The fight or flight game

31st March 2000 at 01:00
We all know what it's like to get stressed out at work. But do we know how to cope with it? Douglas Blane joins teachers at St Columba's High in Perth for a lesson in learning to relax

It's unlikely that the ferocious-looking characters staring down from the walls of the classroom in St Columba's High school, Perth, ever needed the advice stress counsellor Angela Maguire is providing.

Vikings tended to create stress rather than suffer from it. But few teachers are as robust as the Vikings, which is why the turnout for a seminar on stress management at 4.30 on a Thursday afternoon is almost three-quarters of the school staff.

Stress is a set of responses which evolved to help our ancestors extract themselves from difficult situations: muscles grow tense, digestion stops, heart-rate rises, blood-flow to extremities drops in case they get chewed off, and a host of biochemical changes occur, altering our physical and emotional state from relaxed and peaceful to alert, ready and potentially dangerous to everyone around us.

All very well if you're sharing a sparsely-populated African savannah with wild animals. But if you're in a bustling modern school with 1,000 other people, the last thing you need is your heart-rate rocketing every time a pupil brushes past or a member of the management team speaks to you.

And what makes matters worse is that our brains, evolved to help us prepare for tricky situations, allow us to dwell on the past, worry about the future and generate those nasty stress reactions in response to nothing more threatening than thoughts and anxieties.

Eventually, Ms Maguire explains, the constant suppression of responses designed to prepare you for action results in physical and mental illness, migraine, stomach and bowel trouble, back pain, alcoholism, depression and even suicide.

So what's to be done? "Many people think stress is purely physical - they feel themselves grow tense," she says, "but stress is emotional, mental and spiritual too, and you need to deal with all of that. I've called this talk the 'Maximum Potential Seminar', because all of us are capable of more in every area of our lives - we can be healthier, fitter, more positive in our attitudes."

It's important, she explains, showing a graphic of the "Wheel of Life", to consider every aspect - work, social life, family, health, personal development and friends.

She asks the teachers to think about each of these, and assess the level of satisfaction it currently provides.

"Work - you may have been keen and enthusiastic at first but what about now? How do you feel right ths minute? Social life - how much time do you spend with people who are on your wavelength?

"Psychologists say there are 16 different types of person and they don't all get along. You should learn what type you are and find others like you. They won't necessarily be in your family or workplace, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. Sometimes we feel like a square peg in a round hole, and we need to throw the net wider to find people with whom we can just be ourselves.

"Personal development - I know how busy teachers are but try to do something regularly, even if it's just a yoga class or line-dancing. Make a little time when you're not responding to the demands of others."

Right on cue, a teacher's mobile phone rings and she goes into a corner to take the call. A few seconds later it happens again but this time the teacher switches it off without answering.

Ms Maguire gives her a little nod of satisfaction.

"Health," she continues. "Remember what we said about stress stopping digestion? Well it also stops you feeling hungry, so just when you need something nutritious your body tells you not to eat. Ignore it.

"Now, what is the most important relationship in your life? In one-to-one sessions I get a range of answers - some people say their husband or wife, some say their best friend or work.

"But if you forget everything else I've said this afternoon, try to remember this: the most important relationship in your lives is the one each of you has with yourself."

At the end of the talk there are many questions and comments from the audience:

"It's really good to know that how I feel isn't unusual."

"Is it possible to drop old friends who make you feel bad without feeling worse?" "Where can I learn more?" Later, modern languages teacher Donna McGlinchy, who organised the seminar and has collected feedback from the teachers, says they are hungry for more.

"They all found it very useful and many asked if they could have a follow-up, maybe focusing on one aspect of the Wheel of Life. I agree.

"This sort of thing shouldn't be a one-off. When we asked our teachers beforehand what they really needed to know more about, ICT came top of the list but managing stress was a very close second."

The St Columba's High team had a one-hour session with Ms Maguire. A normal session lasts one and a half hours and includes a stress audit. Angela Maguire is a qualified teacher with a degree in psychology and many years' experience of stress counselling. For more information, and details of the prices for the sessions on offer, tel 0141 636 1110

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