The conversation surrounding stress is always expanding. From learning about how it affects our bodies, to discussing how it can impact academic performance, there is a vast amount of research on the subject available.
We have compiled the most interesting findings to discover: how does stress affect us? And how can we reframe our mindset to avoid the negative effects as much as possible?
What Does Stress Do to Us?
You are most likely familiar with the feelings of stress. Increased irritability, a weakened immune system and a sense of overwhelming pressure, are all common effects of stress on the body. Stress is a reaction to changes in our environment that make us feel that we can’t cope with the pressure.
Leaving stress to fester and not managing it in ways that work for us can lead to further detrimental effects on our physical and mental health. When students suffer prolonged periods of intense distress, they need proper help and support to aid them in coping. Over-working due to excessive stress can lead to many physical and mental health issues, which is why teachers should try to keep their students from this kind of situation as best they can.
Evidence suggests that stressed students can become severely demotivated and, as a result, begin to experience a decline in their academic achievement. A great example of this is when students are preparing for exams: they very often feel worried about many things, ranging from not having revised enough, to how they will perform, to its effects on their university applications. This pressure can lead to students developing test anxiety and to them performing below their skill level.
The stress overloads their brains and there are not enough resources at hand when they are completing a task. Cognitive overload as a result of stress is very common, and its effects can lead to declines in all cognitive functions. Research shows that experiencing an interference or overload on cognition is strongly associated with poor performance relating to memory and processing.
When students are under a lot of pressure and are trying to revise their brains are overworked and this can sometimes lead to them forgetting important information and slowing down their learning. Click the links to find out more about what causes test anxiety and strategies to overcome it.
When is Stress a Good Thing?
“Too much, too little, just right”. Identifying when stress is a good thing and when it’s reaching an extreme can be explained by the Goldilocks Principle. This principle states that if stress falls within certain margins, it acts as a motivator - but when it reaches an extreme, it becomes detrimental.
When students experience low levels of stress, they can feel demotivated and bored and this can lead to poor academic performance. As the stress increases, a student’s attention and interest will follow suit. However, too much stress will cause feelings of anxiety in students and impair their performance. The balance between the two extremes is known as ‘eustress’.
Eustress is good stress. It is a positive response to external stressors, leading to a state of optimism and confidence. This type of stress helps us stay motivated and work towards our goals. When faced with a challenging task, teachers should reassure students that they have the skills necessary for them to succeed. Also, the opportunity to develop new skills can be a point of motivation for many students as they can understand how they will be useful further on. Students who feel as though they are being academically challenged are likely to have a more focused attention and work at their optimal performance.
Research shows that altering your evaluations of stress from ‘threatening’ to ‘challenging’ can improve responses to stress. Your stress mindset shapes how you handle situations. This means that teachers should encourage their students to change the way they view certain situations that may be considered stressful. One way to do this is for teachers to provide solutions and resources for students who are faced with a stressful task. This may help them feel more comfortable in their abilities to complete the task, instead of panicking and feeling helpless.
Treating the task in front of you as an opportunity to improve will transform your mindset and help you perceive situations in an optimistic light, instead of viewing them as a threat. Reframing isn’t the process of pretending everything is fine when it’s not, it’s about finding a new way of perceiving a tricky situation. It is about focusing on what you stand to gain if it goes well, not what you stand to lose if it goes badly. This process allows you to implement a growth mindset as it places the importance on learning and improving, instead of worrying about being judged and making mistakes.
A study by researchers at Yale University investigated the impact of having a stress mindset. They found that stress was either viewed with the potential to enhance or debilitate performance. Those students who viewed stress as helpful reported feeling better mentally, having better performance, and being more likely to seek out feedback. If participants had high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, then believing that stress was good for them helped lower it. On the other hand, participants with low levels of cortisol experienced a raise in the hormone when they believed that the stress was good for them. The findings of this research demonstrate how a stress mindset can be developed and how learning that it can help us, is key.
Having a stress mindset can lead to us making poor choices and viewing every situation as a negative one. In order to progress and succeed in both our academics and elsewhere, we must begin to reframe our mindset and take advantage of stressful situations as an opportunity to challenge ourselves.
We have put together free resource six-packs to help support you during lockdown. There is something for everyone: teachers, parents and students. Download them for free here.
We also recommend our free printable goal setting worksheets. They will help students develop and maintain a good routine to promote their learning and well-being during lockdown.