February 2012


  • Fathoming governance
    Guidelines designed for college principals on how best to work with their self-governing boards may also offer useful insights for school leaders grappling with new-found independence, as John Smith explains. More
  • Vertigo
    The atmosphere is calmer, behaviour has improved, even results are up – Dorothy Lepkowska examines schools which have found that moving to mixed age or ‘vertical’ tutor groups has had a profound effect on school life. More
  • A healthier break
    Relying on snacks, cigarettes and alcohol to get you through another arduous working day? Susie Kearley has a better recipe for coping with stress. More
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Relying on snacks, cigarettes and alcohol to get you through another arduous working day? Susie Kearley has a better recipe for coping with stress.

A healthier break

Stress is a massive blight on the UK economy and on our wellbeing as a nation. It is now the top cause of long-term absence from work, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), eclipsing cancer, stroke and heart disease.

It’s widely acknowledged that education is one of the more stressful occupational fields. Unions have frequently raised concerns about the problem and in 2008 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) identified education as one of five priority sectors where workplace stress needed to be tackled. Heavy workload is often cited as the fundamental cause, now compounded by spending cuts, worries about job security and general uncertainty about what the future holds.

Compared to many desk-based occupations, those in education also have physically demanding jobs. Often on their feet all day, they are relatively active and need to maintain good energy levels. One frequent complaint among staff is fatigue, exacerbated by stress, which can result in exhaustion, poor concentration and a lack of motivation.

Many of us turn to stimulants to give a kick-start in the morning – caffeinated drinks, sugary snacks or cigarettes. They create an adrenaline rush which, although it provides a short-term high, is ultimately detrimental as the drop when the stimulant wears off exacerbates the lethargy.

Does this mean you need to give up chocolate, coffee and other stimulants? Well, cutting down would obviously help, but more important is to build up energy levels through positive healthy nutrition. Then, if stimulants are reduced or eliminated, you don’t feel so awful.

What is stress?

Stress is the product of a perceived inability to match the demands placed on you with your capacity to deliver the required result in the time allowed.

The body’s physical response to stress is ‘fight or flight’: dramatic changes take place in your endocrine system triggering chemical reactions which create heightened physical experiences. They prepare you for success in battle or provide the strength and stamina to escape a situation.

Muscles need glucose and oxygen for fast action, so the digestive system works harder to metabolise carbohydrates and the hormone cortisol converts fat stores into glucose. Breathing becomes deeper, taking more oxygen into the lungs. The spleen releases stored blood cells so that the blood can carry more oxygen and the heart beats faster, circulating the oxygen more quickly.

Adrenaline, released into the blood stream, prepares muscles for activity and ensures sufficient blood supply, causing an almost instantaneous increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating.

The body produces additional platelets which enable the blood to clot in the event of tissue damage while fighting. The brain produces endorphins which temporarily block the pain of injury, enabling you to continue fighting or make good your escape. The pupils of the eyes dilate, you are more sensitive to small stimuli, and the body is more responsive to maximise the use of physical energy in a dangerous situation.

All of these processes provide a peak in energy levels enabling you to fight or escape from the threat to maximise your chance of survival.

We have evolved to respond to stress as a life or death situation and in the short term it leads to strength and quick thinking. But in the long term it is damaging and can lead to burn-out.

Stress is unhelpful in an educational setting and is detrimental to health as normal activities such as immunity, repair and rejuvenation are suppressed. The continual onslaught of stressors means your body starts to wear out, adrenal glands work overtime, and you are prone to infection. Blood sugar hormones become less effective due to over-use and eventually your body just doesn’t respond to stress as well as it should.

The result is a loss of energy, muddled thinking, irritability, and poor sleep. People use stimulants to try to get clarity of mind and they use relaxants such as alcohol to help them sleep.

It’s a rollercoaster. Some people become addicted to the adrenaline rush and seek exhilarating experiences even when they’re supposed to be relaxing – whether it’s an exciting novel, a tense movie or a thrill ride at a fair. This is stress addiction and people feel exhausted when they stop.

Ways to manage stress

In an education environment, stress can become overwhelming and it is necessary to regain control. Here are some tips to help:

  1. Eat whole foods that provide sustained energy, good nutrition, and help to alleviate stress. These include fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. They will provide energy without causing surges in your blood sugar levels. Research has shown that eating some protein with your complex carbohydrates supports your adrenal glands by reducing the stimulation of the stress hormone cortisol. So have some oily fish or nuts with your meal.
  2. Reduce or eliminate stressors including sugar, caffeinated drinks, cigarettes and alcohol. If giving up stimulants gives you headaches and makes you feel tired and nauseous, it’s because they are damaging your health. Reduce the sugar content of your diet slowly and start to enjoy natural fruits instead of sugary desserts.
  3. Don’t skip meals or eat junk food on your way to a meeting. Take 20 minutes out and eat something nourishing to support you through the afternoon. If you’re hungry between meals, snack on fruit and nuts as they provide nutrients and energy.
  4. Optimise your intake of essential oils which help you to concentrate. Eating walnuts, linseed or oily fish, rich in omega-3 oils, can boost clarity of thought. Antioxidant-rich fruits such as blueberries and green tea are good brain foods too.
  5. The body finds protein hard to digest. Try to have a balance of fruit and vegetables in your diet because they are easy to digest and can help you recover from the physical effects of stress on the body.
  6. Extreme exercise can make your stress worse, and stimulate cortisol production, but modest exercise can help you work through your frustrations and feel better. Joining an exercise class after work or walking for half an hour can help you to break away mentally from the stressors of the day and enjoy your free time.
  7. Relaxation exercises, such as joining a yoga class or meditating regularly, can help. A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research in 2011 reported that meditation creates beneficial changes in brain structure. Participants who meditated for 27 minutes each day showed decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala (the part of the brain associated with stress), indicating lower stress levels than the control group.
  8. Humour improves blood circulation, boosts the immune system and suppresses stress hormones. Laughter can also release endorphins which make you feel good. So when you’re at work, try to see the funny side in a stressful situation and it will help you get through the day.
  9. Deep breathing can energise the body and clear the mind. We only use a third of our lung capacity and oxygen aids clarity of thought.
  10. Prepare yourself for a good night’s sleep by listening to relaxing music for 20 minutes before bed. Ideally, you shouldn’t eat for three hours before bedtime.
  • Susie Kearley is a health writer and qualified nutritionist.

A healthier break