RECAP: Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Dealing with Toxic Stresses on Campus and in Our Classrooms

April 13, 2018

 Rudy Mendoza-Denton, Tina Sacks and Amani Nuru-Jeter

On January 20, 2018, about 50 faculty, graduate students, and academic staff gathered in the Academic Innovation Studio for a dialogue about toxic stress: how it impacts learning as well as possible strategies to help mitigate those impacts, particularly given the rise of hateful rhetoric and exclusionary policies at the national level and increased tensions on campus.

The discussion was led by Assistant Professor Tina Sacks (Social Welfare), with remarks by Associate Professor Amani Nuru-Jeter (Public Health) and Professor Rudy Mendoza-Denton (Psychology). Sacks set the tone by noting that we’re all still grappling with these issues, so there are no easy answers, but it’s important to come together to build community and share ideas and strategies. She asked the other panelists to touch on suggestions as well as their own struggles.

Amani Nuru-Jeter began by defining toxic stress as an “unrelenting chronic overproduction of stress hormones,” differentiating it from a normal, healthy stress activation response. Under normal circumstances, our bodies produce stress hormones to help us cope with a perceived threat, but when that response is triggered repeatedly and reinforced through experience, our reserve capacity is diminished and the flood of hormones causes bodily wear and tear that has negative consequences for health. The term allostatic load describes the process by which environmental demands exceed an individual’s adaptive capacity.

For Nuru-Jeter, this topic is directly related to her teaching and her research specialty, which explores the “vectors of resources and risk factors”--specifically, social conditions and individual experiences--that lead to unequal health outcomes along racial lines. Nuru-Jeter summed up her research focus this way: “Why do Black people get sicker and die faster?” She pointed out the intersectional nature of health and social factors, including places and environments fueled by income inequality and residential racism that become reservoirs of toxic stress.

Nuru-Jeter pointed out that these issues are not just intellectual but personally challenging, part of her own “daily visceral experience.” As an instructor, she tries to create a welcoming space in her classroom so students feel like they can bring issues up, but acknowledged the struggle to balance curriculum and content demands against students’ personal needs. She also tries to create opportunities outside of class to interact and relate to her students to break down hierarchies and help students (both graduate and undergraduate) feel that resources, community, and support are available. At the same time, the pressure to help people and always do more makes it hard not to burn out--especially as a faculty member who is also a woman of color. Nuru-Jeter closed by emphasizing that we all need to practice self-care and find restorative spaces (literal and metaphorical) of our own.

Rudy Mendoza-Denton echoed many of Nuru-Jeter’s points and complimented her on modeling healthy behaviors. Through his connection with the Greater Good Science Center, he’s done a lot of work around managing stress, so he began with listing a few protective factors:

  1. Personal and professional relationships: These provide opportunities for reflection and distraction and also help us feel gratitude and that we’re not alone. They also help us engage with the social process, so the benefits are both individual and collective (working towards positive group outcomes).

  2. Planfulness: Having methods, procedures, and personal practices in our lives gives us a routine, a sense of control, and helps us cope with anxiety. Rumination when there’s nothing you can do about it leads to chronic stress, but relief comes from having something to do and making a decision, even in limited circumstances.

  3. Flexibility: Stress effects accumulate in our bodies over time, so having the ability to let things go is important both physiologically and psychologically/emotionally.

Following the panelists’ initial remarks, Sacks opened up the conversation to participants in the room. One audience member asked about suggestions for instructors, particularly in STEM disciplines, who might care about these issues but either not feel equipped to bring them up in class or feel awkward doing so given their subject matter. Nuru-Jeter emphasized that it’s okay to not feel like an expert and it’s helpful to realize students may be able to lead on these discussions. The Division of Equity and Inclusion also offers resources and support around facilitation and is interested in organizing interest groups.

Audience shot at panel on toxic stress January 20, 2018

Sacks noted that sometimes just acknowledging difficult things that are happening is enough. It’s important not to pretend something is not happening, and to quote her grandmother, “Just be a person.” Mendoza-Denton added that acknowledging things up front also stops students’ rumination. It allows them not to wonder or worry, so then they can actually focus and learn.

Another audience member asked, there are so many important issues and events happening all the time, so how do you decide which ones to bring up and acknowledge? Similarly, another participant wondered about how to develop a triage approach, since paying constant attention to potential issues can be exhausting, especially in the current national climate, and we don’t always want to be reacting or caught off guard.

Nuru-Jeter advised that instructors don’t always need to frame these discussions or overly anticipate problems. Instead, they can create space and allow students (the classroom community) to bring in what’s on their minds. A think-share activity works well for this, for example.

Following this, Sacks asked the audience to turn and talk in pairs about their own practice and suggestions. One person described personal health as a form of resistance and activism. Nuru-Jeter added that we need to question the narrative of resilience that is commonplace now; it puts the onus on individuals and presumes that what we need is “armor” to protect ourselves from threats rather than looking systematically and exploring how we can reduce environmental hazards.

Another audience member offered advice based on trauma-informed practice, which includes 1-minute meditations and explicitly setting aside intentional time in class for these other kinds of discussions. The point is to acknowledge lived experiences and the fact that students want to be seen, but not lose sight of your educational goals.

Mendoza-Denton closed the program by reminding everyone, “Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”


Presentation slides from Dr. Amani Nuru-Jeter

This event is part of series of programs co-hosted by the Division of Equity & Inclusion, the Center for Teaching and Learning, and the American Cultures Center called "Teaching in Troubled Times."

For more on this and other faculty resources from the Division of Equity & Inclusion, visit