Stress: what is it?

Our bodies have evolved to react when in danger, whether that is physical danger (e.g. the threat of being eaten or attacked) or social (losing social status, uncertain situations, lack of control, meeting strangers or unfairness).

Of course these days things tend to be a little more complicated than being chased by a wild animal or trying to fight off a new dominant male in the pack, but sure enough the stress mechanism still comes in to play. It is entirely possible to get some control over these processes, but the first stage is to recognise and understand what is happening.

The body’s response to stress

The initial reaction to stress (‘Alarm’) is all about preparing the body to start running or fighting, and is triggered by the release of hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol as directed by the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that links the nervous systems and endocrine/hormone systems. The effects you notice are:

  • Acceleration of the heartbeat and breathing faster, to get more oxygen to the muscles,
  • Liberation of fat and glucose to provide energy for the muscles,
  • Pupil dilation and inhibition of peripheral vision so you concentrate on moving in one direction only,
  • Relaxation of bladder and various sphincters, to prevent the effort of holding in body waste and possibly to ‘offload’ weight,
  • Dilation of blood vessels in muscles, constriction of blood vessels everywhere else,
  • Magnification of spinal reflexes, ability to focus and immune system, and inhibition of various other energy-consuming processes and responses such as sexual arousal, digestion, attention to pain and higher-order thinking (e.g. creativity and metacognition).

If the cause of stress remains for some time then the body moves in to the ‘resistance’ phase where it attempts to adapt the response to suit the situation. However, if this goes on too long then the body moves in to the final ‘exhaustion’ phase where the imbalance of normal blood flow and excess production of certain hormones can exhaust the body’s resources, leading to long-term damage. This could manifest as ulcers, diabetes, digestive disorders, cardiovascular problems, depression, or other mental disorders.

So what’s the problem?

Stress is a fairly primitive response to problems, and in most situations that we encounter in life we would do better to regain control of ourselves. When we’re in the full grip of ‘fight-or-flight’ we aren’t using our full mental faculties, and can appear irritable, overly emotional, agitated and unhappy. We’re poor at remembering, poor at concentrating and we tend toward pessimism. The trouble is that, for many people, stress becomes a way of life. People become isolated socially, pick up bad-habits and addictions, become more prone to illness, lose sex-drive and develop poor sleeping habits.

This is all rather rather sad and ironic as our most effective routes out of stress are often other people’s empathy and listening, sleep, and our own high-order thinking skills such as metacognition. However in the absence of a decent understanding of stress we often smoke, drink, take drugs and develop emotional problems and thinking disorders.

So what’s the solution?

Fortunately we can learn and develop the skills that help overcome the majority of stressful situations.

  1. Name the emotion in order to tame it.
    Practise becoming aware of your different emotional states. Notice your physical stress responses and make a mental note that you are feeling stressed and anxious. Separate the feeling from yourself, e.g. “I feel sad right now” and not “I am sad”. This engages your left-brain to bring a bit of order and logic to the rather more right-brain oriented emotional responses, and activates the metacognitive powers of your higher-order brain areas to bring understanding instead of fear.
  2. Put it in to perspective.
    Remember all emotions are temporary and will pass. Spot what just caused the emotion and notice that your brain went into autopilot as a result. Pause whatever you are doing. Take a deep breath, exhale slowly and consciously relax your muscles. If you are able, move away from the situation and do something physical (brisk walking, jumping, stretches). Take a moment to notice as the physical symptoms gradually diminish: muscles relax, breathing and heart-rate slows, your thinking becomes calmer. By doing this your brain starts releasing chemicals that moderate the hormonal action of the stress response.
  3. Acknowledge and accept it.
    Don’t give yourself a hard time, your instincts just kicked in as a result of the combination of what just happened with your memories of previous events. Don’t worry that you’ve just been in conflict or an anxious-making situation. Both are very useful, and can be triggers for personal growth. You’ve just been in a situation where you can learn something useful about yourself, the world, and other people. Take a moment (you can do this a little later) to think through the clear logic of what happened, how you felt and why you felt it. If it was someone else who caused the stress, imagine what combination of their personal perception and memories triggered their action. All of these actions help you move the event from unconscious low-level memory to explicit higher-level memory, and fully integrate the event through all parts of the brain, emotional and logical. Failure to do this can lead to anxious memories and future stress.

