Making friends with STRESS

Making friends with STRESS

Graeme McDonald

Teachers approach the start of the year feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. After one month back at school, our positive mindsets are lost and a more pragmatic approach has been put in place. When stress sets in, its sink or swim. Marking is done, boxes are checked and our passion for education is replaced with the need to just get the job done.

In a wonderful TED Talk, Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal acknowledges that stress is an inevitable part of life. However, how we respond to it has a crucial impact on our health and wellbeing. We know that stress causes adrenalin, making our heart beat faster, which can then lead to heart disease, but stress also produces oxytocin. This anti-inflammatory hormone, sometimes referred to as the ‘cuddle’ hormone, prompts you to reach out to family and friends and want to talk. In short, your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, which is human connection.

Opening up to colleagues when we feel low, or reaching out when we see others in need, is something we should do every day. Our mind can be our first line of defense against stress, as this recent study that Kelly discusses, proves. Conducted over eight years the study by Keller, Ritzelman, Wisk et. al. at the University of Wisconsin focused on two questions:

1. How much stress have you experienced in the last year?

2. Do you believe that stress is harmful to your health?

People who answered NO to question 2 had the lowest risk of dying. They had an even LOWER risk than those who claimed to have experienced minimal stress. What is worrying about this study is the finding that believing stress is harmful, has been responsible for thousands of premature deaths. In the case of America (where the study was based) – believing that stress is bad for you then becomes the 15th largest cause of death, beating skin cancer, HIV and homicide.

By changing our mindset, could we become friends with stress? We don’t enjoy being stressed but we also don't need to fear it. It's also unnecessary to endure stress, particularly over lengthy periods of time as teachers do. Embracing our stress induced ‘cuddle’ hormone, we should be reaching out to others more and voicing our angsts. Nurturing human connection is a fundamental way of being able to cope with stress. The act of seeking help and helping others can bring immense health benefits.

Other strategies for stress management to consider are the three fundamental pillars of health: sleep, exercise and nutrition. Another study at Washington State University found that people who get six hours of sleep or less have significantly lower cognitive function in comparison to those who have eight hours. As Mander B.A. et al reported: ‘There isn’t a single system in the body that isn’t a single system in the body that isn’t affected detrimentally by sleep loss’ (Trends in Neurosciences, 2016). Exercise combats stress by releasing endorphins that boost positive feelings and your self-esteem. Nutrition is also essential for ensuring your body can perform at its peak. In a busy profession such as teaching, skipping meals is tempting but should be avoided at all costs.

Implementing smaller changes for better sleeping, exercising and nutrition is a great start for reducing stress but what we really need to do, is stop seeing stress as the enemy. By changing our mindset and removing the fear, we may immediately reduce the levels of stress we experience. If teachers can start to change their mind about stress, they will also be able to change the way their body responds to it. This could mean less illness throughout the year as well as improving health and wellbeing for long term benefits.

As the famous American actress Patricia Neal once observed - ‘A strong positive attitude will create more miracles than any wonder drug.’

Watch Kelly McGonigal’s full TED Talk:

Graeme McDonald M.Ed, B.A

Graeme has held an impassioned career for over 20 years as Principal of Independent schools across Australia. His involvement in education has been extensive both in and outside school walls. Graeme has held pivotal roles in AHISA, IBSC, GPS and is a long-serving member for ACE and ACEL. The academic, cultural and sporting successes his students have shared in, is a testament to his distinguished career as an educator.