We hear a lot about stress in the media. Stress levels in the teaching profession are rising, we are told. Stress in children, even very young children is on the rise. As a nation, even as a world, we are more stressed than we have ever been.
But what is stress?
I was talking to a Head the other day who wanted me to come in and work in her school in September and she was saying that she had been on a course and had realised that she had some early symptoms and wanted to make sure she caught it early and that was why she had contacted me. She didn’t realise though until she was away from her routine and someone pointed out the signs to her.
When I was an NQT I was teaching in a very difficult school in inner city Bradford and my first class were a handful. I won’t go into the details but the short version is that I woke up one morning just before Christmas and I literally couldn’t get out of bed. I just lay in bed sobbing like a baby. Nothing and no one could have got me into school that day. I hadn’t spotted the signs.
For weeks, maybe months, I had had the warning signs but I was determined that I could cope, I had wanted to do this job all my life, I was not going to be beaten by it in less than a term.
So what are the warning signs?
- Are you having difficulty sleeping – Do you fall asleep quickly through sheer exhaustion but wake in the early hours making lists or planning what you need to do the next day? If you are doing it regularly it could be a sign of stress.
- Do you feel like hiding or running away? – This is the bodies most basic defense mechanism kicking in. When we feel threatened our initial response is fight or flight. If you are avoiding people (especially colleagues) and keeping yourself to yourself there may be a bigger reason.
- Is your temper unusually short? – When we are stressed we snap at people, particularly our loved ones (we know that they will still love us). If you are struggling to stay calm with your kids or loved ones it could be an early warning.
- Do you always look for the worst case scenario? – If you are convinced something bad is going to happen with no rational reason to believe it to be so, it could be stress.
- Are you over eating or drinking too much alcohol? – Both these can be symptoms of stress. Comfort eating and self medicating to numb the pain are both very common, particularly in teachers unfortunately. If you can’t imagine a Friday night without a bottle of wine stop and think.
There are many more symptoms but these are the most common.
So what can you do if you are looking down that list nodding your head and mentally ticking them off?
Well the first thing is to congratulate yourself because you are in the fortunate position of discovering that you are stressed before it was too late. Now that you have acknowledged the problem you can do something about it.
Next, take a moment to stop and analyse what it is that is making you feel this way. Is it the workload, pressure from SMT, juggling work and family, is it an issue in your private life which is compounding your already difficult job?
Once you have discovered the root of the stress then you can make a plan to reduce it.
Note I don’t say eliminate it.
One step at a time.
This isn’t a throw away “oh just calm down and stop being so dramatic” type comment. It is real science and the most important thing you can do. Make a conscious effort to breathe properly. When our body is stressed one of the first physical changes we experience is shallow breathing. Our body sends cortisol round our bodies to give strength to our heart and muscles. This allows us to be our strongest for our evolutionary fight or flight response. That is of no use whatsoever if what you are scared of is the pile of marking in the corner or the observation you have tomorrow. Learning to breathe deeply and efficiently reverses the chemical reactions in your body and instantly calms you down. It is instant and the single most important thing you can learn in life (in my opinion!).
Below is a video I made a few years ago for an online parenting class I was running. It goes through some very simple breathing techniques which might just make all the difference.
Ask for help?
Spread your work load. You are finding it stressful getting work finished in time to collect the children. Ask a family member or friend to grab the kids for you. You don’t have to do everything yourself.
If you have reports to write and books to mark and you still haven’t cooked tea and Susie needs to be at ballet in 10 mins. Stop. What is most important? Can you ask your other half to make beans on toast/grab a take away for the kids and take Susie to ballet this week so you can get your reports written?
Don’t be afraid to put yourself first
When we board an aeroplane we are given strict instructions that in the event of an emergency we must fit our own oxygen mask first and then tend to anyone in our care. The reason is simple: if you pass out while fitting your child’s mask who is going to look after them for the rest of the emergency and possibly the rest of their life.
The same is true now. If you are suffering from stress you must prioritise your own wellbeing. As a teacher this is a totally alien concept. We are all instilled with an instinct to protect everyone else and take on as much work and hassle as is humanly possible.
What is worse though, asking your Head for a little understanding and asking permission to be a little slack marking your books for a few week or having to take those few weeks off due to stress? I know what your Head would prefer. So your displays don’t get changed this half term? No one will mind if you are managing to do the important things.
Ultimately though if what you need is time to get your head together, get yourself to your GP. Get signed off and give yourself time to recover. You are too important to put at risk of long term health issue (physical or mental). I know from experience that doctors are incredibly sympathetic towards stressed teachers. I even know of people who have been pressured by their GP to take time off.
It is not failure.
It is not defeat.
It is self preservation.
Ok, I know this may not be the sort of post I usually write but at this time of year it seems appropriate. We are about to have a few weeks holiday. I know none of you actually get the 6 weeks that the general public seem to think you do, but all being well you will get a couple of work free weeks. Make sure you enjoy every second. Make plans with friends and family. Take time for yourself.
Take a look at my post: How to switch off during the holidays for some ideas about how you can relax and what you can do to disengage your brain and really relax this summer.
Remember if you need someone to talk to or you would like some advice on mental health issues for your staff, I am here. I am also available for INSET and staff training sessions in relaxation and mindfulness practices both for your staff and your children and I can tailor the sessions to your schools needs.
If you are looking for resources to help your school stay mentally healthy check out my lesson plans and children’s meditations in my new shop.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.