When should you do this?

Use this all the time. Practise noticing your emotional and mental state, whether happy, sad, alert, tired, loving, angry or anxious. You can even practise this in retrospect by simply imagining a recent stressful situation and remembering your physical state. You’ll probably find that in doing so you re-live some of the stress and can practise taming it.

How can you help someone else?

This is easier with children, but can also work with adults. Be explicit in naming what they are feeling, e.g.”Oh dear, poor you, I can see you’re feeling really angry at the moment, your brain must be in full stress mode which can’t be very nice”. Use your whole body to show empathy and sympathy for their situation. Speak more slowly, take a breath and exhale noticeably. Encourage them to pause and take a breath. If you can do, take them away from the stress situation and encourage them to walk around. You could sit down and throw a ball backward and forward as you start to discuss the situation, give them a stress toy or a cushion to squeeze. Remind them gently (if appropriate) that it was just an emotion when their brain went into autopilot.

As you see them start to relax, say it out loud – reassure them that they are relaxing and that the situation is over. Now you can start  asking questions and listen openly to responses. You might start with “How are you feeling now?” to ground them back in their more relaxed state.


  1. Stress is activated in physically and socially threatening situations
  2. Your muscles tense, your breathing quickens and your logical ability and emotional control diminish.
  3. Begin to conquer stress by noticing the stress response in your brain, and mentally name it: “I am feeling stressed/anxious at this moment”
  4. Put it in perspective by remembering that it is just a temporary emotion. “I can relax myself and this emotion will pass soon”. Pause, take a slow breath, relax your muscles,
  5. Acknowledge the stressful situation. Don’t give yourself a hard time, take a moment to think through the situation from all angles and perspectives.
  6. Practise noticing emotions in all parts of your life. Help other people through stress by verbalising what they are thinking, mirroring their emotions and guiding them to relax.

I will be writing some more blogs about how school leaders, teachers, students and parents can apply these principles, and about how some simple habits can increase your general positivity and reduce overall stress.

I’d welcome your thoughts on this blog, as always!


That’s not fair! The psychology of our natural sense of justice.

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

5. Fairness

In 2007 Tabibna and Lieberman did an interesting experiment where people were told that there was a certain quantity of money available and that it would be split between them and one other person. They measured the reward-mechanism response in their brains as they told them this, and found that if offered $0.50 out of $1.00 total then the subjects experienced a greater reward response than if they were offered $10.00 out of $50.00. The perceived unfairness of the latter situation was greater, even though, objectively, they were getting a better deal.

Fairness, it seems, is an inbuilt mechanism in the brain, and can affect our sense of relatedness and status.

“People who perceive others as unfair don’t feel empathy for their pain, and in some instances, will feel rewarded when unfair others are punished (Singer et al, 2006).”
(SCARF white paper)

Similar parts of the brain are activated when people perceive unfairness as when they are physically disgusted by something, driving people to a state of either anger or fear – the classic fight or flight response.

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

Having a consistent approach to rules, both rewards and punishment, can work in a teacher’s favour. It ensures students sense they too will be treated fairly, thus reducing anxiousness. It increases certainty and helps students recover relatedness even after they have been disciplined. Stressed and inexperienced teachers often attempt to mix ‘tactically ignoring’ problems with sudden harsh punishments when their patience breaks. This immediately aggravates the sense of fairness in every member of the class, turning them against the teacher. Attempting to do any real teaching when the class is in this state is futile – their fight-or-flight response is activated and completely dampens the relevant mechanisms relevant for learning.

School Leadership

In the general stress of a teacher’s job, the very last thing that they need is to feel that they are being treated unfairly themselves. A lack of transparency in pay, rewards, and promotions are common causes of perceived unfairness, and even more so when new management are parachuted in and suddenly decide that one or two members of staff need to be removed. Even if it is for the best intentions, a decision to treat some people by different rules will destroy the collegiate atmosphere for the rest. If in doubt, senior leadership should ensure that they come off no better, and ideally ever so slightly worse than their colleagues when a change in rules is announced.

