Our children are stressed out by an educational system that actually uses stress as an educational technique. It’s a constant pressure of homework deadlines, essays and exams. And our children are told at a young age that failing a test means that they are failures in life. They’ll never amount to much if they don’t pass this or that exam. Our educational system is based on a very Western idea that life is a struggle and you better measure up. It’s survival of the fittest. While there is some truth to this, not as much as people think, this approach means that young people are constantly under stress. It is even implied that you are stupid if you don’t fit into the modern educational mold. Which is completely false. Even Albert Einstein, one of the smartest people who ever lived, said that, although he did learn some things, it took him years to recover from his education.
Our ancestors didn’t evolve in a constant stress environment. Back then, stress came quickly and was over quickly, it didn’t grind on and on like the stress of modern education. Stress was originally just a short term biological response to danger, however the constant stress of modern education rarely lets up. It’s long term, at least ten years and usually more. Prolonged stress can overload the brain with cortisol; this is a chemical that promotes impulsive and reactive thinking designed to get the individual out of danger.
Recent research has shown that the neurological/chemical response to stress is the same response that is found in depression. It appears that depression may very well be a stress response that has simply gone on too long.
So, what’s the solution? A number have been proposed, including but not limited to the following.
1. Make sure that kids get exercise.
Exercise expends energy that would otherwise build up in the stress response and could cause physical and mental problems.
2. Teach relaxation exercises.
Allowing the mind and body to relax cuts off the stress response and reduces the neurological fatigue that constant stress induces, enabling the individual to recover at least somewhat.
3. Paying attention to thinking.
The Buddhists would call this mindfulness and the fancy Western term is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It’s simply training the stressed out student to pay attention to his or her own mind to a point where he or she is sufficiently aware to shut off the stress response when necessary.
Of course, there’s a logical answer to the problem. Just rearrange our teaching methods to encourage, rather than suppress, the natural curiosity and joy in learning that we are all born with. This would eliminate the stress and probably cut learning time in half. Now there’s an idea!