What is the impact of long-term stress on your physical and mental wellbeing? Steve Mynard, editor of Primary Headship, reports

In a previous article I described in detail what happens to your body when you find yourself in stressful situations. My assertion is that understanding this process can help us cope with it better. Uncontrolled stress can lead to physical and mental burnout; understanding how this comes about will benefit headteachers.

We owe a great deal of our knowledge in this field to the pioneering work of Hans Selye in the 1930s. Through experimental work on rats Selye found that prolonged exposure to a stressor, particularly in situations of low control, leads to harmful physiological changes. Based on this work Selye proposed the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). This has three stages:

Stage one: Alarm reaction
The body recognises a stressor and responds accordingly. Adrenaline is produced. The ‘fight or flight’ reaction is stimulated. There may be some production of corticosteroids.

Stage two: Resistance
Continuing stress makes it necessary for the body to find some way of coping. The body adapts to the stress but at the same time resources are being used up. We appear to be coping but physiologically we are actually deteriorating. The body is tough – it can deal with this for some time.

Stage three: Exhaustion
Eventually we reach burnout. The body can no longer maintain its normal functioning. Blood pressure may be high. The adrenal glands have been over working and can no longer produce adequate levels of hormones. Stress-related illnesses follow: ulcers, depression, heart problems, mental illness.

This is the basic model proposed by Selye. Since then further research on hormones suggests that it is not depletion that is the problem but over production of cortisol, one of the corticosteroids. A long-term effect of the body’s response to chronic stress is that there are higher levels of cortisol in the bloodstream. This leads to higher levels of blood sugar and fatty acids and this can cause arteriosclerosis – the narrowing of the coronary arteries owing to an accumulation of fatty substances. This leads to increased blood pressure and heart problems.

In the context of a headteacher having to deal with a persistent problem over many weeks or months and maybe feeling powerless to control the situation there will be a payback. Something’s got to give – and it will be your physical or mental health.

There are several ways in which chronic stress can cause illness. I have already mentioned the impact of increased sugars and fats on blood vessels. This is a direct mechanical effect of stress. Another would be increased blood pressure leading to wearing away of the blood vessel lining. Increased energy mobilisation has other effects including potential brain haemorrhage or stroke.

Prolonged stress can cause suppression of the immune system. White blood cells (lymphocytes and phagocytes) seek out and destroy invading particles (bacteria and viruses for example). One particular type of white blood cell is directly affected by increased levels of stress hormones. These are lymphocytes know as T cells because they are produced in the thymus gland. High levels of corticosteroids can shrink the thymus gland and prevent the growth of T cells. This can happen to a degree with short-term stressors but the major impact is with long-term stressors. Unresolved stress will suppress the immune system and lead to more frequent illness. You see examples of this among your staff regularly – sometimes people just can’t shake off illness.

Stress also makes us more likely to adopt an unhealthy lifestyle. We may rush or skip meals; we may make unhealthy choices about our food. We may drink more alcohol or smoke. We may not get enough sleep. All of these can affect our bodies and these are the indirect effects of stress. A heart attack is still a heart attack whether it is caused by increased levels of cortisol leading to arteriosclerosis or eating five doughnuts instead of a balanced lunch! The impact of stress on our bodies should not be underestimated.

Coping strategies
The modern transactional view of stress links our perceived stress with our perceived ability to cope. Therein lies the key. When Selye was being unkind to rats he was looking at purely physiological responses. His work was important in that it helped us to understand the physiology of stress. Rats don’t have our ability to control the environment and make decisions; they lack our cognitive dimension. This is where the solution lies. We have higher brain functions that allow us to process our experiences, adapt our lifestyle, make decisions and choices and find our own way of increasing our ability to cope with perceived stressors.

Everyone is stressed – not just teachers. Stress is a major killer in the modern world. We can’t have an injection to inoculate ourselves against it, but we can learn to manage ourselves so that stress does not have a life-threatening impact on us. Your perceived ability to cope with perceived stressors will depend on what action you take to ensure you understand the complexities of the problem of stress and have a range of strategies to deal with it in your own life.

Read Steve’s other articles on stress: