Education Week: Learning the what, why, how of stress

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Ty Mullen
Patrick Steffen, a professor of psychology and the director of Clinical Training at BYU gave a lecture on stress at Education Week. (Ty Mullen)

BYU professor of psychology and Director of Clinical Training Patrick R. Steffen conducted an Education Week session titled, “The why, how and what of stress: making stress a positive experience.”

Bob Wilson from Taylorsville said he was drawn to this session on stress because he is always interested in learning how to better manage stress.

“I have a lot less of it now that I’m retired, but I still have to deal with some,” Wilson said.

Alice Bringhurst, a high school sophomore from Virginia said she came to this session on stress to help her manage the stress of school.

“School is stressful. It’s hard. And there’s a lot going on, and their’s a lot of pressure to know what you want to do when you grow up,” Bringhurst said. “You’re always looking towards the next step, and I kinda wanted to learn how to deal with that.”

The session started with Steffen quoting a study to illustrate the prevalence of stress in the United States. The study included a group of 28,753 people and found that “55 percent of Americans report moderate to high levels of stress and perception that stress negatively impacts health in combination with high levels of stress longitudinally predicted early mortality.”

The term “stress” comes from engineering — like stress on a steel bridge, according to Steffen. And stress is divided into two types: distress and eustress.

Distress is a condition or feeling in which perceived situational demands exceed one’s coping capabilities and eustress is good stress, something perceived as enjoyable or at least manageable, according to Steffen.

Steffen said money, relationships and health are usually the main causes of distress.

With this in mind, Steffen said that God has created the brain and body with a greatly developed mechanism to adapt to any situation.

Although stress may cause a fight or flight response, Steffen expanded that method to also include a “freeze” option.

“We don’t usually have the opportunity to fight or run away,” Steffen said. “We just usually sit there.”

Steffen said being chronically stressed, anxious or depressed will increase a person’s resting heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate; cause increased gastrointestinal problems and increase memory and attention problems.

A person’s thoughts, emotions, and memories activate their stress response, according to Steffen.

“The brain does not differentiate between psychological and physical stress,” he said, explaining that the brain will trigger a stress response just in case something might happen.

He referenced the movie “Italian Job” which is about a group of people who steal a bunch of gold. After they steal the gold, they each go around saying what they will do with their portion. However, the villain in the movie didn’t know what he wanted. At the end of the movie when the good guys find the villain to take back the gold, the villain had bought everything everyone else wanted.

“He has everything that they wanted to have,” Steffen said. “This guy has no identity.”

Steffen used this example to teach the importance of having clear values in a persons’ desires.

“If you are going to compare yourself to other people, the second you are matched up with someone else, what are you going to do? You’ll find someone else,” Steffen said.

Steffen then quoted theologian and Civil Rights activist Howard Thurman when he said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

“If you know who you are, what motivates you — what you value — that gives you the strong why for moving forward?” Steffen asked.

Steffen answered this by quoting Victor Frankl when he said, “He who knows the ‘why’ for his existence, will be able to bear almost any ‘how.'”

Everyone will go through something hard, Steffen said, but the fact that life is difficult is no longer an issue if people accept it. If they fight it, then it becomes an issue.

“It’s not stress itself that is killing us, it’s how do we respond to it,” Steffen said.

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