Christine Bennett is a practicing Counsellor with an MSc. in Counselling Studies and extensive experience in recognising stress and trauma. In this article, Christine looks at the physical signs of stress which may manifest in yourself or your pupils, allowing you to approach and manage the situation.
What is stress?
The physical effects of stress are the result of a mixture of hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, being released into the body by the autonomicnervous system to enable us to deal with a threat to our wellbeing by reacting by “flight” or “fight”.
Not all stress is bad
This hormonal response serves the same purpose that it did for our cave dwelling ancestors, giving them the physical capability to tackle the stressor in question, for example in the face of predator and having to take “flight”, by running away, or to “fight”, to save their own skin. This evolutionary response, which has been developed over hundreds of thousands of years, is now embedded into our physicality; regardless of whether in the last few hundred years, our environment has changed so drastically that our stressors are vastly different.
There are still instances where this response to stress works effectively in the present. Seemingly normal people find themselves able to execute physical feats which they ordinarily wouldn’t manage. As a result of this rush of hormones, modern man, or woman, may find themselves able to rush out of the path of a speeding car or find strength from nowhere that allows them to fight off a would-be mugger or lift a heavy item that must be moved to save a life.
Most of the time though, our stresses in life are very much modern-day stresses; too many things to do at once in too little time, with all, or many, of those things involving mental rather than physical effort. A certain amount of anxiety leading to some adrenaline release is helpful if, for example, it helps us to finally settle down to revising for an exam, prepare lessons plans or undertake some marking, but too much and for too long is not a good thing at all.
When stress is detrimental
If adrenaline cannot be used to effectively sort out the stress immediately and finally by the physical actions of flight and flight, the range of changes it creates in the body have no practical use. These, instead, create those physical effects that appear in lists in books and articles about stress. The list of ways that adrenaline can affect us physically includes low energy, headaches, nausea, diarrhoea, constipation, aches and pains, tense muscles, chest pain and rapid heartbeat, insomnia, frequent cold and infections, loss of sexual desire and/or ability, shaking, ringing in the ears, cold or sweaty hands and feet, excess sweating, dry mouth and difficulty swallowing, clenched jaw and teeth grinding. It’s quite a list!
It’s worth mentioning at this point that in addition to the “flight” and “flight” responses that we learned about in biology at school there is also “freeze”. This sometimes occurs if we see a situation as hopeless, nothing can be done to escape the situation and we “freeze” in the same way as a rabbit caught in the headlights.
Causes of stress
The physical symptoms of stress don’t always culminate as the result of one big horrible thing happening. They can also manifest as a result of lots of smaller stresses are in operation all at the same time. If there is only one big difficulty then all efforts can be put into addressing it. The person understands clearly what his or her problem is and may seek help and support in various ways, including arranging counselling sessions. Lots of problems together, such as life for most people, even if smaller, can create much more of a challenge.
The physical ways in which stress manifests, can lead to someone misinterpreting their physical signs of stress. They may assume their aches and pains could be the beginning of a cold or flu, which they could really do without, and therefore this adds to the growing list of things causing them to feel stressed.
The reality is, people may have been “just about managing” before they find that health or personal life difficulties, which are not the worst that imaginable, are “last straw” on top of a working life that is extremely demanding of time, professional skills and emotional energy.
Top Tips for Recognising Stress
We’ve looked at a large number of physical responses to stress and were made aware that these may not be recognised as reactions to stress but seen as further causes of stress.
In addition to the physical symptoms, it might help to look out for these less obvious indicators, in yourself or your pupils. If you recognise these or the physical symptoms, it may be time to approach your GP or speak with the person in charge of pastoral care in you school, if you’re worried about a pupil:
Under stress you, or your pupil may:
- not respond well to reasonable suggestions by others, which may improve the situation such as offering practical help. You or your pupil may not want to listen, feel you don’t have the time, or that person couldn’t possibly understand.
- watch mindless T.V programmes very late in the evening, but wouldn’t consider going for a walk or cycle ride during the day, which may have a more positive impact.
- opt out of social activities with friends who may bring up stressors you/ your pupil is trying to forget.
- a change in behaviours which used to be enjoyed such as experimenting with different outfits and accessories or cooking different meals, but now only finding the energy to alternate between two or three
- in extreme circumstances, try and self-manage the situation blocking out the problem with destructive crutches such as alcohol or drugs.
PSHE is an opportunity for you to explore personal issues, such as stress, which may affect your pupils. There are a range of qualifications to support the delivery of PSHE from NCFE and Health and Social Care specialist, ACHE, including the Level 1 Award in Stress Awareness.
This is an adaptation of an earlier article which was published on CACHE Alumni on 29th March 2018, you can find out more about CACHE Alumni here: https://www.cachealumni.org.uk.
Christine Bennett is a practicing counsellor and counselling supervisor, based in the North West of England. She has a particular interest in person-centred counselling and trauma. Her wide background experience includes seventeen years’ experience as an external quality assurer and chief quality assurer and over twenty years’ experience in further education, delivering counselling, psychology and mental health courses. She is an RMN and holds an MSc. in Counselling Studies. Christine also provides CPD workshops in the North West.