If you haven’t seen this amazing TED talk, then I definitely recommend!
Kelly McGonigal discusses the medical effects of stress versus the effects of what we believe about stress. Evidence from the study of 30,000 people showed that those who experienced a lot of stress were 43% more likely to die early – but this was only true of those who believed their stress to be a bad thing. For those who believed that their stress response to be a good thing; who saw the physical symptoms of stress not as fear and anxiety, but as their bodies becoming stronger and more aware, preparing to rise to a challenge; they were happy and healthy despite coping with large amounts of stress in their daily lives.
This way of thinking really goes against the grain. In our modern world, we’re programmed to see stress as a bad thing. If you picture a ‘stressed-out’ teacher, you don’t see some fantastically healthy and happy individual, consistently stepping up to challenges. No. You think of some wide-eyed, sleep-deprived maniac rocking in the corner of the staff room, surrounded by target sheets, coated in red pen and drool.
So maybe if we re-wire our thinking as to what stress actually is, we might actually find that it can become like a slightly cheap, uncomfortable sofa – while it takes some getting used to when you first test it out, you soon find that after a little while of sitting down, the cushion has moulded to fit your backside and it feels okay.
As McGonigal tells us, the body responds to stress in some really incredible ways. Alongside the release of adrenaline and the whole ‘fight or flight’ response, the body also releases the hormone Oxytocin. As far as hormones go, this one has a serious amount of street cred. Also known affectionately as the ‘cuddle hormone,’ Oxytocin is all about human connection. Its release in times of stress heals and strengthens the heart, protecting us from the effects of adrenaline, as well as motivating us to seek or give support, tell those around us how we feel and basically, to connect with others. It’s really incredible! McGonigal also reminds us that those who care for others appear to be the most immune to the negative effects of stress.
She calls the stress response the ‘biology of courage’ which I just think is terrific. Just imagine, if all of the ‘stressed’ teachers learnt to re-think their stress as a positive, empowering thing. Or even better, what if we taught this approach in schools to worried year 6s approaching SATs, or year 11s gearing up for final exams. How would this impact results if our students saw increased heart-rate, sweaty palms and slow-motion, ‘cotton wool’ thinking as their body making them hyper-aware and heightening their senses so that they could ace their exam?
As Kelly McGonigal tells us, perhaps the most powerful part of this is that by accepting our stress and viewing it positively, we are saying that we can trust ourselves to handle what life throws at us, and that we can face these challenges with others. If nothing else, this is a message that needs sharing with our staff and our students.