This week (14-20 May) is National Mental health Awareness Week, organised by the Mental Health Foundation. Each year the Foundation focuses on a major issue that relates to mental health – their Big Message – and for 2018 it’s stress.
This will strike a chord with teachers and students alike. A report in The Guardian in January reported that teaching unions were warning of an “epidemic of stress” as research revealed that 3,750 teachers were signed off on long-term sick leave in 2017, because of pressure of work, anxiety and mental illness. This is a 5% rise on the previous year and equates to one teacher in 83. And a YouGov poll of university students in 2016 found that 27% reported a mental illness of some kind, with anxiety and stress being reported commonly. 77% of all students reported that they have a fear of failure, with one in five of these saying that this fear is very prevalent in their day to day life.
So what is stress? Well, far from being a bad thing, at the right time and place, it’s probably saved many lives and continues to do so. When stressed, the body thinks it’s being attacked and instantly goes into what’s called ‘fight or flight’ mode. The brain triggers the release of a combination of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. These flood through our systems to ready us for either running away or standing our ground and fighting the danger. The physical reactions include blood being diverted to muscles and extremities to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion and the immune system. In other words, everything is focused on helping us to take immediate action to save our lives. This is fine when someone is confronted by a sabre-tooth tiger, but in modern life, our problems often can’t be solved by fight or flight.
If we feel stressed over a long period of time, there are physical consequences such as being more susceptible to viruses and bugs, increases in blood pressure and more inflammation in our bodies. We may also react aggressively to people and this can have negative consequences in our work and home lives. There is a third reaction which is the tendency to ‘freeze’, which would obviously enable us to avoid notice by a predator. Sometimes this results in us holding our breath and breathing shallowly, or being uncommunicative.
So stress in itself is not necessarily bad for us – but long-term stress certainly is.
Fortunately there are steps we can take to avoid being stressed or to minimise it, and many universities and colleges now have stress awareness and reduction programmes and specialist support staff.
Mind has a webpage on how to manage stress at
There is a BBC Bitesize guide on how to deal with exam stress at:
The BBC2 series ‘Trust Me, I’m a Doctor’ broadcast a Mental Health Special including looking at ways to beat stress and exploring how a lack of sleep can affect mental health.
The Mental Health Foundation has a resource page on stress at: