If you’re feeling overwhelmed and isolated, you can help yourself think more clearly by reframing how you think about mental stress

4 positive psychology tactics to help your brain manage stress

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and isolated, you can help yourself think more clearly by reframing how you think about mental stress

If you’re feeling overwhelmed today, you’re not alone. Teachers across America are struggling with unprecedented levels of mental stress. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence conducted a national survey of more than 5,000 U.S. teachers.

When asked to describe their mental health and stress levels, the five most common terms that educators used were “sad,” “overwhelmed,” “anxious,” “fearful,” and “worried.” Thankfully, positive psychology can help you to build your resilience to stress, prevent burnout, improve your overall well-being, and lead to better outcomes in your classroom.

Common sources of mental stress

Pennsylvania State University recently investigated the most widespread triggers of mental stress for teachers. The study found that job demands and access to work resources were the most common causes of stress among educators. This was often due to new policies or new classroom strategies being implemented without teachers’ being given structured training and support.

Other sources of stress, according to Pennsylvania State University, include school culture (including school leadership, or lack thereof) and high job demands.

How stress messes with your brain

When you’re faced with a stressful situation (such as ambiguous pandemic policies, unreasonable work demands, or new curriculum requirements without adequate resourcing or training support), your body’s stress response kicks in. Stress hormones course through your body, quickening your heart rate and raising your blood pressure. Your breathing speeds up, flooding your system with oxygen. Your skin gets flushed and heats up, and you may even break into a sweat.

This is part of your body’s automatic fight-or-flight response, and it’s how humans evolved to avoid danger.  There’s just one catch: Your brain doesn’t differentiate between a real, physical danger, and the “danger” of workplace stress, lack of classroom training, or unrealistic project deadlines. Your stress response reacts equally to everything.

And frankly, it’s debilitating. It affects your ability to teach your students well. It sabotages your sleep and your health. It impacts your general quality of life and your happiness. This is why your brain health is so crucial.

Reframe the situation to change your perception

Studies show that how you talk about your stress, and the way that you view a stressful situation, has direct implications on how your body and brain respond to stress. 

For example, Dr. Kelly McGonigal recently did a TED Talk where she shared some fascinating research. Dr. McGonigal found that people who said they had a high level of stress, and also believed that this stress was negatively impacting their lives, had worse health outcomes compared to those who also said they were under a lot of stress but did not hold such negative views of the impacts of their stress.

In other words, the two groups’ self-reported stress levels were the same, but how they perceived their stressful stress changed how it affected them. 

Your beliefs about your challenges in the school workplace matter. A more positive perception can help to both prevent that autonomic stress response, and to restore your body and brain to a state of calm and balance should your fight-or-flight response get fired up.

Try these four positive psychology tactics:

  1. Avoid catastrophic thinking. If something challenging or difficult comes up in the classroom, don’t immediately jump to the worst-case scenario.
  2. Monitor your self-talk. Don’t let your inner voice tear yourself up or tear yourself down. If you catch yourself thinking negative thoughts, shift them with positive self-talk. Try talking to yourself the way you would talk to a best friend or a trusted colleague.
  3. Look for the positive. Even in the midst of a challenge, focus on one good thing that could come from it. Reorient your perspective to seek the good, even in the stressful moments.
  4. Challenge your beliefs. Often, we get caught up in the spiral of stressful, negative thinking, and these thoughts aren’t rooted in reality. When you observe negative thoughts that are feeding your mental stress response, challenge them. Ask, “Is this true? What are the facts?” By sticking with the facts, you can keep yourself from dwelling on all the ways that things could go wrong, and instead focus on the concrete things you can do today.

Ask for—and accept—support

As an educator, it’s easy to feel isolated, especially as so many schools have transitioned to virtual learning. However, feeling supported and well-connected can help you to stay positive and grounded, and a sense of social connection and social support is a core aspect of maintaining resilience to stress.

You’re not on this journey alone. Speak up and ask for support and be willing to accept that help when it’s offered. 

For example, reach out to a close coworker to share how you’re feeling. Getting an outsider’s view on a stressful situation can help you to maintain a balanced perspective of whatever challenges you’re struggling with.

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