Practicing mindfulness: How students can cope with stress

By Jordan Green

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MIAMI COUNTY — The school year is beginning to wind down, and for students, this means things are starting to wind up. Finals, AP exams, and end of term projects mean student stress levels will reach their peak in the coming weeks.

“Not all stress is bad,” said Brad Reed, director of Community Resource Development for the Tri-County Board of Recovery and Mental Health Services. It is the body’s natural response to a new situation. Stress prompts the release of the hormone known as cortisol, among other glucocorticoids, which help keep the brain alert and focused.

“But this type of stress should be temporary and in response to an actual situation,” said Reed.

Bad stress is when it negatively affects someone’s ability to focus. This often occurs during traumatic events in one’s life, or for students, when they become overworked. Bad stress changes the way bodies respond to situations.

Researchers at Harvard have demonstrated through experiment that prolonged periods of stress decrease the activity in the prefrontal cortex, which handles higher order tasks like thinking and learning, in the brain. An increase in the activity of the amygdala, which focuses more on survival instincts, was also found.

“The fight or flight response [produced by the amygdala] is supposed to be short-lived, but if we are constantly on alert, then both the brain and body can become fatigued,” said Reed.

This consistent level of alertness can impact many aspects of a student’s well-being. It can disrupt sleep patterns, cause headaches, increase blood pressure, and contribute to anxiety and depression. Reed even said he knows “people who have cracked their teeth while clenching their jaws during sleep from stress.”

However, it does not have to get to that point. There are mechanisms to deal with stress and prevent it from becoming a long-term problem.

Mindfulness, a self-care concept that has surged in popularity since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, is a set of techniques designed to keep people present in the current moment and control your body and mind.

Taking a moment to be aware of your surroundings, sensations you feel, and things you see can keep you grounded in the present moment and help your brain understand that you are not in danger. The basis for mindfulness is structured breathing — control your breathing with deep breaths, and focus on the rhythm and the sensations that occur on each inhale and exhale.

“When we can control our breathing, we can control our thoughts. And when we can control our thoughts, we can control our emotions. When we can control our emotions, we can reduce stress, increase happiness, and be healthier and more productive,” said Reed.

Slowing down your breathing in a controlled manner can prompt the release of endorphins that “can be an effective intervention for emotion enhancement, including a reduction in anxiety, depression, and stress,” said Xiao Ma in a paper published in the National Library of Medicine.

Sleep also plays a crucial role in reducing the stress levels of teenagers. Teenagers should be getting eight to 10 hours of sleep per night. However, studies show that is rarely the case.

Reed suggests students create a sleep routine and stop all brain-stimulating activities, such as social media, video games, and even studying, an hour before bed. He also notes that caffeine can keep people awake, as well as negatively affect sleep quality.

To combat this, Reed advises that students limit their caffeine intake to one to two servings per day and have none after dinner time.

Lastly, students should make time for activities they enjoy and use them to break up their study sessions.

Test anxiety is another issue students face. It is a form of performance anxiety where students tend to worry about the outcome of the test while they’re taking it, rather than focus on actual task at hand. Reed suggests that following the mindfulness techniques and taking a moment to ground yourself in the present situation can help reduce test anxiety.

Reed says, “Frankly, much of the test anxiety or stress-related performance issues come from parents.” The culture in the U.S. has become outcome based rather than effort based. Rewarding only the outcome and punishments for a less than desirable outcome can majorly contribute to high levels of stress and anxiety surrounding exams for students. Reed suggests parents should support their children by rewarding them for the effort they put into studying. This encourages the formation of long-term habits that will help students in all aspects of life.

More coping mechanisms for student stress and ways parents can support their children can be found at the Tri-County Board’s website at: www.tcbmds.org/resilience

Stress is a natural part of life, but it does not have to control it. Practice these tips to reduce the stress in your life and seek help from your support system when needed.