Managing Stress and Anxiety: Tools for Educators

Managing Stress and Anxiety: Tools for Educators
Managing Stress and Anxiety: Tools for Educators

School Health and Wellness//

October 23, 2022

Currently there is a lot of focus on ways to deal with mental health among students. Resources for students are more widely available. But what about educators—the people who are often the first line of defense against student mental health crises?

In the best of times, teaching is a tough profession. Before COVID, data showed:

  • 61% of teachers said their work was “often” or “always” stressful—TWICE the rate of other professions.
  • 58% of teachers have poor mental health because of their stress levels.
  • 1 in 20 teachers has experienced a mental health illness that lasted for at least a year.

But add in COVID and now:

  • 46% of teachers are “highly stressed” every day.
  • 30% of new teachers quit teaching within their first five years.
  • There’s been a 50% increase in tenured teachers leaving the profession.

Let’s look at the primary causes of anxiety among teachers, and tools for both prevention and intervention to avoid chronic anxiety and depression.

What Are the Stressors?

Responses in a recent ISM webinar matched results from numerous surveys in the teaching profession. Primary sources of stress among educators right now are:

  • Unkind and needy parents
  • Lack of administrative support
  • Lack of autonomy (historically a big draw for teachers to independent schools)
  • Politics and polarization
  • Changing and increasing job demands due to COVID
  • Student behavior (increasingly unruly or even violent)
  • Challenges of work-life balance

Understanding the sources and signs of anxiety will help you adopt prevention and intervention techniques, which aid in stopping the progression of “good stress” into “bad stress” and its evolution into anxiety and depression.

“Good Stress” vs. “Bad Stress” vs. “Anxiety”

Some stress is a good thing. Experts say that, in small doses, stress can actually have some positive effects. Moderate levels of daily, manageable stress—also known as eustress—may help protect against oxidative damage, which is linked to aging and disease. Similar to what you feel when you’re excited, good stress quickens your pulse and your hormones surge, but there is no threat or fear. Some examples of good stress are:

  • butterflies before a presentation
  • reasonable deadlines for a project completion
  • starting a new school year
  • responsibility for your team’s success

All these help focus your mind, budget your time, and build agency and self-esteem when the task has been successfully completed.

But too much stress, or “bad stress,” has adverse side effects, makes you grouchy or snippy toward others, and causes you to lose focus or give up. If not properly dealt with, “bad stress” can lead to complications such as:

  • anxiety and depression
  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease, heart attack, and stroke
  • sleep problems
  • weight gain
  • memory and concentration impairment

Reducing stress and understanding healthy coping strategies can interrupt these long-term adverse side effects.


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Challenge the Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts—if not managed—can lead to stress. Intrusive thoughts are often triggered by stress or anxiety.

Negative self-talk—inner dialogue that could be limiting your ability to believe in yourself and your abilities to reach your potential—can contribute to intrusive thoughts and lead to long-term stress. For example, your mind replays negative self-talk like, “I can't do anything right,” or “I'm a failure.” In most situations, you probably don't want to be occupied by these thoughts, so why does it keep happening? These are intrusive thoughts in action, and just about everyone has them from time to time.

You can challenge intrusive thoughts by practicing healthy coping techniques.

Refocus your thoughts.

Take a breath and write down the answers to these questions:

  1. What’s the likelihood my perceived threats will actually happen?
  2. Are there facts or evidence to support my fear?
  3. What would my best friend or colleague tell me to help me right now?
  4. If the worst case happens—the perceived threat becomes real—how would I handle the next step?
  5. What is a more helpful thought at this moment?

Use the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.

Force your mind to focus completely on something other than the anxious thought. Sit down and list:

  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can hear
  • 3 things you can touch
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste

Practice deep breathing.

Deep breathing empowers blood cells to receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide—the waste product that's carried back through your body and exhaled. Improper breathing can upset the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange and contribute to anxiety, panic attacks, fatigue, and other physical and emotional disturbances.

When you’re feeling anxious or stressed, practice deep breathing to relieve your symptoms.

  • Belly breathing: Relax your belly and breathe in slowly through your nose. The air should move into your nose and down to your belly. Exhale slowly through pursed lips. Repeat.
  • Box breathing: A technique that those with high-stress jobs (soldiers and police officers) often use when their bodies are in fight-or-flight mode. Practice box breathing by exhaling to a count of four, holding for a count of four, inhaling to a count of four, holding for a count of four, exhaling, and then repeating.
  • Mindful breathing: Focus on your breathing and bring your attention to the present without allowing your mind to drift off to the past or future. Choose a calming focus, positive word (or phrase), and repeat as you inhale and exhale.

T.H.I.N.K.

When faced with a self-defeating thought, such as “My students are out of control!” analyze it this way:

  • Is this thought TRUE? It may be, but keep going …
  • Is this thought HELPFUL?
  • Is this thought INSPIRING?
  • Is this thought NECESSARY?
  • Is this thought KIND?

Working through the T.H.I.N.K. progression gets you to the point where you then ask yourself, “What is a more helpful, inspiring, necessary, or kind thought?” Instead of “My students are out of control,” it may be, “My students are acting more unruly or less kind as a result of [a current problem]. I will walk them through a calming technique of their own.”

Break the Spiral

The key to all these interventions is breaking the spiral of stress-producing thoughts that leads to chronic anxiety and depression. And of course, if your anxiety deepens, seek help through your school counselor, your physician, or friends and family. You don’t have to do this alone.

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