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Back at school and feeling stressed already?
Teachers’ strengthened ability
to care and empathise – though hugely valuable – means they
are immediately vulnerable when it comes to stress. Boundaries can be harder to establish, and the numerous unknowns and surprise scenarios they are forced to navigate each day can in
turn become causes of immense worry, stress and anxiety. This
is hugely signi cant as it is becoming ever clearer that
our psychological wellbeing affects every aspect of our
lives. It is inextricably linked
to our physical health and
has direct implications for our relationships, work performance, satisfaction and overall quality of life. As a result, dif culties managing stress within teaching populations can manifest in problems not only for staff, but also for students and whole school organisations.
We all experience dif cult situations, and despite its typically negative associations, there is a substantial body of evidence to show that stress itself is not an innately bad thing.
Keller et al. (2012) tracked 30,000 adults in the US for 8 years asking two main questions: ‘How much stress have you experienced in the last year?’ and ‘Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?’ Although high levels
of stress were associated with signi cantly increased mortality rates, this only held for those who viewed stress as harmful. What’s more, those who experienced a lot of stress but who didn’t view stress as harmful had the lowest risk of dying early of anyone in the study.
Research conducted by Jamieson et al. (2012) offers support for these  ndings. Different groups of participants were put through a ‘social stress test’. Before they went through the test, one group was taught to rethink
the natural stress response – to view the physical reactions as positive changes designed to help performance. In this study, not only was this group found to be less stressed, less anxious and more con dent during the test, they were also found to exhibit a different physical stress response
– one that placed less strain on the heart.
What studies like these are highlighting is that perception matters, and perhaps more importantly, that our cognitive patterns and natural responses can be altered. This has been illustrated in the education space more recently by Positive. Analysing data from teachers at the Girls’ Day School Trust, they found that positive mood states were by no means incompatible with heavy workloads; the
more signi cant factor was the perception of controllability. Furthermore, 12 months after the programme, teachers were signi cantly more likely to  nd their workload manageable and found it signi cantly easier to stop and control their worrying.
There is only so much we can do to change the environment around us. However, we are
all able to change the way
we respond. The so-called ‘neuroplasticity’ of the human brain means that repeating cognitive processes can bring
about real, physical changes
in our neural pathways – in
the ‘wiring’ of our minds –
which can in turn change our natural thoughts, feelings and behaviours. As such, viewing stress as a threat can, over time, cause sensitisation to the trigger, with our responses predicting future reactions. By practising cognitive techniques to normalise stress instead, we can bring about a positive shift. We can diminish our threat responses, increase our tolerance to such situations and improve our overall wellbeing.
The natural vulnerability of teachers and the indisputable signi cance of psychological wellbeing means that stress within the education sector cannot be ignored. Whilst the pressures associated with the teaching profession may be dif cult to alleviate, we have the knowledge and tools we need
to bring about real, sustainable change for the population – and with happier, healthier teachers, everyone stands to gain.
While there is no doubt teaching can be an extremely rewarding profession, it is also one that brings many challenges. Heavy workloads, extended hours and prolonged periods of pressure and uncertainty are all typical of roles
in education, and returning to the action after the long summer break can quickly see staff stressed, overwhelmed and wondering how they are going to cope. Dr Brian Marien, medic, cognitive psychologist and health psychologist – discusses stress and how best to manage it in the new academic year...
Dr Brian Marien is founder of Positive Group which works in the education
sector to support and improve the psychological wellbeing of teachers through
the development of emotional literacy, self and social awareness and resilience. Programmes are evidence-based with a key focus being the normalisation of stress.
Abiola Keller et al., “Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality”, Health Psychology, September 2012
Jeremy P. Jamieson et al., “Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress”, Journal of Experimental Psychology, August 2012
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