Stress is a Killer. There is no doubt about that. What can we learn from the students struggling in today’s education system?

During Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, the week my eldest daughter embarks on her GCSE’s, I wanted to explore this issue to see what lessons we can learn.

The world of education has shifted compared to when I was studying rather a lot of years ago, and in today’s world there seems to be a worrying trend towards some students becoming so stressed that they are unable to cope with the pressures of School, College or University.

It used to be the case that, back in the day, if you said you were a College or University ‘Student’, there was an automatic assumption that you had an ‘easy life’ swanning around from one intermittent lecture to the next, and you were doing well if you could manage to drag yourself out of bed in enough time to make your afternoon lectures.

Those days are gone.

And now, there are alarming statistics about students feeling so much pressure to perform, that they are ending up on anti-depressants or worse, taking permanent drastic action to ease their suffering.

In 2016, there were 143 suicides at British Universities, with Bristol University having 11 student suicides between 2016 and 2018. That is 143 preventable deaths, and beautiful lives cut drastically short. Thankfully, measures have now been put in place to provide support but worryingly, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, ‘the number of first-year students arriving at university with a mental health condition is now five times the number it was 10 years ago’.

Which begs the question, what is happening in the earlier stages of education that is contributing towards this? I recently heard a Mum in my local area explaining that her child was feeling so much pressure and stress in the run-up to exams, much of which was being fuelled by one specific action the School had taken, in the misguided belief it would motivate the students. They erected a huge screen high on the wall in the Cafeteria, displaying a daily countdown of the number of days left before the exams started.

I have no doubt that the Head had the best of intentions, and for some children, maybe it would act as a positive motivator. But it’s worrying to think that this was used across the board, with no discernment, in the belief that it would be an effective motivator for all of the children.

Can you imagine what effect a countdown clock would have on you in your place of work, visibly counting down the days to something that you’re not really looking forward to; increasing the pressure you feel on a daily basis and creating a sense of fear and foreboding.

I wonder whether the children were asked whether this would motivate them to perform better in their exams? I also wonder how many times this happens in other organisations and teams?

If you really want to introduce an effective motivator, why not ask the person or people concerned what they would be motivated by, instead of making assumptions that could bring about the opposite effect. And once you’ve asked them and introduced a system, keep checking in with them so you know whether it is still motivating them further down the line. People change, and so do motivations.

Stress is a serious subject. But what exactly is it? My definition is that stress is your perceived inability to cope with the demands being placed upon you with the perceived resources you currently have available.

In other words, stress is an inside job. In reality, it has little to do with what is going in your outside world, and everything to do with your perception and internal processes. A small amount of appropriate, contextual and healthy stress to get you fired up before an exam, an interview or a performance can sometimes be a good thing. It keeps you on your toes and lets you know you care.

But when you are fuelled by fear and stressed over a prolonged period, your body remains in the fight-or-flight response, releasing cortisol and other damaging hormones, and this can play havoc with your long-term health.

If you can’t change what goes on in your outside world, you must find healthy ways to manage your stress internally. If you don’t, your health is at risk. Period.

Trying to motivate anyone through fear is not sustainable. In any environment. So please, Education System, think carefully before choosing your motivator of choice.

If ever you find yourself feeling stressed, here are my top 5 tips for alleviating symptoms;

• Stress involves your internal thought processes, so instead of being locked in the same thinking patterns, consciously decide to have a different point of focus. Find a mantra that you find calming, and say it to yourself until you feel calmer. Something like

I am safe, I am calm, all is well….I am safe, I am calm, all is well….

• When feeling stressed, your breathing will tend to become more shallow so turn your attention to breathing deeply and slowly. Place your hand on your stomach so you can feel the expansion with each in and out breath and count slowly along with your breathing

In 2 3 4, Out 2 3 4, In 2 3 4, Out 2 3 4…

• Move outside and reconnect with nature, breath the fresh air in deeply, close your eyes and enjoy the feeling of the outside air on your face and skin

• Reconnect with your senses to get yourself grounded. Pay really close attention to each of your senses in turn.

• Focus on everything you can see, asking yourself the question ‘What can I see?’ and naming each individual item in reply out loud, if appropriate, or to yourself if not (eg I can see X, I can see Y, I can see Z). Then repeat for everything you can hear, ‘What can I hear?’ I can hear A, B, C and then everything you can touch

• Focus on what you are grateful for and say out loud every tiny aspect of your life that you appreciate, even being grateful for the fact you woke up this morning.

In 2019, stress is widely accepted as being the number one silent killer in our world. According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is a major contributing factor in the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, respiratory ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.

So, when I talked to my daughter today about doing her GCSE’s I gently explained that whilst I will always be there to support her to do the best she can; no exam, no job, no degree, nothing she decides to do in her life will ever be worth sacrificing her health for. And if the pressure ever gets too much, it will always be OK to just stop, review and if necessary for the sake of your health, change direction and walk away.

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