Dealing with stress and anxiety
Our school counsellor and clinical psychologist, Ms Vanessa Sleeman, has some excellent advice about dealing with and overcoming stress and anxiety, especially at exam time.
What is stress?
Stress is described as a feeling of being overloaded, wound-up, tense and worried. It is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat.
When we get stressed, our body responds by activating our nervous system and releasing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These cause changes in our body a fight-or-flight response (fight the bear or run away from the bear, fight the exam or run away from the exam).
Everyone experiences stress at times, but stress can be harmful if we become over-stressed and it interferes with our daily ability to get on with our normal life.
What is the difference between anxiety and stress?
Anxiety and stress are often used interchangeably. However, there is a difference.
Stress is a response to daily pressures such as deadlines, exams, assessments, social and relationship worries. It is a response to a specific stressor.
Anxiety is one of the effects of stress: when a person becomes scared or apprehensive of what may come in the future, they become concerned and anxious about it. It is a more general response to a possible stressor or a future stress.
How much stress is good?
Stress can be a helpful thing at times: it helps motivate and engage us and gives us the energy to study for those exams or complete an assessment task the night before it is due!
Stress can assist us to enhance our performance and keep us focused when we need it. We call this our “comfort zone”, it helps you to stay focused, energetic and alert.
How can we de-stress? And when?
We know that too much stress, particularly over a long period of time, can be harmful to your health.
This includes specific or acute stressors like exams, assignments or doing talks at assembly. It also includes chronic stressors that may continue on for longer periods of time, such as being in Year 12! Or a family member having a long-term illness.
So, strategies to de-stress have to address BOTH short term and long term stress.
Short-term versus long-term strategies
Short term: identify triggers and warning signs (such as headaches, irritability, grinding teeth, jaw clenching) and relieve with breathing exercises, relaxation, mindfulness strategies, visualisation.
Long term: establish routines and habits of self-care to reduce stress over the longer term, such as regular exercise to burn off chemicals, timeout for yourself, good sleep, a support network and eating well.
What are some techniques?
- Mindfulness grounding exercise: 5-to-1 senses, leaves on a stream, watching clouds
- Breathing: noticing the breath, trying to slow breath down
- Relaxation: tensing and releasing muscles (like shoulders, hands, face)
- Visualisation: imagine yourself being successful, doing well, finishing the exam
- Distraction: music, texting, watching a funny video
Some important observations
Since I have been working at Danebank, here are some of the main things I have noticed:
- Girls have a good awareness of issues and stressors that affect them day-to-day and in an ongoing way. This includes not only mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, but also concerns around stress, study skills, organisation, relationships with others, conflict and family issues. The stigma that can be attached to all these issues is being slowly broken down as there is more education and awareness around difficulties that girls face in today’s world.
- I have observed that there has been an increase in help-seeking behaviour, not just counselling referrals, but also girls seeking help from trusted teachers and staff, from parents and from friends, which is wonderful. A challenge everyone faces is the concern around how to support friends who may be going through a difficult time. Regardless of the issue, everyone wants to be a good friend and support their mates through difficulties. However, there are times when it is also important to talk to adults and involve them in the support process – supportive friends alone are not enough to help a friend in need. This is particularly true for risk issues like self-harm and suicidal feelings. As a young person, you CAN’T carry these issues on your own or as a peer group, and no-one expects you to. Involving trusted adults is vital to not only your friends wellbeing, but your own as well. Sometimes a good friend knows when NOT to keep things within the peer group, but to seek support from other sources.
- Finally, it is really helpful to support your friend in their help-seeking behaviour: encourage them to speak to a teacher, year coordinator, or the counsellors. And also remember to support your own wellbeing by doing the same as needed.
Ms Vanessa Sleeman, School Counsellor & Clinical Psychologist