Guy Brandon is a counsellor, author and the founder of www.StressingOut.org, a website dedicated to resources for stress, depression, anxiety and related conditions.
Stress is a very normal and natural occurrence which happens in response to a wide variety of circumstances. It is an evolutionary response that it triggered by feelings of a lack of control, priming our bodies to react to a challenging situation. Stress has numerous effects on the body, but essentially prepares us for immediate action: fight or flight. The processes involved also affect the mind, altering decision- making processes and enabling us to take swift and decisive action.
Reasons for stress
Although stress evolved to keep us safe from physical threats, it is most commonly experienced for social reasons nowadays – work pressure, problems in a relationship, money worries, and so on. Stress is a one-size-fits-all response, rather being tailored to specific circumstances, and in many such cases it can be counterproductive. Due to the physiological processes entailed, prolonged stress can have devastating effect on the mind and body.
Education – at least, education according to the Western model – is one area that relies on constant stress. There are always targets and deadlines. We spend at least a decade of our lives and sometimes almost two in formal education: a constant round of homework, essays, regular tests, end-of-term and end-of-year exams – which, it is impressed upon us, will shape our careers and the rest of our lives. Stress is built into the education system. But stress is, by its very nature, intended to be a short-term response to physical danger. Education, by its own very nature, has to be a long term undertaking. The result is inherently a recipe for disaster.
The effects of stress and the link with depression
Via a chain of processes, stress promotes the release of cortisol into the bloodstream, which has wide-ranging effects on the body. Perhaps more concerning, though, are its effects on the mind. It pushes us into ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking: impulsive, quick-fix behaviour intended to get us out of immediate trouble. The chain of processes starts in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in the brain. Recent research suggests that depression is also characterised by overactivity in the HPA axis. In other words, it appears that stress and depression are closely linked. Put simply, depression is just a misguided stress response that has become entrenched. Neurologically, depression and chronic stress don’t look so very different. This is hardly surprising when you think that stress creates that all-or-nothing, pass/fail mentality, and depression is characterised by feelings of persistent failure and low self-worth.
Stress and education
In an increasingly pressurised, competitive and market-driven education system, this phenomenon can only become more acute: depression is virtually a built-in hazard. There are several solutions, none of which are mutually exclusive. There is a case for building some or all of them into education syllabuses themselves – since almost by definition, the more ambitious a course, the more prone to negative outcomes for a proportion of students who lack the means to deal with the inherent stresses.
One is exercise: the stress response prepares us for action, and physical activity helps direct that energy somewhere helpful, reducing cortisol levels and returning the body to its normal state. It is no coincidence that exercise is one of the most powerful antidepressants, too.
Secondly, relaxation exercises can help offset the involuntary effects of stress, bringing them to your conscious mind and allowing you put them into context.
Lastly, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) enables you to examine and adjust the link between the way you think and the way you feel, allowing you to ‘switch off’ the automatic stress response in situations where it is not strictly warranted.