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Mental Health Matters: How to tell healthy and unhealthy stress apart

Mental Health Matters is a series of Surrey Schools articles that highlights issues and challenges identified by our school counsellors and psychologists as ones commonly experienced by students of all ages. Read them all at

Feeling or describing stress can oftentimes seems like a wholly negative experience and emotion. However, there is such thing as healthy stress, which can even help people overcome certain high-pressure situations.Unhealthy%20Stress.png

“So an example of healthy stress would be playing sports in school,” explained district psychologist Sally-Ann Ambrosio. “You might feel worked up about being able to perform and sometimes that is what helps carry players through a game, giving them that extra little motivation to compete at a high level.”

On the flip side, Ambrosio said stress that stays with you outside of those scenarios, or feelings that dominate your thoughts and moods long after the stressor is gone, are considered unhealthy and can become problematic.

“So it might not be attached to a specific thing, or it might be due to a bunch of little things adding up and you might feel like you’re just walking around carrying all this weight that’s affecting how you go through your day.”

Learning to tell the difference between the two, explained Ambrosio, is key for youth learning how to navigate the complexities of life and how to manage their social and emotional wellbeing as they mature.

“The issues that we see with the older kids don't start when they're older kids,” she said. “They tend to start when they're younger, whether the presentation is external behavior, like lashing out, fighting, getting involved in trouble in the community."

In order to halt those problems early, Ambrosio encourages students who may be struggling with unhealthy stress to make time for themselves to focus on releasing those negative feelings in a healthy way, whether it’s through leisure activities, hanging out with friends or just going for a walk to clear their head.

“There’s also support available for anyone who might be facing challenges while feeling in a constant state of stress,” she said. “If you’re not comfortable talking within your circle about how you feel, we have people at our schools that can help students navigate these feelings and all they have to do is reach out and let us know.”

In addition to the supports available at schools, the district has created a video showing the differences between the two kinds of stress. There are two versions of the Healthy vs. Unhealthy Stress video available, one for elementary aged students and another for intermediate/secondary aged students. Each video also has a corresponding teacher guide to support classroom discussions about the topic in an age-appropriate manner. There is also a parent guide to all the videos, with suggestions on questions to prompt conversations, as well as community resources if families need additional support.Healthy%20Stress.png

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Stress is also available in French, Punjabi, Mandarin and Arabic.

To see the rest of the video series, click here, or select the topic below:

These videos were developed in partnership with Fraser Health and the Ministry of Education and Child Care, which provided financial support for the project.

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