I mentioned yesterday that our students displayed their work publicly last night (tonight our high school students do the same and Thursday the elementary kiddos!).  That means there’s a lot of energy and excitement on campus AND there’s also some stress (well, quite a bit of stress).

It made me wonder: how much stress is too much?

As a teacher I often was always somewhat glad when a student told me “I’m really stressed about this paper.” It meant that he or she cared.  More than that I know from my own experience that stress can be a good thing.  It can motivate you and give that extra boost of energy you need to finish a big project.  That feeling that we all know is back by research.

Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley explains, “You always think about stress as a really bad thing, but it’s not.  Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance.

Kaufer and UC Berkeley post-doctoral fellow Elizabeth Kirby found that when rats experienced  brief stressful events, stem cells in their brains grew new nerve cells that improved their mental performance.

Kaufer says this suggests that “intermittent stressful events are probably what keeps the brain more alert, and you perform better when you are alert.”

But too much stress can often backfire. According to Psychology Today:

Stress, when it’s chronic or repeated, does more than unnerve us; it can make us physically sick. It dampens the immune system and dries out the digestive tract, setting the stage for disorders from irritable bowel syndrome to ulcerative colitis. It impairs memory and in extreme cases fuels anxiety. It can even gnaw away at the ends of chromosomes, thereby accelerating cellular aging.

So what’s the right balance?  Maybe it’s less about amount and more about our perspective.  The Wall Street Journal reported back in 2012 about a study on how we view stress:

In a study of 50 college students, some were coached to believe that feeling nervous or excited before a presentation could improve performance. A control group didn’t receive the coaching. When the students were asked to make a speech about themselves while receiving critical feedback, those who received the coaching showed a healthier physiological response, leading to increased dilation of the arteries and smaller rises in blood pressure than the control group.

In a similar study, students who received the same coaching before taking graduate-school entrance exams posted higher scores on a mock test in the lab and also on the actual exam three months later, compared with controls.

So it seems like the trick is reminding ourselves and our students that stress is helpful. So next time a student says “I’m stressed about this paper” I think I’ll try responding “That’s great, it means you care and you’re at your peak performance! I know you’re going to write an amazing paper!

Interested in learning more? Check out this TED talk we posted a while back about inviting stress in and in the meantime remember: don’t stress about stress; embrace it and teach your students to do the same.