student looking out window

By Jay Keener, LCSW

We have been told repeatedly that stress is bad for us and, it’s true, when our fight or flight response is activated we release chemicals like cortisal and adrenaline which raise our blood pressure and heart rate. The problem is that many of our stressors cannot be run away from or fought. Although going for a run or engaging in vigorous physical activity is not a bad idea when we are activated in this way….it’s just not always practical.

There has been a change in thinking in recent years challenging the idea that everyday stress is harmful to one’s health and well being. It turns out that how we think about stress changes its effects from harmful to positive. An eight year study of 30,000 adults found that, indeed, people under a high degree of stress were more likely to suffer harmful consequences and even die. However, those that didn’t believe their stress was harmful to their health did not suffer the dire consequences even under chronic high stress situations. In fact, those people that didn’t believe stress was harmful suffered the least amount of health consequences, less than even those who had minimal stress. Another study which looked at heart arteries with an MRI scanner found that the arteries of those people under stress who believed that their symptoms of stress were positive, i.e. “My accelerated heart rate is giving me positive energy to deal with this situation,” were actually larger, more dilated, and therefore more efficient at moving blood. This also prevented the harmful consequences of increased heart rate and blood pressure from occurring (McGonigal, Kelly).

It has also been discovered that another neuro-hormone, oxyrotocin, released under stress, can actually have positive effects on our ability to feel connected to others. Oxytocin is often called the “empathy hormone,” and new mothers have large amounts of oxytocin as they care for their new babies. Greater amounts of oxytocin are released under stress which can engender social connectedness and empathy. In other words, we have a greater (chemical) impulse to seek out others socially and talk about our difficulties when we are feeling stressed (McGonigal, Kelly).

A recent NY Times article, How to Help Teenagers Embrace Stress, cites the above research and also points out that approaching stress with an empowered attitude, as opposed to fearing that it will harm us, “inoculates” teens to stress and allows them to become resilient under higher stress situations. The article also points out that we as parents and educators play a role in framing stress as bad or good. If we try to rescue and protect children from every day stress (stress is bad) they won’t be able to develop greater resilience. It has also been found that teens are very adaptive to reframing stress in a positive manner (Damour, Lisa).

At The Janus School, one of our core principles is helping students tolerate the stress of learning while dealing with a learning difference. It is understandable that we as caring adults want to rescue children and minimize the stress they are under, but we may be doing them a disservice. We, as educators and parents, now have research to help overturn our own bias that stress is harmful and to give our students and children the cognitive tools they need to nudge them out of their comfort zones and make them more resilient learners.


Damour, Lisa. “How to Help Teenagers Embrace Stress.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Sept. 2018,

McGonigal, Kelly. “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading,

“It is understandable that we as caring adults want to rescue children and minimize the stress they are under, but we may be doing them a disservice.”

Start Your Janus Journey

Find your child’s path to success with personalized learning at Janus.

© 2024 Copyright info Privacy Policy Sitemap