Stress Relief Strategies

Stress Relief Strategies for Students and Families

There’s no question that for many Australian families having a teenager in the final year of their schooling is stressful.
As 2019 enters its final quarter, it may be time to consider some simple strategies that students (and their parents) may undertake to relieve or even prevent some of the end-of-year stress.

The final year of a young person’s school life is a milestone, as momentous as the first year was. For some, it will be a launching pad into their adult life, whether that means embarking on further tertiary education or entering into the workforce. For others, it may be a time of confusion and anguish, with anxiety about pending exams and worry over what will come after school ends.

Some teenagers reach their late teens focused and ready to take on the world, but many are unsure about what they want to do after they leave school, and struggle to balance both external and internal pressures.  External pressures, such as parental and school expectations, as well as competition from peers,  can lead to an increased feeling of stress and anxiety.  Social pressures also play a huge role at this age and relationships are often prioritised over schoolwork.   Internal pressures may include negative self-talk, low self-esteem and fear of failure, and this combination can lead to apparent procrastination as the student becomes paralysed by their own anxiety.  Not only is this stressful for the young person, but also for everyone they live with.

Here are some tips to help manage stress and keep perspective – 

  • Discover your Strengths.  Acknowledge what you do well, instead of focussing on the negative.   The nature of school assessments is that they tend to draw attention to one’s weaknesses, however, studies have shown that better results are achieved by focussing on what you do well.  Seligman & Peterson’s Values in Action Project (VIA) led to the identification of 24 character strengths and virtues. They developed a free online self-test at www.viacharacter.org where you might get some insights into your best qualities and strengths.  Why not invest 15 mins in self-discovery?  Take the test to identify the top 5 of your 24 “core strengths”, then use them in new and innovative ways when working on subjects that may not come naturally to you.  For example, if one of your strengths is “Creativity” and you find yourself struggling with remembering formulae in Chemistry or dates in History, you can use your creativity to develop new ways to jog your memory.  

 

  • Take time to do things you’re passionate about.  We mostly enjoy doing things that we’re good at, and being good at something makes us feel good about ourselves.  In fact, not only do we enjoy such activities but we may also get a sense of what is known in Positive Psychology as ‘Flow’.  ‘Flow’ is a state in which one is intensely focussed on the present moment and fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus.  You may feel that time stands still or, more often that it passes faster than it actually does.  In this, often the end goal is just an excuse for the working through the actual process; so ‘doing’ is more rewarding than ‘finishing’.  You may be in a state of ‘flow’ when playing a musical instrument, going for a run, painting, solving a maths problem, playing sport or from anything that gives you a deep sense of enjoyment.  ‘Flow’ experiences leave us feeling more capable and skilled, more together than before, not only internally but also with respect to other people and the world in general – ready to face the hard slog ahead (and to be nice to the people we live with). 

Once you’ve identified your ‘flow’ activities, why not spend half an hour engaging with it before getting into your study? You may find you concentrate better and get through your work faster.

 

  • Learn to be Mindful. Mindfulness is remembering that all you really ever have is the present moment and that your life is made up of lots of “present moments”.  Too often we live in a state of rehashing (the past) and rehearsing (the future), one of which is gone and the other hasn’t happened yet. Teenagers, in particular, never really live in the present because they’re always planning the next thing they’re about to do; or they’re “multi-tasking” – writing an assignment, whilst on Facebook, texting their friends and watching TV (all at once!)   As Jon Kabot-Zinn says, we’ve become ‘Human Doings’ instead of ‘Human Beings’.

Small children know how to be mindful if we let them.  Just watch a child playing with dolls and talking to their imaginary friends, blowing detergent bubbles and watching them fly off to the heavens, or eating their favourite food and discovering its texture by squeezing it through their hands or rubbing in on their cheeks!  They are totally engaged in the moment, not in what was, or what may be later, but what is now.  They express no judgment of this moment only complete immersion in it.  Why not engage your ‘inner child’ and acknowledge what you’re doing right now (being present) – whether that’s eating a meal, going for a walk or driving a car, being mindful is about enjoying and savouring that moment, doing just one thing at a time.  

Yet Mindfulness can be even more than just being aware of and appreciating your surroundings.  It also allows you to discover your intuitive self, that part of you beyond thought, beyond emotions, where your ‘gut feeling’ resides. It teaches you to tune into and trust that sixth sense in the pit of your belly, the one that rarely leads you astray.  A survey was done on how successful business people make important decisions found that the majority placed a high value on these intuitive feelings.  They described how they would collect as much information as they could, analyse the data, speak to relevant people; but after processing all this, the final decision would rest on whether the feeling in their ‘gut’ (their intuition) was supportive of the facts and figures.

