Stress Awareness Month 2021 – Supporting Teachers’ Emotional Health

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your to-do list seems endless and keeps you awake at night? 

If you responded yes, you may have concluded, ‘I feel stressed’. But have you thought about what stress is, how it affects us and what we can do about it? 

Understanding Stress

We may find ourselves using the term ‘I feel stressed’ quite often; let’s start by looking at the myth: stress is not necessarily a ‘bad thing’. If we reflect on our cavemen ancestors, for example, they used their stress response to alert them to potential danger, such as a sabre-toothed tiger. There would have been a boost of energy that enabled the cavemen to focus their attention when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger or similar, so that they could quickly respond to the situation. 

Stress is primarily a physical response; this is what we usually notice first, a racing heart, sweaty hands.  This happens when our body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. The release of these hormones and chemicals prepares the body for physical action and can often affect digestion and a real correlation has been noted between the gut and the brain.

In the modern world the ‘fight or flight’ response can still help us avoid potential dangers, however the challenge is when our body goes into a state of stress in inappropriate situations, this can lead to an inability to ‘think straight’. Spending too much time in a state of stress is of great hindrance to both our work and home lives and can impact our quality of life in a negative way.

Recognising Stress

We will all have our own unique stress signature. It’s important to recognise the signs of stress early, in order to take action to prevent any stress becoming unmanageable. You may notice changes; these may be a combination of emotional, physical or behavioural symptoms.  It’s important to remember that we all have ‘bad days’ from time to time, but it’s when these negative changes reappear over long periods of time, that we need to take action.

 

Cognitive – poor judgement, inability to concentrate, indecision, self-doubt, trouble focussing on task

 

 

Emotional – moodiness, irritability, panic, cynicism, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, frustration

 

 

Physical –rapid heartbeat, aches and pains, frequent colds, skin complaints, indigestion, high blood pressure

 

 

Behavioural –isolating yourself from others, sleeping too little or too much, demotivated, loss of appetite

 

 Stress Antidotes

Prolonged stress undoubtedly makes people ill and is known to contribute to many health issues including heart disease, high blood pressure and IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and certainly affects the immune system.

Here are some helpful antidotes for stress

  •   Keep your relationships strong – connect with people who energise you
  •   Resolve conflicts quickly – make peace with challenging situations
  •   Practice mindfulness – make time for regular brain breaks. Headspace is a great mindfulness app and is currently free for teachers
  •   Try not to worry – let go of the things you can’t control
  •   Reframe your thinking – use a Solution Focussed Approach
  •   Ask for help – link with support services
  •   Use daily gratitude methods – note down three good things from each day
  •   Keep a stress diary – this helps you to recognise stress triggers
  •   Take care of yourself – try the SHED Method looking after your (sleep, hydration, exercise, diet)

Managing Workload

Work stress is one of the greatest contributors to teacher burnout, challenges with managing time and coping with workload adds pressure on already overstretched teachers.  Excessive workload is a problem in teaching. This can’t be ignored. I’m talking with many teachers who are currently experiencing debilitating symptoms of stress. You may be juggling planning lessons, preparing classrooms and assessment data, among other tasks.  Here are some tips to help you manage your workload and prevent burnout. 

Break tasks down into smaller, manageable chunks – organise the list under these categories:

  1.   Urgent and important
  2.   Not urgent but important
  3.   Urgent but not important
  4.   Neither urgent nor important

Highlight the most important three tasks, once completed move onto the next three.

  •       Recognise and reward your achievements – create a list of all the things you would like to do as a reward, this ensures you spend time doing the activities that bring you joy
  •       Use time saving organisation apps such as Trello and Wakelet for Educators
  •       Try using verbal feedback practices, this will save many hours marking

‘Speak Out’ and ‘Seek Help’

Sometimes the simple act of speaking to someone can be all that’s needed to help relieve the symptoms of stress. By speaking with someone you trust about your concerns and feelings, you will explore ideas that can be put into place to reduce your stress. You may want to consider alternative ways to look after yourself and start to build into your own self-care plan.

My most important message is for you to follow Donald Winnicott’s mantra ‘Good Enough’. Teachers are notoriously prone to perfectionism and often suffer from Imposter Syndrome – the internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. However, from everything I have researched and experienced, I find it to have no purpose of value. It’s time to quieten down the inner critic, you are doing an incredible job!

Help is at Hand

The Education Support Partnership

The Samaritans

Every Mind Matters

NHS Mental Wellbeing Audio Guides

Mind UK

The Hub of Hope

Kelly Hannaghan on Twitter @mindworkmatters

Please share any of your ideas for reducing stress with us via our Twitter or Facebook pages.