Stress, Pressure and Self-care
I spent over a quarter of a century in teaching. (I think I have aged, just typing that sentence!) For the most part I found it enjoyable and rewarding but there were certainly times when I was very anxious and stressed. When I run workshops on stress and resilience, I often ask the audience to discuss amongst themselves….
1. If they can come up with a definition of stress.
2. Whether they think there is such a thing as good stress.
It is rare that a table of people come up with a definition of stress that they all agree on but around 75% of the audience will put their hand up to say that they do think that there is such a thing as good stress.
Why the uncertainty and confusion? Well, there is no one agreed definition of stress and as such even psychologists can’t agree on the good/bad stress issue, so what chance do the rest of us stand?!
Quite simply, stress means different things to different people. Whether there is such a good thing as good stress depends on how you define the word ‘stress’.
I think it is useful to make a distinction between Pressure and Stress and so I am drawn to the following definition:
Stress is an adverse physical or mental reaction (or sometimes both) to excessive pressure.
Now if we adopt that definition, then stress is clearly a bad thing. Pressure in reasonable quantities, though, is often good and can be highly motivating.
Think of it like the Rev meter on your car as per the picture above.
No revs, i.e. no pressure and you will get nowhere. Deadlines focus the mind wonderfully! Most of us at our most creative when we are at about a 4 which is optimum pressure! Beyond that we get tired, indecisive and anxious. Like revving your engine, that’s ok for short periods but not sustainable for a long career in teaching. It’s a rally not a drag race (sorry been watching old episodes of Top Gear!) so you have to give your brain the regular chance for the needle to flick back beyond 4.
Many teachers get into the habit of postponing their wellbeing to the next break e.g. ‘At half term I will go away to …’ This is great up to a point, but what actually happens to many people, is that they maintain a high level of threat/challenge awareness during term time, and then when they get to the start of a holiday their threat level drops rapidly but so does their immune system too, making them much more susceptible to all sorts of ailments.
Rather than draining the batteries down to the point of complete depletion and expecting them to re-charge in the holidays, the answer lies in re-charging your batteries during the week.
One of the main causes teacher burnout is constant overthinking, in other words the inability to switch off from the job, leaving you in a position of ‘never being on holiday inside your head.’ Classic signs of this include having to read the same page of a book several times, or watching the tv and realising at the end of a programme that you have taken nothing in.
It would be fair to say, that some of us find it easier to relax than others, but if you struggle with switching off, the next best thing is to find something that mentally occupies you other than work!
For me, this was my love of amateur dramatics. When I was rehearsing or performing a play, I was trying to ‘occupy a character’. This combined with the often-desperate attempt to remember my lines (many of which ended up written on pieces of masking tape around the set as prompts!) meant that I could not think about work. A headteacher friend of mine, used to find it easy to switch off when he was a Deputy. Just sitting down in front of the TV with a glass of wine would generally do the trick, but he has found it a bit harder since becoming a head. He is very smart (even appeared on Mastermind!) and self-aware and so has done something about it. Pre-Corona Virus lockdown, he took up an evening class in Italian. Once a week he would get down there and found out that when he was trying to think and speak in a foreign language, he couldn’t think about work! On other nights of the week, if he found himself drifting into ‘school mode’ when he didn’t want to, he would take himself off and practise Italian for ten minutes; just enough to break the pattern of thinking. A brilliant, proactive pattern of behaviour.
Teachers are really, really, busy people, often struggling to juggle the ever-increasing complexities of work and home life and I meet many, who feel that they are so busy that they do not have time for any outside interests. I understand this because I was one of those people for a time and I started to struggle. The secret of resilient teachers? They make the time.
I could (and often do!) offer all sorts of advice around sleep, diet, exercise and the use of technology that would contribute to your wellbeing as a head, but the biggest piece of advice I can offer is to re-charge those batteries regularly and before they are drained.
Stop a little later one day a week but on another, leave work earlier and do something for yourself; a small oasis in the middle of the week. Flip the needle on the Rev meter back regularly.
I am writing this in a time of huge uncertainty. Some teachers will be in school as key-workers, possibly on rotation. Others will rightly be at home, protecting the NHS and others will be self-isolating because they, or members of their family are exhibiting symptoms of Covid 19. Many people are experiencing stress and anxiety. It is natural to feel anxious, I know I am. Anxiety is the fear of unknown outcomes and things are far from certain at present. Many of our normal outlets for stress relief are off limits to us, making it difficult to relax and flip the needle on the Rev meter back. I could, if I let myself, watch hours of news updates a day but I recognise that this will fuel my anxiety, so I am trying to keep it down to one news bulletin a day. I am, I admit, struggling to relax and so I am mentally distracting myself. I am filling my brain with more positive things. There are no evening classes. I can’t go out and learn Italian (I was always dreadful at languages anyway!), so I am dusting off my old watercolours. I am not particularly good at painting but it does channel my creativity and, more, importantly, it keeps the old grey matter occupied productively.
So, when you are not busy occupying the kids, or ringing to check in on self-isolating relatives who are at risk, do something for you, sudoku, a crossword, jigsaw. Write a blog or read a book – anything that alleviates the stress of the current madness.
Remember, self-care is not selfish.
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