George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Wellness

5 Simple Ways to Manage Stress This Year

Finding ways to process the challenges of this year will be critical for teachers.

October 20, 2020
Man in the morning, looking out window holding coffee
PeopleImages / iStock

Educators this year are faced with a multitude of decisions and reflexive reactions as schools and communities try to create the safest plans for the return to school, and the chronic unpredictability of this situation wears on our nervous systems.

Why is this? Our brains and bodies are being flooded with millions of bits of sensory information every day, but with an increase of anxiety and worry, these sensations can trigger our stress response systems, causing our bodies and brains to move into a survival state where we find ourselves feeling chronically unsafe, dysregulated, and stressed.

These feelings can show up in the body as tightness, tense muscles, headaches, nausea, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, or a variety of other sensations. If we do not metabolize and process how we are experiencing these sensations and emotions, our immune systems can become compromised and we find ourselves living day after day in a fight, flight, or freeze response. Unprocessed negative emotions can be expressed in our bodies, and we can feel a knot in our stomach or a lump in our throat, or we may become choked up and teary. We may feel hot and sweaty, or experience a pounding in our ears or heads.

When we’re aware of these sensations and feelings, we can begin to address our mental and physical well-being. Below are practices and strategies that address nervous system regulation and can be implemented in just a minute or two each day.

A calm brain can calm another brain. When we find our inner balance and feel grounded, we’re able to share this with our students and colleagues. Emotions, negative or positive, are contagious, and when we prioritize the health of our nervous systems, we can share that health and well-being with all those around us.

5 Simple Ways to Find Calm

1. Take some belly breaths: A few long, deep belly breaths coupled with calming sounds provide rhythmic healing to a worn-out nervous system. Before you go to sleep or first thing when you awaken, step outside and just listen to the night or morning sounds. Sit comfortably, and for two or three minutes take a few deep breaths, exhaling a few seconds longer than you inhale. Listen to the rhythm of the crickets, katydids, or morning birds.

2. Try a yoga pose: There is growing research on the benefits of certain yoga poses to relieve anxiety and calm the nervous system. One of the most powerful ways to feel immediate relief from the overwhelming sensations of the day is to lie on your back with your legs straight up at a 90-degree angle against a wall. You can place a pillow under your head, but with your legs elevated, take a few minutes and breathe all the way down to your belly, feeling it rise and fall with each inhale and exhale. This pose produces a release of anxiety in the body.

3. Talk to yourself: Talking out loud to yourself, especially in the third person, can be extremely helpful in stressful moments. If you’re by yourself, say what you need to say about a problem and then talk about options or outcomes. Validate and soothe yourself. If you’re not alone, take a minute to write down your concerns and challenges until you can speak them aloud later. Try adding soothing and comforting words you need to hear, and say those out loud whenever you need them.

4. Control what you can control: When we’re feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and worried, we can lose perspective on what is realistic and in our control, so it can be helpful to create a short list of the experiences, events, or situations that we can control and those we cannot. Sometimes when we’re feeling dysregulated, we forget to pause, step back, and try to find a deeper perspective. As educators, we tend to want to fix problems, soothe troubled student feelings, and quickly find a solution. Often, we need to let go and observe, allowing the experience to unfold. Follow the quiet. Allow the quiet of contemplation to enter, and to leave when its work is completed.

5. Hum or sing: Humming and singing activate the vagus nerve, a critical nerve that flows from the brain stem throughout most of our body. It is associated with functions of the body that are automatic, like swallowing, digesting, and the heart’s beating, and it relays signals to the brain that all is well or not. Activating this nerve basically tells your brain that you are calm and relaxed, while stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system to slow your heart rate and respiration and lower your blood pressure.

Our voice box is connected to the vagus nerve, so when we hum or sing, we activate this nerve and initiate a calm nervous system response in the brain and body. The music choices below are ones that I associate with a calm, pleasant emotional experience as I hum or sing along:

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