What is good practice for minimising stress overload?
All this week, the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families together with Teacher Tapp are conducting a survey examining the mental health and wellbeing of thousands of teachers across the country. To mark this initiative we are publishing 5 pieces from 5 guest bloggers to get their thoughts and experience of the mental health and wellbeing of school staff.
Adrian Bethune is a primary school teacher in Hertfordshire. He is author of Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom - a Practical Guide to Teaching Happiness out in September (Bloomsbury) and founder of www.teachappy.co.uk
Let’s talk about stress
Stress gets a bad name. Just mention the word and people will tell you how to avoid it, reduce it or manage it. But not all stress is bad. Stress is a normal by-product of living – like the wear and tear on your car. In fact, some stress is essential for us to learn, grow, develop and be happy. Psychologists have found that people often perform at their best when they experience mild to moderate levels of stress. Too little stress means we don’t feel challenged and can get bored, too much stress and we feel overwhelmed by the task and our brains shut down. So, we are aiming for this Goldilocks sweet-spot of just the right amount of stress to help us feel engaged in life but not overwhelmed. But what can we do when we start to feel stress building to unmanageable levels?
First and foremost, we need to look after ourselves. We often beat ourselves up when we feel like we can’t cope with the demands of teaching when our colleagues appear to be fine. But this just adds more stress to our situation. So, can you treat yourself the way you might treat a good friend if they were feeling overwhelmed by work? Can you find ways to nourish yourself? Studies show that when we partake in small but regular nourishing activities, it builds our inner resources to help us cope with the stresses of daily life. My nourishing activities include going for long walks, playing with my sons, reading a good book, meditating, chatting with my wife and friends. I try and weave as many into my week as possible to balance out the more depleting aspects of my work and life.
- Make a list of your top 10 nourishing activities and commit to doing one a day.
Our stress levels often mount up when we feel like we lack control of our situation. Sometimes the situation genuinely is out of our control. In which case, one of the most useful things we can do is recognise this, accept it and let go of trying to control it. Trying to control the uncontrollable just increases our stress (I should know, I have a toddler!) Next, we need to focus on what we can control and take small positive actions to regain a sense of agency. Completing even seemingly small tasks helps with this process. Tidying our desk, paying a bill, writing that blog for the Anna Freud Centre! Once we complete a task, we feel a sense of mastery. We no longer feel powerless. It is empowering.
- Choose a small, manageable task you could complete in the next hour. Do it. Now, sit down and have a cuppa. You’ve earned it.
Let’s pretend you have an observation coming up and it is stressing you out. Your thinking starts to become more negative as you run worst-case-scenarios through your mind. The fact is, as stress builds up, we start to lose perspective. As we tip into ‘fight or flight’ mode, our focus narrows onto the ‘threat’ and it is hard to take our focus onto all of the good things that are happening in our lives. One of the founders of modern psychology, William James, once said, “Our greatest weapon against stress is the ability to choose one thought over another.” So, when you find yourself feeling stressed and threatened by your situation, stop. Take a step back. Ask yourself, “Is there another way I could look at this?” It might be that you recognise that the colleague coming to observe you is fair and will give you honest feedback. It might be that you realise that, in the grand scheme of things, this observation will not really matter in a few weeks or months’ time. Our perspective is crucial for keeping our stresses in proportion.
- At the end of every day, write down three things that went well for you and why. Try it for a week. Studies show this activity can have powerful and lasting effects on our wellbeing.