Education Week: Get good at stress, get good at life

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Tana S. Page speaks at Education Week on handling stress. Page encouraged the audience to change their attitude about stress and view it as a positive thing. (Abigail Gunderson)

Editor’s note: Education Week coverage can be found in this section of the website.

For her Education Week address on Aug. 15, BYU public health professor Tana S. Page explained to attendees how reframing stress can help handle it and why healthy thought patterns can be a game changer for mental health.

Page, adjunct faculty in the Department of Public Health at BYU, said her goal was to give the audience a new attitude about stress. She explained it’s not always bad and offered insights into what causes stress and how to minimize those stressors and deal with them more effectively.

Page said stress is a normal and even healthy part of life. Everyone has different “alarms” which signal danger to their brain, whether it’s an upcoming test, a difficult conversation or a new environment. It becomes a problem when unhealthy thought patterns and lifestyle habits exacerbate it.

“We can also amp up the amount of stress we have by our thinking,” she said. “We create a lot of our own stress in our own mind by our thinking processes.”

Paige said that if life is like driving a car, a healthy amount of anxiety keeps the car moving forward and in the right lane as the driver uses the gas and brakes to control the vehicle.

“When you get good at stress you want to learn how to avoid hitting the gas more than you really need, and you need to learn how to pump the brakes,” she said. “Stress is good, but we don’t need more than we need.”

Page said while personality traits and environment can influence anxiety disorders, there is a “perfect storm” of conditions which make stress and anxiety more common in the world today. Perfection pressures, cellphone use, a 24-hour news cycle and even overprotective parenting contribute to increased stress in children and adults.

Page works with school districts to educate teachers about dealing with stress. She said she’s been amazed at how many people don’t understand the difference between stress —a normal part of life— and anxiety disorders.

“With mental health issues we try to make it normalized, that it’s not bad to talk about,” Page said. “The bad thing that’s happened from this is everyone’s talking about it and thinking they’ve got it.”

Page said viewing stress and anxiety negatively can make them an even worse problem.

“We have a generation who literally thinks anxiety is bad,” she said. “Thinking anxiety is bad works like fertilizer or ignition fluid: it just amps it up.”

Speaking to parents and grandparents, Page cautioned against habits which can increase stress in children and teenagers. She explained how kids lack experience they need to respond to the world around them, often because their parents don’t let them deal with problems on their own.

“We’ve robbed children of being able to fail or not be perfect,” she explained. To combat this, Page said parents need to be able to offer “tough love” and let their children have hard experiences within reason.

“It’s rethinking what is love and what is really helping,” she said. “Our kids need experiences. They need to be able to have some tough things.”

Page recommended parents to find positive ways to cut down on screen time in their homes to give their children and themselves more social experience, and praise growth and improvement instead of just achievement.

Aside from promoting healthier mindsets and habits to “get good at stress,” Page said people need to control where their focus is.

“You’ve got a thousand and one concerns,” she said, and reminded the audience to focus on the things they can control instead of worrying about everything going on in the world.

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