Understanding Stress

There are many ways that we gain feedback from our students and one of those is to participate in the annual Mission Australia youth (15-19 year olds) survey. Students are able to comment on a broad range of issues including young people’s values and concerns. This information provides valuable insights not only to the work of Mission Australia and informing government initiatives, but also to us as we review and develop new initiatives and programs.

Adolescence is a time of significant change for many young people – physically, socially, emotionally and academically. As young people move through adolescence they are transitioning into adulthood, establishing their independence and identity. This is also a time when mental health issues may become evident.

A couple of weeks ago, Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute released the Five Year Mental Health Youth Report; a psychological distress measurement tool to assess the responses of thousands of people aged 15 to 19 from around Australia.

Some key findings released in the report include:

  • the proportion of young people likely to have a serious mental health illness rose from 18.7% in 2012 to 22.8% in 2016, and this figure was higher, 31.6% for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth
  • over this five year period, women were twice as likely to be affected by mental health problems as males (in 2016, 28.6%of females compared to 14.1% of males)
  • older teens were at higher risk

In 2016 a number of issues of concern were identified, and the top three issues of personal concern for young people meeting the criteria for a probable serious mental illness were coping with stress, school or study problems and depression.

As we approach the middle of the year and school life becomes busier, it can be a time when students experience more stress in their day-to-day lives. One of our School Counsellors, Paula Kolivas has written a piece titled ‘A Reminder About Stress’ a piece to assist parents and teachers in supporting young people to manage stress in their lives in their lives.


With best wishes,

Debbie Dunwoody

A Reminder About Stress

Stress is often described as our body’s reaction to any kind of demand or threat. It can be caused by both negative and positive experiences and is triggered when a person perceives that they do not have the resources or the ability to cope with a situation. The body’s reaction to stress is both physical and psychological in nature.

Some common physical responses to stress may include feeling dizzy, experiencing headaches, digestive problems, heart palpitations, muscle pain, skin irritations and feeling tired and exhausted.

In addition to the physical reactions, we will often experience changes to the way we behave, feel and think when experiencing stress.

Behavioural changes may include eating more or less, sleeping more or less, disrupted sleep, nightmares and changes to our tone of voice and facial expressions. Changes to our eating and sleeping habits are particularly concerning when we look at all the current research regarding the importance of these two factors in promoting good physical and mental health.

Our feelings and emotions are also impacted by stress. We may feel more irritable, short-tempered, moody, sad and more anxious. Sometimes when our children present as grumpy and angry, slamming doors, snapping at their siblings, or just out-rightly rude, this may actually be their reaction to stress. As parents and teachers, we should contemplate the source of these emotions rather than be reactive to the anger and possibly add to their stress levels.

Stress will often impact the way we think and makes our brain feel foggy. It affects our ability to concentrate and focus, our ability to recall information and promotes negative thinking. Our thoughts can easily turn to ‘I cant do this…. I’m going to fail … What’s the point?’

It is important for students and adults to be able to identify when we are feeling stressed. It is important for us to be in tune with our body’s reaction and our emotional reaction to stress in order to initiate our problem solving skills to deal and manage the situation. High levels of stress that are not being identified and addressed will impact our ability to remain calm, stay focussed on necessary tasks and may lead to illness.

Stress is not all bad. We need a certain level of stress in order to motivate us and keep us focused on our goals. However, getting the right balance is difficult to establish. Ideally, we need to be proactive about stress management and not wait until our physical and psychological reactions are overwhelming us. So what can we do?

The importance of a good night’s sleep can never be overestimated. Getting enough sleep offers the body the opportunity to restore both its physical and emotional wellbeing. It allows for consolidation of learning and enhances memory. Many of us do not make sleep a priority and we have forgotten what being truly rested feels like. Are you and your children getting enough sleep?

Eating Well and Exercise
We have always known that eating well and exercise are good for us. Recent research has found evidence that eating fresh food, especially vegetables, promotes the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a natural chemical in our bodies that is associated with our feelings of pleasure and happiness and boosts our motivation and concentration. Keeping our dopamine levels naturally high helps us stay positive and feel confident that we can achieve our goals.

Being Organised and Prepared
The best way to unclutter a busy brain is to be organised and prepared for your tasks – whether this is getting homework done or getting dinner on the table. Being organised and prepared is critical to feeling in control and managing your stress levels. Writing lists, using a diary, a ‘work before pleasure’ attitude and planning ahead are all useful strategies.

Knowing your Distractions
These often stop us from getting the job done and prolong the stress associated with an unfinished task. Whether it’s the TV, a good book, all our electronic devices or the pantry full of chocolates and biscuits, we can be easily distracted when we are feeling stressed or when we are avoiding a task. Setting limits on our distractions is important.

Asking for Support
Seeking help and support from a friend, a teacher or a trusted adult is critical to accepting that we all have flaws and make the occasional mistake and experience some failure. Letting out your worries and talking to a support person helps to maintain good emotional health and reduces feelings of being overwhelmed.

Practising Relaxation Techniques
This can include going to yoga classes, meditating, breathing exercises, practising mindfulness or can be as simple as going for a walk, listening to our ‘feel good’ music, taking a bath or watching funny YouTube videos. If we make a regular time to consciously relax and reflect on our day, we will be able to manage the stressors that inevitably impact our lives.

We need to consciously listen to our body’s physical and psychological messages of stress. To the best of our ability, we should eat well, get adequate sleep, exercise, be organised and talk out our worries. We need to help our children problem solve difficult situations and to display healthy coping strategies when we are stressed. We need to do this in order to maintain our own health and more importantly to be a positive role model and support to our young people’s awareness and personal development in the area of maintaining their overall wellbeing.


Paula Kolivas
School Counselor

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