I’m delighted that this week’s blog post comes from a guest blogger. Slowchathealth aims to amplify the voice of health teachers and their allies, and this week we welcome Caroline, a health and wellness advocate and writer who tweets as @eHealthInformer. Caroline hopes to work towards getting society to view wellness and stress in a different light so that we can all focus on the more important things in life. She knows health educators are the first line of defense against misinformation and she tries to support them as much as possible.
While obesity and a lack of physical activity have reached almost epidemic levels in the United States (and that is a major concern), something I’m seeing in schools, universities and workplaces is a stressed-out population. There is constant pressure from top schools and parents to do more and to work harder. Some stress has always been part of growth, but teens are now effectively “mirroring adults,” and they are paying a price for it.
This is concerning for every child involved for the following reasons:
- If students become “used to” stress this young, it makes it that much harder for them to reduce it later in life, leading to a lifetime of stress-related health issues.
- Students may be more tempted to try and relieve stress in unhealthy ways, such as under/overeating or abusing alcohol (or drugs). It could also adversely affect emotional health or make mental health problems worse.
- Sleeping and focus can be negatively affected by stress, causing academic performance to suffer.
- A high-stress lifestyle puts students at risk for such things as heart disease and could potentially contribute to a weakened immune system.
Stress is as much a societal problem as it is a health problem, but health education professionals can help students overcome this if they consider the following:
Success Isn’t Always the End-Goal
Many students live very structured, pressure-filled lives because they’ve been taught doing so will allow them to have a resume that looks appealing to colleges. Extra classes and extra-curricular activities are common, and there’s an even greater emphasis on good test results, with many teachers pressured to encourage these high results.
As an educator, you can’t change everything or change too many parents’ minds, but you can show students new modes of thought. This does not necessarily mean grading easier or discouraging extracurricular activities. But it does mean emphasizing and teaching that sometimes more means less when it comes to success. It is possible to learn more from failure than success, and students will eventually find failure. It’s important to show them this is okay and a normal part of life. Show students the importance of opportunity cost when it comes to their health so that they don’t push themselves to hard and they keep their focus on the bigger picture.
Facing these truths will let students make clearer decisions regarding the stress in their lives, which will help them put less pressure on themselves.
Taking a Breather
It may come as a shock, but some students simply don’t have time to dedicate to just relaxing. They spend free time playing video games or chatting on their phones, but those activities don’t necessarily count as focused time for calm reflection. Meditation or non-strenuous exercise are great for this, as is a daily fifteen-minute walk. Something different will work best for each student, so try to make sure to suggest many different options. Encourage or assign students to try at least a few to help guide them towards seeing the benefits of these practices.
Depending on the student’s grade level, it might even be best to use some research to explain the benefits of those activities with your lesson. Even a short meditation session in class might prove useful to those who are open to trying new things.
Take Technology Out of the Equation
Something that has changed drastically in recent decades is the use of technology by students (old and young) and the prevalence of technology and social media in students’ lives. This usually results in more stress than less, but social pressures and compulsive loops drive students towards it nonetheless. Some will even try to use Virtual Private Networks or proxies to use the internet in class without restriction, so be on the lookout.
Try to express to your students the following:
- While technology can reduce stress when used well, there is more to life.
- The “fear of missing out” is a great part of why social media is so addicting. Develop strategies and examples that show the flawed logic behind this fear. Challenge students to go for three to five days without it and see how they feel (in all respects).
- Try to avoid using too much technology in your classroom in lieu of more active participation. Students are getting plenty of experience with the digital world elsewhere.
An Intertwined Problem
Anyone reading this will certainly know this already, but health is a far more complex problem than seeing a problem and making a simple change to fix it. Achieving good health requires a full and balanced lifestyle.
If a student isn’t eating a balanced diet, it’s only natural they’ll be more prone to stress, and if a student isn’t getting enough sleep (and many aren’t), their stress levels are going to rise. Either way, it could turn into a negative feedback loop, with stress making it harder to get into good routines and habits.
Educators can help by teaching students to identify the root of their problems or by encouraging them to consult a health professional if things are getting bad. Additionally, lessons about how problems can compound and how a single healthy choice can help a person in multiple ways might be in order, depending on your curriculum.
We don’t have all the answers just yet, and it will always be difficult to find a balance. Yet we can’t do nothing. Student stress must be considered when we educate and a healthy level of stress must be thought of as being just as important as a healthy diet and exercise. In fact, we can’t get one without the other.
Find more from Caroline at www.ehealthinformer.com
Q1) Are students more stressed than they were five years ago?
Q2) What have you tried to do to reduce stress in your classroom?
Q3) Do you think your school encourages a healthy and balanced use of technology?
Q4a) What type of assignments do you think best encourage real change in your students when it comes to stress?
Q4b) What resources do you share with your students to promote stress management?
Q5) What habits does your school environment foster regarding stress?