Is Stress Contagious?
25 April 2018
Author: Helen Tredgett, Associate Assistant Headteacher, Hungerhill School
Exam season is nearly upon us. In 2016-2017, Childline, delivered over 1000 counselling sessions to students worried about their exam results. Our students are trying to get to grip with the new, more demanding Grade 1-9 GCSEs and the pressure to achieve good grades can be too much for some teenagers to deal with. Some people may argue that a little bit of stress is good for you and you may perform better when in stressful situations. But too much stress can be a bad thing.
It isn’t just students who are feeling the strain. Teachers are feeling it too. Workload, larger class sizes, accountability and pressures of exam results and inspections may all be contributing to higher stress levels in the profession. Last year, Ofsted’s head, Amanda Spielman, warned that too many schools put their league table results above student’s interests and the U.K.’s Education Staff Health Survey indicated 91% of school teachers suffered from stress in the past two years and 74% experienced anxiety (1).
So are teachers making school more stressful for their students?
According to a new study (2), stress may be contagious in the classroom. The study, carried out by the University of British Columbia in Canada found a connection between teachers’ stress levels and the levels of a hormone, cortisol, which indicates stress in their students. Researchers surveyed 17 teachers who taught nine to twelve years olds and collected saliva samples from over 400 of their students and tested their cortisol levels. They found that in classrooms in which teachers experienced more stress, the students’ cortisol levels were higher. These results suggest that stress may be contagious between students and their teachers. However, the lead author of the report urges caution and says that “It is unknown what came first—elevated cortisol levels of students or teacher stress.” In other words, there may be correlation, but where did the stress originate from – the teachers or the students? What is the causal link?
Further research, perhaps on teenage British students will need to occur to see if stress is contagious in our classrooms. However, work being carried out on rats may provide part of the answer (3).
Researchers observed that some mother rats spend a lot of time licking, grooming, and nursing their babies. Some mothers seem to ignore their babies and they are not well nurtured. The rats that grow up to be calm adults were those that tended to be nurtured well by their mothers, whilst the rats who received little nurturing tended to grow up to be anxious adults. Further work showed that the difference between a calm and an anxious rat is not genetic, it’s down to a relatively new branch of science called epigenetics.
Epigenetics is the study of how genes can be switched on and off without involving a change in an organism’s DNA. Epigenetics is unusual in that it was previously thought that inheritance happens only through the DNA code that passes from parents to offspring in egg and sperm. Ultimately, epigenetics means that a parent’s behaviour and experiences, can be passed down to future generations and be inherited by their offspring.
So, could environmental factors cause epigenetic changes in humans? Could these changes be passed down from generation to generation? Epigenetics is a relatively new branch of science and it will take many years to find out the answers. However, there is some evidence it could.
Unlike behaviour or stress, diet is a more easily studied, environmental factor of epigenetic change. Studies of humans whose ancestors survived through periods of starvation in Sweden (4) and the Netherlands (5) suggest that the effects of famine on epigenetics and health can pass through at least three generations. Scientists saw a connection between food availability (large or small harvests) in one generation and the incidence of diabetes and heart disease in later generations.
Could stressful environments and less nurturing behaviours cause epigenetic changes in children? Could these changes be passed on and inherited by their children and their grandchildren in turn? What could this mean for disadvantaged students who probably experience more stressful situations than their more affluent peers? Will their genetic make-up be altered in a way that will affect future generations to come, regardless of whether their own environmental circumstances change?
Maybe our rodent friends have some solutions:
Scientists have found that you can take a low-nurtured, stressed out rat and inject its brain with a drug that makes it act just like a high-nurtured rat and the rat takes on a more relaxed personality. (6).
Neuroscientists from the University of Colorado (7) have changed the immune system of mice by injecting them with bacteria that then make the mice more resilient to stress. Clinical trials, involving war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, are now underway in the U.S. to see if the same bacteria can reduce the symptoms of stress in humans.
So it could be that epigenetic changes that are set up early in life are not fixed forever. The epigenetic destiny of our students can be reversed. The challenge is finding the correct way to do this.
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