Is your job making you sick?
The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has found that teachers endure greater job-related stress than other professionals and that one in five feel tense about their job, compared with 13% of those in similar occupations. And although teachers’ working hours across the year are similar to those in other professions, working intensively over fewer weeks of the year leads to higher stress-levels and less work-life balance.
Stress is clearly an issue for the profession and one we need to do something about, both systemically and personally. The negative effects of stress on the body are well known: a compromised immune system, digestive issues, tiredness, headaches, heart palpitations, and high blood pressure to name a few.
Happiness and stress
Did you know that one of the most effective ways you can counter stress on an individual level is to focus on being happy? If you’ve read my blog on happiness, you’ll know that happiness isn’t a state of non-stop smiling, and it isn’t just about the momentary emotional highs (although they are nice!). It’s about having an overall sense that you enjoy your job, that you can handle its daily challenges, that you have good relationships with your colleagues and your students and that what you do matters, really matters.
Shawn Achor’s research in The Happiness Advantage has shown that when you have a high level of happiness, even if you experience a high level of stress, the stress doesn’t negatively impact on you in the same way as it does if your happiness level is lower. Which is great news because the inherent stress associated with our job isn’t going anywhere.
What happens to your body when you’re stressed
Stress is a combination of our perception of being put under pressure or facing danger and the response that follows. We know that the stress response is critical for survival. In all animals it powers the “fight-or-flight” response that allows for a quick reaction in the face of danger: when we are startled, or acutely stressed, the amygdala (our emotional brain) activates our central stress response system – the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and the adrenal cortex – which together regulate the production of hormones including cortisol, sometimes referred to as the stress hormone. In situations of stress our body responds by rapidly increasing glucose levels, speeding the heart rate, and increasing blood flow to the muscles in our arms and legs. This stress response allows us to react to a threat and after the ‘danger’ has passed, the system works to return hormone levels to normal.
The stress response isn’t a bad thing, it can be the boost you need to meet a deadline, take on a challenging task or get through a tough conversation with a student, parent or colleague. However, while helpful in the short term, the stress response can become harmful in the long term. If our bodies don’t perceive the danger as going away, we keep operating on high alert which can result in an ongoing, chronic state of stress.
Take control of what you can control
Chronic stress occurs because of the way we respond to events, people or circumstances. If we regularly or routinely trigger the stress response and thus experience stress for extended periods, we disrupt the natural stress cycle and the consequent disruption to our mind and body can negatively impact on our health and wellbeing.
If you’ve ever experienced chronic stress, you’ll know that it is all consuming. You don’t feel that you have the energy to do anything but ‘cope’, but tackling stress doesn’t have to be a big, time consuming project. The smallest actions can make a huge difference. The source of stress will not always be within your control, but your perspective on stress and the steps you take in response to a stressful situation are.
Think of the physical signs of stress as your early warning system, a useful sign that something needs your attention. Listen to what your body is telling you, and you will be able to identify what is stressful for you and, most importantly, how you can respond positively and constructively.
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
Your mindset matters
One part of the equation is recognising the stress factors in your life, like pressures of work for example, but the other, and often overlooked aspect is understanding how your responses can either drain or support your body.
Don’t think of stress as the enemy. See it as a fascinating process that helps you to listen to your mind and body and learn more about yourself. Stress is inevitable, but the effect stress, or a stressful event, has on you, isn’t. This is because the physical and emotional effects of stress are mediated by your mindset. This is a hugely exciting finding: knowing that your mindset affects how stress impacts on your body puts you in control. Staying focused on happiness allows you to be resilient in the face of stress.
Once you start to realise that your responses matter, you begin to understand how you can get on top of your stress. Your brain, when it is positive, actually outperforms your brain when it is negative, neutral, or stressed. When we’re not positive, we’re limiting our brain’s potential to be able to deal with the challenges we face.
Take your first step to controlling stress: pick something you already know makes you happier. Do it. Read, put on music, go for a run. Give yourself permission to switch off. What you do doesn’t matter: it’s the stopping that counts. You’ll be surprised how much doing something little in the short term can affect you positively in the long term. And if you’re searching for ideas, read my blog: 10 ways to beat stress by getting happier.
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”