The school year is halfway through and many students already feel the stress of school and their parents consuming them. The pile of homework and continuous activities become a double-edged sword as students find ways to escape stress. These can be healthy release mechanisms like exercise, watching TV shows or planning ahead on assignments, or they can be unhealthy, risky coping mechanisms, such as drinking, smoking, drugs or accessing pornography. As the year goes on, “18% of students will [try] drinking alcohol with a result of 4,300 deaths of teens,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How we release stress depends on how far we want to take it.
The brain reacts to stress with the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that functions as a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system, so the person has the energy to fight or flee. The fight-or-flight response is responsible for the outward physical reactions most people associate with stress, including increased heart rate, heightened senses, a deeper intake of oxygen and the rush of adrenaline. According to Harvard Health Publications of Harvard Medical School, a hormone called cortisol is released, which helps to restore the energy lost in the response. When the stressful event is over, cortisol levels fall and the body returns to normal.
When chronic stress is experienced, the body makes more cortisol than it has a chance to release. This is when cortisol and stress can lead to trouble — high levels of cortisol can wear down the brain’s ability to function properly. According to several studies, chronic stress impairs brain function in multiple ways. It can disrupt synapse regulation, which can make people less social and avoidant of others. It can kill brain cells. It can even reduce the size of the brain. According to the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, “Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. While stress can shrink the prefrontal cortex, it can increase the size of the amygdala, which can make the brain more receptive to stress.” If Boston students inhale an unhealthy amount of stress in the school year, it may take a toll on the way students learn, resulting in a drop in grades and in the relationships they have with others.
A common way students become stressed is through procrastination. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Procrastination is the action or habit of postponing or putting something off.” This habit not only causes stress but also results in lousy performance on assignments and very poor grades. Elizabeth Green, an adjustment counselor at BC High, suggests that students start with the easiest part of the assignment. “Just [make] sure you start,” she said. And for some kids, try to “chunk the work” — not looking at the “big project” due — but breaking it into smaller steps.
Green also suggests making work a daily habit. “So whether you have a lot of homework on one day or not very much at all...between these hours I’m doing homework.”
An example of making homework a daily habit is by setting an alarm at 4 p.m., so when the alarm rings, you can start with homework and studying for quizzes and tests. Another example is using a planner to estimate how much time an assignment will take and planning what assignment to start first.
Another way students can relieve stress in a healthy way is through exercise, like taking a walk outside or doing 10 to 20 push-ups. Exercise and other physical activities produce endorphins, chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress. In addition to exercise, meditation and breathing deeply can cause your body to produce endorphins. Some apps to help with meditation include HeadSpace, Calm and SimpleHabit. For other students, taking breaks from homework can release stress. “Take breaks and do something else for a bit,” Graham Owens, a student at Boston Latin School, recommends. “Also doing something relaxing like playing video games and hanging out with friends [can help].”
Lastly, speaking to someone, like a friend, parent or counselor, may relieve stress. “Friends help me release nervousness and uneasiness,'' says Ethan Motoslavsky, a student at Boston Latin School. Talking to someone is less scientifically proven in relieving stress, but a study conducted by Vanessa Pouthier, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, found that people who emotionally vent in the workplace are more comfortable and pleased to be at work than those who don’t.
However, other students don’t have access to talking to a trusted parent and instead see their parents as another set of stress. It is important to understand that the parents play a major role in how much stress a student can feel as well. It is critical that parents play a role in helping their children cope with stress.
“Parents can help their children, by reminding where their priorities are,” Green said. “So, parents can prioritize what work is important to them and the values that are important to the family. Parents can also help by reminding their kids that grades aren’t everything.”