A Teacher’s Way Out
By Jen Butler, MEd, BCC, DAIS
*This is an article from the Fall 2021 issue of Contentment Magazine.
Teachers are looking for a way out; out of debt, out of the hole they feel, and out of their profession altogether.
According to one survey, three in four teachers reported frequent job-related stress, compared to 40% of other working adults and 27% of teachers described symptoms of depression versus 10% of the general, adult population. Most concerning, one in four teachers said they were “likely” to leave their jobs at the end of the 20-21 school year where, on average, only 1:6 were wanting to leave prior to the pandemic.1
Some of the top stress triggers impacting the mental wellbeing of educators are:2
1. Imbalance of home and work demands — 85% claim3
2. Lack of administrative support
3. Difficulty of maintaining contact with students and their families
4. Supporting students’ social-emotional health
5. Keeping students engaged during virtual and hybrid educational settings
6. Addition of technology without adequate training
These triggers created the top five emotions claimed by teachers: frustration, overwhelm, stress, exhaustion, and last, happiness.
All teachers deserve more of the latter than the former. To help them achieve that we’re going to focus on ways to reduce stress in any moment, anytime, anywhere.
The number one, stress-reducing technique EVER! Most of the time you’re breathing wrong. Yup, there actually is a right and wrong way to breathe. Under stress, our brain increases our heart rate which causes us to breath faster and more shallowly. This then reduces the amount of oxygen getting to our brain for critical thinking and increases the volume of carbon dioxide in our lungs. It becomes a cycle of stress evoking systemic failure throughout your mind (cognitive), body, and soul (affective).
When feeling the signs and consequences of stress do what I call the 5-10-10 rule immediately:
1. Take a deep inhalation through the nose for a count of 5 letting your core (belly) extend out as far as it will go.
2. Exhale slowly for a count of 10 through your mouth moving your belly all the way inward toward your spine.
3. After each exhale think a positive statement to yourself such as, “This is only a moment,” or “Yes I can/I will.”
4. Repeat the above 10 times.
Stress directly impacts our ability to ward off diseases. Our immune system takes a serious beating when cortisol flows throughout our bloodstream. Ensuring you have a well-balanced diet is vital to keeping your immune system at peak performance.
To boost in the moment coping: eat a piece of fruit, veggies, or healthy fat snack (avocado), hummus, or dark chocolate.
There’s a level of expectation and desire for life to be fun and exciting, so it’s easy to become frustrated with work and relationships when they turn into the dreads and doldrums.
Here are some ideas for lightening the mood: 1) get a ‘joke of the day’ app on your phone; 2) look for the funny in things — when you intentionally look for humorous situations they start appearing everywhere; 3) have theme days in your classroom to liven up the environment; 4) have your students do their hard work, but also ask them to bring in funny jokes and stories to share each day.
Act as if…
Stress at its basic core is based on our worldview. When we have a different worldview, we think/feel/act differently so our stress is different. In any moment choose to “Act as if…” This can be acting as if you are happy, which then reinforces your thoughts of happiness, and create feelings of happiness. You can do the same for your job — act as if you love your job and you will find a new passion within.
To begin the process of Act as if…ask yourself this simple question, “If I were to act as if I’m X (happy, in love, patient, smart, good enough), how would I be acting right now?” Then proceed to act as such.
Talking with a friend and sharing your stress, connecting, gaining validation, and getting a different perspective of your situation helps you purge some of your tension. According to a 2011 study conducted by Johns Hopkins University, researchers monitored a group of children and found that those participants who were with their best friends during unpleasant experiences logged lower cortisol levels than the rest of the participants in the study.4 This is one of hundreds of supporting studies that shows people have lower stress levels when they regularly socialize with people they enjoy. They also navigate stress triggers more easily in the presence of their supporting peers.
Here’s what to do now: 1) when stressed bring someone else into the situation and ask for help, they might handle it better; 2) reach out to a friend or loved one via text.
To analyze and learn more about your stress type, response, and how effective a coping method is, experts suggest using a stress journal or diary to collect data and face facts.
