When discussing the stress they experience, my undergrad students work with the language tools they have, often describing anxieties and feelings of overwork in terms of limited time. Between the demands of part-time jobs, family obligations, inordinately long commutes, and homework tasks, they struggle to find time for themselves. Their descriptions are usually simple, personal, and grounded in their experience.
Reasons for physiological stress response, of course, go beyond time pressure. The brain’s job—perhaps its most important—is to alert the body to perceived threats. These threats, or stressors, arise due to sensory input or thoughts, and have been categorized according to multifarious scientific frameworks. Regardless of the stimulus, the physiological response to stress is consistent and likely familiar to Think Tank readers: the body’s energy is readied for fight, flight, or freeze. This is good—or at least it was for our evolutionary forebears. We’re built to mobilize reserve energy to manage unexpected pressures for short periods. We—and our students—are poorly suited for managing these pressures for extended periods of time. You may have already heard the bad news about chronic stress:
In the short term, increased production of cortisol and associated neurotransmitters physically impairs the prefrontal cortex, inhibiting the creation of associations between new and previously known information, impeding decision-making, and delaying reasoning. Neuroplasticity, the malleability that allows the brain to create compensation strategies when adjustment is needed, is restricted. Neurogenesis, the growth of new brain cells and tissues, slows. Beyond the brain, stress-induced hormone responses increase strain on the heart and blood vessels and inhibit immune system response. In the long term, chronic stress—what Kelly, in his article, calls “the killer”—lays the foundation for depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease, increases the risk of stroke, and can accelerate the metastasis of cancers. If all this were not enough, mounting evidence indicates that by way of epigenetic mechanisms, the harmful effects of long-term stress can be inherited by our offspring.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that contributors to this month’s MindBrainEd Think Tank have undertaken to bring focus to new findings and perspectives that can help us to prioritize our students’ emotional well-being, validating their personal, lived experiences with pressure, stress, and anxiety, giving them language tools to describe and discuss their stress, and working with the advantages of the physiological stress response to better facilitate learning.
Clearly, this issue covers a lot of ground. As you digest its contents with your students in mind, a final thought: any flight attendant will tell you that if your oxygen mask drops from the plane’s ceiling—no doubt a high-stress circumstance—your priority is to ensure your own mask is in place before assisting others. There is no shortage of research indicating that teacher well-being impacts learners’ academic and emotional outcomes; mindfulness, exercise, self-care strategies, and good nutrition go a long way. Surely, we will be more successful in developing our students’ strategies for managing the stress they feel if we maintain a healthy relationship with our own work as well. If you, like my students, can never seem to find enough time, reading this issue may save you some in the long run!
Arnsten, A. F. (2009). Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 410-422.
Bunker, S. J., Colquhoun, D. M., Esler, M. D., Hickie, I. B., Hunt, D., Jelinek, V. M., Oldenburg, B. F., Peach, H. G., Ruth, D., Tennant, C. C., & Tonkin, A. M. (2003). “Stress” and coronary heart disease: Psychosocial risk factors. Medical Journal of Australia, 178(6), 272-276.
House, A., Dennis, M., Mogridge, L., Hawton, K., & Warlow, C. (1990). Life events and difficulties preceding stroke. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, & Psychiatry, 53(12), 1024-1028.
Justice, N. J. (2018). The relationship between stress and Alzheimer’s disease. Neurobiology of Stress, 8, 127-133.
Matthews, S. G., & Phillips, D. I. (2012). Transgenerational inheritance of stress pathology. Experimental Neurology, 233(1), 95-101.
Mirescu, C., & Gould, E. (2006). Stress and adult neurogenesis. Hippocampus, 16(3), 233-238.
Moreno-Smith, M., Lutgendorf, S. K., & Sood, A. K. (2010). Impact of stress on cancer metastasis. Future Oncology, 6(12), 1863-1881.
Pittenger, C., & Duman, R. S. (2008). Stress, depression, and neuroplasticity: A convergence of mechanisms. Neuropsychopharmacology, 33(1), 88-109.
Wang, H. X., Wahlberg, M., Karp, A., Winblad, B., & Fratiglioni, L. (2012). Psychosocial stress at work is associated with increased dementia risk in late life. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 8(2), 114-120.
Zee, M., & Koomen, H. M. (2016). Teacher self-efficacy and its effects on classroom processes, student academic adjustment, and teacher well-being: A synthesis of 40 years of research. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 981-1015
Jason R. Walters is Assistant Director of the Core English program at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies. His primary research interests include self-access learning, native speaker-ism in Asian EFL education, and practical applications of positive psychology in the classroom. <[email protected]>