Stress: How it affects students and learning

By Aalia Malik and Olivia Holland, Editors-in-Chief — It can happen out of nowhere. Suddenly you find your thought process changing from wondering how well you did on that math test or whether or not retaking the ACT is a good idea, to feeling as if every eye in the hallway is on you. You become aware of every muscle movement, every lingering stare. How has something as trivial as walking down the hallway become such an arduous task to undergo?

For many high school students, anxiety has become a way of life. The balance between academics, athletics, social and family functions, etc. has been lost in the pile of AP prep books and college rejection letters.

“The amount of stress a high schooler can handle is a very individual limit,” senior Mianna Schut said. “When activities and stress begin to take away from the quality of what you do and remove priorities, it is too much.”

The number of high school and college students with social anxiety, as well as general anxiety, has dramatically increased compared to students in previous decades. According to the student health insurance medical director at the University of California, Dr. Gina Fleming, the past three years has seen a 20 percent hike in college students who seek assistance for anxiety and depression.

“Stress and anxiety can have effects on all aspects of a individual’s life,” biology and chemistry teacher Bob Ulrich said. “It can affect their physical, mental and social being. It can lead to performance based living (unable to rest or just be at a state of peace without any stimuli), and perfectionism. It could also lead to addictive behaviors due to the need to self soothe stress and anxiety.”

The biological effects of stress on a person’s body are numerous. Not only does someone under stress experience symptoms during the moment of a stressful situation, but the reactions can contribute to illnesses further in life.

“Every time you experience stress/anxiety, the end result is that you are left with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” anatomy and physiology teacher Kristin Wellman said. “If you continually are under stress, this hormone can cause sleep problems, weight gain and then a domino effect of health problems.”

High schoolers today are constantly bombarded with pressures and insecurities that stem from the overuse of social media, as well as the need to overachieve in academic and athletic environments. According to a poll by National Public Radio through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health, high schoolers report that school-related activities attribute to 40 percent of their stress.

Ulrich, who agrees that standardized tests and cut throat academic situations contribute to the stress of students, quotes “high and unreal expectations in academics, sports or arts, and a lack of acceptance or finding one’s place among one’s peers” as being significant stress inducers on the life of a student.

Before a person can begin to de-stress, it may helpful to first identify what is causing them to be stressed in the first place.

“Preventing anxiety-producing situations is key to a healthy lifestyle. If you experience anxiety you need to find out why (are you not prepared), is it out of your control (which most things are), or are your emotions driving the anxiety and then try to remedy it,” Wellman said.

There are many things that students can do to combat their high stress levels. Some activities can be done more on a physical basis to help a person calm down while experiencing great amounts of stress. There are also some mental exercises a person can perform to help stop the stress from starting in the first place.

One of the most common ways to reduce stress is through physical exercise.

“Exercise is the key to stress reduction for me. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain. Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body,” psychology teacher Megan Bird said.

Getting more exercise not only helps with reducing stress but can reduce anxiety and depression and help with sleep patterns.

It is also important to keep a healthy, well balanced diet and give yourself time to do something that you find relaxing,

“Doing something creative (any kind of craft or cooking), physical activity or simply spending time with family are wonderful breaks from stress,” Schut said.

During moments of high stress, like while someone is studying for an exam, when a student may feel like they have no time for anything else but studying, they can try breathing exercises to help calm them down. Bird recommends the 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) exercise.

“Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight. This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths,” Bird said.

Some teachers make an effort in their specific class to make sure students are not overloaded with stress.

“I listen and try to create a safe, fun, challenging and accepting environment in my class. I also try to adapt assessments and due dates for students based on other coursework as well. I make sure to watch for nonverbal signs of distress and address students one-on one,” Ulrich said.

[Updated Aug. 10, 2017: This article has been reformatted for consistency.]