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Home > News and views > Does debating help you deal with stress?

Does debating help you deal with stress?

This week is mental health awareness week and the theme for this year is ‘stress’. We asked debaters how debating has helped them navigate trying times

Ask many university debaters if debating can help deal with stress and the sarcastic reply will be ‘Are you serious?’ University debating is fiercely competitive and it’s not uncommon for debaters to get so into their game that they fail years at university. But that is not the whole story – many other debaters have a much more positive take on the issue.

‘Debating helps me cope with stress because it’s all my favourite things’ says Meabh McMahon, a debater at St Andrews University and an ESU coach at our IPSC competition this week. ‘Seeing my friends; doing something I get validation from; learning things! I often find that, if I’m bogged down with study or work, going away to a competition allows me to come back with a clear head.’

It’s important to remember that, while debating teaches transferable skills such as being articulate and organised, it is also a creative outlet for many. We have all felt at times that there are so many thoughts in our head that we might explode. Debating allows us a chance to air some of our ideas, to organise them and, at times, to understand them better. For many of us it is a process similar to writing, meditation or even therapy. It clarifies the mind.

Learning to deal with criticism

One thing that causes an enormous amount of stress in our lives is criticism. Humans are not great at dealing with being told we are in the wrong. Often, we find it difficult to separate the phrase ‘you did this wrong’ from the feeling of being a failure. This is particularly true for people already struggling with mental health issues.

Danique Van Koppenhagen, an Utrecht debater and former member of the World Universities Debating Championship adjudication core, says debating has helped her tackle her stress. ‘It got me used to dealing with feedback, including (importantly) feedback on how to improve,’ she says. ‘Being used to that when you enter the workforce is a major stress-reducer.’

This is a huge part of the value of debating. School and university tend to offer feedback on essays, but debating feedback is usually delivered face-to-face and it’s about something we just said, or an opinion we just expressed to a room full of people, which often makes it feel more personal. And this is exactly what makes it so useful. If young people are used to not only having their ideas challenged by opponents, but criticised (kindly we hope!) by judges, they are far more likely to be able to have important discussions in their work and personal lives. Not being afraid of tough conversations means we are less likely to bottle up negative feelings; less likely to allow them to build and fester.

Seeing the whole picture

The main reason I find debating so helpful for stress reduction is the ability it gives me to see all sides of an argument or situation. In debating we sometimes have to argue for the side we don’t personally agree with, and even if that’s not the case, we have to anticipate our opponents’ arguments. In this way, we learn to look at an issue, situation or event from all possible sides. This is an invaluable skill in everyday life, helping us to understand other people’s feelings and motivations and meaning we’re less likely to be baffled or angry by a colleague’s apparently irrational behaviour. Debating does not make you an emotional savant or gift you with unnatural empathy, of course. But it does allow you to practice putting your personal opinions to one side and to consider matters in a logical, calm way. And we could all use a lot more of that.


Find out more about our debating programmes and how they help young people to reach their full potential.

If you are feeling overwhelmed please talk to someone. There’s always someone willing to listen and nobody needs to suffer alone. Organisations including SamaritansCampaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) and The Silver Line are available to help.

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