As students and developing members of the society, we encounter problems that we feel might be overwhelming, and we do not know how to handle them. We turned to Mr Kevin Dunk, one of the school counsellor here at GEMS, and conducted an interview regarding how to manage pressure and stress that one might experience at school, or at home.
Since we’re students of a rigorous curriculum, some of us tend to be stressed and panic, especially when it starts to feel overwhelming. What would you suggest as a tip or advice for us on how to handle that stress?
KD: Yes indeed, the IB is a rigorous curriculum, and it is very common to feel stress and panic. I think the first thing that is important, is to understand what stress actually is. Have you heard of 'fight or flight', the idea that our bodies are primed in emergency situations to run away or fight the situation? Well, this is based on years of evolution. Our brain is wired to send messages to our body when it thinks we are in danger, a response that was needed when being attacked by wild animals in the past, and it is still important to this day, like when we step out into the road and have to jump back to avoid a cyclist, or in a high pressure, dangerous situation. Unfortunately, our brains react the same way when faced with non-life threatening situations, like doing well in a test or getting into a 'good' university. While these situations are important, our bodies react in a physical way (sweaty palms, increased heart rate, feeling disorientated, etc.) and this is what causes panic and stress. The most important tip I would give is to remind yourself that you are not in a life or death situation, and it usually turns out better than you might think. I will go through some specific techniques in a moment.
Sometimes we lose motivation for doing schoolwork, and forcing ourselves to do work can add more stress. What would you suggest doing when we lose motivation to do something?
KD: Stop and do something else. Losing motivation is very common, even if it is a subject that we really enjoy. It is perfectly natural to lose motivation especially when it seems like the end is so far away, and you have other work you know you need to do, so my advice is to stop and go and do something that you enjoy for a while, go for a walk, take in some fresh air, do some mindfulness, grab a bite to eat, call a friend, spend time with family...
When we see someone struggling, because they might have problems at home or with school, how do we comfort or help them? What if they do not want to be helped, even though it is clear they are having a hard time? Should we still try to help them?
KD: Recognizing that someone you know is having a hard time shows that you care about them and are empathetic to their situation. As a school counsellor, I am a big believer in 'talking' as a therapeutic methodology, but really anyone can be a good listener, and you can help your friends by being there, listening to them (and I mean really listening to them and giving them your undivided attention) which will be a great source of comfort to them. If they really do not want to talk, you can suggest they come and talk to a trusted adult, which can include coming to talk with myself or Ms McClure here at school.
Stress does not only come with exams/written tasks, sometimes students struggle with presentations or speaking up in class. Are there any techniques to help relax and feel less nervous?
KD: There are a lot of techniques you can try to feel relaxed and less nervous. The key is breathing regulation, as when we feel stressed, panicked, anxious and nervous it is because our brain is sending messages to our body, and we are having those physical reactions I talked about earlier. Controlling our breathing physically decreases our heart rate and calms down our bodies. There are loads of breathing exercises on YouTube you can try for yourself, but one I like is called 'Square Breathing' and it’s really simple: 'Inhale for 4 seconds, hold in for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold out for 4 seconds', then repeat. It really does work!
When someone has problems and is not able to talk to someone about them (they cannot talk to friends or their parents, or are uncomfortable talking to people they do not know), what do you suggest for them to do?
KD: The thought of talking to someone you don't know, especially about private things, can seem like a really uncomfortable thing to do. We do understand that. However, we (the school counsellors) would really encourage you to come and have a chat with us, we really are non-judgemental, and we don't take sides, nor 'tell you what to do', and you can talk to us in confidence about most things. If you are still uncomfortable talking to us or if we are not available, you could call the Samaritans of Singapore: 1800 221 4444 (24 hours)
What kind of support is there in school for students who are struggling?
KD: We are very fortunate at GWA to have two student counsellors in SY and two in PY who are available to offer support to students who are struggling. You can also talk to Mr. Petterson who is the Designated Safeguard Lead at the school, and also a trained counsellor. If you would rather speak to a student, we are very fortunate to have a dedicated team of Support Mentors who you can also talk to (their faces are on posters around the school, or you can contact us to speak to one of them).
Thank you so much, Mr. Dunk, for taking the time to contribute to this issue of the Vantage Point! We hope that each reader can take away something helpful from this interview.