The Impact of Toxic Stress on School Communities
Healthy stress is a natural part of life, including childhood. Children and adults alike need to be challenged in order to grow and develop. However, in the modern education system, healthy stress is frequently displaced by toxic stress. Toxic stress occurs when life’s demands consistently outpace our ability to cope with those demands.
Toxic stress impairs attention, emotion and mood regulation, sleep, and learning readiness daily in American classrooms. Even more troubling, prolonged exposure to childhood toxic stress has lifelong impacts on mental and physical health.
Toxic stress starts as decreased productivity and creativity, escalating to more serious symptoms like frequent anxiety, dissociation, frustration, and, eventually, burnout. Roughly half a million U.S. teachers leave the profession each year – a turnover rate of over 20 percent.
Toxic stress can lead to a parenting style that looks more like a “to-do” list, rather than an empathic, present-centered relationship with a developing child. Exposure to parental stress in early childhood has been shown to impact gene expression even years later in adolescence.
Toxic stress is challenging to work with because our stress response taps into some very old survival hardware in our evolutionary biology.
When a 4th grader reports that she felt she “was going to die” from test anxiety, she’s telling the truth. The responses of her autonomic nervous system are the same whether she’s taking a math test or sensing actual physical danger.
Even children who have not suffered adverse childhood experiences may struggle with frequent “mismatches” between the severity of a stimulus (a routine pop quiz) and their response (loss of peripheral vision, sweating, nausea, terror and immobility). In children suffering from trauma, these “mismatches” become chronic and habitual.
Because the roots of toxic stress lie deep in the nervous system, we need tools that go beyond the conceptual mind to directly target that system. To transform our habitual responses, we need to regularly practice our skills when we are not in “fight – flight – freeze” mode.
“Under duress we don’t rise to our expectations, we fall to our level of training.”
Our courses establish two forms of training as the foundation for teaching
other methods of stress management, emotion regulation and interpersonal skills.
The Development of Mindfulness
The development of mindfulness, a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, emotions, sensations and surrounding environment.
The Development of Heartfulness
The intentional nurturing of positive mind states such as kindness and compassion.
These two trainings improve our ability to manage a number of significant psychological challenges associated with stress, including:
- Overwhelm. The sense that life – and particularly your own thoughts and emotions – is “too much to handle.”
- Busyness. The sense that “doing things” has become compulsive – that you are constantly avoiding simply being with yourself.
- Rumination. The sense that the same stressful thought patterns “loop” over and over again in your mind without being questioned.
- Dissociation. The sense that you maintain unhealthy psychological distance from life and from people, cut off from your own and other people’s emotions.
- Narcissism. The sense that life is about defending, protecting and enhancing one’s sense of self. A lack of empathy for the needs of others and an inability to take compassionate action.
Not Just Coping. Thriving.
In discussing how mindfulness practice addresses stress and other problems in education, we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that mindfulness can take us beyond the terrain of managing symptoms to a place where we are developing the deepest capacities of the human mind.
We can think of the process as a spectrum:
Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) have nearly 35 years of research & development supporting them, and have moved progressively through three large institutional cultures: health care, mental health, & education. The timeline below gives some important milestones in this progression.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn develops Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
Development of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
First round of formalized mindfulness in education interventions training teachers in self-care, resiliency and wellness and training students in mindfulness techniques
MBCT endorsed by the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence
Inaugural Mindful Schools in-class program
More serious research designs initiated. Publication of first meta-analyses of mindfulness in education
MBSR in more than 200 medical centers, hospitals and clinics; more than 1,300 published studies show symptom reductions across a wide range of diagnoses as well as neurobiological impacts
Students and teachers worldwide have access to mindfulness programs