- The pandemic and remote learning have added to the stress that students, parents, and teachers face this fall.
- That's why practicing proven techniques like meditation, exercise, and healthy eating are more important than ever to manage stress levels.
- These stress-relieving techniques may also help academic performance, as they're associated with improved focus, memory, and learning.
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Over 130,000 public school systems in the US have had to make the hard decision this fall of whether or not to go remote.
A snapshot analysis of the 100 largest school districts showed that about three-quarters of them have chosen remote-only instruction.
This change will help reduce COVID infections this fall. But like all change, it also brings about uncertainty and stress — stress that isn't good for student performance.
Students are already stressed with their academic load, trying to maintain a social life, and college admissions. And this year's pandemic brings an additional level of stress, which can wreak havoc on students.
Emma Seppälä, a researcher at Yale's Center for Emotional Intelligence, explains that greater stress levels are associated with:
- Impaired focus
- Less creativity and innovation
- Worse decision-making
- Greater risk of burnout
- Poorer academic performance
To combat this, Amanda Fialk, a Partner and the Chief of Clinical Services at The Dorm, suggests students have a "toolbox" of skills and techniques they can use this school year. Here are six stress-relieving techniques that students can use for what's proving to be a stressful and difficult school year.
While students may no longer have Physical Education classes, it is important they make time to exercise. Exercise is a proven and recommended stress reliever because it reduces levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and releases feel-good chemicals like endorphins. This not only can help manage stress but research indicates a clear correlation between physical activity and academic performance.
For example, students who were physically active were 20% more likely to earn an A in Math or English, according to a large 2006 study. And, for another study, students with a GPA higher than 3.5 were three times more likely to be physically active than their counterparts with a lower GPA. This doesn't necessarily mean exercise leads to better academic performance, but there does seem to be a clear link between the two.
For people 6-17 years of age, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends getting at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise each day. To help relieve stress throughout the day, students could split that 60 minutes up into several 10-15 minutes sessions in the morning, afternoon, and evening.
2. Practice meditation
For students who are learning remotely this year, making a conscious decision to put their phone away during class will be very real. That's where meditation can help with stress and focus. Research shows that those who practice meditation have more activity in their prefrontal cortex — the region of the brain that deals with decision making, social behavior, and focus.
And researchers have found that you can develop this sense of sharpened focus over a relatively short period of time. For a 2015 study, students practiced mindful meditation for 50 minutes a week for 18 weeks during the start of the school year. By the end of the study, the students were showing improved focus, memory, and learning capability based on computer tasks.
The challenge of staying focused is not unique to students. We've all been distracted at one point or another. Fialk says, "meditation can be a great gateway into self-care" and that you can start meditation today by easily downloading one of the many meditation apps available for your phone.
Seppälä says that students try practicing the SKY breathing technique. Both Seppälä and Fialk agree that meditation is key to students living a healthy and balanced life.
3. Eat nutritious meals
Students learning remotely will no longer have the support of their school cafeteria to help them choose nutritious meals. But eating right, like whole, fibrous foods, is vital for academic performance. This is especially true in stressful times when it can be even more difficult to choose healthy foods because poor eating habits and stress often go hand-in-hand.
Fialk, recommends focusing on one's diet as one of the first steps to managing stress as it is one of the easiest to control. Some great ways to make sure that students are getting proper nutrition throughout the year are to make sure they are eating breakfast, snacking healthily on foods like fruits or granola bars, and avoiding foods high in caffeine or sugar after 2 pm (non-caffeinated tea is a great substitute for coffee at this time).
A proper diet should be filling, nutritious, and include healthy foods students enjoy. Some of the healthiest eating plans widely recommended by nutritionists are the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
4. Go outside
Undoubtedly one of the most challenging parts of the pandemic is being stuck at home, and that isolation may lead to unhealthy habits like poor diet or overeating. But spending time outside can make a huge difference as research indicates a link between the outdoors and academic performance.
Moreover, a 2020 study by Cornell University concluded that spending as little as 10 minutes outdoors led to reportedly greater happiness and less stress in college students. Students who spent as much as 50 minutes outdoors also exhibited a decrease in blood pressure and heart rate.
It's important that students include time in their schedules to go for bike rides, walks, and play sports that allow for social distancing. The time spent away from their work and studies might even help their academic performance more than a few extra minutes of studying.
5. Talk to friends
One of the most important components of school is social interaction. Multiple studies show that when we're surrounded by friends we have a more optimistic view on life, which may help us more easily overcome challenges.
For example, one small study found that people perceived a hill as less steep when they were told to assess the hill in the company of a friend compared to participants who were alone. While climbing a hill doesn't compare to the COVID-19 pandemic, friendships also help people cope with trauma, according to the Mayo Clinic.
So even in a socially distant world, the social component of school cannot be ignored. Students should make time to call their friends and work together on schoolwork from their computers — it will not only reduce their stress, but better help them handle it.
6. Practice Self Compassion
Even as students, teachers, and parents work to make this semester as stress-free as possible, they are bound to make mistakes. Students will have to create new schedules, try new habits, and see what works for them.
That's why it's important to remember that trying and failing is not only part of adjusting to this unusual semester — it is part of growing up.
Self-Compassion is also extremely beneficial for mental health and stress levels. Kristin Neff, associate professor of educational psychology at UT Austin, reported in her book Self-Compassion that people with more self-compassion have lower cortisol levels compared to those who are more self-critical. Simply put, when faced with challenging situations, those who practiced self-compassion were calmer and less stressed.
Neff went on to report that being more compassionate with yourself can lead you to be more compassionate toward others, too. A 2006 study linked self-compassion with optimism, curiosity, and initiative — all valuable qualities for students and especially important to have now.
As students grapple with the ever changing nature of this year it is important that they work on building habits that will help them maintain their mental health, but it is even more important that they remain compassionate towards themselves and others in that process.
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