For the teenager, learning to listen to your inner wisdom may guide you to look after your physical self by eating correctly, incorporating healthy activity into your routine and ensuring you get enough restful sleep.  It may also teach you to believe in your ability to do the best work that you’re capable of doing. For the teenager’s family, practising Mindfulness may help you learn to respond with sensitivity rather than react to any rise in emotional temperature in the household as exams get closer.

 

  • Incorporate a stress-reduction activity, such as Meditation, into your daily routine.  Constant stress plays havoc with our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). This is the part of us that regulates our internal environment based on feedback from our external environment.  The ANS has two arms: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) which is the body’s accelerator and this responds to danger by engaging functions that would be required to fight or flee from a situation (increased respiration, pulse rate and blood pressure, reduced digestive and reproductive hormones).   It prepares the body for physical action.  The counterbalance is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), the body’s braking system. The PNS prepares the body for rest (reducing respiration, pulse rate and blood pressure and engaging production of digestive and reproductive hormones).

It’s important to note that both the SNS and the PNS respond to the imagination in the same way as it does to reality.  This means that a perceived danger or threat, such as the looming deadline for an assignment or exam, may turn on the body’s flight-flight response as effectively as a spider on the bedroom wall.  When such stress is sustained for long periods of time, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol may play havoc with the immune system, thereby increasing one’s susceptibility to illness.

The good news is that the relaxation response can also be activated by thoughts.  Thinking about pleasant events (even when they’re long gone) can make us feel physically better and more relaxed.  Our thoughts are as important as a good diet, if not more.  Most stress reduction programs focus on teaching people how to be selective in what they feed their mind, replacing the diet of junk thoughts with constructive and positive ones.  

Meditation is a particularly effective way of training the mind how to manage strong thoughts and feelings.  In spite of its resurgence in popularity in recent years, there are still many misconceptions about Meditation, with some non-meditators incorrectly describing it as ‘sitting and doing nothing’, ‘the same as sleeping’ or ‘just concentrating very hard’. In fact, Meditation is a tool to enhance self-awareness, develop compassion for self and others, and gain insight and wisdom.
It’s also an excellent PNS stimulator.  Many studies have shown that regular meditation not only lowers blood pressure, heart and respiration rate but it also helps to organise the brain, improve focus and memory and increase creativity.  Numerous scientific studies have now been conducted on the physiological and psychological benefits of Meditation revealing that the bundle of nerves connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain (the corpus callosum) was thicker in regular meditators than in non-meditators. This leads to improved communication between the brain hemispheres in these individuals, resulting in enhanced brain coherence and improved concentration.

For the student, regular Meditation will improve focus and concentration, and enhance sleep. For those living with a student, regular Meditation helps develop patience, build compassion and facilitates the creation of a calm environment.

 

  • Develop your Positivity.  Sure, positive emotions feel good.  But current research shows that they do much more than that! Barbara Frederickson proposes that the ability to experience complex positive emotions beyond physical pleasures or comfort has provided humans with a vital evolutionary advantage.  Her research suggests that in the same way as negative emotions focus our attention on the problem at hand, positive emotions can broaden our perspective. This means that we are better-abled to think outside the square to solve problems rather than confront the issue head-on.

Negative emotions increase our feelings of stress and stress reduces creativity by putting blinkers on our ability to see past the problem (or perceived problem).  Positive emotions, on the other hand, remove our blinkers, give us that “warm and fuzzy” feeling, and encourage us to consider “possibilities”. This enhances lateral thinking, problem-solving and creativity, which has obvious benefits for any student.

There are many ways to enhance Positivity, including developing optimism, focusing on your strengths, keeping a gratitude journal, being mindful of your self-talk (that voice in your head) and meditating regularly.  Learning compassion and kindness towards yourself and others has also been shown to increase Positivity.

Inevitably, life has its ups and downs and some circumstances may be out of your control.  But your reaction to life’s challenges is fully within your control. And by developing your emotional resilience you can learn to respond rather than react to challenging situations, thereby increasing your sense of wellbeing and happiness.

 

Learn more techniques to undertake stressful moments and to meditate HERE.

About the author

Judith Lissing

Judith Lissing is a Scientist, Mindfulness Trainer, Psychotherapist & Wellness Coach, She has a personal meditation practice that spans more than 3 decades as well as nearly 20 years experience in teaching stress management and meditation.

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