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Another Way Stress is Bad for You (So Read this Calmly...)

April 16, 2009

I entered my teenage years as my parents' marriage unraveled. Over two brutal years, the usual flood of emotions that occurs with adolescence overwhelmed me as I watched my parents turn on each other. I fell from being the top student in my school into a hole of dysfunction and depression that took me another two years from which to recover. Happily for me, with time situations improved, stress decreased, my grades returned, and I "got back to normal."

A new study by Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y, proposes that some children never get that same chance to "get back to normal." Evans' study looked at the impact of the daily stress of living in poverty on the cognitive development of young children, namely on their ability to develop working memory - a significant factor in academic achievement. According to Evans, "the greater proportion of your childhood that your family spent in poverty, the poorer your working memory, and that link is largely explained by this chronic physiologic stress."

Working memory is the ability to hold onto and manipulate the information that is necessary for “right now” tasks in your mind (the equivalent of to-do lists). In school, it helps students remember the facts they just crammed for a quiz, mentally add or retain numbers, or hold onto three ideas long enough to incorporate them into an in-class essay. Moreover, working memory is important for building long-term memory. Says Evans, "It's critical for learning. If you don't have good working memory, you can't do things like hold a phone number in your head or develop a vocabulary;" with no ‘docking area’ to place this information while deciding what to do next, it simply falls out of your head. Evans therefore suggest that the real challenge facing children in poverty isn’t to academically “get back to normal” when confronted with stress; much worse, they must cope with a brain that physiologically was never even given the chance the develop “normally” to begin with.

It is well established that people do not think as well while under stress. That's the whole truth of test anxiety. For all of us who have chronic stresses in life, Evans work should give us much greater pause. That the stress we experience today could have a more long-term, insidious impact points to how crucial it is to handle life’s challenges with as much composure as possible- if not for your own mental health, then for your child’s.

Life is full of difficulties and challenges, some foreseeable and some unexpected. These moments become opportunities to help the young people around you develop a healthy resilience. Model for your kids how to deal with difficulties. Challenges can (and should) be met as problems or puzzles. Failure should be rebranded as feedback. Teachable moments abound. There is great peril in treating life as an endless series of crises to be weathered. Don’t fall into that trap. Real life is not what happens when everything is finally free of adversity. There is no such thing. Recasting difficulties is not only important for teaching kids skills to be successful in life, but it is also apparently important for the development of their minds, the very thing that makes them most the people they are and will be.

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