Teacher Wellness

4 Powerful Mindsets for Turning Stress Into a Positive Force

Kelly McGonigal—Stanford psychologist, award-winning teacher, and author of the book The Upside of Stress—shares ideas for avoiding burnout and boosting resilience.

November 1, 2016
Leander Baerenz/Getty Images

In a 2015 survey of 31,342 teachers, 73 percent said they often felt stressed. Only 3 percent said stress was rare—and frankly, I’m wondering if they filled in the wrong bubble. While 89 percent had been highly enthusiastic about teaching when they started, only 15 percent felt the same way at the time of the survey.

With statistics like these, it’s easy to wonder: If stress is the norm, is burnout inevitable?

The good news is, the answer is no. The latest research on resilience suggests that you can think about stress in ways that help prevent burnout and enhance well-being. Below are four mindsets that will help you thrive under stress when you cannot avoid it.

See the Meaning in Your Stress

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Why can’t life be less stressful?” you aren’t alone. But the ideal life isn’t stress-free. In one survey of adults in the U.S., people who reported greater daily stress were also more likely to say that their lives were meaningful. And according to the Gallup World Poll, the happiest people on earth report high, not low, levels of stress.

The reason is that stress is what you feel when something that you care about is at stake. When you care a lot, you experience more stress. This is true for all the important things in life: relationships, parenting, your health, and yes, teaching. If you can recognize the link between meaning and stress, it’s easier to navigate the most difficult aspects of your job.

Remembering why you became a teacher is one way to do this—and it can even make your stress response healthier. In one study, participants who thought about their most noble motivations for entering a profession showed smaller increases in stress hormones during a high-stakes meeting.

Put it into practice: When you feel discouraged by the realities of teaching, think about why you teach and what matters most. Recall this motivation before you enter a stressful situation, such as a difficult conversation with an administrator or parent. Doing so can bring out your best self and help you connect with others, while keeping your stress response in check.

Try a Growth Mindset

You’re already teaching your students how to have a growth mindset. But are you practicing it yourself? A growth mindset isn’t just about getting better at math or coping with a bad grade. It can protect against some of the harmful effects of stress. For example, women in one study who saw past mistakes as learning experiences reported greater purpose in life, better relationships with others, and more confidence in their ability to handle the challenges they faced.

Importantly, this is a mindset you can choose. Another study asked participants to think about a recent experience that triggered anger, sadness, or shame. Normally, this would cause stress levels and blood pressure to soar. However, when participants thought about what they could learn from the experience, they had a healthier cardiovascular response. They also reported feelings of gratitude and joy.

Put it into practice: When you find yourself dwelling on a negative situation, ask yourself how it can contribute to your personal goals. What lessons can you take from what happened? Can it be a starting point for positive change in your classroom or your school?

Practice Vicarious Resilience

When I feel down about teaching, I think about one of my all-time favorite students. He was an undergrad at Stanford who was disowned by his family when he came out as gay. He completed his degree while supporting himself, became an advocate for LGBT teens, and went on to study medicine. Remembering his strengths, and appreciating the small role I played in his growth, gives me renewed motivation for teaching.

This is an example of what psychologists call vicarious resilience—the flip side of contagious stress. It’s the ability to “catch” resilience from those we see persevere, grow, and thrive. While vicarious resilience was first observed in therapists working with survivors of political violence, research shows that teachers experience it, too—for example, when you witness a student learning despite adversity at home.

Put it into practice: We all vent about difficult situations or students—and this can get you the moral support you need. But balance this habit by remembering to reflect on what is most elevating about your work. Make a ritual of ending the school day by thinking about a student who demonstrated character, courage, or kindness. Share your favorite stories with others.

Think About Our Common Humanity

People often underestimate the degree to which others share their struggles—and feeling alone makes it harder to cope. A mindset of “I’m the only one” can drive you to self-destructive behaviors like stress eating, procrastinating, and hiding your problems from others.

In contrast, knowing that others share your stress is a powerful source of resilience. People who hold a mindset of common humanity are less likely to give up on their goals, more willing to talk with others about their problems, and more likely to get the support they need. They’re also more likely to find meaning and purpose in their work, and less likely to experience the emotional exhaustion and sense of social disconnection and powerlessness that contribute to burnout.

Put it into practice: When you feel stressed, remember that you are not alone. Remind yourself that teachers all over are frustrated by the same stressor. Think about colleagues close by who are dealing with the same situation. Let this mindset propel you to connect with others so that you might share ideas, strategies for change, and much-needed self-compassion.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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