We did an anonymous “brain dump” – “What effects is the stress having on you both emotionally and physically?” Everyone had a heart shaped sticky note (it was Valentine’s Day after all!) to fill and we stuck them all on the door. As we stood around reading them all, I could hear the murmurs of “me too”, “yes definitely” accompanied head nods as they realised that their classmates were all feeling the exact same things. We talked about the physical effects of stress (yes we talked about tummy upsets, nausea, sore shoulders and backs, feeling tired, lack of appetite) and the emotional ones (easily irritated, fast to anger and yes some of the boys admitted to feeling teary sometimes). We discussed some people preferring to be alone when they are stressed and others craving company. This new awareness enabled a conversation about being respectful of others’ preferences – if you are one who prefers to be around others when you’re stressed, note which classmates share this approach and spend time with them. If someone likes to be alone when they are stressed, leave them alone and don’t take it personally. One of the boys said to me, “Thanks, Bec. I was worried something was wrong with me because I keep getting sick and feeling like vomiting all the time. Now I know it is just the stress, I won’t worry anymore and now I can use that energy for my exams!”
Having worked through what’s normal stress symptoms, I gave them the good news. There are 2 types of stress – distress which, as it sounds, is a negative type of stress; and eustress which is a more positive type of stress. The difference hinges on HOPE and comes down to how we frame the event. If we see the SLC as exams designed to make us fail and that if we don’t get good results our lives will be ruined, this will cause distress and hopelessness. However, if it is reframed to be seen as an opportunity to showcase our hard work and to give us the necessary piece of paper to enable us to go on to achieve our dream futures, then our body and mind react to the hope and respond accordingly, motivating us to study hard and clearing our minds to focus on achieving the best we can do in the exams. We practised reframing our responses to the question they get asked multiple times a day “How are you feeling about your exams?” and responding with an answer reflecting either distress or eustress. One of the girls remarked on the immediate difference in body language between the 2 responses. It was true – a distress response saw the student acting the role with his shoulders dropped, head down, wringing his hands. The same student’s response when he responded with an answer containing hope and opportunity (a eustress response) saw his shoulders thrown back, his head up, hands wide open and a significant confidence in his voice which had been missing before.
By the end of the session, the students had developed a new sense of connection with their classmates, an increased awareness of the fact that they are all facing the same challenge and experiencing the same symptoms of stress, that what they are feeling is normal. They had a new language to discuss with each other how they are coping and they had a reframed view of their exams as an opportunity, full of hope for their futures, leapfrogging the stress of the exams and giving them a glimpse of the hope waiting for them.
The same strategies apply to you. The reality is that we cannot escape the stress in our lives. But we can reframe it to give it hope, to place it in the camp of eustress rather than distress, to be kind to ourselves during the process. And be aware of the effects, both physical and emotional, that stress is having on you. You owe it to yourself to address these. The long term consequences of prolonged stress are huge. There are ways to reduce the impact and face stress with a renewed strength.
We ended the session with a great laughter yoga session. Yes, stress can be contagious. But the best news is that laughter is even more contagious! Thanks, class 10, it is always a pleasure learning with you!
With gratitude always