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To put it mildly, teachers have done the impossible in the past couple years—and they need resources and strategies to cope with high stress levels

10 SEL activities teachers can use to manage stress levels

To put it mildly, teachers have done the impossible in the past couple years—and they need resources and strategies to cope with high stress levels

Educators, last year was tough. You are truly rock stars for getting your students (and yourselves) through a difficult year. This year will likely bring about new challenges and obstacles, and we know at times you will feel stressed.

When not addressed, stress can lead to harmful health concerns like anxiety and depression, reduced attention, impaired self-regulation, and decreased learning readiness. It can also lead to negative well-being factors, such as sleep and eating disorders. Extended exposure to toxic stress also can have lasting mental and physical health effects.

Be proactive about keeping your stress levels in check with these 10 de-stressing activities.

1. Identify your stress triggers.

Make a list of all the stressors in your life, noting those you have control over and those you do not. Are your biggest stressors long hours, watching too much news media, or frustrations around school policies? Begin tackling the list by choosing one or two items you have some control over that cause you the most stress. Make a plan to manage the stressor(s), write down a goal, and create accountable measures to help you follow through.

Why it works: Knowing your stress triggers and having a plan to cope is an important step in managing your stress. When you are faced with a trigger, you will be much better equipped to deal with the stress before it becomes overwhelming.

2. Do deep breathing exercises.

Try the equal breaths exercise. Breathe in for a count of four, hold it for a count of four, and breathe out for a count of four. Continue this for a few rounds, and then try adding an extra count (in for a count of five, hold for a count of five, and out for a count of five). You can continue this exercise until you feel your stress levels decreasing and your heart rate slowing.

Why it works: Clinical research shows that regular deep breathing exercises can have immediate results. Deep breathing reduces the production of harmful stress hormones and helps your body relax. This can be useful when you experience a stressful moment during your day. It also has long-term benefits for your heart, brain, digestion, and immune system.

3. Get enough sleep.

Do your best to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Set an alarm for bedtime and stick to it. Most smartphones have a feature that reduces blue light in the evenings — try putting your phone on this setting after 10 p.m. to help your eyes relax. Maximize the sleep you do get by “unplugging” (i.e. turning off the computer, phone, TV, etc.) at least an hour before bed.

Why it works: The link between stress and sleep is complex. Stress can lead to sleep loss, and not getting enough sleep can cause stress. Stress can reduce the quality of sleep, and chronic stress can increase insomnia, occurrence of nightmares, and teeth grinding. Getting enough sleep is critical to your health and to reducing stress.  

4. Watch what you eat and drink plenty of water.

Eat nutritious foods and cut down on processed, fried, and sugary foods that can deplete your energy. Also be sure to drink plenty of water. An estimated 75 percent of people in the U.S. are chronically dehydrated. A good rule of thumb is to drink half of your weight in ounces each day (for example, a person who weighs 150 pounds would drink 75 ounces of water per day). You may need more or less depending on the climate you live in, your body type, or how much you exercise.

Why it works: A balanced diet does wonders for your health and state of mind. When you eat healthy foods like avocados, eggs, lean meats, nuts, and blueberries, and drink enough water, your brain functions better, your moods are more regulated, you are able to get restful sleep, and you can maintain sufficient energy levels.

At the same time, processed, fried, and sugary foods cause blood sugar levels to spike and then crash, which increases anxiety and stress levels.

*Keep in mind that when you are stressed, your body increases hormones that can cause you to crave unhealthy or comfort foods. Don’t feel bad about eating a serving of potato chips, but do your best to keep portions under control and opt for healthy options whenever possible.

5. Exercise.

Get enough exercise. Go for a run/walk/hike, do some gardening, practice yoga, or join a gym.

Why it works: A little exercise can go a long way toward stress management. According to the Harvard Medical School, regular aerobic exercise (like walking) can boost memory and critical thinking, improve sleep, and reduce anxiety. Regular exercise will help you feel more energized and much less stressed.

6. Tap into your support network.

Lean on your colleagues for advice, trade ideas, and create mentoring relationships. Friends and family can also provide invaluable support by lending an ear on especially difficult days. You can further expand your network through educator-based online support networks and learning communities. Join one or more, and share in a wealth of knowledge from educators across the country. 

Why it works: Sometimes our connections with others can be the best stress reliever. Establishing a good support network is critical to maintaining healthy stress levels.

7. Stay organized.

Set an organization plan–and stick to it–to reduce stress levels, improve efficiency, and be a more effective educator.

Why it works: Just think about how much time you waste searching through email or computer files to find what you need, rewriting misplaced work, or trying to manage your calendars. Being organized is a proactive way to reduce stress.

8. Meditate.

Meditate on a regular basis to train your mind to dispel negative thoughts and anxiety and reduce stress during times when you feel overwhelmed. Try this 10-minute meditation activity to quickly calm your stress and clear your mind.

Why it works: Meditation, or mindful awareness, can have a tremendous impact on your ability to de-stress. Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years and can bring clarity to your thoughts and promote peace and balance. Even a few minutes of meditation can significantly reduce stress.

9. Practice progressive muscle relaxation.

Breathe in and tense your muscle groups, one at a time, for 4-10 seconds. Breathe out and completely relax the muscle group. Be mindful of how the muscles feel when they are tense and after they become relaxed. 

Why it works: Progressive muscle relaxation is a deep relaxation technique that helps you relieve tension in your body, control stress and anxiety, relieve insomnia, and reduce some types of chronic pain. This technique also helps you become more in-tune with your body, which in turn enables you to identify signs and signals of stress and tension.

10. Laugh.

Even (and especially) during trying times, you need to find humor. It will do wonders for relieving stress. Find ways to laugh every day — share a funny meme or joke with colleagues or watch a favorite funny movie or television show.

Why it works: According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter promotes a stronger immune system, increases your ability to cope with difficult situations, and can improve your mood by lessening depression and anxiety.

A big lesson learned from last year and the pandemic is that stress-management skills are crucial for both students and adults. Be sure to continue focusing on your health and well-being and finding ways to effectively manage stress levels.

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