Dr. Stan Kutcher is a champion of mental health literacy. One place where most of us could be a heck of a lot clearer is when we talk about stress and the stress response. Listen as Dr. Kutcher explains what the stress response is—and what it is not. Or read the transcript below. It’s really, really important for educators (and parents and teens and … all of us) to understand what the stress response is—and what it is not. Stress has been vilified. It has also become a wonderful marketing vehicle. We tell people, “Oh, you can’t experience stress. Here is a product that will take away your stress. If you are experiencing stress, just go buy another product.” That’s not where we want to go. Part of the reason that we’ve been doing that is that we have had a misunderstanding of what the stress response is.
Stress is not inherently good or bad. The stress response is your emotional, cognitive and physiological reaction to a change in your environment. That change in your environment can be challenging or it can be an opportunity. How you respond to that change in your environment matters. If you perceive that the response you are getting is negative, is bad or horrible, that what you have to do is get rid of it, you’re never able to use the stress response for the purpose for which it was actually designed. It’s designed to tell you that your homeostasis is being disrupted.
It’s designed to tell you’ve got to do something because something in your environment is changing and you need to react to it. That actually is a good thing because you need to be able to use that stress response to:
• Reach out to other people • Engage with other people • Strengthen our bonds with others • Strengthen cohesions within our communities
We always go farther and better if we go together.
The stress response always comes up around exams. Educators can model how to think about this by using the right language, and also teaching students what those signals mean. We can be harmful to students by telling them that if they’re feeling nervous, upset or feeling concerned about this challenge (and also it’s an opportunity)—that they have anxiety and that the anxiety is pathological, that anxiety is going to be overwhelming to them and they can’t handle the situation. And if we keep doing that over and over and over again they will believe us! They’ll say, “Oh yeah, I can’t handle that situation” and they won’t learn how to handle that situation. They will end up defaulting to “I can’t do that … you have to do that for me.”
But if we teach young people that the nervousness, worry and concern they’re feeling is a normal response to the challenge and opportunity arising in examination, and that this should be a signal that they can learn skill sets to assist them. We have to teach them these skill sets:
• Teach them skills that they can use to study • Teach them capacity-building techniques for dealing with complex information
We know how to do that!
You could say to the class: “Exams are coming, you are going to feel really, really stressed out, it’s going to be overwhelming for many of you. And if you feel stressed, go see your guidance counselor.”
Or you could say: “Exams are coming. You’re going to feel nervous. You’re going to feel worried. You’re going to feel concern. And that’s normal. Because those are the signals that are telling you you’ve got a challenge and an opportunity that you’ve got to deal with.”