Stress and poor mental health are one of the biggest public health challenges that we’re facing. Sadly, even though that is the case, we are still not taking its impact seriously enough. We continue to separate mental health from physical health and vice versa. The reality is they cannot be separate – they are two sides of the same coin. There is no health without mental health and stress can lead to numerous health problems. From physical problems, like heart disease, insomnia, digestive issues, immune system challenges, etc to more serious mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Stress Awareness Month has been held every April since 1992 to raise awareness of the causes and cures for our modern-day stress epidemic. It is the time when we have an opportunity for an open conversation on the impact of stress. Dedicated time to removing the guilt, shame, and stigma around mental health. To talk about stress, and its effects and open up about our mental and emotional state with friends, families, colleagues, and professionals.
Consider the question: Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your to-do list seems endless and keeps you awake at night?
If you responded yes, you may have concluded, ‘I feel stressed’.
But have you thought about what stress is, how it affects us and what we can do about it?
We may find ourselves using the term ‘I feel stressed’ quite often; but stress in some situations and on the odd occasion is not necessarily always a ‘bad thing’. If we reflect on our cavemen ancestors, for example, they used their stress response to alert them to potential danger, such as a sabre-toothed tiger. There would have been a boost of energy that enabled the cavemen to focus their attention when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger or similar, so that they could quickly respond to the situation.
Stress is primarily a physical response; this is what we usually notice first – a racing heart, sweaty hands etc. This happens when our body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. The release of these hormones and chemicals prepares the body for physical action and can often affect digestion and a real correlation has been noted between the gut and the brain.
In the modern world the ‘fight or flight’ response can still help us avoid potential dangers. However the challenge is when our body goes into a state of stress in inappropriate situations, this can lead to an inability to ‘think straight’.; spending too much time in a state of stress is of great hindrance to both our work and home lives and can impact our quality of life in a negative way.
We will all have our own unique stress signature. It’s important to recognise the signs of stress early, in order to take action to prevent any stress becoming unmanageable. You may notice changes; these may be a combination of emotional, physical or behavioural symptoms. It’s important to remember that we all have ‘bad days’ from time to time, but it’s when these negative changes reappear over long periods of time, that we need to take action.
Cognitive – poor judgement, inability to concentrate, indecision, self-doubt, trouble focussing on task
Emotional – moodiness, irritability, panic, cynicism, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, frustration
Physical –rapid heartbeat, aches and pains, frequent colds, skin complaints, indigestion, high blood pressure
Behavioural –isolating yourself from others, sleeping too little or too much, demotivated, loss of appetite
Prolonged stress undoubtedly makes people ill and is known to contribute to many health issues including heart disease, high blood pressure and IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and certainly affects the immune system.
Work stress is one of the greatest contributors to teacher burnout, challenges with managing time and coping with workload adds pressure on already overstretched teachers. Excessive workload is a problem in teaching. This can’t be ignored; many teachers are currently experiencing debilitating symptoms of stress and many find it nearly impossible to juggle planning lessons, preparing classrooms and collating assessment data and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Here are some tips to help you manage your workload and prevent burnout; break tasks down into smaller, manageable chunks – organise the list under these categories:
Once organised, highlight the three most important tasks and, once completed, move onto the next three and so on.
Sometimes the simple act of speaking to someone can be all that’s needed to help relieve the symptoms of stress. By speaking with someone you trust about your concerns and feelings, you will explore ideas that can be put into place to reduce your stress. You may want to consider alternative ways to look after yourself and start to build into your own self-care plan.
An important message is to follow Donald Winnicott’s mantra ‘Good Enough’. Teachers are notoriously prone to perfectionism and often suffer from Imposter Syndrome – the internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be; it’s time to quieten down your inner critic, you are doing an incredible job!
Kelly Hannaghan on Twitter @mindworkmatters
Finally, look at our Mental Health and Wellbeing portal on LGfL. The resource is intended to support schools to develop a positive culture and talk about “mental wealth”. The videos included explore the range of unique training opportunities offered to the LGfL community to support schools wherever they are currently on their journey regarding mental health and wellbeing for both staff and pupils and hopefully will help all stakeholders to talk about mental health and to foster a positive culture and talk about feelings of stress and how to manage these.