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Student Stress and Experiences: Striking a Healthy Balance

What is the story with behavioral and mental health care in Experiential Education? In the United States, we face a genuine crisis that few people can deny. But, what role does experiential education play in this process if any? This is a question we at Alpenglow have been stewing over the past few years as we’ve delved further into the issues.

First, we know that our programs can cause a lot of stress and anxiety in our students and participants. Several studies have documented the fact that a student’s biggest fear about coming to #camp or coming on an adventure is their own ability to complete the course. One question we’ve often considered is what can we do as programmers or student service professionals to lessen the fear and anxiety with just showing up to our programs?

Additionally, on our programs we often use the fear of the unknown to create student investment. Filled with phrases like, "you’ll see" or “all in due time”, we use this to keep our students interested but also not to wear ourselves out answering all manner of questions. But what we consider less is the stress this technique imparts on our students as a result of this tactic. Does the benefit of this tactic outweigh the burden or stress we induce doing this?

Finally, students today are pretty far removed from previous backcountry experiences prior to coming on our courses. Going to the bathroom, sleeping under the stars, and uncertain group dynamics can all add unwarranted stress to the student experience.

So, that leaves us with the questions of what to do next. Many of our programs are tasked with keeping the student engaged and utilizing stress to teach students to deal with uncertainty and build resilience, resilience being one of the cornerstones of our field and programs. Striking that healthy balance is something each program will have to grapple with based on mission, student population, and training of staff among many other factors. But, perhaps the best thing we can do is to first acknowledge the stress and anxiety our students are dealing with, acknowledging that, praising our students for overcoming that, and even showing up in the first place.

We’d love to hear how your program deals with this in the comment section!

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