Your workload could be aging you

Even though we are on spring break, many Berklee faculty members are working hard on their teaching, research, and creative work. Is your workload causing you chronic stress? Berklee faculty member Kathleen Howland explains how you age 6 years for every year you live in chronic stress.

A Vision for Well-Being at Berklee

by Kathleen Howland


I have a vision that Berklee will value well-being as the basis for all innovation, creativity and inspiration. 

The workload for both faculty and students is crushing. I recently asked a class of 20 students this question: how many of you personally know of a Berklee student that contemplated committing suicide? Eighty (80) percent of them raised their hands. 

As a specialist in stress biology, I can share research regarding the negative outcomes from sleep deprivation and chronic/acute stress. For headlines, sleep deprivation impairs memory so cramming for a test by losing sleep is contraindicated. Students can't learn anything in that state of mind. And sleeping afterwards, particularly during the day will disturb sleep cycles for a couple more days. The brain is very active during sleep sorting through the day's memories. It will tag memories that are worth saving (what you learned in a class) versus those that are not worth saving (what you had for breakfast, particularly if it was the same thing you normally have). The brain also 'takes out the trash' from the activity of the day. If this is interrupted, your risk for cancer, Alzheimer's disease and type 2 diabetes increases substantially. And we cannot make up sleep. The brain either performs these important functions at night or it doesn't. So the sleep deprivation of today will be carried biologically into old age. I find this research to be very sobering. 

Further, stress has the ability to kill brain cells, impair immune function (how many people get sick at the end of the semester?), increase cardiovascular disease, decrease dopamine receptors (the neurotransmitter that registers pleasure) and decreases telomeres (the caps of the strings of chromosomes that acts like the tips of shoe laces). This final anatomical structure shows decreases of 6:1 for people under chronic stress. That means people age about 6 years for every year they live in chronic stress. 

Most academic professors teach 1-4 courses a semester depending on their research opportunities and projects. People who teach at teaching institutions tend to teach 4. My colleagues and I teach the equivalent of 7. This semester, I teach 5 classes on the ground, sit on 7 master's thesis committees and work closely with 3 of those students to bring these projects to conclusion. Most master's thesis advisers have loads of 3, tops. I have over 70 students a week. And each week they submit assignments that mean hours of grading. Most people don't assign papers any longer because grading them is too burdensome. Last semester, I taught an online class in the master's program that required 1,020 grade postings, in one class. 

I greatly appreciate a job that allows me to teach the next generation of music therapists and that supports me and my family through good health benefits. I am proud that during my travels, the Berklee name carries such weight.  I just hope to catalyze a conversation around wellness that will enhance the reputation of Berklee as a world leader in educating artists. I don't buy the starving artist, fringe artist, mentally unstable artist profile that is often portrayed. I think we can be well and do great art and contribute to ourselves, our families and society in highly productive and sustainable ways. 

I will be teaching the biology of stress curriculum in 2 of my classes and I invite anybody to join me that is interested in this important topic. The research is all there. We just need the vision and the commitment. 

Kathleen M. Howland, Ph.D.
    music therapy (MT-BC, NMT/F)
    speech therapy (CCC-SLP)

Faculty, Berklee College of Music
Music Therapy and Liberal Art Depts.

TEDx talk "How Music Can Heal our Brain and Heart"
Music Therapy Tales, an advocacy site for Music Therapy
Greater Boston Music Therapy, partner