Being more aware of mind and body is the key to managing stress says Steve Mynard

Stress has been called ‘the epidemic of the 21st century’. Stress is everywhere these days and we are particularly aware of it in schools. Headteacher posts remain unfilled because aspiring staff are well aware of the stress the role brings. Every headteacher knows a colleague in another school who is off work with stress related illness. Headteachers are dieing in-post. Maybe epidemic is an understatement!

One approach to managing stress is to get to know the subject better. That way you will be more aware of what is happening to your mind and body. You will be more able to take action to limit the detrimental effects of stress while enhancing the positive effects.

What is stress?

Early research in the 1930s on the stress response as a straightforward physiological (bodily) response to a stimulus has evolved into the modern transactional view which states: ‘Stress is a lack of fit between the perceived demands of the environment and the perceived ability to cope with those demands.’

This definition brings in a cognitive element; our ability to cope with stress is influenced by how we think about it. This helps us refine a definition of the stress reaction: ‘A state of psychological tension and physiological arousal caused by something (a stressor) in the environment.’

It is also important to remember that there are two types of stress:

  • Distress is what most of us would recognise as stress. Distress is problems at work, relationship difficulties, traffic jams and so on. It is negative stress and bad.
  • Eustress is the little known twin of distress and could be defined as stress that is healthy, pleasant or curative. Eustress would include meeting a challenge or getting a promotion, moving house or having a baby. These events are stressful, but probably have a more positive outcome or impact than distress.

In this article we will look in detail at the physiological side of distress, how the body reacts to stressors.

Stress as a bodily response

The body has two responses to stressors.

The response to acute stress Some stressors are instant (acute) and then they are over; you see a child stumbling on the stairs and suddenly you are there catching them. Your reaction is instant – you don’t have time to think about it.

In this situation the autonomic nervous system (ANS) has been triggered. It is called autonomic because it governs itself and controls essential mechanisms such as heart beat and breathing rate.

The ANS is a pathway of nerves running from the lower parts of the brain to the organs of the body such as heart, digestive system and various glands. The ANS concerns itself with the normal functioning of the body and maintaining balance.

In the context of the stress reaction the ANS triggers the adrenal medulla. This is the central part of the adrenal gland; you have two of these glands situated on top of your kidneys. This stimulation releases the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline into the blood stream. These are the stress reaction hormones.

The heart rate and blood pressure increase, fats and carbohydrates are mobilised and converted into sugars and fatty acids (you need energy) and the digestive system slows down. All these events are controlled by one aspect of the ANS known as the sympathetic branch. This branch prepares the body for action.

The body is wonderfully adapted to balancing itself and so there is another side to the ANS known as the parasympathetic branch. This returns heart rate and blood pressure to normal and speeds up digestion. It calms and relaxes the body after a burst of activity.

This aspect of the stress reaction allows us to act quickly and then get back to normal. It serves us well.

The response to chronic stress Chronic in this context means, ‘persisting for a long time’. Some stressors simply will not go away. You have a deficit budget or you have a parent who will insist on sharing all her views with the local press. The body’s response to chronic stressors is triggered at the same time as the ANS but the impact lasts longer. This response triggers the pituitary gland. This powerful gland releases many hormones that control and regulate bodily functions. In this case the hormone released is adrenocorticotophic hormone (ACTH).

ACTH makes its way through the bloodstream to the adrenal glands. This time it is the adrenal cortex (the outside) of the adrenal glands that is stimulated. This causes hormones called corticosteroids to be released. These have a metabolic effect on the body; they maintain energy levels through regulating the supply of blood sugar. This is an important coping response as the long-term effects of corticosteroids are to help the body deal with stress more effectively – muscle development is enhanced and there is more food in the blood stream to cope with energy demand.

While the body’s approach to chronic stress may sound beneficial it can cause serious problems if there really is no let-up in stimulation by the stressor.

Steve Mynard is the editor of Primary Headship

Read Steve’s other articles on stress: