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Self-care September: Stress Less by Filling These 4 Buckets

It’s not a secret – being a teacher is HARD work. For some, teaching may be physically exhausting, emotionally draining, and socially lonely. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The work you are doing every day is too meaningful for it to be dragging you down.

Every September we dedicate this newsletter to YOU – to you taking care of yourself. You may want to take this issue extra seriously. Why? You might be like many who find their stress levels going up and within months you’re “running on empty.” Start the healthy habits now while you can, so they will be in place when your “vitality buckets” start feeling dangerously empty.

You simply can’t be at your best for students until you are at your best, too. We’ll keep it simple and very practical … because you’re worth it. Your first step to self-care begins with …

The Research

Maybe you “felt it” in yourself.  You know others have “felt it” too. The “it” is burnout. Whether you have found yourself saying goodbye to colleagues who’ve left the profession, teacher burnout is a prevalent issue in education.

Unfortunately, the evidence does NOT suggest the alarming rate of burnout equates to teachers simply being tired. It is something much more devastating than that.

A huge contributor to teacher burnout is chronic stress. Some studies report that as many as 93% of teachers are experiencing HIGH levels of stress (Herman, Hickmon-Rosa, & Reinke, 2018). With stats that high, you might wonder why teacher attrition rate isn’t higher than the documented 8% (Carver-Thomas, & Darling-Hammond, 2017).

Teacher depression, anxiety, and low job satisfaction are real issues teachers face today. These factors are strongly connected to workload, student behavior, and employment conditions (Ferguson, Frost, & Hall, 2012). These symptoms are not minor; they have serious health consequences for you.

If you find yourself getting angry, discouraged, or depressed for more than a week, get professional help. See a counselor or doctor. Why? The longer you are in any metabolic state (like depression), the more permanent it begins to feel and the harder it gets to change it. Only a small portion of those who get prescriptions for a long-standing depression everget any relief (Bschor & Kilarski, 2016).

With all the potential stressors that teachers face, it is easy to get discouraged and maybe feel like “it’s just not worth it.” So, what can you do?  We have tools for you. Let’s begin with clarifying what you’re up against.

Three Types of Stress
First, there are three different types of stress: healthy, acute, and chronic. All types of stress trigger the release of the same chemicals (cortisol, noradrenaline, adrenaline, etc.). What changes with each type is the intensity, duration, and impact. Be careful about how you label or refer to your stress experience. Some stress is healthy, but all stress impacts your body.

Healthy stress (eustress) is a brief, moderately uncomfortable experience lasting just seconds or minutes. Visualize the bell-shaped curve – that’s how your body experiences this event. Your day might have many of these moments, like when you are rushing to get everyone ready and out the door in the morning, jogging, stuck in traffic or meeting with a parent. These short bouts of stress are often a result of a deliberate choice, but rarely toxic for your body. Instead, think of these bouts as getting “inoculated” because they strengthen your resiliency.

Acute stress can only be good for the body and the brain if it is a result of a purposeful choice you are making. Examples of chosen acute stress include skydiving, watching a horror film, rollercoasters, getting a flu shot, or an upcoming exam. Acute stress is typically brief, yet strong. However, because it is chosen, it can foster resilience via inoculation.

But when acute stress NOT chosen, rather imposed on you, the effects can be brutal.

Acute stress that is imposed disrupts the mind-body homeostasis. Examples include trauma, loss of family or friend, violence, a weather disaster, bodily injury, disease, etc. Inflammation is introduced to the body that places increased demand on the immune system. The brain or body rarely has the resources to stay strong and it typically takes time and resources to heal.

The third stress type is chronic stress. This stress response can begin slowly and build over time, eventually exceeding 50% or more of your body’s normal cortisol levels. Then it stays elevated for months or even years. Eventually, the body becomes less sensitive to the cortisol and is unable to regulate the inflammation, eventually leading to a breakdown of your immune system (Bisht, Sharma, & Tremblay, 2018). In walks a student with some type of virus and, you could catch it in a heartbeat.

