Dealing with stress: from the scattered to the symbolic

By Elena Pedrosa Puerta, Teacher of Plastic Arts and Design, PhD in Audiovisual Communication and Art Therapist.

Introduction: from the dispersed to the symbolic, a journey back to the origin

For Pablo Beneito, Doctor in Islamic Literature: “The symbolic implies the movement to restore unity, while the diabolical would be the movement to disperse.” (1)

For ancient culture, and across all its traditions (Sufi mysticism, Christian mysticism, the satori of Zen Buddhism or Hindu asceticism), the union with the absolute, as a contemplative moment that removes the noise of the world to concentrate the mind in the permanent center of gravity that is the heart, is the principle of virtue and healing.

These millennial traditions, extensively studied by the current western civilization and westernized in order to alleviate the suffering with greater incidence of the last decade, “include techniques designed to promote relaxation, build inner energy or life force (Qì, ki, chi, prāṇa, etc.) and develop compassion, love, patience, generosity, and forgiveness.”

When we study emotional management and self-regulation of the state of mind through self-knowledge, we realize that, in reality, stress, as a state of mind physiologically assimilated to the reaction of the cerebral amygdala to an emergency situation and therefore to an emotion like fear, is the opposite to the sensation of libidinal symbiosis that occurs in living beings when their basic physiological needs (heat, love, calm, security) are covered. This aspect has been studied both by neuroscientists experts in neonatology observing the relationship of the baby with his mother, and by zoologists who observe the living conditions of the animals and their coexistence in collectivity. (a)

While traditional culture and its forms of spirituality are intrinsically linked to religion, “meditation is not a religion in itself. Meditation usually involves an inner effort to self-regulate the mind in some way” (2) and, the fact that in a secular culture, this type of practice has been assimilated into a blatant religiosity, has perhaps been the main reason why we have moved away from it in our daily rituals.

However, as Beneito says, in order to focus on the principle of unity, “here and now,” in a single thing, moment, situation or action, with all our heart and all our senses, is medicine for any kind of disease. From transcendental meditation, Qi Gong, Yoga, Tai Chi to simply training consciousness when we walk to work, wash dishes or play with our children, it takes us away from this frenetic movement of the hypertext or the multitasking that disperses us, which invades us with recurring thoughts and even neurotic hindering sleep, rest, calm and health.

The conditions of life that have been imposed on us by mechanism, technology and the acceleration of the world, forcing productive rhythms more typical of machines than of humans, have led to increasingly diminished health conditions. We are in a civilizing moment, in terms of health, comparable to the one we transcend, centuries ago, after the elimination of the greatest deadly diseases thanks to the improvement of hygienic and sanitary conditions with universal access to drinking water. Today, the alarming numbers in mortality, beyond even epidemics and pandemics, correspond to coronary diseases or autoimmune diseases, caused, in part, by the chronic stress that derives from the current lifestyle. A lifestyle, which we have learned to tolerate and even extol, encouraged by the hyperproductivity and competitiveness born from neo-Darwinism and the Fordist system already in the 19th century, and that leads us to that diabolical dispersion that stresses us. (b)

1. Teachers stress

But let’s address the extent to which stress affects the teaching environment, both teachers and students.

“Work stress can affect people in all professions, in situations of high competitiveness, responsibility, risk, routine… but the jobs that have the highest number of people affected are those that require personal involvement, a constant and direct relationship with people, including health professionals, education, public services and social services.” (3)

The excessive number of pupils per class, the lack of motivation of the pupils, an increase in the social pressure to which the teacher is subjected to, the overcrowding of administrative tasks, the difficulties and challenges that teachers must face (including, for example, the use of new technologies by teachers who have not grown up in the digital world), often without having the training and personal resources to cope with all these situations, are all factors that can make a difference in the organisational management of workplaces and work team and in feeling safe and calm every day at the workplace or activating stressors on a daily basis, and limbic system alarms, in situations ranging from frustration to distress or hopelessness and from the so-called “burn out syndrome” or burn out to workplace harassment or mobbing.

Social skills and everyday conditions in human relationships, both with students and with other peers, are a cornerstone in the construction of a solid self-esteem and well-being, or in the demolition of its pillars, as a weapon to throw fear and anguish when the being feels lost and out of control, in any degree, from a specific moment or from an experience of chronic stress.

The place from which we observe what happens, is usually not aseptic, but rather affected by domestic stressors of our non-working life (family, personal, structural, emotional, physiological or economic), will be one of the aspects to work on through emotional awareness, self-knowledge and art therapy.