Journaling is one way to circumvent the Theory of Self-Deception5 and get into our own minds. To use this technique in any moment, carry a small notebook in your pocket throughout your day and jot down your thoughts and feelings. Then review it before you leave for home each night.
The link between water and increased stress levels is well documented.6 All of our organs, including our brains, need water to function properly. If you’re dehydrated, your body is already under physiological stress and you’re pushing its limits forcing it to manage external stressors throughout your day. Just being a half-liter dehydrated can increase your cortisol levels and result in physiological stress. To the body, stress is stress, and it responds the same way regardless of the stress trigger.
To increase your water intake, carry a water bottle with you everywhere and sip consistently. Don’t let others make you believe drinking water is “unprofessional.”
When it comes to exercise and stress coping, duration of the movement that has more effect on your stress levels than intensity. A fierce game of table tennis or bowling can be equally advantageous as CrossFit and P90X.
Try the following to stress less now: 1) march in place for 30 seconds; 2) bring light weights/bands to school and do arm strengthening exercises. How else can you work in more movement for you and the students?
Centering is a method of coping that allows you to channel nervous / anxious / fearful energy and release it in a way that triggers your relaxation response. Because of its use of physical, mental, emotional, and existential approaches, centering increases concentration, focus, and critical thinking. Additionally, blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels decrease making it a powerful tool in coping with stress.
Focusing on your center grounds you in the present and reminds you of balance, control, and intention. There are three basic steps to follow to become centered:
1. Become aware of your breathing, making sure it is deep, slow, and filling your abdomen.
2. Find your physical center of gravity, which is typically just below your waist, and focus your mind on it while you breathe deeply at least five times.
3. Release your negative energy by visualizing yourself pushing the negative energy outward away from your body.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) has been around since the 1920’s and promoted as one of the leading techniques to reduce anxiety, stress, and tension. Over the decades multidisciplinary studies show PMR has biological, physiological, and psychological impacts on how our bodies respond to stress triggers.
The premise behind PMR is that you hold each muscle group in a state of extreme tension for several seconds, and then release into a deep, relaxed phase. The process of this helps interrupt your body’s fight-flight-freeze response when you are experiencing stress. This simple exercise can be done in any position — standing at the front of the class, sitting in a car, laying down on the couch — anywhere and at any time. There are plenty of relaxation apps that will guide you through this easy tool.
Stress is pervasive in education, proven by both studies and testimonials from educators across the country. The triggers bombard teachers from areas they expect, such as students’ needs or parental concerns, but also from unpredictable stressors in which they have no training or skills to manage. The pressure mounts and negative emotions rise. Stress quickly builds and teachers continue to look for a way out.
The good news is that the more you learn about stress and your particular response to it, the more opportunity you will have to make a real difference in your experience of it. You can experiment with the wide variety of tools proven to build stress resilience, finding what works best for you. And…you can mentor and help teach the next generation that they, too, have choices that will reduce their stress in the moment and for the future.
1. Steiner, Elizabeth D. and Ashley Woo, Job-Related Stress Threatens the Teacher Supply: Key Findings from the 2021 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2021. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1108-1.html.
2. Brackett, Marc and Cipriano, Christina, Teachers are Anxious and Overwhelmed. Education in the Face of Unprecedented Challenges. Edsurge, April 2021.
3. Moeller, J., Ivcevic, Z., White, A.E., Menges, J.I. and Brackett, M.A. (2018), “Highly engaged but burned out: intra-individual profiles in the US workforce”, Career Development International, Vol. 23 No. 1, pp. 86-105. https://doi.org/10.1108/CDI-12-2016-0215
4. Adams, R., Santo, J., and Bukowski, W. (2011) “The presence of a best friend buffers the effects of negative experiences”. Dev Psychol, Nov;47(6):1786-91. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025401 5. https://www.mercatus.org/system/files/The_Elements_of_a_Scientific_Theory_of_Self-Deception.pdf 6. https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/water-stress-reduction#1