Chronic stress can be mild (triggered by financial strain, lack of restorative sleep, social isolation, poor relationships, etc.) or it can be more severe (abuse, being a long-term caregiver, discrimination, violence, etc.). As you might guess, both are toxic with serious health risks including constant fatigue, heart disease, anxiety, reduced brain cell production, decreased short-term and working memory, and more (Godoy, Rossignoli, Delfino-Pereira, Garcia-Cairasco, & de Lima Umeoka, 2018).

Both acute and chronic stress can elevate cortisol levels enough to shift the body from homeostasis to allostasis, a new adjusted set point. In other words, your body has a new “norm” default to become either more hyper-vigilant (edgy) or hypo-responsive (laid back and unengaged).

Both states of stress (chronic and imposed acute) are unhealthy and the body’s constant efforts to “get you back” results in daily inflammation. Over time, these two impair your body’s capacity to fight inflammation, damage your health and can lead to physical and mental illness (Cohen et al., 2012).

Remember, when you get stressed, grumpy or sick, those around you, those you care about (family, students, and friends) will often suffer, too.

How Chronic Stress Impacts You and Your Students
Here are some of the evidence-based implications of you with chronic stress:

  • Chronically stressed teachers tend to have the poorest student outcomes, such as lower grades and frequent behavior problems.
  • Chronically stressed teachers have higher rates of sickness, absenteeism and accelerated aging signals.
  • Chronically stressed teachers impact student achievement for months. As an example, teachers’ depressive symptoms in the winter negatively predicted students’ spring mathematics achievement.
  • Students with weaker math achievement made greater gains when they were in higher-quality classrooms with less depressed teachers.

In short, when you are stressed, your students and you BOTH lose (McLean & Connor, 2015).You don’t want any of that for you, or your students. Elevated levels of cortisol are toxic. Please, please make this important. It is your life we are talking about (Anagnostis, Athyros, Tziomalos, Karagiannis, & Mikhailidis, 2009). You became a teacher to help students learn and to do meaningful work that filled your buckets, not drain them.

So, how did you get to this place where your calling to be a teacher that was meant to fill your buckets feels more like a job that is draining your buckets?

Where Does Stress Come From?
Before any finger-pointing, let’s delve into the biology and psychology of stress, and where it comes from. Your health and career depend on this.

Your stress is generated in your brain as a response to a perception of a loss of control of an adverse person, event, or situation. That’s why we all have different responses to the same potential stressor. People are different and everyone experiences stress differently. But what actually CAUSES the stress?

Your brain has two “filters” over which you have some control. The two are: 1) the perception of relevancy of the situation/event, and 2) your sense of control over the situation/event (coping tools).

You could become so cold-hearted that you make everything irrelevant to you. Or, you could develop such extensive resources (key contacts, valet, a private jet to fly you to the Bahamas, a masseuse, etc.) that you can handle most stressors pretty well. In short, relevance and perceived control are the two biggest “brain filters” that determine whether or not you’ll feel stressed.

This means that thinking that your students, principal, or parents stress you out is misplaced blame. They don’t stress you out. Your students do not have superpowers to do that. You stress you out (Godoy, Rossignoli, Delfino-Pereira, Garcia-Cairasco, & de Lima Umeoka, 2018).

Here is the good news – you are in charge of the stress you feel. Yes, once you truly understand this about your stress levels you’ll feel a superpower level of control over your emotional wellbeing. Not sure how to exercise those superpowers? Keep reading for simple strategies you can start using today to reduce your stress.

Practical Application

Do you remember how excited, nervous, and downright giddy you were to start your first year of teaching? You were ready to conquer the educational world and change the lives of countless students. Hopefully, that feeling returns as you greet a new group of students every year.

Your MIND (Bucket #1): Clear it
Teachers today need greater emotional resilience and self-regulation to manage the potential stressors of being an educator. May we suggest tools for sharpening your self-regulation skills?

This is where mindfulness can help. Mindfulness is about using meta-awareness to bring out the quality of your daily experiences. It is a flexible, yet focused awareness of that which is usually passing through your mind. Try using an app to learn more about how to implement mindfulness (Waking Up by Sam Harris is my favorite).

How does mindfulness relate to coping with chronic stress?

Evidence tells us that mindfulness is a strong tool that can mitigate both stress and the unhealthy eating habits that accompany some people’s stressful experience. In some ways, stress-related eating is mind-less-ness (Katterman, Kleinman, Hood, Nackers, & Corsica, 2014). Mindfulness-based strategies have been successfully incorporated into weight loss and weight management interventions (O’Reilly, Cook, Spruijt‐Metz, & Black, 2014). Over time, mindfulness will help you disconnect easier from the mindless eating that hurts your body.

Your BRAIN (Bucket #2): Nourish it
What do your eating habits have to do with your brain, or how you manage your stress levels as a teacher? What you eat affects your brain and stress levels (Marx, Moseley, Berk, & Jacka, 2017). There are many theories about why you may eat more when you are stressed.

One says, “Your body needs more nutrients to do triage and repair the damage (Ames, 2006). Another says, that you eat to lower your stress levels (Adam & Epel, 2007; Newman, O’Connor & Conner, 2007). That theory asserts people may eat more unhealthy foods (carbs and sugars) that produce the amino acid tryptophan which is synthesized to create serotonin, which can be calming.

To protect yourself from the potential stressors of teaching, fuel your body with the foods that will boost your energy, mood, and overall health. The general guideline is to consume more natural foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) and less high-sugar, high-carb processed foods such as candy, soda, chips, desserts, alcohol, white breads, potatoes, and rice, etc. (Beilharz, Maniam, & Morris, 2015). If it is in a bag or box, read the ingredients and eat them less often. I love chips and guacamole, but I have them no more than once a week.

Change what you eat and you change both your body and mind. To do this, simply pick one micro 60-second or less habit. For example, limit yourself to only one drink (soft drink, beer, or wine) a day. After a month, limit yourself to once a week. Or, you can limit yourself to one sweet item a day. Then after a month, limit yourself to just one a week. You can make the changes that will change your life. Start today.

Your BODY (Bucket #3): Move it Daily
If you leave school in a foul mood or frequently wonder if being a teacher is of any worth, try engaging in regular exercise for a couple of weeks and see if things change. Physical activity is linked to greater levels of happiness and self-worth (Reddon, Meyre, & Cairney, 2017). People self-report being in a better mood after engaging in moderate to vigorous physical activity (Wen et al., 2018).

Start a morning walk/jog program at your school to keep you motivated and accountable. Use it as an opportunity to start your day off right and build connections with students. Volunteer to be an assistant coach to one of the sports teams at your middle or high school and then join in the workouts.

Your HEART (Bucket #4): Fill it with Gratitude
The key to managing your stress levels is to fill your emotional reserves with enough positive deposits to handle the withdrawals that can accompany this challenging, yet meaningful, work.

Making gratitude a life habit is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. Gratitude is an orientation of noticing and appreciating the positive things in the world (Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010). Gratitude is connected to a wide array of benefits – improved relationships, physical health, self-esteem, high levels of work satisfaction, lower levels of stress and depression, and more (Rusk, Vella-Brodrick, & Waters, 2016).

Keep a paper in the same place on your desk to write just two phrases every day. As you enter your classroom every morning jot down a few words that express one thing you are looking forward to that day. As you leave each day, write one thing you are grateful for that happened that day. It’s a simple, yet powerful way to put a few drops back into your bucket as you begin and end each day.

Teaching can be invigorating, soul-filling, and a profession full of meaningful connections. It all comes down to the habits you form in caring for yourself. If you are serious about reducing your stress this school year, consider upgrading these four areas of your general wellbeing. Make a choice, right now, to make one small change to how you care for your mind, brain, body, or heart. You are worth it!

Book to Check Out: The Burnout Cure: Learning to Love Teaching Again (Chase Mielke). It is full of evidence-based, practical tools to help you stay at your best. As a bonus, you’ll find tons of resources and lessons to use with your students to help them thrive as well. Definitely worth a read!


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