Monday, 21 April 2014

Stress, the Junior Cycle and Flight Mindset


 "Minding Me": a SPHE textbook
The SPHE Junior Cycle curriculum is soon to be defunct as the current, imperfect junior cycle is jettisoned in favour of honing twenty-first century skills, but at the same time its educational philosophy will soon be embedded across subject areas.  This excerpt deals with what students are expected to learn in third year, at which stage most of them will have been exposed to the SPHE curriculum for ten years:  

"Building on work done in second year, students are asked to identify the place of stress in
their own lives and the potential for too much stress at different times and stages of life.
Strategies for coping with stress are identified and promoted. Further work is done on the
handling of emotions and their appropriate expression"
 

The aims of this unit are to help the students to recognise the place of stress in day-to-day living, to help the students to recognise the effects of a high level of stress on themselves and others and to enable the students to identify factors that can reduce stress.

Learning outcomes for this unit include the aspirations that students will

appreciate the place of stress in their lives,  understand the effects of too much stress on themselves and others and  have identified stress-reducing factors.

This seems un objectionable and benign, if not very educational. Don't we all know that stress while a little stress is good for us, too much is bad news? A person who wants to be healthy and live a long life would be best advised to avoid excessive stress, and if that strategy fails, then at least make use of some factors that might mitigate its toxic effects. But what if our strategy of teaching students to fear stress (along with "negative emotions" such as sadness and anger) and mind their mental health has the potential to backfire?
The idea that stress is an avoidable toxin is common. Stress is up there with smoking, drinking, inactivity and poor diets in the list of things students must be advised against partaking in. The inclusion of stress on this list is unjustified, as the others are behaviours that on some level, the individual can control. This control might be limited by the addictive nature of substances such as nicotine. It can also be difficult to find the time and/or motivation to exercise. But for the most part, our exposure to cigarettes, burgers and vodka lies within our control. 

Flight Mindset
What about stress? How many of us choose stress or is stress, the really stressful kind, more likely to be a reaction to being in situations where our ability to choose freely is reduced. When we feel between a rock and a hard place, where we have to make the proverbial fight or flight choice.  My own experience would tell me that for me, stress is being in a situation where I realise fight is the better option. The better option, but not the one with which I'm more comfortable. I'm more of a flight person. And I worry that programmes that teach children that stress reduction is a worthwhile goal, that instil fear of "the effects of too much stress" and that prioritise coping with stress over coping with the world, promote a flight mindset.  

There may be situations where flight is the better option. It is also true that having a fight-over-flight predisposition may lead to as many problems for an individual. But I would argue that the way stress is taught in schools, along with the rest of mental health promotion, teaches a flight mindset. And when you flee, you lose. You trade your goal for your safety.  

The curriculum also aims to build self-confidence and self-esteem, and assertive communication features heavily on the SPHE syllabus. Let's say that both these strands are successful. On the one hand students have their confidence and their self-esteem boosted, so they are better able to assert their will, make their voices heard, and pursue their goals. On the other, all that they learn about stress and about their vulnerability to mental-health problems, instils the idea that the world is scary and that their own minds are unreliable.  Is anything going on here besides a completely pointless titration?  

The confidence-fear dialectic is to be further expanded until the proposed Junior Cycle. On the one hand, in my own subject, English, substantial amount of class time is to be expended in developing student's confidence in writing, but particularly speaking. On the other hand of the key skills that are proposed as the foundation of curriculum design, two are straight off the self-help shelf; Managing Myself and Staying Well.  

Staying Well

In addition to learning outcomes related to exercise and "healthy" eating, students will also learn how to "use a range of coping strategies to deal with personal problems and stress". There we have stress again, not something to be faced, something to be coped with. The phrase "staying well" implies a world of danger, where stress and unhealthy habits lurk behind every lamppost. It also implies that adolescence is a peak of mental and emotional well-being, after which humans must battle decline. Even though one study has found that by age 21, 81% of young people meet the criteria for at least one DSM-IV disorder. My own view is that it is unreasonable and unhelpful to hold adolescents to the same  standards of mental health as mature adults. Staying Well implies the only ways are down or maintenance, whereas I'm sure the experience of most of us is that we put the trauma  and experimentation of adolescence behind us and find healthy ways of being, just through our experience of being alive.  

Note how "stress" is aligned with "personal problems". It really is scary. Youth mental health website www.headsup.ie (to which students are actively directed in my school and many others) warns that stress can lead to infertility, obesity and most terrifying for their target market: skin conditions. But what if we didn't think of stress as a problem? What if we kept the self-help books off the curriculum and stuck with the biological facts? What if we equipped students with the knowledge of what happens in their bodies when they are under stress and left out the judgements about whether this is an evolutionary adaptation or a glitch in the system?

 

How Serious is the Threat Posed by Stress?

I was prompted to write this post by this TED talk by Stanford psychologist, Kelly McGonigal. The talk, given at TEDx Edinburgh, explains that the toxicity of stress is not a question of dosage (as popular wisdom and the SPHE curriculum assume) but of perception. McGonigal cites studies that far from helping us stay well, the fear of stress is itself a killer. On the other hand "when you choose to view your stress-response as helpful, you create the biology of courage". Far from needing to giving over a third of the secondary curriculum to self-management and self-surveillance, if we believe that our bodies do what they're supposed to do (unless we're sick) "[we] can trust [ourselves] to handle life's challenges".  

What I find most interesting is McGonigal's response to the question asked at the end of the talk. It's to do with deciding on a career and whether it's better to avoid those likely to be stressful. McGonigal replies that "chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort" and advises us to "go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows".  I can only speak for myself here, but I wish with all my heart that some-one had given me similar advice when I was a sixteen year old student, in fifth year and under ever-increasing pressure to choose a career that would at once do justice to my academic aptitude and at the same time be "safe". (And it was understood that as a girl, I'd be wise to choose a career that would in time be family-friendly). I didn't need strategies for coping with stress, I needed courage.


The problem with tips and strategies and thinking about ourselves and classroom discussion about motivation and coping and the teacher (extremely unlikely to have studied psychology at any level) explaining to students how their minds and emotions work is that all these things erode rather than develop resilience.  As Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes argue in "The Dangerous Rise in Therapeutic Education" "therapeutic education inserts vulnerability". Ecclestone and Hayes do not mean the vulnerability celebrated by Brené Brown in her work, but the vulnerability of distrusting and pathologising your own thought-processes.

 
Positive Mental Health
Students are reminded over and over to be positive. Last year in my school posters were put up around the school with mantras such as "you'll never have a positive life with a negative mind" and "choose to be happy". Yet the positive mental health project is itself negative about the human mind and our human capacities. It is entirely negative on the view that the majority of young people can negotiate adolescence through the passage of time and the support, example and encouragement of the adults in their lives. Time and the presence of adult role models are no longer sufficient and students need explicit life-coaching, delivered to non-homogeneous groups of thirty students at a time. They need to learn to be confident, but not to trust themselves too much, to fear stress, to monitor their own mental health and the mental health of those around them ("mind your mates") and to adopt elaborate strategies for coping with life.
 
Perhaps McGonigal is overly positive and future research will show the truth to be even more complicated again. I am inclined to agree with her that evolution is progress and that the human body is a wonderful thing. Biology is something we should encourage young people to respect and admire instead of overloading them with precautionary tales and disease-mongering. The human heart, both literally and metaphorically, is wonderful. The human mind is amazingly resilient. If we want young people to value and trust themselves, we have to value them enough to give them a real, knowledge-rich education and trust them enough to spare them the psychobabble.

 
 
 
 


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