For this episode of our podcast series 10 with Zen, Helen speaks with Maria Brosnan, founder of Pursuit Wellbeing and author of The Pursuit of Sleep, exploring school leader stress, sleep rituals and the practice of gratitude along the way.


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Helen Woodward: Welcome to 10 with Zen. My guest today is Maria Brosnan – educational leadership, health and wellbeing specialist and founder of Pursuit Wellbeing. Welcome to 10 with Zen, Maria!

Maria Brosnan: Thank you, Helen.

Helen: I’m so excited to be talking with you today, because I’ve listened to you speaking about sleep previously, and I found it really helpful. So I’m hoping that our listeners will also be able to benefit from the discussion we have today.

Maria: Great. Yeah, me too. Great to be here with you today.

Helen: So I know you’ve done lots of research about this. So can you tell us: how does excessive stress impact our sleep, and what can we do about it?

Maria: I think a good place to start is by casting our minds back 200,000 years, and thinking of our cavemen and women ancestors living in a cave and just imagine that it’s getting close to bedtime. And they’re out there, looking at the stars and the moon, when there’s an unmistakable rustle in the grass of a predator. So instantly, their stress response would turn on and wake them up. Because no matter how sleepy they were before, automatically, when we perceive a danger or a threat, we turn on our stress response. And that produces adrenaline and cortisol and a whole cocktail of other biochemicals. And we do exactly the same thing. We have exactly the same physiology as our cavemen ancestors, so when we’re stressed we produce the same biochemistry. And even though it might not be just before bed, cortisol can stay in our system for up to eight hours. So we can get that awful feeling of being tired and wired, and we know that we’re exhausted, we want to sleep, but we just can’t, because our minds are so active. It’s because of the biochemistry of what’s happened to us all throughout the day. And so sleeplessness is actually a wonderful feature of the stress response, but anthropologists would say that our caveman ancestors triggered that maybe two to four times a week. And if you think about how many times we trigger that all throughout the day – a difficult meeting, or a pupil kicking off, or getting stuck in traffic, or an argument with a spouse – all different kinds of things can trigger us throughout the day. And so we have this biochemistry just rushing around our systems. So sleeplessness doesn’t just happen when we go to bed, it’s the result of everything that’s happened all throughout the day. So what we can do to manage that is anything we can do throughout the day to reduce stress will have an impact on our sleep at night.

Helen: Okay, so one of the things you’re saying is this stress response we have is our friend.

Maria: Absolutely. It’s a protective element of our lives. It’s a survival mechanism. It is literally our survival mechanism. And we have survived for hundreds of thousands of years because of it. But it’s a maladaptive response in our modern busy lives, because we keep turning it on because we can’t tell the difference sometimes between a real threat or a real danger, or an imagined one. We can turn on the stress response from an email, and it was designed to keep us safe from a tiger! So it’s a maladaptive response now, and we need to learn new skills in how to manage that.

Helen: That’s interesting, because what you’ve just said is we can turn the stress response on in response to an email, but what I just want to ask you about is the ‘turn it on’ because when I’m stressed, I don’t consciously think ‘I’m just going to turn my stress response on now’, so just tell me what happens, because you don’t think it and then it happens?

Maria: Yeah, absolutely. It’s all governed by our autonomic nervous system; autonomic is just another name for automatic. And so these things happen instantaneously. 95% of the functions in our body are unconscious or subconscious. We don’t consciously think ‘I’m just going to digest that lovely lunch I just had’, all of things, digestion, respiration, reproduction are all sitting below our consciousness. We don’t need to think about these things, they’re working beautifully.

Our stress response is governed by our autonomic nervous system, and there’s a lovely word for this called neuroception. When we either perceive danger or a lack of safety – and they’re two quite different things – if we have that sense that something is either danger or a lack of safety, it could be just a funny feeling, it could be something that we just sense, that neuroception turns on. It just turns on, and most of us don’t know how to turn it off. And that’s definitely a skill we can learn, that most of us can learn how to turn it off, and it all just kind of peters out. So the threat passes and the email is dealt with, or the difficult conversation is over. But we ruminate, and we think about it, and we play it over in our minds. And so the process, that mental process can carry on the stress response way longer, and then it kind of just peters out. Not many people know how to turn it off.

Helen: Okay, so I’m interested in the phrase that you used there about threat to safety, which you said was different to threat to life? So a threat to safety, that includes what? Does that include a threat to what we’ve experienced as our psychological safety?

Maria: Absolutely. So a staff meeting is a good example of this, where nothing might be happening, nobody’s screaming or yelling, nobody’s threatening to hit you, but there’s this underlying sense that they could. There’s a lack of safety, somebody could say something at all could kick off. So that’s what I mean; it’s a perception of a lack of safety. Does that make sense?

Helen: It does. And it reminded me of some reading that I did recently in the Culture Code, where it talks about how our belonging to the group is so important for us as humans, and some of that lack of safety is about ‘is this group going to keep me as somebody who belongs in this group, or do I run the risk of being ostracised?’ And in some schools, the stakes can be quite high, I worked in what was called EBD at the time, a school for children with emotional behavioural difficulties. And if your team didn’t support you, you could be in danger.

Maria: Yes and – I really can’t stand his word, but it’s a common parlance – there’s a ‘toxic’ environment in schools. For many people, that’s the reality: that schools can be quite a toxic and challenging place. So even though nobody’s yelling at you, there’s still this kind of neuroception, this underlying feeling that you’re not quite safe. And that’s as stressful as a tiger running in your path. You effectively build up over time.