Education Policy

Politics is rife with accusations of unfairness. In times of change when anxiety is generally higher then people will be acutely aware of any lack of justice. Common problems are when politicians push their ‘pet’ projects or make announcements without any genuine transparency. Of course politicians, like many other, suffer unfairness at the hands of the media, but it is vital that they avoid making the same mistake.

In times of hardship it is worth demonstrating how politicians and policy-makers are being affected, and again it is worth ensuring that the perception is that “we’re all in this together, but we value you so much that we’ll take a slightly bigger hit ourselves”. A notable place for this would have been where the UK government was negotiating pension decreases. I suspect that the whole thing would have been accepted much more readily by unions if MPs had made a show of how they were cutting their own pensions by ever so slightly more than their proposals for the rest of the country.


  • We make make assessments of fairness based on how we are treated compared to everyone else – it plays to our natural sense of empathy.
  • Unfairness causes stress and anxiety and induces anger, fear and hopelessness.
  • Lack of consistency is unfairness, and lack of transparency can lead to perceived unfairness.
  • If you have to inflict suffering on people you lead then you should be seen to be suffering at least as much yourself, in order to maintain the sense of justice.


  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J.P., Stephan, K.E., Dolan, R.J., Frith, C.D., 2006. Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature, 439, 466-469.
  • Tabibnia, G., & Lieberman M. D. (2007). Fairness and Cooperation Are Rewarding: Evidence from Social Cognitive Neuroscience. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1118, 90-101.

Friend or Foe? The science of empathy and relationships explained.

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

4. Relatedness

We all know the feeling of meeting someone completely new. There’s a slight tension and greater alertness: the classic fight-of-flight response. In fact, our brain is programmed make a judgement about each new person we meet in order to assess the risk of the situation.

“The decision that someone is friend or foe happens quickly and impacts brain functioning (Carter & Pelphrey, 2008). For example, information from people perceived as ‘like us’ is processed using similar circuits for thinking one’s own thoughts. When someone is perceived as a foe, different circuits are used (Mitchell, 2006). Also, when treating someone as a competitor, the capacity to empathise drops significantly (Singer et al, 2006).”
(SCARF white paper)

If the initial interaction and conversation goes well then you get a sense that you are ‘warming’ to the other person. This feeling appears to relate to the release of oxytocin in the brain, a natural brain hormone associated with affiliative behaviour (Domes et al, 2007). It has been suggested that oxytocin not only allows us to bond with another person, but also helps us overcome existing preconceptions or stereotypes by easing the process of ‘unlearning’, an important point for conflict resolution. Oxytocin is known to be release in particularly large quantities at the start of new romantic relationships and when people become parents.

“Studies have shown far greater collaboration when people are given a shot of oxytocin, through a nasal spray. (Kosfield, 2005).”
(SCARF white paper)

Relatedness and its importance in in organisations and schools is not a new idea. ‘Team Building’ exercises are very common, although if these are implemented by simply throwing a group of people together at random then you’re not likely to get a great response. The key is to explore ways that people can see team members, colleagues and classmates as ‘like me’ in some way. This is important to counteract feelings of loneliness.

“the human threat response is aroused when people feel cut off from social interaction. Loneliness and isolation are profoundly stressful. John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick showed in 2008 that loneliness itself is  a threat response to lack of social contact, activating the same neurochemicals that flood the system when one is subjected to physical pain.”
(Managing with the brain in mind)

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

First and foremost this article should hopefully help to further dismiss the adage of ‘don’t smile before Christmas’. It is immensely important that students create a warm relationship with their teacher. When this happens then the empathy created will foster greater trust and better behaviour. The best teachers always take time to know and understand their students and try and relate to them.

It is also important that students relate to each other. In secondary schools in particular there are many different classes with different groupings, and teachers shouldn’t ignore the importance of relationships between students. Peer collaboration is a powerful learning tool, but won’t be possible until relationships have been properly established.

School Leadership

Professional development happens much more effectively when teachers collaborate, not only with performance managers, line managers and mentors, but with other members of their departments. The best school leaders encourage social activity within and outside the classroom, and give staff an opportunity to learn together. Teacher sports teams, yoga classes, choirs, etc. are all excellent to create useful relationships, but you may also like to experiment with a display of teacher photos with accompanying brief ‘biographies’ including interests. School leaders need to participate in this as well: a cold, aloof management team reduces trust, and means they are less likely to hear about problems until too late.

