Stress: Coping Techniques and How to Use Them
Originally published in March 2017
By Martha Beach
Mid-word, mid-lesson, you notice Richard is on his phone looking up memes and Matt’s eyes are drooping. The students aren’t learning. You also have report card comments to begin writing, on top of the staff meeting after school. Oh, and you’ve just remembered you need to photocopy today’s homework pages. You stammer, your brain moving faster than your mouth. Your heart starts to race, your breathing quickens, and your stomach turns over. The worst part is you’ve felt like this at some point every day for the past three weeks. You’re stressed. The good news is you can learn to recognize your stress response and how to reduce it so you can actually solve the problem at hand.
Recognize and Respond
Stress can be useful: it fires up our brains and bodies. Physiological changes take place (booming heart, quickened breathing, stomach butterflies) as our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) kicks in. Simultaneously, the parasympathetic system (rest and relax) gears up to help calm us down. “When you solve the problem, the stress response goes away,” says Stanley Kutcher, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Sometimes we are so overrun by physiological and emotional symptoms that we can’t focus on the problem. Often, “stress response can be dampened by our own cognitive ability. We can calm ourselves down,” says Kutcher. Ask yourself, ‘Why do I feel like this? What is causing it? Is it good or bad?’ “You don’t have to focus on a leaf going down a river, you can just focus on your thoughts and what you’re going to do. You don’t need a manual or an app,” Kutcher advises.
Another option for decreasing stress response is by controlling breath. “When you control your breathing, you control the diaphragmatic muscle, and when you slow down the diaphragm, it has a huge effect on the [parasympathetic] system through the vagus nerve,” Kutcher explains. The vagus nerve “sends a signal that tells your brain to calm down, which in turn tells our body to relax.”
Doug Friesen, a music educator and current teacher at the Ontario Institute for Educational Studies (OISE), uses breath as a main tool to calm himself down. “Take that split second to breathe. Remember you’re a person, they’re a person, and everything is just a conversation. That helps me to focus less on the product and more on the moment,” he says. Pause. Take a deep inhale, a controlled exhale. “Sometimes I will go so far as to push my feet down into the ground to have something to focus on.”
Plan and Prep
Stress is something Jocelyn Hay, a Toronto-based French immersion Kindergarten teacher, is very familiar with. “Kindergarteners need a lot of your attention and you are required to move a lot to engage all students,” she says. Hay often feels run down, especially near the beginning of the year. A large source of stress stems from increased expectations with limited time. “So many things get piled on, which causes me to forget more, which adds to the stress which then distracts me more… it creates a rather awful negative loop,” Hay laments.
Hay has developed some strategies: she creates multiple lists in her journal to remind herself of important tasks and she uses an agenda to keep track of events.
Marjorie Navas-Garcia, a teacher in Toronto, tries to plan lessons and activities for the whole week, instead of the night before, to stay organized and be prepared. Hay gets creative with her prep: “I surf Pinterest a lot. There are a lot of fun ideas on there and it helps me plan some crafts or learning centres.” She also takes breaks throughout the day. “It really helps me refocus,” she says.
Even in the middle of a lesson, it’s okay to take a collective break. Navas-Garcia will often read out loud. “It tends to calm everybody down and it gives me a chance to catch my breath.” Taking that moment is very important. “Acknowledge that people aren’t focused and change the approach,” advises Friesen. If no one is listening because no one is focusing, then no one is learning. “For learning to occur, there has to be interruptions. Make an intentional interruption of the pattern that isn’t working.” Friesen, a musician at heart, will often do body percussion exercises: “Quick stuff, like clapping call-and-response, thigh percussion, stomping. It helps re-focus the kids, or even just me.”
Low-stress Environments Are Not Always Beneficial
No stress is good stress, right? Some think otherwise. “People now equate normal stress with toxic stress,” Kutcher argues. The stress industry has created a fear of stress, he says. “Yes, toxic stress does happen to some of us some of the time, but not most of us most of the time.” When humans are functioning with either very low or very high levels of stress, we perform poorly. Physiological aspects of a stress response (elevated heart rate, quickened breathing) send oxygen to our brain and pumps blood into our muscles. In a low-stress environment, our brain and bodies are not sufficiently stimulated to get the job done. In a very high stress environment, they are overloaded. When we function with a moderate amount of stress, however, we perform very well. We have just enough stimulation to get us thinking and moving and are able to cognitively assess the situation to calm ourselves down in order to solve the problem. “Everybody needs optimized amounts of stress to perform optimally,” Kutcher says. So procrastinators rejoice: “People who procrastinate have simply learned they perform better under stress.”
In today’s mindful day and age, schools strive to create low-stress environments. “It’s complete nonsense because low stress causes low performance,” says Kutcher. Kids begin to continually perform poorly. The cycle starts with teaching kids that stress is the enemy, and the stress industry meets that with modulation and avoidance, Kutcher says, but it does not teach us to solve the problem that is causing stress. As an educator, model ways to cognitively appraise the stress response. Teach problem-solving skills. Encourage students to reach out and ask for assistance.
Reach Out to Others
While some individual modulation is good (like meditation or mindfulness), too much can keep us separated. The emotional aspect of a stress response motivates us to solve the problem. Plus, during the parasympathetic response, our brain releases oxytocin which motivates us to seek assistance. “The whole purpose is to reach out to others to help you solve your problem,” Kutcher says. Talk to other teachers, colleagues and friends. Hay even reaches out to an electronic network: “I’m part of a Facebook group for kindergarten teachers. There are helpful suggestions and it’s comforting to know that there are other teachers out there that may be having the same difficulties as me,” she says. Kutcher is a strong proponent of networking: “Teachers become better teachers and learners when they reach out. They get cognitively better and they create connection,” he says. “Learn who are the people you can reach out to socially and professionally. And then do reach out to them: it’s stress mitigating, it’s a good model for kids, and it is good for your network.”
Remember to Take Care of Yourself
Building and reaching out to your professional and social network is just the start. “There’s lots you can do in terms of self-care,” Friesen reminds us. Some of it is pretty basic: eat well, sleep lots, exercise. But there’s more: “Sometimes teachers’ lives become just the kids,” Friesen points out. “Stay social, keep your own passions and interests.” Navas-Garcia strives for work-social balance. “I do zumba on the weekends with my mom, see my friends as much as possible, and I go out for dinner even on weekdays even when I have to work the next day,” she says. This is something Hay also strives for: “I try to constantly remind myself to enjoy the time to myself outside school,” she says. “It’s really easy to constantly think about school and what you’re going to do that day, week, and month. But sometimes you really need some separate time for yourself.”
Connect with Your Students Through Laughter
Take time to relax and recharge. Come in to class with a good attitude. “Kids are just people with lots of awesome knowledge about stuff,” reminds Friesen. And don’t sweat it if you do experience stress. Take a pause. Use your breath. Use your rational thinking. Or, just laugh. “You can’t be stressed when you are laughing,” Kutcher says. “It always takes away anxiousness and nervousness.” Friesen agrees: “Do something to take a break, even if it’s goofy, get to know the kids, don’t be afraid to have fun and make them laugh. Kids want to connect. Get to know your kids.” Over time, learn to recognize and cognitively assess your own stress response. Take a bit of direct control. Find out how to ease the response needed to confront and solve whatever the problem might be. Be a good stress model for your students. Seek connection and encourage them to do the same. If all else fails: laugh.