Helen: I want to ask you two questions, now. Firstly, when you’re in that kind of hyper-aroused state of being really tired, but also your stress hormones are keeping you wide awake and alert, how do you deal with that? But I’m also interested in your advice to somebody who finds themselves in a work situation where this is being triggered for them every day, and what the long term consequences could be? Let’s start by talking about how we could pull down from that – it’s 11:30 at night, I’m so tired, I’ve got to be up at five, but I’m wide awake, because my stress hormones are… doing a dance!

Maria: Well, I think let’s take a little step back and just invite the listeners to consider this: what is stress? So Helen, if I would say to you ‘what’s stress for you, but how do you know?’ So if you’re saying ‘oh, I’m so stressed’, how do you know that you’re stressed?

Helen: I know I’m stressed when my heart rate rises – I feel that in my chest – I have a kind of restlessness and my concentration diminishes rapidly. So I can be reading something and it’s just not going in, so it massively impairs my cognitive processing.

Maria: Yeah, absolutely. And there’s all different kinds of physiological things that happen in your mental processing, and in your emotions: you can feel anxious or angry or upset in your physical body, as you said, your heart rate increases, blood rushes to the extremity, so you can fight you can take on the threat or you can get away. So when these things happen – to your point of ‘what do you do at 11:30 at night?’ – it’s almost too late at 11:30 at night, you need to manage these things all throughout the day. But having said that, of course, it’s never too late.

Personally, I find the most important time is before I go to bed, so that last kind of 30 to 45 minutes, so I put in place quite a lot of rituals. I make sure that I turn off social media. The worst thing for me is to say ‘oh, I’ll quickly check social media before I go to bed’, and I’m aflame with whatever there’s just I’ve just read or seen! So make sure that I don’t consume any social media, or news, or anything like that close to bedtime. That I wash my face, take my time, and I have essential oils and I might do a little scalp massage, really simple things. I do a little meditation, I turn the lights down low, I make sure that my bedroom is comfortable and cosy and I prepare for bed. And so I have a whole little stream of rituals that get me ready for sleep – and my body knows that it’s time to calm down and it does deal with all of the that biochemistry because I find if I’m working really late and I really want to get something finished then I finish it, shut the laptop and go to bed – it’s just hopeless! That’s when I’m lying there overthinking! So for me personally, it’s that time before bed to have a lot of rituals in place that are really pleasant and things that you really like reading, or a foot soak, foot massage… whatever you find enjoyable.

I’d like to invite our listeners to think ‘what do you enjoy, what’s helpful for you?’ and start to gently introduce them. It’s these small everyday things that make our wellbeing. It’s the small everyday things that make up our wellbeing, not just some great big thing. It’s not a big holiday, it’s not the big things that make the difference. It’s the small things that make a difference.

Helen: There’s some really key messages there about the small things that we do that make a difference – rituals, particularly in the half hour before we go to sleep, and finding ways of actually creating what you’re talking about, creating a very safe space. That your bedroom is safe, the lights are dim, things are comfortable, and you feel a nurturing environment.

Maria: Beautiful – exactly.

Helen: Are there little things that we can do throughout the day that help prepare us for sleep as well?

Maria: Definitely. So in addition to making sure that you manage stress well, I would say mealtimes are really important. Because that really affects our blood sugar levels, and our blood sugar levels have a direct impact on our cortisol levels. So it’s not only stress that triggers cortisol, it’s blood sugar, and so many, many, many educators I know don’t eat lunch, and then have a whole pile of biscuits at four o’clock because they’re starving! And that’s something that I hear so often. So my advice around that would be make sure you have three decent meals a day, and make sure you have lunch. Because if you miss lunch, then your blood sugar is going to drop. And then if you have half a packet of biscuits at four o’clock, then your blood sugar will spike. So it’s a crazy kind of up-and-down, and that’s really unhelpful. What we’re looking to do is to manage all kinds of things, manage our biochemistry, manage our blood sugar, manage our moods and emotions. Self-regulation is the key. And the interesting thing I think is that most of these things are pleasant, that I’m recommending people do! They’re good, nice things that we enjoy! Make sure to have some lunch – if that’s difficult, then make enough dinner that you can take some leftovers with you. So even if that’s a quick meal, that might not be half an hour or anything like that, but even if you can have something quick to eat at lunchtime, that will make a difference to your cortisol and that will impact your sleep.

Helen: Nice. Really good ideas about making some extra dinner so you’ve got a lunchbox for the next day. Maria, it’s been a brilliant talk with you today. I know that you’ve got a book as well called The Pursuit of Sleep. Do you want to tell us about that just quickly before we finish?

Maria: Thank you – it’s a really simple little book. It’s very beautiful, with lots of pictures and diagrams in it. But we talk about quite a lot of what we’ve just talked about: what stress is, where it comes from, and 95 tips to help you manage that all throughout the day. Because there are key points all throughout the day, when you start your day, your commute, lunch, after school, closing off your workday, coming home in the evening… there’s lots of points throughout the day that could be pinch points for you. And so we’ve just outlined them all and invited people to reflect on the difficult times in their day, the most challenging times and what they do to manage that. So there’s 95 ideas on what you can do to manage stress all throughout the day so that when you come to put your head on the pillow, you’re not tired and wired and you’re ready to have a good night’s sleep. And that’s available at my website!

Helen: Brilliant. Thank you so much for being our guest today on 10 with Zen.

Maria: It’s an absolute pleasure!