Stress is any stimulus that requires us to change. Stress isn’t inherently bad or negative, but when it becomes traumatic stress or overwhelming stress is when we encounter problems. Sustained overwhelming stress over a period of time can have a negative effect on the brain and body. In the brain, sustained stress will decrease dendrites in the hippocampus which are connected to memory. The brain can also experience dendritic retraction and synapse loss in the frontal cortex where our supercomputer is housed. These changes lead directly to attention loss and decision-making impairment. Sustained stress increases frontal motor connections and decreases hippocampus ones. Our brain is rewiring itself to fight off danger and run away or to collapse to make sure we don’t get too traumatized by remembering every possible moment should we get injured.
This worked well when we were hunters and gathers and needed to be aware of the dangers all around us. However, our brain doesn’t understand that we don’t always need that in today’s world. Stress is everywhere. These changes can undermine neuroplasticity and our ability for our brain to function properly.
The body reacts to chronic stress in a similar way. Your nervous system can be thrown into a survival strategy (fight, flight/flee, freeze/collapse) which can increase your heartbeat which raises your blood pressure and prepare your body to run, hide, or fight. Because muscles can be taut from the preparation, injuries and joint pain are more likely from the tension.
Extra glucose production to provide a boost of energy can increase the chance for Type 2 Diabetes. “The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate” can also aggravate existing ulcers and cause a surge in acid production in your stomach (Pietrangelo & Watson, 2018). The immune system, over time, begins to deteriorate, which not only leads to getting sick easier, but also lengthens the time to get better when we do get sick.
Our reproductive systems can be affected as well. Men may find that with chronic, sustained stress, their testosterone levels are affected, which can cause reproductive and desire issues, insomnia, and exhaustion. It can also cause emotional dysregulation including an increased risk of depression, reduced memory and concentration, and decreased motivation and self-confidence (Gotter, 2019). Women can also experience a loss of desire and their menstrual cycles may be affected, which can lead to reproductive issues. Chronic stress may exacerbate menopausal symptoms (Pietrangelo & Watson, 2018).
One of the issues I’ve dealt with for years is the fact that I don’t feel stressed until it hits me with brute force. That is a result of my childhood trauma and the fact that my body handles stress differently because my body is more accustomed to the feeling of it. I don’t get the feeling of an “adrenaline rush” as easily as others, and that’s why many times you’ll find people who thrill seek to be trauma victims. But that adrenaline also doesn’t allow me to feel stress in the same way, so I don’t have the ability to try to react to it, and yet it still causes the same turmoil inside my body. Just something for trauma victims to be cognizant of as you need to be more aware of your body and sensations that indicate high or sustained stress levels.
And you’re thinking, “Awesome. So now what?“
The above information is to try to make it clear how truly dangerous sustained stress can be. Especially now, when we are dealing with so many changes and stressors, the chronic stress that people may be experiencing needs to be recognized and dealt before it becomes overwhelming.
Strategies to help fight chronic stress
Mindfulness and meditation Mindfulness and meditation are a way for your brain to focus on what’s going on in the here and now. It helps with spiraling out of control with thoughts of things that need to be done or future events that haven’t even happened yet. There are a few apps that are free for educators that aid in meditation. The most common ones are Headspace and Calm.
Self-care Self-care is a way of taking proactive steps against stress. Although nothing will mitigate stress completely (it is the body’s warning system that something is changing), it does help the body be ready. I have written about the four types of self-care that I believe to be important and have a free educator self-care course available for more information.
Set healthy boundaries Boundary setting helps us let others know what is an acceptable way to treat us both physically and emotionally. When it comes to stress, having established healthy boundaries can help empower you to make decisions based off from those boundaries and what you consider to be okay or not okay. For example, if you set a boundary for the amount of time you are willing to work so you have enough time for your family, having a healthy work boundary will help you say no to extra things that people may try to put on your plate. Boundaries are important to respect when it comes to other people as well. When they are clear and understood, it can reduce frustration between people and even improve efficiency when everyone understands what is acceptable and what is not.
Figure out how you process and communicate during stressful times I have known for awhile that I process out loud. Knowing this information has helped me in multiple ways both personally and professionally. I am able to tell people, “I need to talk through this” and it helps me tremendously because I am able to get immediate feedback on my thinking. That also means that the people I gravitate toward during times of stress are my friends that also either process out loud (because they understand what I need) or the ones who are great listeners. During times of stress we often don’t have the energy capacity to look around and try to figure out what we need. That’s why knowing this information is vital to alleviate the stress of just knowing what to do when we’re feeling stressed.
Pandemic specific Unfortunately, the longer that the pandemic lingers, the more likely chronic stress is an issue as we continue to adjust to the new normal. Here are a few tips to help with chronic stress during the pandemic:
Set work hours and take sick days (boundaries) – As a Technology Director it was a common misconception that I was available all the time because I was “always on” technology. It was not uncommon for me to get texts or emails late at night expecting to be answered immediately. In some cases, I’ve seen teaching morph into this during the pandemic as well. Even though you can be online doesn’t mean you should be. Set working hours. Set your email to automatically respond that you will return the following day during your work hours. Also, find out what your district’s current policy is for sick days and if you would take a sick day during the year, you should be able to take a sick day during virtual work as well.
In cases of overwhelm, start small. When I recently became overwhelmed I started struggling to get anything done. I started making myself a small list, and at one point it was four things: Start drinking water at noon (versus the massive amounts of coffee I was drinking), eat one healthy meal, go for a walk, and one work piece that I had to get done. Did I fall a little behind? Yep. But some things also started to fall off my plate that didn’t need to be done and I had taken them on anyway. Eventually, I was able to build myself back up to a normal work day and I had also managed to implement new habits.
Chronic stress isn’t something to be taken lightly, and the first step in fighting it is understand ourselves and how we think and feel. Developing a high emotional intelligence and true reflective skills are a huge part of preparing ourselves for times of inevitable stress. Sometimes that means taking care of it ourselves, but that can also mean going and seeking out professional help. Either way, to know our limits are going to be the first step in dealing with chronic stress.
This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.
I am not a doctor. Claims in this blog have been researched and double checked by a doctor, but please check with your own physician if you have specific concerns.