of isolation, listen to them communicate their stressors and fears. Help them think through where the negative stress is coming from and how to control their response.
How can we activate positive stress?
Healthy positive (eustress) stress can unlock higher performance like a superpower lying dormant in your brain. Chronic procrastinators know that when a deadline draws near their brains are capable of unleashing a flash of energy to complete heavy tasks. Athletes or high achievers know that when the game starts or the big presentation begins, their brains unlock a higher level of performance.
How can we cultivate healthy stress without the bad habits of procrastination or denaturing the fuel into negative stress?
Set Your Own Deadlines
Hard due dates are your friend. Encourage your student to add due dates to their calendar for big papers and tests. Set deadlines for phases of large projects. Sometimes teachers or professors will require deadlines for research or rough drafts but not always. Help your student develop the skill of scheduling work for themselves and keeping those deadlines.
Cultivate Daily Routines
20 minutes of daily work over several weeks will lead to better results than one mad dash two days before a deadline. Guard windows of time daily to work on assignments, reading, and papers. Think about academics more like an athlete. Daily practice on studies will give your brain its own version of muscle memory. When the big moment arrives for the SAT or presentation, positive stress will supercharge the skills you have practiced during those daily sessions.
Take the Leap
While too much stress is unhealthy, no stress at all is worse. Life would be completely dull if you never pushed yourself into stressful situations. Growing academically, professionally, and personally all require taking a leap when opportunities arrive.
Cultivate the habit of daring now. Signing up for the poetry competition or trying out for the team risks rejection. But your superpower of healthy stress will activate when you walk on stage or take the field. You won’t activate healthy stress without stretching yourself.
At Clackamas Middle College, we provide our students resources to help manage stress and opportunities to push themselves personally and academically. We offer programs to support students during the college application process and to prepare them to thrive when they get there. Our counselors are here to help students cultivate healthy habits in regards to stress.
So if you need help managing stress or are looking for opportunities to get involved, get in touch with us today to learn more.