How schools are identifying and combatting toxic stress

With GCSE season in full-swing, discussions have turned once again to the level of stress students are put under to perform well in these exams. With the intensity of the tests increasing each year, it’s safe to say that the levels of stress are on the rise for these young minds too. But is this stress a natural motivator, or are we pushing students to the point of toxic stress levels that could cause mental health problems to develop?

According to a recent report by Tes Global, support company Childline delivered 2,795 counselling sessions for exam stress between 2018 and 2019. One third of these sessions took place during the exam season months. The most common age for students to seek this help was between 15 and 16, with girls five times more likely to ask for help than boys.

In this article, we explore the difference in healthy stress and unhealthy stress, how our current exam system may well be aggravating stress levels, as well as the line between stress and mental health conditions and how the two relate to each other.


The difference between healthy stress, toxic stress, and mental health conditions

Although the terms ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ are often used interchangeably, they are very different medically.

Stress is a natural response to present threats. Whether this is pressure at work, home, or school, this current pressure causes adrenaline to be released and cause a feeling of stress. This is a natural reaction in a short-term scenario.

However, too much stress or having the chemical adrenaline linger in the bloodstream for too long can cause anxiety to develop. Anxiety brings a whole host of symptoms with it, including sickness, panic attacks, and dizziness. Anxiety continues to pressure a person long after the pressure-causing event has gone. This can be caused by an internal chemical imbalance, hence the prolonged effects even without a current, identifiable event causing the feelings. This in and of itself can prove upsetting for an individual with anxiety, as they feel there’s no observable reason for them to feel like this.

In short, stress is a response to an immediate, present threat or pressure. Anxiety is usually longer lasting, and often deals with concerns of the future; it is a response to hypothetical, potential pressures to come. Where stress is a response to a currently occurring issue, anxiety has been considered as an intolerance for uncertainty.

When to embrace stress

Healthy stress is temporary, and it can indeed be beneficial. It is born out of our fight-or-flight instinct, where present threats or pressures took the form of predators more than academic performance!

Feeling stressed before an exam is normal. The adrenaline is all part of the body and brain getting ready to perform. It is important that students are aware that a little stress is nothing to fear. It’s normal, and it’s helpful. With a healthy, manageable level of stress, people often perform well.

Of course, the key element here is ‘manageable’. When this healthy burst of stress builds and spirals out of control, affecting areas of life outside of the exam hall, then it most certainly isn’t helpful, nor is it healthy. If a student finds themselves feeling stressed outside the exam hall, and that that stress is impacting home life or classroom behaviour, it’s time to look at the issue from the viewpoint of anxiety.

When to combat anxiety

Anxiety’s damage comes in how it lingers and gets tangled into everything. Often, people suffering from anxiety note that little to nothing seems enjoyable anymore, as there’s something in everything they do that makes them worry more or their feelings of anxiety are so overwhelming that they cannot focus on anything else. Simply ‘taking their mind off it’ isn’t possible.

A jittery feeling and nerves before an exam are one thing. But when that worry lingers long after you’ve left the exam hall and starts to extend out into future ‘what if’ scenarios, that’s when anxiety could be developing. Often, anxiety is characterised as a feeling of ‘doom’ in these future worries. The worst-case scenario is, in the throes of anxiety, suddenly a fact rather than a hypothetical. With this in mind, how can schools provide for students in order to ensure stress remains at healthy, short bursts and not a lingering, damaging, and often harmful condition?

What schools can do

Schools can provide a number of methods to help their students in the run up to their exams:

  • Encourage achievement, but avoid undue pressure. — Particularly for high-achievers, the pressure to perform perfectly in exams can be a lot to handle. These students can feel that they not only need to achieve the grade for themselves, but for their parents and teachers or they will risk letting them down. Many may feel shocked or ashamed if they gain a grade 8 in their exam when they were ‘expected’ to get a grade 9. Assure them that this top-tier grade is still that: a top-tier grade, and more than enough to see them on to future success!
  • Arrange stress-buster sessions. — Learning how to handle and manage stress is a vital skill. Particularly at school, students will probably be thinking of their upcoming exams while in the classroom revising. It can feel like there’s no escape, so be the one to release that pressure valve on stress with an occasional stress-busting lesson instead of intense revision. Whether this is with a puppy-hugging day to look forward to as a special reward for working so hard, heading out to the school garden with a trowel and some mulch for some relaxing plant-attending, or even a one-off lesson of stress-busting techniques like breathing exercises and mindfulness, treat stress-management as a lesson and exam technique just as vital as going over those notes and books again.
  • Remind students that exams are important, but they are not the most important thing in life. — We’re not saying tell your students the exams don’t matter; of course they do. But make sure the scale is realistic. You want, and expect, them to do their best. Achieving good results here will build a great foundation for their lives. But remind them that a failed exam will not mark them for the rest of their lives, nor will it be the defining of them: let them have a chuckle at some of Jeremy Clarkson’s tongue-in-cheek tweets each year during exam season, such as “If you’re a level results are disappointing, don’t worry. I got a C and two Us, and I’m currently on a superyacht in the Med.”

What parents can do

There are a few things parents can do if they suspect their child is suffering high levels of exam stress or full-blown anxiety:

  • Do not say ‘we just dealt with it in my day!’ — When anyone has a problem, the last thing they want to hear is how someone else has it worse. A problem that is causing someone to suffer doesn’t lose value just because someone else has suffered more! In particular, no child appreciates their parent indirectly telling them that they don’t have it as hard as their parents did. Saying you, or their siblings, ‘just got on with it’ isn’t helpful at all, nor it is wholly accurate. Exams such as GCSEs have changed a lot in recent years, and it’s not possible to accurately compare your secondary school exam experience with your child’s. Many 16-year-olds could have as many as 28 exams to sit, and that number doesn’t look any less intimidating by being told ‘everyone else managed in my day!’
  • Do say positive and constructive things! — By constructive, we don’t mean ‘you should study more’ or ‘your big brother studied 14 hours a day for his exams!’. Again, comparisons are not helpful; everyone studies differently. Some people take in information best in an eight-hour-study-party then a day off, where others study best in multiple 20 minute bursts with a short break in between. By all means, offer strategies you found helpful, but don’t present them as the ‘correct’ way compared to what they are already doing. Also, be sure to remind your child that while the exams are important, they are not completely life-defining; assure them that even if the exam doesn’t go well, there are so many options to re-sit or re-evaluate. One failed exam will not bring their hopes and dreams to a halt.
  • Let them vent and listen. — Sometimes, you don’t need to say anything. Sometimes, we just need someone to listen to our deepest fears and worries. Let your child vent their concerns, particularly after the exam, and don’t criticise them as being over-dramatic or needless in these fears.
  • Teach them to relax between exams. — Treat days out, as well as reminding them that a day off studying isn’t wrong, can go a long way to managing stress down to those healthy short bursts and not a prolonged, weeks-on-end pressure. Assure them that rest days in studying are beneficial and will actually help them retain more of what they have revised. Get them out of the house for a bit, and don’t make them feel guilty for it!
  • If you suspect your child is under too much stress or suffering from anxiety, consider medical advice. — A mental health problem is, by and large, chemical in nature. It is long past due that it lost its taboo, particularly among parents and children. The brain is an organ and, like any other organ in the body, for some people it may not produce the right amount of a necessary chemical. If your child’s stomach didn’t produce the chemicals it needed to be healthy, it would be a trip to the doctor to find out what to do next. It’s no different for matters of the brain and its chemistry — if you suspect you child has a mental health problem at play when it comes to dealing with and processing stress, do not be afraid of approaching a GP.