Growing stress resilience in schools

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” –Viktor Frankl

Stress is the frequency at which many schools operate. Recent studies show that nearly half of all teachers say they experience high daily stress and rising teen stress levels now exceed those of adults.

I initially learned there are three evolutionarily wired responses to stress: fight, flight, or freeze. Chronic stress without release can lead to the sympathetic nervous system stuck on “on,” where anxiety and hypervigilance live, or stuck on “off” in disengagement and lethargy. In schools, this is reflected in the narrative of students who act out, stop coming, or disengage. And it results in both devastatingly high dropout rates for students and burnout rates for teachers.

Yet, this is only part of the narrative. It is both limited and limiting in the way it neatly bypasses the options and agency that can emerge through discerning the various other types of stress responses and leveraging them to help us thrive in a charged situation. Taking a moment to step back, hold space for what’s arising, and examine what’s happening with spacious curiosity can lead to wiser insights on what to next say, think, or do.

While we may try to “manage” stress (eliminate, calm, ignore, or suppress it), under the framework of “stress resilience,” we can learn to emerge stronger from how we work with stress. This can make all the difference in how those in schools teach, learn, and lead.

Though it is an ongoing process and practice, I’ve found these elements to be helpful for growing stress resilience:

  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness is an open willingness to pay attention to present moment experiences. In schools and in life, it can help cultivate responsiveness rather than reactivity so that when big feelings or thoughts emerge, we can tune in, get clear, and truly listen to what’s present. It can be as simple as taking a few breaths to start or end a class. My students remark on the usefulness of the technique “RAIN” in working with emotions through Recognizing or labeling them, Allowing them without pushing them away, Investigating how they feel in the body, and Not identifying with them as part of who we are or even belonging to us (the pain instead of my pain).
  • Working with uncertainty. As humans, we try to predict, plan, and control our way out of stress and discomfort. Yet the true freedom lies in getting comfortable with uncertainties in life and embracing the unknown. We can recognize what is in our control in a situation and what there is to be grateful for as we hold ourselves lightly and relax into the present moment. It isn’t a passive or indifferent response to uncomfortable experiences, but rather an empowering one that invites wise action from a place of expansive awareness.
  • Cultivating a growth mindset. Post-traumatic growth happens through reflection and applying meaning so that stressful situations are transformed into learning opportunities. It can be facilitated through guiding questions in the classroom like “What did I learn from the situation? Is there anything I’m grateful for that came out of the difficult situation? What skills or strengths did I cultivate as a result of what happened?” In her book The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal writes that we can allow stress to awaken “core human strengths of courage, connection, and growth…people who are good at stress allow themselves to be changed by the experience of stress.”
  • Practicing self-compassion. Showing kindness to ourselves in the face of stressors can soften the impact of challenge in the face of our human flaws and imperfections. Psychologist Martin Seligman writes of three P’s that stunt recovery from setbacks: personalization in thinking we are at fault, pervasiveness in thinking the difficulty will impact all areas of life, and permanence in thinking the effects will last forever. In the classroom, we can work with the P’s to soften the tone of self-talk by repeating phrases to ourselves like “I know this is hard for you… I’m here for you… It is part of the human experience to feel this way…It won’t always be like this.”
  • Process and release. Learning how to process, digest, and let go of stress physically, expressively, or creatively can transform stress into the wisdom of learned lessons. Even taking a few deep breaths or shaking out the hands can be helpful to begin to release tension that is being stored in the body. In and out of schools, expressive outlets like journaling and art have both been shown to be effective in processing emotions and events. Acknowledging that we are not our emotions, thoughts, past, or stories, can begin to create separation and letting go between the stressor, the body’s response, and the expansive nature of the true self.
  • Connection. Alongside adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine, stress releases the bonding hormone oxytocin, which can lead to stronger social connections as we reach out to others in our challenging times or seek to comfort those in distress. This is known as the “tend and befriend” stress response. Whether as part of a trauma-informed curriculum, restorative justice circle, or group discussion the opportunities for students and teachers to share the narratives we live and the stressors we face can lead to less social isolation and more connection as we realize that everyone has their own battles.
  • Healthy living. Sufficient exercise, nutrients, and sleep are protective factors the body needs to sustainably thrive. Epigenetic research shows that on a cellular level, healthy living choices can slow the shortening of telomeres (protective sheaths at the ends of each chromosome), which has a positive impact on gene expression and how we respond to stressors.

Stress can be so much more than a threat response. It is a messenger of information that arises when what we care about is at stake, as the body mobilizes resources to help us meet the challenge. Whether performing on a test, giving a presentation, in an important meeting, or other situations that may activate a stress response, we can pause to recognize the sensations, identify what we care about in the situation, release emphasis on the result, and choose a response that aligns with our goals and values. One of my students recently wrote in a reflection that “stress is inevitable for everyone—we all deal with school, work, relationships, and other stress-inducers—but what is most important is that we don’t suppress it. We learn how to manage and cope with it.”

How we view stress, learn to work with it, and explore our relationship with it matters. Through reframing the stress response as an opportunity to learn resilience, we gain so much more than a calmer outlook. We gain freedom.

 

Linda Yaron teaches Stress Management for Healthy Living and Introduction to Yoga at the University of Southern California. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory, she is a National Board Certified Teacher who taught for twelve years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and served as a U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow. She is trained in mindfulness facilitation through UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.

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