Teacher’s Wellbeing – Understanding and managing stress
Understanding and managing stress
Stress is a powerful motivating force that is essential for healthy functioning. Problems really arise from the body and its crude mechanism for managing and understanding stress. You might remember plenty of times when you may have lost your temper or behaved somewhat erratically only to later realise that you were feeling stressed out; that is because stress is sneaky!
To manage these biological processes we often need to slow our bodies down and think strategically on how we use our resources to manage the challenges we face. In doing this, the first thing we need to consider is that not all stress can be managed alone. Sometimes things are just out of our control and it is important to think about what things we can control (e.g., how we approach a problem, making sure we have enough rest) and things we cannot control (e.g. organisational things which need to be communicated to others). If work is continually overburdening, then it will make little difference in the long run how we approach it and we need to look at this from an organisational level
Stress can also become somewhat addictive (e.g., rollercoasters, sky diving) and can also often come with rewards (e.g., feeling we have done a good job). What can at first glance appear as positive stress behaviours might become unhealthy if their continued cost to our wellbeing is not managed. These behaviours have been referred to as “badges of honour” and are typically things we do even though we know they are not good for us.
Have a think about what might be your badges of honour…
I was working ‘til 11 again last night
I worked 11 hours yesterday… without a break
I don’t even have time for a drink
Lunch? Oh good for you….
By paying attention to what we are saying to ourselves and what we are willing to putting our bodies through, we can start to see unhealthy patterns emerging; where unhelpful stress has begun locking in behaviours and sustaining itself (as mentioned before, stress is sneaky).
Ideally, we want to work within our window of tolerance which will be different for everyone. In this window, we are able to respond and react to stress and anxiety effectively (we have wiggle room). It is a comfort zone which allows us to self-soothe, self-regulate and be aware of our emotional state.
Try to think of a time when you were in a balanced, calm state of mind, when you felt relaxed and in control. Do you remember feeling calm, grounded, alert, safe and present? This is what it feels like when you are in this optimal zone.
When the balance is interfered with, either due to trauma or extreme stress, we end up leaving our window of tolerance. Our bodies typically react defensively to this and dysregulation occurs. When you start to deviate outside of your window of tolerance, you will start to feel agitated or anxious; you do not feel comfortable but you’re not out of control yet.
Past this point is where your body’s defence systems start to take over. You experience various symptoms such as anxiety and you are out of control. This is where our fight, flight, or freeze responses occur.
The prolonged result of this is a body that is out of balance and swinging from a state of hyperarousal (high energy) to a state of hypoarousal (low energy).
Hyperarousal is characterized by excessive activation or energy. You will usually experience a heightened sense of anxiety, which may make you more sensitive or overly responsive to things that occur in your daily life. Hyperarousal keeps your mind ‘stuck on’ and makes it difficult to eat/sleep/concentrate/manage emotions and in the extreme = rage and hostility.
Hypoarousal is the opposite. This experience of too little arousal is the result of freeze responses. Hypoarousal can also impact your sleep and eating habits, leaving you feeling emotionally flat. You will be unable to express yourself, process thoughts and emotions, and respond physically.
When experiencing the early stages of hyperarousal or hypoarousal you want to bring yourself back into the window of tolerance at this point. Beyond this point things get progressively difficult to control.
So what can we do to help us regulate ourselves more effectively?
There are some practical things we can do that work at a physical level within our bodies. If our body is experiencing hyperarousal we can try and counter this by providing our body opposite experiences to bring us back to a sense of equilibrium (and vice versa for hypoarousal).
Things that might decrease arousal
Dive reflex – get cold, ice pack, cold cans!
Diaphragmatic breathing (deep and slow tummy breathing)
Drink from a straw
Throw a ball at a wall
Jump on a trampoline
Shake or stomp out excess energy
Heavy work (lifting, pulling, push ups)
Music (soothing and calming)
Eat comforting food (hot chocolate, something chewy but smooth)
Repeatedly stab an orange
Throw an apple or pair of socks at the wall
Scream very loudly
Tear up magazines
Fill a rubber glove with ice
Flatten aluminium cans for recycling
Fill a piece of paper by drawing cross hatches
Things that might increase arousal
Anything that stimulates the senses
Smelling oils or smelling salts (smell is a quick way to the thinking brain…where strategies are!)
Chewy, crunchy food
Sensory shakers for tactile input
Jump on a trampoline
Rocking (e.g. rocking chair or swiss ball)
Water play with a straw (blowing through the straw)
Dancing and music
Take a hot shower or bath
Wax your legs
Clap your hands until they sting
You may notice how many of these things are sensory; how we sense things and how “sensitive” we are is governed by how stressed we are feeling.
Alongside these physical techniques we can also use some cognitive techniques to think aboutthinking. This might sound obvious but as mentioned before stress is sneaky, it can embed itself in our bodies before we are even consciously aware. Thinking about thinking works by recognising what are the unhelpful thinking styles that often accompany dysregulation. When we recognise these styles we can then remind ourselves how irrational they are.
You’ll be amazed how often we slip into these thinking patterns. See if you recognise any from the list below:
By practicing both physical and cognitive stress management techniques we can build resilience to stress and increase our window of tolerance giving us more wiggle room and control over future stressful situations.
Whilst stress is unavoidable and sometimes out of our control there are nearly always things we can do to mitigate its impact. Being proactive in our own stress management is an important skill to master and key to supporting ourselves and others. Learning about what stress really is and pinning it down also equips us to relate and empathise with others that might be experiencing dysregulation.
As we mentioned at the start of this section, sometimes things are not operating on an individual level and we need look towards the environment around us. Looking at wellbeing at the organisational level is covered in the next section on whole school support.