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My Friend Stress

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Al Stone

Spring 2019

Low Stress not No Stress!

It is funny how a social media interaction can jog a memory. Shortly after eBumping into an old school friend, I was having a conversation with my wife who is part of the core counselling team at Brunel University in Uxbridge. I recounted the story of my three friends who attended Brunel back in the early 80’s and how their world seemed to turn into major stress on the approach to and during their third year final exams. At that time, all I could offer to my beleaguered friends was a restaurant visit and a shoulder to lean on. Which seemed to help them a little, if only by offering them a brief pattern interrupt, from their ever stressful and impending exam situation. My wife mentioned that around the exam period there was a notable increase in students who were seeking some help with this same problem. It never struck me that three and a half decades down the road, the same issue would still exist for the students facing their final exams or even their first years.

An idea was formed

Having completed my NLP Master Practitioner’s certification, it struck me that I had gained the knowledge and understanding to be able to offer a set of tools that had the potential to actually help the students in this stressful situation. It seemed like a good opportunity to design a short course for groups of students whereby I could offer more than just supper and a shoulder. In a few hours, with no extra book reading or additional study, students could have the opportunity to learn techniques to help with the stress they were experiencing regarding their exams. Not only that but be empowered with some transferable skills that would be useful and applicable in other parts of their lives during and after university.

Understanding the way different people use different representational systems to input information, (Visual, Kinesthetic, Auditory Digital and Auditory Tonal) it seemed logical to offer more than one technique in helping to cope with the stress. As we all process “our stress” in different ways, it made sense that different techniques could be used. This could then help to reach a broader range of students that, while suffering the same “exam stress” may need a way to deal with it, that is better suited to their way of processing information or their understanding of it [their stress]. While some students may report feeling ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, during the build-up to exams, for others it can be a performance debilitating feeling which becomes somewhat overpowering and can ruin the revision, the exam and thereby the results.

A little stress please?

With my previous career in the performing arts, I know that a small amount of stress can be important to help give a better performance. However, how much stress can be good for our performance levels? While stress is different for us all, in how we feel and indeed process it, it is something that in the right amount can actually benefit us. Think of first night nerves or an artist just before going on stage at a concert or when you have to give that presentation at work. That feeling we get can help to keep us focused, make sure we are prepared and ‘keep us on our toes’. The term ‘eustress’ is now being used to explain that place where we are actually performing better, being ‘in flow’ (within our coping abilities) before it becomes ‘distress’ (outside of our coping abilities) and can impact negatively on our performance. The curve has a low performance at both ends. (E.g. too calm or too stressed and performance drops)

After a few days of putting my head together with my wife, bouncing ideas back and forth, and typing into my trusted laptop, (including a crash course in PPT) we shaped the idea of a course for the University students to help them understand and better deal with this stress. We chose four techniques from our Cog Hyp quiver with the understanding that at least one could hit the target for the variety of students. As we then started to flesh out the course, we quickly realised that it would be necessary to give some theoretical knowledge about the conscious and unconscious mind and how as pattern hunters we can sometimes pick up on the wrong patterns.

What could we offer?

While I love helping people where I can, it is always a better idea in my head, if I can empower them. I prefer the idea of teaching something that the students can practice, play around with and then make their own to use as and when they can after they leave the teaching space. So if we take one of the techniques we teach, setting an anchor. We can discuss ‘wiring new neural pathways’ or ‘applying a physical stimulus to call forth a desired psychological state’ which, while technically correct, tends to put many people to sleep.

However, by putting it into context in a more everyday way seems to help the students get a better understanding of the principle. By setting time to discuss the fact that we all use anchors every day with things like traffic lights, logo’s, jingles (It always raises a smile when I whistle the five notes of the McD advert) Asking them to think of walking into their home when their favourite meal is being prepared. This has been really helpful in showing the students that they have already been setting their own anchors unconsciously, therefore, it can be possible to do it consciously.

The results came in.

The success of the course was truly beyond both of our expectations. We had a very low drop out rate for the duration and having taken time to get feedback from the students, found that a large percentage had improved their wellbeing and decreased their stress levels during the course and also had a much better experience during their exams. Some of the student feedback was truly uplifting with statements of ‘best results ever’ added to the general improvement in their state of well being where anxiety was running amok before.

The figures below were collected from students whom attended all modules and filled in the GAD7, PHQ9 & SWEMWBS before and after the course.

  • 7% experienced an increase in well being
  • 7% experienced a decrease in anxiety
  • 2% experienced a decrease in depression

As a result of the success this pilot course brought, we were delighted to have gained further funding to offer the course for four groups instead of two during the following academic year. The response was overwhelming with applications for those courses, being more than five times oversubscribed. Also using the feedback from the previous course, we have had the opportunity to upgrade the modules, which have now been extended by 50% (duration) and we have added a follow-up module to run a couple of weeks after the main four modules, as a consolidation and Q&A session.

Having now run this course twelve times, with similar results each time, for me there were two ‘light bulb’ moments that most of the students seem to experience regularly, which I still love to see. One is that we are not aiming for ‘no stress’ and that a little stress is a good thing. The second, that there can be a way for them to control emotions and feelings in the moment, to help get them back on track with the task at hand even if they are feeling overwhelmed.

More and more.

In this current academic year, we have been asked to run the course three more times (two groups each time), and there are now some discussions taking place to potentially offer a course designed for the staff on work/stress related issues.

So in the meantime for me, I guess it is now back to that excited and frightened feeling. As once again, with all the planning and preparation, the printing and the checking, I feel lucky to be given another opportunity, to try my hardest, to inspire more students into taking the time to help themselves and perhaps overcome an obstacle, which could stand in the way of their academic dreams and future aspirations.