Managing stress inside and outside of the learning environment

1st April sees the start of National Stress Awareness Month – an initiative held annually since 1992, to create awareness of the causes of and solutions for managing stress.

With the current COVID-19 outbreak causing uncertainty and unease across the globe, this year’s campaign is particularly relevant! NCFE wants to help raise public awareness about stress management at this uncertain time to encourage good mental health.

All of us experience some form of stress during our lives, some more regularly than others depending on our job, our day-to-day responsibilities, what’s going on in our personal lives and how we each cope with the situations we find ourselves in.

That’s what make Stress Awareness Month so important; not only does it help to raise awareness of an important message but it also acts as a reminder to keep on top of our health, both physical and mental.

What triggers stress?

This can vary from person to person. Stress is often a reaction to mental or emotional pressure that can be triggered by one big event or a build-up of small pressures that then starts to feel overwhelming, other times, there might be no obvious cause at all.

CACHE subject specialist Christine Bennett comments in her ‘Observations from a Counsellor’ series for CACHE Alumni; “Teachers accessing counselling may have health or personal life difficulties that are not the worst that can be imagined but they come on top of a working life that is extremely demanding of time, professional skills and emotional energy. The new problem is the ‘last straw’ for someone who has been ‘just managing’, perhaps for a very long time.”

There are some common factors that people often highlight as instigators of stress:

  • money matters
  • work
  • family
  • relationships

In addition to this, an obvious cause for a lot of stress at the moment is COVID-19, as the country adapts to being on lockdown and we’re forced to face up to the huge mental challenges that this brings. With a vast number of the UK, and international population working from home or on furlough, the pandemic brings money worries as well as fears of feeling lonely and isolated, and confusion about how to maintain good mental health when our usual coping mechanisms may be affected by government restrictions.

Working from home means it’s likely we’ll all suffer from feeling unproductive, distracted, and forgetful and our output may reduce to around 20% of our normal rate. We’re all trying to stay on track and make the best of a bad situation.

Stress can feel overwhelming, particularly if there’s a lot going on at one particular time. Everyday worries that may have felt manageable before, may now feel crushing with the addition of the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s why it’s important to recognise factors that can trigger stress, signs that you or someone around you is feeling particularly stressed, and how to alleviate stress where possible to make things more manageable, so we can thrive in our everyday lives.

Whether you, your colleagues, students or family are experiencing stress that relates to work or personal life, it’s important to recognise the signs and have strategies in place to cope.

Recognising the signs of stress

It’s not always easy to identify stress because symptoms can be physical, as well as mental, and may result in changes in behaviour.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the different symptoms:

  1. Physical – headaches, dizziness, muscle tension
  2. Mental – difficulty concentrating, forgetting things, constantly worrying
  3. Changes in behaviour – feeling irritable, changes to eating habits (eating less, or eating more)

The NHS stress webpages provide further information on the above symptoms.

“Once you have identified the symptoms and causes of stress, you are in a better position to manage it” explains Ruth McGuire on CACHE Alumni. “Start by checking what, if any, resources are offered by your employer.”

Different ways of coping with stress

As with symptoms of stress, coping mechanisms can vary from person to person too. Whether you’re dealing with stress yourself or you’re helping others to deal with symptoms of stress, it’s important to find what works for the individual. Sometimes this can be a variety of things, rather than just one.

In the past, advice such as “visit a friend” or “go to the gym” were our go to strategies for combating stress. However, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of our usual coping mechanisms have been taken away. Our world looks vastly different to what we know it to be, without a clear end in sight. We’re all having to adjust rapidly, but with the best will in the world, there is some background noise that cannot be cancelled out.  

Addressing what’s in your circle of control and influence, rather than the things you cannot control, can help you to begin to readdress these thoughts and focus on what is in your immediate present and reduce the possibility of spiralling thoughts.

Other coping mechanisms include:

  • Getting support – from a peer, a family member, or a close friend. Talking can often help as it lessens the burden and gives the opportunity for someone else to help those suffering from stress to reflect on what’s happening. With digital advancements such as FaceTime, WhatsApp and House Party, this support doesn’t always have to be done in person.
  • Exercise / physical activity – yoga, running, power walking – the activity doesn’t matter, it’s down to what the individual enjoys, their ability and time. Despite the current lockdown, the Government has advised that we can, and should, go out for exercise once a day.
  • Sleep – never underestimate the power of good sleep. Although getting a full night of undisturbed sleep can be difficult when feeling stressed, it can help immensely.
  • Plan ahead – where possible plan ahead to alleviate stress that might be caused from unexpected circumstances or the feeling of being overwhelmed.
  • Try breathing exercises – mindfulness and meditation work wonders for some people, as it calms and refocuses the mind and forces us to slow down. It’s a great activity to do at home and it’s easy to fit in around other commitments as it can be done while doing other activities such as cleaning or taking a bath.

NHS has a great graphic as part of the Every Mind Matters campaign which shows tips for dealing with stress.

Final thought…

It’s important to remember that there’s no shame or embarrassment in feeling stressed – everyone goes through it at some point. Stress.org.uk highlights that according to the Mental Health Foundation 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Of course, that figure doesn’t account for those in the UK who aren’t classed as adults, and with the current climate and the uncertainty due to COVID-19, it’s likely that this figure will increase and that more people across the globe will experience symptoms of stress.

The causes and solutions are as individual as we are. What’s important is to understand what works for us and those that we care for so we can build up coping mechanisms to deal with stress whenever it occurs in our lives. This allows us to focus and perform at our best so we can thrive in whatever we’re doing.

Other sources of advice and guidance

  • Our Managing Stress blog series written by Stephen Mordue, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Sunderland. This series focuses on wellbeing and self-care. The series starts with the general topic of ‘Managing your own Mental Health’, before branching off into specific topics such as sleep and nutrition.
  • Our ‘Focusing on Mental Health to Improve Learner Outcomes and Retention’ blog. This focuses on how you can help learners with their mental health so they’re able to learn and perform at their best.
  • Stress Management Society provides lots of useful information and resources for managing stress, including tests to measure stress levels, stress guides, a 10-step stress solution and related awareness days such as World Meditation Day.
  • Mind is a great website for anything related to the topic of stress. It provides further information on the signs of stress, causes, and how to build resilience.
  • CACHE Alumni has some resources for working with children who are displaying signs of Toxic Stress, where they may be experiencing strong, frequent or prolonged adversity, which may be more difficult to spot during the current extraordinary circumstances.
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