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Don’t bury your head in the sand… (or what the military can teach us about mental health).

Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed your reaction time, and enhance your focus. This is known as the “fight or flight” or mobilization stress response and is your body’s way of protecting you.

You work in a close knit team, roughly the same age, from different parts of the country, different upbringings but all totally reliant on each other and the knowledge that everyone will pull in the same direction (generally) to achieve a common goal.  Sound familiar in any way?

I used to subscribe to the “just man up” culture that was prevalent in the military up to around the mid 1990s.  Stress was something for the weak (generally marking the individual as some kind of loner) and certainly not something that would be talked about.  Particularly bad days were dealt with through heavy drinking sessions, probably ending in a fight/tears/arrest (delete as appropriate).

So what changed?  Well someone clever worked out that what people were suffering from was a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Previously this had only been linked to Big Things (think WW2, Falklands conflict etc) but a lot of work was being done on stress at lower levels.  People in the military have to deal with lots of different kinds of stress.  Standing guard, with a loaded rifle, in the middle of the night, causes stress.  However this is a good kind of stress, the type that does all the things in the quotation above.  It is also only for limited periods of time; this is how the body and mind can cope with it.

When you need (or think you need) to defend yourself or run away from danger, your body prepares for mobilization. The nervous system rouses for emergency action—preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.

If mobilization fails, the body freezes instead, a response known as immobilization. In extreme, life-threatening situations, you may even lose consciousness, enabling you to survive high levels of physical pain. This can leave you traumatized or unable to move on.

The chemicals that your body releases give you this kind of high feeling, almost superhuman at times.  Limited exposure to this is a good thing; athletic performance can be enhanced by mild stress, leading to winning and all the trappings of that.  Repeated exposure, sometimes constant, can lead to a revolt in the body.

When you repeatedly experience the mobilization or fight-or-flight stress response in your daily life, it can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can shut down your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, raise blood pressure, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, speed up the aging process and leave you vulnerable to many mental and physical health problems.

So how do we control the levels of stress?  Unfortunately we are all different and stress manifests itself in different ways.  The unpredictability of this makes it somewhat difficult to spot in others without some form of training.  This is where the military, and in particular the Royal Air Force, invested well – training selected people in the art of stress management and counselling.  These people were not trained medical professionals, simply people who had an interest in being trained and, possibly most importantly, were outside of the normal chain of command (a very important thing in the military).

By learning the signs of stress in others we sometimes become better at masking our own. We know what others are looking for and find ways of diverting attention from ourselves.  In simple terms we develop coping mechanisms that we deploy in front of others.  However this is often a false solution and merely prolongs the inevitable.  When the wall does come crashing down it does so with aplomb, taking what could have been a manageable situation and making it explode with venom.

Managing stress is one of the most important things we can do as human beings; conversely it is something that we are not very good at.  To go back to the military model we have to be able to identify the signs of stress and then deal with them effectively.  Senior Leaders have a big role to play here.  By virtue of position they are best placed to both cause and alleviate stress in equal measure.  In the days of accountability at all levels this can be achieved by engendering a no-blame culture.  This happened in the Royal Air Force in around 2009 where a decision was taken to stop apportioning blame to incidents but to instead investigate causes and learn from them.  A move to an open reporting system for problems helped.  Any individual, at any level, could flag up an occurrence and the hope was that by learning from the low-level mistakes, greater issues could be avoided.  This came to a head with the publication of the Haddon-Cave report into the issues surrounding the crash of an RAF Nimrod in Afghanistan that killed all on board.  Recommendations were made.  The pre-existing blame culture was seen as a major contributory factor.  Also mentioned were short cuts that became norms because “nothing had happened yet”.

This phenomenon is akin to boiling a lobster and provides a useful analogy for most work places.  If you place a lobster into a pan of boiling water it notices the change and has a profound physiological effect on the creature.  Imagine how you would feel being placed from your normal routine into a battlefield!  The stress created is instant and the body produces all the hormones and endorphins to cope, the “fight or flight”.  What research shows us though is that if a lobster is put into a pan of cold water, which is then gently heated over time, the creature does not react to the change until it is too late.  The lobster creates a new “norm” with each raise in temperature.

Let’s equate this to the school environment.  How many times do we do things even though we don’t agree with them.  This causes immediate stress but, over time, becomes the new norm.  We adjust to the ratch up in stress and our body copes.  Now add in another element (the short notice trip, assessment week, new child, SEND issues etc) and the overall effect can be catastrophic on our mental health.  We become accustomed to operating at a higher tempo but our body cannot sustain this.  One of several things then happens.  Sometimes we have our “pressure cooker” moment – tempers flare, things get thrown/said etc but the immediate “danger” is reduced and our body relaxes to the “pre-boiling” state.  This is a dangerous place to be as often the underlying issue has not been addressed.  The pressure cooker safety valve has simply been released temporarily but the pot is still boiling.  To fully deal with this we need to talk, finding the underlying factors and giving real, tangible solutions quickly.  Sometimes just an explanation of the situation can help the individual immensely.  When under stress we don’t always see the rational solution to our problem and an outside pair of eyes can help here.  This is were, as individuals, we need to remember we are part of a team.  Whilst we pretend that the classroom is our own personal fiefdom we insulate ourselves from outside help.

If we can recognise the signs of stress in others then we can recognise it in ourselves.  One of the first stages in dealing with any mental health issue is becoming self-aware of the problem.  As humans we have become good at hiding our emotions and develop the previously mentioned coping strategies.  For some this can be mind altering substances, the chief of which is alcohol, to provide that temporary relief or opening of the pressure cooker valve.

The way we overcome all this is to become a no-blame culture where wellbeing is seen as the number 1 issue.  In any school staff pay makes up the lion’s share of the budget.  It would seem remiss to then not invest in that staff wellbeing.  Maybe we should take the military example and train people in stress management, not SLT members but others that have a genuine interest in the area.  These people could then meet in school partnerships, talking about issues (anonymised of course) in their schools so that others can either try to avoid them or, perhaps more importantly, spot the onset of similar issues in their own settings.

Stress will not go away on its own.  I’ll repeat that because it is important.  Stress will not go away on its own.  Simply sending a member of staff home to rest is not the answer.  People need to be given the opportunity to talk about their issues in an attempt to rationalise them.  SLT must allow this to happen in some way, which has to suit the individual, not the SLT!

Stress is a silent killer.  Stress-related illnesses cost the economy millions of pounds each year.  From a purely economic standpoint we owe it to our colleagues to help them when needed.  Find out more about stress yourself, recognise your triggers but, and possibly the most important piece of advice I can give you, look out for the little changes in others that may be a marker to their stress reaction and lack of ability to manage it.

I hope this can be of help to someone…

I leave you with two quick tips to avoid the pressure cooker scenario.

Two natural ways to quickly relieve stress

  1. Socially interacting with another person—making eye contact, listening, feeling understood—can quickly put the brakes on the “fight-or-flight” or mobilization stress response. Responding to stress with positive social engagement also means that body functions such as the immune system, blood pressure, heartbeat, and digestion continue to work uninterrupted.
  2. Another fast way to relieve stress is by engaging one or more of your senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement. The key is to find the sensory input that works for you. Does listening to an uplifting song make you feel calm? Or smelling ground coffee? Or maybe petting an animal works quickly to make you feel centered? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you.

Thanks to The Stress Guide for the indented quotations.

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