Education Policy

Politicians have left a trail of PR disasters as they attempt to wear baseball caps and proclaim ‘pop’ music tastes in an attempt to make voters think they are ‘like me’. When you’re in charge of such an enormously diverse group of people then the values and consistency demonstrated by your actions will be more important.

When management teams or ‘superheads’ are placed in schools then there needs to be serious time and effort put in to building relationships with existing staff, students and parents. New federations or chains cannot hope to pull together successfully unless they give time for staff to get out and visit colleagues in other establishments.


  • We are tense when we meet new people. Our fight-or-flight response kicks in.
  • ‘Warmth’ between people occurs when they find similarities, and this can help break down stereotypes and preconceptions.
  • Loneliness can be a severe problem, with mental repercussions similar to physical pain.
  • Effective organisations work on trust and empathy between staff, and it is worth spending time on relationships, although crass attempts at ‘team-building’ can be counterproductive.


  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Carter, E. J. & Pelphrey, K. A., (2008). Friend or foe?
    Brain systems involved in the perception of dynamic signals of menacing and friendly social approaches. Journal
    Social Neuroscience, Volume 3, Issue 2 June 2008 , pages 151-163.
  • Mitchell, J. P., Macrae, C. N., & Banaji, M. R. (2006). Dissociable Medial Prefrontal Contributions to Judgments of Similar and Dissimilar Others. Neuron, 50, 655-663.
  • Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J.P., Stephan, K.E., Dolan, R.J., Frith, C.D., 2006. Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature, 439, 466-469.
  • Domes , G., Heinrichs, M., Gläscher J., Büchel, C., Braus, D., Herpertz, S. (2007). Oxytocin Attenuates Amygdala Responses to Emotional Faces Regardless of Valence. Biological Psychiatry, 62(10), 1187-1190.
  • Kosfeld, M. Heinrichs, M., Zak, P. J., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. (2005). Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 435, 673-676.
  • Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, B. (2008). Loneliness: human nature and the need for social connection. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Taking Control: Why Autonomy Reduces Stress

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

3. Autonomy

“Autonomy is the perception of exerting control over one’s environment; a sensation of having choices. Mieka (1985) showed that the degree of control organisms can exert over a stress factor determines whether or not the stressor alters the organism’s functioning. Inescapable or uncontrollable stress can be highly destructive, whereas the same stress interpreted as escapable is significantly less destructive. (Donny et al, 2006).”
(SCARF white paper)

Human beings have evolved to carefully evaluate each social situation for danger. I previously wrote about status, but there is a broader evaluation of whether the situation supports or threatens one’s capacity for choice, presumably to ensure options for fleeing are available at all times.

A greater feeling of control leads to reduced stress. In a study of nursing homes, Rodin and Langer found that residents who had all their choices made for them were less healthy and had shorter life-spans than those who were given more control over decisions that affected them. Other studies in the workplace have shown that the number one cause for people leaving a profession is perceived lack of control over work-life balance.

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

If teachers dictate the content, delivery and pace of every lesson then not only are they giving themselves a hard time but they may be unwittingly inflicting greater stress on students. If a child is faced with obligatory tasks that they feel they cannot do then they will become anxious, and their learning will be impaired. However if we allow them choices at these moments of stress then it can help them relax and enjoy themselves. Of course, this doesn’t mean kids should be allowed to opt for the easy low-challenge material, and we have to be careful that each challenge has that optimum level of uncertainty that promotes the greatest learning.

Teachers commonly proffer control to students in other situations, using choice to help defuse anger and bad behaviour, although we can see that transparently fake choices (‘it’s my way or you leave’) will only increase the tension further.

School Leadership

Micromanagement is well-known bad practice, and we can now see why from the brain’s perspective. School leaders should avoid dictating classroom practice as this piles on pressure when teachers need to be calm. Instead, offer structures with clear room for choice. At moments of high stress (e.g. inspections) offer staff choices and some control. “You have to do it this way” will lead to much more stress and resentment than “Something needs to change, which of these two options would you prefer?”

Try to give flexibility in working patterns – a good school will be clear that they will support part-time working if at all possible. If your timetable can introduce elements of choice for students then they will also feel more empowered and engaged.

Education Policy

Autonomy is the current buzz-word in education, although politicians are irresistibly drawn toward micromanagement and centralisation as it satisfies their own feelings of control and therefore safety. Devolving power may be intellectually satisfying but it increases the stress of policy makers when they don’t feel they have hands on the levers. Political leaders and commentators should recognise that stressed, insecure politicians centralise, and that attacking them incessantly can only exacerbate this.

School inspectorates have a tough but necessary job to assure quality. However even a small amount of autonomy could help. For example, allowing teachers to opt to choose broadly to be seen during one day or another would be massively beneficial. Teachers would be less stressed, and this would ensure observations were more realistic.


  • Lack of control or choice increases stress levels. This suppresses learning, demotivates, and can lead to poor health.
  • Leaders’ desire to reduce their own stress drives them toward taking control over everything, but this instinct will increase stress in everyone else. A balance needs to be maintained.
  • At moments of high stress, simply giving a choice can help defuse some of the tension.


  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Donny, E. C., Bigelow, G. E., & Walsh S. L. (2006). Comparing the physiological and subjective effects of self-administered vs yoked cocaine in humans. Psychopharmacology, 186(4), 544-52.
  • Dworkin, S I., Mirkis, S., Smith J. E. (1995). Response-dependent versus response-independent presentation of cocaine: differences in the lethal effects of the drug. Psychopharmacology, 117(3), 262-266.
  • Rodin, J. (1986). Aging and health: effects of the sense of control. Science, 233, 1271-1276.

Half term: some interesting articles and links

Twitter has provided me with a huge amount of food for thought this week. I thought I’d share some of those articles, links and tweets here:

and finally a bit of fun:

Behaviour, for better or for worse?

Many teachers wish that all students would arrive at school ready to learn, respectful and mild-mannered. Of course, that’s not the reality, and there is a regular cycle of hand-wringing as people claim that behaviour is much worse than it used to be.

The debate is, quite necessarily, full to the rafters with anecdote. After all, there is no standardised scale of classroom behaviour, and certainly no measurements that can be used to compare things accurately. Memory is also entirely unreliable in these matters. I suspect the lessons that will really stick out in any student or teacher’s mind would be where great learning took place, where something funny happened, or total chaos reigned. supreme. The day-to-day level of disorder is unlikely to be remembered well.

Another problem is that people reconstruct their memories to suit their narrative. A teacher who rose through the ranks and ended up consulting on behaviour is more likely to remember how they improved behaviour against the odds, whereas someone who struggled and eventually quit teaching is going to justify this as being due to kids’ bad behaviour rather than any of their own deficiency.

So what evidence do we have? @OldAndrewUK pointed out a few interesting books from the 50s and 60s which talk about life in ‘tough schools’ where the worst behaviour mentioned was certainly mild compared to stories that circulate these days. A recent ATL survey claims most teachers think behaviour has deteriorated, and another report suggests that schools are going to extreme lengths to hide problems from inspectors. Certainly there has been emphasis from the new government on problems in schools.

However, on the other side of the fence we have evidence that Ofsted, PISA, and the British Crime Survey all suggest behaviour problems are decreasing.

So is the “behaviour was better in my day” something that can be dismissed as nostalgic rose-coloured-spectacled nonsense for those with a penchant for moral panic? Perhaps the idealistically smug “well *I* don’t have a problem, I just love the kids” brigade are wilfully ignoring a deterioration in behaviour in order to self-justify their careers? Perhaps both are true, in parts.

The truth is, we shall never know, we can’t possibly measure it, and there isn’t anything that remotely resembles hard evidence – it’s layer upon layer of anecdote. What is undoubtedly true is that where schools provide clear leadership, high expectations, engaging lessons, and rigorous, caring discipline, there is good and improving behaviour.

The big behaviour debate serves very little purpose. It becomes a destructive pawn in political games that do the education sector a disservice. You can’t win this argument, and there is little benefit from taking one side or another. I strongly believe people should just focus on what works, share good practice among teachers and parents, and expect nothing but the best from every child, and for every child.