The start of Spring Term is always full of anticipation: renewed energy levels, New Year’s resolutions, the gradual return of light into our lives all bring a sense of optimism. For two year groups in the Senior school, however, January also brings the challenge of mock exams and, for some, increased levels of stress.
It is well documented that levels of anxiety amongst teenagers are on the rise. Last year, a survey of Year 11 students conducted by researchers at UCL and the Sutton Trust found that over half of teenage girls are suffering from poor mental health. Our challenge as a school is how to help our students to manage that stress. Stress is a fundamental part of the human experience – and always has been. The fight or flight response known to our early ancestors is still with us; it’s something we have to learn to live with. These days, not many of us find ourselves in life or death situations – there were no tigers lurking in the corridors the last time I checked. The trouble we have, and the issue manifesting itself more and more in teenage girls, is that our body’s fight or flight response remains the same. Whether it’s a tough question in a Physics exam, or a public speaking engagement, our inner alarm system can be triggered at any time.
So, we’ve started this term by exploring how we can adopt a healthier attitude toward stress. If we can’t remove our inner cavewomen, how can we tame them and use them to our advantage? During our INSET day last Tuesday, staff listened to two speakers who addressed this very topic. Jo Morgan, RSE teacher of the year, showed us a Ted Talk in which Kelly McGonigal explores ‘How to make stress your friend’; stress acknowledged and embraced in the right way, explains McGonigal, can be healthy for us. In the afternoon, Clinical Psychologist, Dr Phil Martin, talked about ASC and Anxiety in girls and introduced us to Dan Siegel’s hand model of the brain – a scientific explanation of what happens when we “flip our lid” in response to the many “false alarms” that are part of our daily lives.
In assembly this week, Mrs Watson shared this version of Siegel’s hand model of the brain with students and encouraged them to acknowledge that signs of stress are our body’s natural response to fear. The message was the same: recognise it, harness it, and learn to turn it into a positive. Mrs Watson cited three individuals who have done just this: Bonita Norris, the youngest woman in the UK to scale Everest; Bear Grylls, who believes that “life rewards the tenacious ones, not necessarily the talented”, and Wim Hof, who members of the sea swimming community will be familiar with, and who harnesses the panic response in his body to achieve unthinkable athletic pursuits in sub zero climates.
I know from talking to some Year 11 students this week that English Paper 1 felt like Everest at times, and Biology threw them some curveballs. I also know that some experienced the fight or flight response during Physics and couldn’t control it this time around, but this is why we do trial exams.
It is possible that, for some, what they have learnt about their body’s reaction to stress will prove to be much more powerful and enduring than the facts they memorised before the exam. Maybe not today, or even tomorrow, but one day – perhaps when they stand on stage to deliver their first Ted Talk – they will appreciate how stress can not only be tamed but can also be their friend.