The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Mind and body

In the first of a new series of articles about stress and how to manage it, Paul Mills explains the science behind it all.

A survey on stress commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation in 2018 found that, over the course of a year, 74 per cent of adults in Scotland had felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. There is no doubt that stress has become a feature of modern-day living. But to address the issues we face from stress, we must first understand what stress is, how the mind and body reacts to it and how to deal with that reaction. Once that is achieved, we can learn how to deal with stress.

Fight-or-flight is the reaction of our bodies Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) when our stress button is pushed. The ANS has two settings which we constantly change between; the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is our active/alert mode, responsible for fight-or-flight and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is our relaxed mode.

The ANS sits in the brain’s limbic system, which is also home to our emotions, their triggers and our memories. These are all intertwined with our personal subconscious beliefs. The amygdala, within the limbic system, controls the ANS trigger. The limbic part of the brain and the brainstem – evolutionary speaking – are the oldest parts of the brain; they represent our animalistic survival instincts.

The ANS has always received its signals from the five senses, and from subconscious memory (genetic and experienced), and in our “modern” brain it also receives signals from conscious thought. When the amygdala hits the panic button, electrochemical signals run to their allotted destinations. Some of the destinations produce or repress hormones or send signals to other parts of the body that in turn, produce or repress hormones.

Blood and nutrients are directed towards the cardiovascular, respiratory, muscular and skeletal systems. Adrenaline starts to break down protein and fat stores, makes the liver produce more glucose, and stops the pancreas producing insulin, releasing more sugar for energy. Cortisol is released to help elevate blood sugar and constrict blood vessels to increase blood pressure, to get the blood and nutrients to the large muscle groups quicker and full of energy-giving glucose. All this to make you faster and stronger, either to fight or flee.

The limbic system also releases the emotion most suited to the situation; excitement, anxiety, fear, anger, rage, and in our human brain, shame and disgust. When the danger has passed, the body realigns itself. In the modern world we have situations which cause us anxiety, which our evolutionary growth knew nothing about, for example commuting and finances.

What else is going on in your body at that time?

The extra blood and nutrients that are redirected to your major organs and muscle groups are taken from the following systems which are not required to run or fight:

  • The digestive system: this causes the feelings of “butterflies” and can cause nausea and loss of appetite. Forms of IBS and other bowel problems are deemed a stress-related illness;
  • The reproductive system: in women this can interfere with the menstrual cycle, and in men can cause erectile dysfunction, it affects the libido of both sexes;
  • The prefrontal cortex: this affects your cognitive reasoning and the ability to plan ahead, it restricts the ability to access your memory and;
  • The immune system: prolonged (chronic) stress will affect the body’s ability to renew itself.

These are the reasons why, as far back as 2013, research has suggested that around 80 per cent of doctors’ visits within western society could be due to stress-related issues, particularly chronic stress. This is caused by being in a stress-related situation for a prolonged period of time such as a military person involved in a war, someone dealing with chronic pain or you or a loved one being diagnosed with cancer.

De-stressing in a school setting

While helping a new client to understand what stress is, and how to calm herself in times of anxiety, I thought it would be nice if everyone was taught this at school. I contacted a friend and complimentary therapist, Annette Wilson, who was delivering yoga and relaxation lessons to primary school pupils. Together, we started to design a lesson on stress and relaxation techniques to deliver to high school pupils. We then approached Balerno High School with our ideas.

These specially designed lessons are now delivered to S4 pupils during their Personal and Social Education (PSE) classes, teaching ways to manage exam stress. The course is now in its second year, and next year it is planned to extend the course into the S5 and S6 curriculum. Weekly sessions designed for school staff are also delivered, with regular evening courses for parents soon to be added.

To ensure the longevity of the programme and its benefits in combating exam stress, it is essential for teachers to learn these stress-relieving skills. This will allow them to not only help themselves deal with their own stress but also teach their pupils valuable wellbeing lessons. The collaboration between teachers, local authorities, medical experts, neurological experts and complimentary therapists will be key in establishing this as a key part of the curriculum.

The work being done in Balerno High School is an opportunity to test the effectiveness and robustness of current ideas and lessons. Headteacher Neil McCallum and the staff of the PSE Department have been instrumental in furthering the development of stress lessons and implementing them into lessons, for the benefit of both staff and pupils.

Neil said: “Relationships have been at the heart of our improvement priorities since August 2017 and this has led us to having a key focus on health and wellbeing, embedding it across the curriculum. We now have working groups made up of pupils, staff and parents and carers. This has led to a great deal of partnership working and raising the profile of the whole individual rather than a focus only on the academic achievements of young people. The introduction of staff workshops on every in-service day has had a positive impact on their wellbeing and relationships. This has been further supplemented by twilight courses in a range of areas to support their own, and pupil, wellbeing.

“The partnership working with our parent and carer group has benefited the whole school, with workshop on a variety of topics for all. One of the strongest aspects of this partnership has been the integration into the PSE programme. Rather than a one-off session on wellbeing and preparation for exams, this is now carried out over an extended period with positive outcomes for the wellbeing of our pupils.

“Our young people are progressing, and we are preparing them with the life skills to be successful in beyond school, whether that be college, university, apprenticeship or employment.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul Mills is a Certified Medical Support Clinical Hypnotherapist and a Fellow of the International Board of Hypnotherapy. He works with clients of all ages dealingwith the consequences of mental stress. Following articles will concentrate on stress-relieving skills and practices, plus the science behind them.