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Ask Andy – Blog 21

Stress, cortisol, and heart health!

There are many things that affect our wellbeing. Some of those are things in our professional life and some of them are in our personal life but few are as potentially damaging as stress, and by that, I mean prolonged stress.

Stress comes in many forms and the one most commonly experienced by those working in education is self-imposed. It’s the expectations that we place on ourselves to make a difference to those we teach and after all its why the vast majority came into the education. That sense of mission to improve the life chances of the children in our schools drives us, whatever role we have in school, but we can often expect way too much of ourselves and in doing so heap pressure on ourselves with unrealistic expectations.

I’ve often railed against the term “whatever it takes” when talking about pupil outcomes. “Whatever it takes” has almost become a blank cheque that we sign on our physical and mental health, accepting that whatever the consequences to ourselves, it is a price worth paying to secure better pupil outcomes. No job/ vocation is worth that and we must constantly remind ourselves to do a job that is “good enough.” This was a phrase that I heard at a conference last week and whilst we always give of our best, “good enough” and stopping short of compromising our health is good enough.

At the same conference last week, I was approached by a school leader who recognised all the things I was saying in my presentation about prioritising personal wellbeing but went on to say that once back in school, all of that changes. I recognise that. School is all consuming, but we need to carve out wellbeing opportunities that help to keep us “the best version of ourselves.” If we don’t, we start to be ineffective or at best limited in what we are trying to do for the children.

It wasn’t until I left headship that those closest to me recognised a huge change in me. I’ve not seen it, but they say I’m less snappy, I have time for them and keep things in perspective. I’ve brought my daughters up to be nothing if not honest! However, the fact that I’d not seen this, had been this way for most of their lives and hadn’t noticed the change in myself since I left headship, has made me realise that stress had been normalised in my life. It was who I had become. School, pressure, and I had become one and those nearest to me hadn’t had the best from me.

I’m opening up on this publicly because I’m sure there are others in the profession who are going through the same without knowing it as I did. Stress damages your relationships but also can damage your heart. Let me explain.
Cortisol is a hormone that our body produces in response to stressful situations. It was designed to keep us alive in days when we had animal predators etc, but it is produced in response to stress. Produced to do the job above that it was designed to do, it is helpful.

However, if you are producing cortisol over a prolonged period of time it can have the effect of making your heart work incoherently. Coherent heart waves as measured on an ECG will be smooth up and down waves with curved edges. Incoherent heart activity is measured with pronounced spikes up and down and heart rate significantly increased. This activity when incoherent was designed to give us an instant response to temporary danger. If this activity is prolonged it asks much more of the heart than it was designed to do over a longer period of time. The key is returning the heart to a pattern of coherence as soon as the reason for the raised heart activity is over.

The chart below shared with me by Maria Brosnan* shows how emotions affect our heart.

However, we are now seeing headteachers particularly, with prolonged periods of stress, with prolonged cortisol activity and prolonged periods of incoherence and damaging heart activity. The job can seriously damage your health. Small amounts of manageable stress are good and help to keep us on our A game. Its when this stress is prolonged that we see overload, burnout, and potential disease.

The good news is that your breathing is connected to heart coherence via the vagus nerve. I won’t go into the science but it we can train ourselves to breath in a controlled manner we can actually return our heart rate to a level of coherence much more quickly. Research has shown that the incoherent heart activity can last for much longer unless breathing interventions are put in place and all the time that the heart is in this stress mode over a prolonged period, it has the propensity to create heart damage.

If you’d like to know more then I’ve put Maria’s website at the bottom of this blog, but we should have some empirical research data to share in November. What is clear is that we need to get better at managing our daily exposure to cortisol. Sleep is good for dialling down the cortisol but also finding ways to cut off the stress and be absorbed in another activity is key. Tom Daley resorted to absorbing himself in knitting to dial down his exposure to stress during the Olympics and the message is clear, it is whatever works for you!

If you would like to have a look at the breathing regulator that I’ve been using as a way to dial down on the stress you face, then you can download the app. The app itself is called Inner Balance – Heart Math
* Maria Brosnan – Pursuit of Wellbeing

Ask Andy

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