Teaching regularly features in the top five most stressful occupations. Former headteacher Steve Mynard explains how to harness the positive effects of stress and prevent it causing physical and mental burnout

Stress has been called ‘the epidemic of the 21st century’. Stress is everywhere these days and we are particularly aware of it in schools. Stress management is a multi-million pound business so why, if we are spending so much money on preventing it, through medication or meditation, are we all still victims of the condition?

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 and 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 all recognise as stress. Distress is problems at work, relationship difficulties, traffic jams and so on. It is negative stress and bad.
  • Eustress in 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.

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. Someone pulls out in front of you on a roundabout and you slam on the brakes or swerve to avoid a collision. 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.

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. In evolutionary terms this reaction would allow us to run fast when a sabre-tooth tiger appeared on the horizon.

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.

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, you are dealing with a disciplinary matter 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 adrenocorticotropic hormone – let’s call it 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.

Selye’s general adaptation syndrome
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 as proposed by Selye. Since then further work 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 wellbeing.

Stress-related illness
There are several ways in which chronic stress can cause illness.

We 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.

Unresolved stress will suppress the immune system and lead to more frequent illness and infections. As a headteacher you see examples of this among your staff regularly – sometimes people just can’t shake off illness.

Disruption to hormone levels caused by prolonged stress can also affect sexual and reproductive functions, bone growth and repair and sensitivity to pain. Stress also makes us more likely to adopt an unhealthy approach to life. We change our lifestyle in response to stress. 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 have effects on our bodies and these are the indirect effects of stress.

Coping strategies
The impact of stress on our bodies should not be underestimated.

Teaching regularly features in the top five most stressful occupations.
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 can allow us to process our experiences, adapt our lifestyle, make decisions and choices and find our own way of increasing our perceived ability to cope with perceived stressors.

There are physical approaches, such as eating a healthy diet, taking more exercise, choosing to quit smoking or only drinking a moderate amount of alcohol. There are also psychological approaches such as being aware of how our body reacts to stress and managing situations differently to alter our stress response. Learn to be assertive, learn to manage your time effectively, learn to delegate! We can also draw on the benefits of supportive groups of friends, family or colleagues; if you feel stressed, find someone to talk to.

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: