September 12, 2021
Mental health includes emotional, psychological, and social well-being, and affects how you feel, think, and act. A wide range of external and internal factors, or often combinations of these, can cause mental health concerns.
Long-term stress is one cause of mental health challenges, and is familiar to educators and students alike, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
But even before the pandemic, mental health issues were on the rise. In a 2018 survey of education staff members ranging from lower school through college, 68% of respondents believed their school or college was dealing with more student mental health issues caused by academic pressures than they faced five years ago.
An understanding of the stress cycle and its stages can inform healthy methods to complete the cycle and thus relieve stress.
The Stress Cycle
According to Healthline, the stress cycle is the human body’s response to a stressor—that is, a perceived threat or dangerous situation. The feeling of stress results from chemicals and hormones surging throughout the body, triggering a fight, flight, or freeze response. Typically, the body relaxes once it has completed this stress cycle.
Not all stress is negative. Stress can be healthy when it helps you avoid an accident or meet a tight deadline. But it should be temporary. Too much constant negative stress can cause adverse physical, psychological, and emotional conditions.
Elevated levels of stress and anxiety in students are leading to higher levels of substance abuse, sleep disturbance, difficulty concentrating, mental health issues, and academic dishonesty, to name a few. Additionally, teachers are seeing an overall lack of students’ engagement in school.
Stress isn’t a one-time event with a single cause and single reaction but is a cycle with many phases. There are many ways to reduce stress, but identifying ways of managing it starts with knowing what your body experiences during each stage of the stress cycle.
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Stages of the Stress Cycle
Here are the five stages of the stress response cycle.
- External Stressor
An external stressor, such as a disruption in your routine or a major life change, is the catalyst event for the cycle. This first stage is the only part of the cycle in which your body and mind don’t have a direct role.
- Internal Appraisal
This stage can occur during or after the trigger event. Internal appraisal happens when your senses comprehend something is not right. As a result, they signal the part of your brain responsible for processing strong emotions, called the amygdala. Once triggered, the amygdala signals the two glands responsible for the body’s stability, or homeostasis—the hypothalamus and pituitary glands.
- Physiological Response
The hypothalamus and pituitary glands activate half of your autonomic nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which controls your fight-or-flight response. By doing so, the other half controlling your immune and digestive systems is suppressed. The SNS releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol and stimulates the cardiovascular system to launch your response.
At this point, you become aware of your stress response—you may notice your stomach is upset or your heart is racing. These reactions may cause you to worry about how you’re handling the stress and can lead to unpleasant thought patterns.
- Maladaptive Coping
This is not a definitive stage of the stress cycle, but more so a choice. You want to alleviate your discomfort and stress, so you turn to coping mechanisms. Termed maladaptive, these responses are habitual but don't relieve the triggering problem. Coping strategies could rely on external substances, behavioral activities, or be concentrated on emotions. Typically, however, these strategies perpetuate the physiological stress responses in your body, thus leading to more stress.
Completing the Stress Cycle
Two common approaches to handling stress are eliminating the stressor or turning to maladaptive coping. While these can be helpful in the short term, they do not always complete the activated stress response cycle—meaning you still feel stressed. Here are seven ways to complete the cycle and send a signal to your body that everything is okay.
- Physical activity: This can be any form of movement, such as walking, dancing, or standing from your desk for a few minutes. Physical activity helps your body alleviate the physical aspects of stress.
- Breathing: Take slow breaths in and exhale slow, long breaths to regulate your nervous system. Stopping for a minute or two to focus on your breathing is especially beneficial when you may not have time for an extended break. It can also help you recognize emotions and attend to any chaotic thoughts.
- Positive social interaction: The natural inclination to connect with others can tell your body you are safe and not in imminent danger, completing the stress cycle.
- Laughter: Genuine laughter—not superficial, social laughter—can bring your body to the end of the stress cycle. Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation.
- Physical connections with others: Research suggests a meaningful hug can lower your blood pressure and heart rate, instantly boost oxytocin levels, and relax muscles. Hugs, like positive social interaction, make us feel safe and happy.
- A good cry: While crying rarely solves or eliminates a stressor, it is a physical expression of emotion and stress. Letting go of your emotion and setting aside the overwhelming situation or information is a way to complete the stress cycle. After only a few minutes of crying, your body will relax.
- Creative Expression: Take feelings of stress, your anxiety and negative energy, and turn them into something creative or tangible to complete the stress cycle. Painting, dancing, and musical creation are some examples of expression.
Alleviating teachers’ stress and supporting their well-being takes a top-down approach. School leaders and Heads must model healthy habits, mental health awareness, and a work/life balance if they expect their colleagues to do the same. Lead by example, in addition to providing information and resources.
Within your school community, destigmatize mental health issues and feelings associated with burnout. Ensure a solid support system, checking in with one another often. Provide teachers with space and time to complete the stress cycle. Determine systematic ways to build in self-care activities such as walking groups, opportunities for laughter and fun in faculty meetings, and encouraging teachers to take paid time off when appropriate.
Caring for your teachers helps them better care for your students.
Students need role models who demonstrate positive ways to deal with the negative stressors they’re feeling and experiencing. Teachers can serve in this capacity by acknowledging stressors and mental health concerns and encouraging the application of healthy habits.
Successful learning requires us to be healthy physically, emotionally, and mentally. When students are anxious, upset, scared, and angry, they can’t learn. Remain student-centered in the classroom. Implement wise policies that prioritize your students’ well-being rather than homework and curriculum. Remove any stigma or social misconceptions and replace them with a positive atmosphere of acceptance.
Students might not have participated in the social activities they enjoyed over the past year—safely incorporating collaboration time with their peers and social time in the classroom can make a difference. Take the principles of experiential activities, like theater and sports, and implement their design in the classroom. When students are cognitively, emotionally, and socially engaged in class, their anxiety and stress levels go down, increasing their learning capacity.
Caring for your mental health starts with awareness and acknowledgment. It’s essential to model and incorporate methods of completing the stress cycle in your school community.
- Helping Your Teachers Avoid Burnout During the COVID-19 Crisis
- A Positive Faculty Culture Can Help Prevent Teacher Burnout
- How Can Schools Help Reduce Student Stress?
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