One day there was a knock on the door at a home for Alzheimer’s patients. When the matron opened the door, a middle-aged woman stood there holding an elderly gentleman by the arm. “This is my father,” she said. “He has Alzheimer’s and I have cared for him by myself for twelve years. If you don’t take him, I am going to kill him.” And she meant it.By Nancy Scott-Cameron
Anyone who is at all familiar with Alzheimer’s disease knows the immeasurable stress any carer is under. How this daughter had cared for her father for 12 years single-handedly is a mystery. The up side of this true story is that she realised she was at the point of snapping and acted before she committed a murder for which she would never have forgiven herself. The down side is that, for the sake of her own health, she should have taken action sooner.
Stress in pre-historic times
Since man has been on the planet, there has been stress; the stresses have changed and the number of them is ever-growing.
In the dim past there were wild beasts, and later, the likes of Attila the Hun. Today, instead of beasts, we may have beastly employers and Osama Bin Laden, along with a plethora of other assorted stresses, such as men with rucksacks on trains and buses, gunmen in the streets (and sometimes in the schools), aggressive students in the classroom, the threat of nuclear war and/or a bird-flu pandemic, the escalating mortgage coupled with insufficient wages for the time spent, questionable pensions, noise, pollution – ad infinitum – right down to the proverbial mother-in-law.
Sometimes we don’t recognise happy events as stressors, but they are. Take, for example, Christmas, a wedding or having a baby. Recognising that we are pressured at such times is important so that we can be alert to avoid unnecessary stress and deal quickly with any symptoms that do appear.
Work of Dr Hans Seyle
In 1956 Dr. Hans Seyle wrote a landmark book – The Stress of Life. He was the first researcher known to have studied stress and linked it specifically illness. Seyle delineates three stages of the body’s reaction to stress:
- Alarm – activating adrenalin and causing many other body responses;
- Resistance (adaptation) – which means the body is attempting to cope;
- Exhaustion – which indicates that the body is giving up; being unable to cope any longer means that death may occur.
The body is designed to deal with stress that is short-lived. If there is not a hasty resolution and stress remains high for a long period, the most damage is done. Even if stress is moderate but on-going, the person is in physical, mental and emotional danger.
No doubt everyone is familiar with the “fight” or “flight” scenario. If a wild beast fronted up to a cave man, that scared bloke had two choices: run and maybe then climb a tree, or stand his ground and slug it out. In either case (assuming he survived!) the stress would be over in a reasonable time so he could get back to whatever was normal for a caveman.
Today residual tension from days or months past, may be increased by annoying incidents in the morning, long before arriving at work. Instead of running or fighting to use up the activated hormones, we have to sit at a desk or face a class “stewing in our own juices”. This is why cutting the dangerous stress levels as soon as possible is imperative, while the body is in the alarm or resistance stage and before it reaches the life-threatening stage of exhaustion.
The knock-on effect
One of the unfortunate aspects of stress is its knock-on, or domino effect. A newspaper cartoon comprising a set of three pictures is a good demonstration. The first frame shows a husband shaking his finger at his wife in an argument. The second shows the wife scolding their child, and in the third, the child (not to be outdone) kicks the dog. Trying to halt this roll-on effect (often from anger) is vital. Recognising how this works, teachers can be more understanding with angry/aggressive children, who may well be the last in the chain of angry outbursts at home.
People vary enormously in the amounts of pressure they can cope with. Therefore it is, highly important to learn one’s own limits and not to exceed them. People differ, too, in what stresses them. What frightens the wits out of one person (such as giving a speech), another finds exhilarating and enjoyable.
Definition of stress
What, then, is stress? Various descriptive terms are used, such as “overload”, “pressure”, “tension” or “nerves”. The cover of Dr. Seyle’s book depicts a thick rope tied into a square knot being pulled from both directions, causing it to fray at the edges and in danger of snapping. That’s how we feel, too, “frayed at our edges”.
Stresses can hit us physically, mentally or emotionally, or a combination of all three. Through the close body-mind-emotions connection, a problem may begin in one area and soon spread to the other two. For example, hard, heavy housework or lawn-mowing (basically physical stress) can spread to the emotions such as anger. Physical pain is a definite stressor that often triggers mental/emotional stress, notably worry and fear.
In addition, so much in today’s environment bombards us physically, a large proportion below the level of conscious awareness. Noise, pollution, food additives and preservatives all take their toll, as do extremes of heat or cold. Negative thoughts and emotions (worry, fear, anger, grief) can cause physical problems.
It is now generally accepted that stress initiates or exacerbates every illness, including cancer. Research on Alzheimer’s has recently begun, in an attempt to prove its origin can be stress. Fortunately, doctors now are more aware of stress as a huge factor in illness.
Every age group – from birth to death – has its own unique stresses. So too does every type of work. Teaching is rated as one of the occupations incurring the highest stress level. This was not true when teachers were held in high regard by parents, students and the community in general, when pressures from the government were minimal, when student behaviour was acceptable (or even exemplary) and when violence in society sometimes forcing its way into schools, was virtually unheard of.
Variations among people
People vary widely in the amount of stress they can deal with successfully. Why? There are a number of reasons. Three of the most important are:
- the inherited strength of one’s body, especially the nervous system;
- the amount of stress a person has endured from earliest childhood;
- the present state of one’s health – physical, mental and emotional.
Nothing can be done to improve the first two, but much can be done to improve the health of “the whole person”, to make him “fighting fit”, to prevent and do battle with the stresses in his life.
The things a teacher can do to cut stress may be as simple as deciding to hire a cleaner for a few hours each week – or as drastic as choosing to find a position in a school closer to home to eliminate the strain of driving a long distance. Sadly, the only way for some to remain well and sane has been to leave teaching or take early retirement, with its resultant diminished pension. Unfortunately, some teachers have told me that in attempting to cope they are smoking and drinking more.
One teacher admitted on a stress-questionnaire that she was reluctant to speak to her superiors about the enormous pressure she was under, lest she appear weak. Wherever this attitude exists it must be changed. Teachers must become aware that stress paves the way to illness. And what’s more, school management is now legally obliged to cut stress levels that are dangerous. Large monetary settlements have been made in cases where teachers’ health was affected by failure of their supervisors to recognise excessive levels (even when told!) and reduce them.
Life can’t be stress-free, nor would we want it to be, for under the pressure to accomplish, good things get done. How boring it would be to lie in a hammock all day every day sipping something “on the rocks”! It’s when stress gets out of hand that it is unacceptable.
Take the self-analysis stress test. If any of the symptoms listed (or others unique to you) are present in your life, it’s time to take positive action against the stress monster – often starting with a visit to your G.P. It is unwise to assume these symptoms are only due to stress, especially severe fatigue, frequent headaches, and palpitations or anxiety attacks. A trip to the doctor, who may well carry out blood test, is a sensible precautionary step. TEX
Nancy Scott-Cameron holds an M.A. in Education from Syracuse University and has taught in secondary schools and universities in the US. She qualified as an Osteopath and Naturopath at the College of Osteopaths in London and practises Japanese Shiatsu
First published in Teaching Expertise magazine, Issue 10 Winter 2005