Of course, looking from another angle requires self-consciousness and personal work, but also, in an essential way, a team environment and accompaniment, which helps to mitigate the consequences of non-adaptive circumstances. Mutual support as a tool for the consolidation of the individual, which has been studied by anthropology, has been shown to be essential in times of crisis, such as the present one, while clearly any stress situation can be interpreted as a crisis. (c)

2. Stress of students

“Children and adolescents in school are faced with situations of high demand and require the deployment of all their coping skills to adapt to both internal and external stressors, according to the evolutionary stage reached. The symptoms associated with stress accompany adaptive, anxious, behavioral and emotional symptoms.” (4)

To be more attentive to the multiple intelligences, and therefore, to the different ways of learning from our students, which have to do with previous experience, as well as the study habits, the disciplinary structures of the home, the established routines, the place from which the priority for knowledge and culture is conceived, as well as the own self-concept and self-knowledge, is an indispensable requirement of the teacher with social skills and emotional intelligence. In short, to know our students and to be consistent with their situation and their particularities is to be a pillar, to be part of that essential stone of which we spoke, that must be at the base to sustain an environment of safety and calm or reproduce each day the feared situation that gives rise to stress.

An active listening, a visual connection, a physical, intellectual or emotional approach, will determine the change in how and from which place the students perceive that stress habitat, since a point of support (proven in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder due to domestic violence) is the basis for the reconstitution of self-esteem that the anxious or stressed person lacks and which renders him or her incapable of coping with a situation that, however small or simple, tt overflows her and makes her feel out of control.

In psychopedagogy, when we study student motivation, one of the aspects that strikes me most is the avoidative response of some students to the fear of exposing their mistakes. Many of the perfectionist and low self-esteem students prefer not to submit the task before being exposed to the great stress of receiving a possible negative criticism or low grade that confirms their belief or feeling of incompetence. It’s an adaptive defense mechanism that sometimes we don’t understand. Before they feel incompetent, they prefer to have the excuse that they will never really know whether or not they knew how to do it, because they didn’t deliver it. (d)

Like the teachers themselves, and although we typically assimilate to the youth of the learners a flexibility and ease in the teaching-learning process, a greater capacity of adaptation and intellectual resources more open to the novelty of what, we understand, we have us, already adults, our students face knowledge, situations, environments and unknown people, situations of stress that, in addition, according to their social skills, can be insufferable, for example in the case of the introverted or shy person who must forcibly overcome most of his or her personal limits when speaking in public in the oral presentation of class work, or having to relate forcibly when doing group work, for example.

Poor time management and coordination in the teaching team results in the accumulation of tasks in different subjects that students are not able to attend to with the calm and attention we talked about. Regardless of the degree of interest, efficiency, and taste for the material it develops.

And this is very important especially in artistic subjects, since art itself is a ritual and symbolic practice that has been used in tradition as a tool of healing and spiritual communication. When the artist gives himself to her work, he is one with her. It is a kind of meditation that needs a space-time that does not correspond to the temporalization and sequencing of subjects imposed by the teaching plans, very little didactic.

3. Emotional awareness and art therapy as a solution to stress

Most experts, and increasingly in allopathic medicine, are introducing techniques of relaxation, breathing and emotional self-knowledge that, from the modern Mindfullness, rescue these techniques from ancient traditions such as the consciousness of the breath, and of the physical body itself, and meditation.

And also, from the study of the relationship of art with mental illness, a century ago, artetherapy was used as a palliative in diseases such as cancer, but also as a tool of concentration and calm in hyperactivity syndromes, mental disorders and psychological pathologies. (e)

Of course, psychologists experts in this area in any of the currents and schools, from cognitive-behavioral, to psychoanalysis or Gestalt therapy, stress the importance of affectivity and ego awareness, in the intellectual understanding of what is the stimulus that gives us the alert or that makes us feel calm and how our psyche responds to it, as well as the deactivation of stress by placing in our imaginary situations of calm (from our own imagination, or from the production or contemplation of art) or focusing on the power of the now. In fact, any of us can remember images of peace in the absence of situations that demand us, that bother us or frighten us, for some reason. (f)

As a solution to this type of situation, a few years ago we developed a pilot program of emotional competence with the students through the Teaching Center and that I experienced in the classroom with my students of 2nd Photography of the School of Art of Almería. With the indications of Miguel Ángel Pérez Ibarra, of the Emoconciencia Institute (g), we introduced four minutes of consciousness into the breath before each class, followed by an active visualization from the personal imaginary of each participant, to “stop the noise” between matter and matter and be able to accentuate the concentration in it without the thought being dispersed.

To be a new unit in order to be able to re-activate the capacity of discernment. Return to calm, return to the symbolic place of security, to the permanent center of gravity, before continuing to dance in the dispersion of educational programs that, constructed narratively in the same way as the grid of television programming (either on demand or scheduled) or the hypertextual structure of social networks, it moves away from the perception of unity that our physiology understands, by nature, as outside the emergency situation.

4. In conclusion: the essential humanism

Working under pressure is the continuity of the discomfort, frustration and lack of self-esteem that is to live daily in a prescribed structure alien to which is derived from our inner feeling, whatever it may be in each particular case, specific culture or belief system. The growing homogenization in this globalized society takes us away from health, as does monoculture as a technique of agricultural production efficiency, which nullifies biodiversity and makes species disappear that, not because they are weaker, do not bear stress. (h)

This sense of urgency that, if lived continuously, accustoms our physiology to be active chronically, causes discomfort and ailments ranging from different degrees of stress, to anxiety disorder, emotional and physical block due to post-traumatic stress, panic attacks, or physical symptoms such as dizziness, dizziness, vomiting and myofascial stress, and other psychological and physical ailments such as nervous depression, which are unlikely to be reversed with pharmacological treatment, The European Parliament, in its resolution on the Commission’s proposal for a Council Directive on the approximation of the laws of the Member.

Going through this experience, as a teacher, and seeing my students go through it gives me a perspective, a place from which to look, which maybe I don’t have who hasn’t been there.

Or as a pedagogical tool that accompanies me to help students who do not understand their vital rhythms, the cycles of stress, the trap of the collective imaginary and the self-deception of the ego when it is afraid and feels that it has to escape. (i)

To be able to speak through the family photo album (j), with the narrative construction, with the landscape or the projective self-portrait (k), or with action painting techniques that put anger and adrenaline in their place.

And even introduce the game, laughter as a de-stressful tool, in moments of end of evaluations, allow them to draw while listening, because I know it relaxes them and does not distract them, or give them a moment of introspection if they arrive excited or stressed from another subject.

Everything that can serve us, and serve them, to stop being lost and scattered. To feel calm, secure. Belonging to a symbolic unit. Here and now.

From that place, from that inner world, a mood develops that is opposed to the stress that helps us face the difficulties of a troubled and complex outer world, which frustrates and strains us. From that place that gathers us with ourselves, our essence, our permanent center of gravity, and our circle of comfort (from which it is not so necessary to leave continuously).

5. Bibliography

  1. “Imaginación Creadora y el Mundo Imaginal, sobre la función mediadora del símbolo y del arte.”, conferencia de Pablo Beneito, Universidad de Murcia.
  2. “Meditación” Artículo en Wikipedia.ón
  3. “Prevenir el estrés en el sector educativo” Redacción Educaweb. 9/07/2012.
  4. “Estrés escolar” Revista médica clínica Las Condes. Vol. 26 Issue1. Jan-Feb 2015.

Non-bibliographic references of ideas that can be found in the text:

  1. Casilda Rodrígáñez (Escritora e investigadora sobre el parto y la maternidad). Humberto Maturana y Francisco Varela (Biólogos promotores de la idea de Autopoiesis), Tania Gálvez San José (Documentalista en UNED Formación:
  2. Miguel Amorós, el colectivo Enciclopedié des Nuisances y editoriales como Muturreko o El Salmón, redundan en contenidos relacionados con el Antidesarrollismo.
  3. Piotr Korpotkin (Geógrafo y naturalista ruso, estudió el apoyo mutuo como respuesta al neodarwinismo, investigando los modos de relación de animales e insectos en la estepa rusa)
  4. Curso de Posgrado en Psicopedagogía: “El aprendizaje autorregulado” José Manuel Suárez Ribeiro. UNED.
  5. David Viñuales (Fototerapeuta, estudia en su tesis doctoral el origen de la Arteterapia)
  6. Master en Psicología Holística y Coaching, ESNECA Formación.
  7. Instituto Emoconciencia:
  8. Masanobu Fukuoka (Escritor y activista de la permacultura)
  9. Curso de Extensión Universitaria “Fotografía y terapia. Más allá de la imagen estética” de Carlos Canal (médico y fotógrafo) y Jorge Fernández Bazaga (Psicólogo humanista)
  10. Fina Sanz (Escribió “La fotobiografía” en la que explica el uso del álbum de fotos familiar como herramienta terapéutica y de autoconocimiento)
  11. Judy Weiser (Pionera de la Fototerapia y la Fotobiografía)
  12. Talleres de creación “Ensoñación y percepción expandida” Francisco Villalobos Santos.

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