12 Ways to Beat New-School-Year Stress
Tips for staying calm and taking pleasure in your work as the school year ramps up
Fill in the blank: The new school year has started and I feel ___________________.
If you wrote "excited," "happy," or "inspired," congratulations—you're off to a fantastic start! If you wrote "stressed," "anxious," or "a migraine coming on," you are not alone. As wonderful as teaching can be, it can also be stressful and demanding, requiring you to put in long hours, sometimes without the resources or assistance you need. But don't worry—if you're feeling the pressure, there are plenty of things you can do about it.
Exercise, socializing, and sleep are three great things that help people manage stress. Unfortunately, they are usually the first three things to go when people get stressed out. "We eliminate our stress relievers and then we get doubly hit," says Steven M. Sultanoff, an adjunct professor in psychology at Pepperdine University in Long Beach, California. The lesson? When you feel stress closing in on you, it is essential to take time for yourself, whether you go to a 60-minute yoga class after work or take one minute between classes to do some deep breathing. Yes, even one minute makes a difference when you need to de-stress!
Don't know where to start? We've got some stress busters here that will help you get a handle on your feelings so that you can meet the needs of your students, your principal, and your family—and meet your own needs, too—without losing your mind.
"Humor is an easy stress reducer that you can call on anywhere, at any time," says Sultanoff. When you laugh, your muscles relax and the stress hormones in your body go down. Anxiety, anger, and depression are wiped out because they can't occupy the same space in your brain as mirth, says Sultanoff. "Humor changes the way we look at the world and gives perspective," he says. So surround yourself with things—and people—that make you laugh, and keep a stash of amusing toys and trinkets in your desk. You'll be surprised how effective windup toys and clown noses can be.
2: Sidestep stress.
Monitor how stressed out you are feeling and when you are feeling it. If you are short-tempered and easily frustrated before lunch, don't plan demanding activities in your classroom at that time. Instead, have kids do something on their own, like individual reading. "Take a time out," says Jerry Deffenbacher, a psychology professor at Colorado State University. "You can lower your stress by postponing dealing with its source until you have better resources to cope." This is also good advice if you're upset with a colleague or parent and are having trouble being rational about it. Put off the encounter until you have thought about the situation without letting your emotions get the best of you.
3 : Keep perspective.
Change the way you react to stress and defuse the situation. "People who are highly stressed often think in ways that make things worse," Deffenbacher says. "If you have a negative situation, label it for what is—disappointing, annoying, a hassle. Don't label it in dire ways, like saying, 'That's horrible,' 'I can't stand it,' or 'This always happens.' When you do that, you end up reacting with more intensity." Stay in the situation, work through your reaction, and don't lose perspective.
4: Ask for help.
If you're in a stressful situation, consider the problem. "Think about what you need in order to solve the problem with less stress," says Deffenbacher. Ask yourself, "How can I handle this? Can I get help?" For instance, if you have a new computer system that you can't figure out, find out how to get technical assistance or training. If you have a difficult student, seek out other teachers for ideas about classroom-management strategies and create a network of resources. Sometimes another person will have just the solution you are looking for, and your stress will begin to melt away.
5: Take a deep breath.
In the midst of a busy day, take a few minutes—even five—to find a quiet place to be alone. Focus on your breathing, slowing down your inhaling and exhaling to just six times a minute. "You'll come out feeling more refreshed and balanced," says Brent Bauer, M.D., director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic. You can also practice what's called "transition breathing" as you go from one activity to the next, suggests Penny Donnenfeld, a clinical psychologist in New York City. Take three breaths to focus attention away from your stress, repeating a word or phrase ("inhale and exhale," "stretch and release") in your mind as you breathe. Over time, this type of meditation can help slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure.
6: Go on a virtual vacation.
If you're sitting in the teacher's lounge eating lunch and thinking about how relaxed you were on vacation this summer, go there mentally. Take a few minutes, sit in a chair, close your eyes, and slow down your breathing. Think of your favorite vacation spot, a place where you feel relaxed and happy, and recreate the experience of being there. Remember the sights, sounds, and smells until you feel you are there. Research shows that as you imagine the scene, your brain reacts as if you are actually experiencing it.
7: Make smart food choices.
The foods you choose affect your mood, and your mood affects the foods you select, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. If you choose a sugary beverage or candy, your blood sugar rises and you may feel good initially. But then you crash and feel irritable and tired. "The best kinds of foods combine protein and carbohydrates at the same time," she says. "Then you have a smooth blood-sugar level and you're not on a roller coaster." Bring your own portable, healthy snacks—like lowfat cheese and crackers, or peanut butter on whole grain bread—so you aren't tempted by goodies in the teacher's lounge or cafeteria.
8: Drink H20.
When you are dehydrated, you may feel tired and weak without realizing why, says Taub-Dix. Pay attention to how much you drink throughout the day to fend off exhaustion and stress. Although 64 ounces of fluids a day is a good rule of thumb, it varies by size and activity level. If you are running around with kids all day, you may need more. Keep a bottle of water on your desk and drink up—and then refill and repeat.
9: Kick-start your day with a workout.
"When you begin your day with exercise, you are starting your day with stress relief," says Sabrena Merrill, a spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise. "It sets the tone for a day." And exercise beats stress by releasing endorphins—the body's pain reliever and feel-good chemical. Working out can also take your mind off your worries for a period of time by distracting you.
10: Move—all day long.
Even short bursts of activity can help you feel better. Every hour, get up and move around to reduce the stress on your lower back. "Walking the perimeter of your classroom will get your blood flowing and put nutrients and oxygen into the spinal system," says Merrill. It doesn't have to be intense exercise to pay off—even 10-minute walks can help with stress relief, says Merrill.
11: Squeeze out the stress.
Grab a ball to squeeze when you feel stressed, suggests Donnenfeld. Take a body scan in your mind to figure out where you feel tense. If you feel tight in your neck, for instance, squeeze the ball and imagine sending all the tension from your neck to your hand, and then release. You'll find your muscles release, too.
12: Rethink your perfectionism.
"If you set yourself up by thinking, 'It's no good if it's not perfect,' you are bound to have disappointments and frustration," says Donnenfeld. This is particularly true in a classroom, where there is only so much you can control. If things aren't going smoothly, remind yourself that you won't be stuck in that moment forever. Work through the issue to move on. Each day and each moment will be different, she says. "Choose to take care of yourself."