As a former elementary educator, I know there were days when I was more anxious than others. Stress can disrupt our nervous system, and if we don’t take time for a reset, the feeling may continue to snowball.
There are many methods to help us deal with stress and build a more resilient system when we aren’t in the classroom. Usually, these things are seen as something you do outside of school; maybe you go for a run or spend extra time laughing with a friend. But what happens when you’re feeling anxious in the middle of the day? What strategies will work in the moment when you feel overwhelmed? We can’t always wait until we get home or our students leave to take a moment to reset.
A reset is very literally what you need. Your nervous system has been kicked into high gear by the stress of the classroom situation you are under at the moment. Specifically, your sympathetic nervous system—the one responsible for fight or flight—has been activated. But there are strategies that you can use to move from a stressful state to the more restful state of your parasympathetic system.
Having strategies ready to help you self-soothe in order to calm stress and anxiety is important so that you can use them in the moment versus trying to continue in a dysregulated state. These strategies can’t alter external factors like the pandemic or the myriad stress-inducing aspect of teachers’ work—but they may help teachers better respond to those stresses.
The following five strategies take five minutes or less and can help teachers reset when it’s starting to feel like too much, and time is tight.
5 Stress-Relieving Techniques
1. Valsalva maneuver: You may be familiar with the Valsalva maneuver if you have ever flown and needed to help your ears equalize. This strategy has also been shown to be effective in calming a racing heart and resetting the autonomic nervous system by stimulating the vagus nerve. To employ the Valsalva maneuver, follow these steps:
- Pinch your nose.
- Close your mouth to hold your breath.
- Try to blow out air; it may feel like you’re bearing down.
- Hold this position for about 10 seconds.
Be careful not to try to blow out with too much pressure or you may damage your eardrums. Also, if you have high blood pressure or a heart arrhythmia, check with your doctor before trying this strategy.
2. Hand-over-heart: This is a self-compassion technique that is simple in its design—you place your hands over your heart and breathe deeply into that space while conjuring positive, calming feelings. Somatic therapist Dr. Peter Levine has developed an extended version of hand-over-heart where one hand is placed on the heart and the other on the forehead. Your focus moves to those areas of your body and the sensations between your hands until there is a shift in the way you feel. Then, the hand from the forehead is moved to the abdomen and the process is repeated; focus is placed in the space between the hands, and special attention is given to the sensations there until there is a shift. This technique has been shown to reduce anxiety and release oxytocin, the neurotransmitter that tells your body to calm.
3. Calming music: Music has been used for centuries to calm nerves and improve health. As a teacher, I regularly played calming music in the background at a low volume level while my students worked. But listening to certain songs can have more of an effect than others.
The British Academy of Sound Therapy created what has been hailed as the most relaxing song ever, called “Weightless.” It was found to reduce anxiety in a staggering 65 percent of people who listened to it. You can find “Weightless” here, as well as a playlist of other songs that have also been shown to be effective.
4. Breathing: Focused breathing not only activates your parasympathetic nervous system but also is a mindfulness technique to bring you back to the moment and distract you from the thoughts that may be causing the anxiety. A common technique is called box breathing, a type of intentional breathing, where you inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale through your mouth for four seconds, and repeat the process until you feel calm.
There are many variations on intentional breathing, so if box breathing doesn’t work for you, there are others that are worth a try.
5. Self-hugging: This is another self-compassion technique that has been shown to release oxytocin. While hugs in general have been proven to have this same result, sometimes you’re not in the space at work where asking for hugs is appropriate. Therefore, as awkward as it may seem, wrapping your arms around yourself and giving yourself a squeeze can have a similar result. Your nervous system doesn’t recognize that you’re the one providing yourself the affection; it only recognizes the chemical messenger’s “calm” direction. If you’re feeling self-conscious, you can try to be discreet by wrapping yourself up as tightly as feels comfortable for your situation, excusing yourself to the hall for a breath, or inviting your students to practice any of these strategies along with you.