I was Stressed, Not Stupid

7 Top Tips to Counteract Stress

A few years ago I was meeting with a parent of a child I was working with therapeutically and I was describing what stress does to the brain and how trauma causes stress. She said, “Oh…so I was stressed, not stupid!” This woman was clearly very intelligent to speak with but she had spent 35 years of her life believing she was stupid because she had not performed well in school. I was struck by how many people have made the erroneous decision that they are stupid when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth and what a tragedy this is for society.

Enter a study by Land and Jarman on Creative Divergent Genius. It states that every child is born a divergent genius but by the time they leave school only 8% are and as adults, only 2% remain connected to the divergent genius. As an educator we have to ask ourselves, “What are we doing to educate the genius out of our bodies?”

Stress is contagious and damaging to us mentally and physically. What we mean by stress is contagious is that when a person is ‘stressed out,’ we can both physically feel that, as well as be affected by this in our bodies, causing them to become stressed. There was an interesting study that looked at the stress levels of teachers and then tested the cortisol levels (stress hormone) of the children in their class. When the teacher was stressed the children’s cortisol levels were elevated. Stress is contagious! All of our children have been around stress in profound ways for the past four years. This stress has come from their parents, teachers, classmates and society as a whole. Since Covid, we have had the war in the Ukraine, the cost of living crisis which has seen a rise in aggression and violence of 161% towards our service workers and the war in the middle east, just to name a few. Fear and stress has a very real impact on our bodies – shown to increase heart disease and diabetes in adulthood.

Stress, important for educators to note, markedly decreases the capacity to learn. It can literally cause one to lose executive functioning. Imagine a computer – if it is switched off and someone types on the keyboard all day long, nothing will go in. Likewise for humans. If our alarm system and stress response system is ON, our frontal cortex is switched OFF and we cannot learn. So, the most important job educators have to do is to make sure the child feels safe and secure, allowing them to absorb and explore material to learn.

So, is there a positive to be found in all this? We are, in ourselves, also contagious when we are feeling calm, connected, loved, cherished, nurtured, getting enough sleep, exercise, etc. This is what cannot be faked and why investing in your staff’s wellbeing this next year will be the best investment in the children’s academic performance.

I remember working in school and the business manager was a very uptight, stressed out person, working really late every day, smoking, with a very negative outlook. From her I thought this job was possibly the most stressful job in the school. When she left, the new person was very open, friendly, relaxed, always went home on time and was great at her job. This was the exact same job! I commented on this to the new business manager and she simply said, “I don’t do stress.” Boom, mic drop!! I learned right then that we can actively choose to respond or react to what’s in front of us.

Now I know that is an, “Argghhh!” moment when you are really stressed out and overwhelmed to be told it’s a choice. That can evoke feelings of rage and a desire to punch the deliverer of such advice. I get it – I really do. But if we really want to shift things, we need to take responsibility for what we are putting out into the world. Moving about all stressed out does nothing for anyone.

Top 7 Tips for Reducing Stress

1. Look down at your chest and torso area. Say out loud, “I am not being chased by a tiger.” Then do horse lips (Purse your lips together and blow air out so that your lips vibrate.). I have been doing this for a few years and it works so effectively! I was at a conference last year with Nathan Wallis speaking and he shared that your brain listens to what you say aloud more than to what you think. This explains why such a simple act can bring me out of a stressful state. Our brains listen to the fact that we aren’t in a physically threatening situation and will turn off the alarm system.

2. Shake it off exercise! To complete this, do big, whole body shaking and horse lips, then start to do smaller shaking, more horse lips and then almost no movement until you stop. Then place your hand on your chest and slowly close your eyelids and breath through your nose gently.

3. Walking – every day, for yourself, for at least 15 minutes. The benefits from walking are plentiful and the best part is it just requires movement. The key for walking to be a stress reducer is to be very present with your walk. Feel your feet on the ground, feel the movement of your arms as they swing and the delicacy of your fingertips as they brush past your clothing. The more you focus on the sensation, the less “in your head” you will be. Walking for 15 minutes with conscious presence is infinitely more supportive than 45 minutes with a critical brain going round and round in your mind. Doing that would not be stress reducing!

4. Consistently do one thing a day that your body loves. For example, I end my day with a warm washcloth on my face, which allows my whole body to release any tension while soaking up the steam and heat.

5. Keep hydrated! This is SO important – most of us are dehydrated and this puts our body into stress much quicker than many realise.

6. Look up and out to the horizon. It works on the very primitive part of the brain that is essentially scanning the horizon for a threat. In our modern world we spend a lot of time looking down and into screens. So look up!! Take the opportunity to breathe gently, place your hand on your chest area and let your body settle.

7. Do connective tissue exercises. I love these – especially for children as they are so simple and can be done anywhere. The connective tissue loves small, rhythmic movement such as simply raising your toes up and down gently and rhythmically.

All these regulation and connection exercises are most effective when done several times a day with your class. Kids of all ages love these – even teens IF (and only if!) you do them with the students. It’s a win- win situation to guide students toward feeling safe in their bodies and environments. When they’ve achieved that safety, then, and only then, will they maximise learning.


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Vanessa McHardy

Vanessa is a leading Integrative Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist with 18 years experience. Her speciality is bringing Life Skills for Mental Health and
Wellbeing Programmes to school communities. She has returned to New Zealand after 30 years in the UK and has a wealth of experience delivering these services. In the height of the pandemic, wellbeing has come into focus, so Vanessa works globally delivering online to Europe, America, Hong Kong and Australasia. Vanessa can be reached at: vanessamchardy@gmail.com