For the past few years, I’ve been in a variety of schools around the country, working with educators whose students suffer from anxiety and depression. Such students are hungry for connection and a sense of predictability. Their needs can be overwhelming for teachers: “Exhaustion sometimes peppered with hopelessness” is a feeling often described by these teachers.
Stress is contagious. Students who have experienced high levels of adversity in their lives can dramatically affect all those who work with them. In order to help them learn, teachers need to care for ourselves so that we can access the areas of our brain we need to problem-solve and regulate our emotions.
Teachers can care for themselves through focused attention practices and brain-aligned strategies that improve well-being. These practices—centered on breath, sound, and social connection—can be implemented at school, at home, in the car, or wherever we find a bit of time and space. The key to regulating and calming our own nervous system is to be intentional and to repeat these practices regularly.
6 Strategies for Calming Your Mind
1. Two-minute stress release: I learned about this practice from Peter Levine’s Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes. Before falling asleep and first thing in the morning, take two minutes to breathe deeply. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your forehead. As you inhale, feel the pressure of your hands on your skin, and then exhale out a worry or concern that has recently taken up space in your brain.
Each time you inhale and exhale, try to extend the exhale by two or three seconds. Reflecting on your two minutes, ask yourself, can you personally change this worrisome experience or thought? How much of it is in your control? How much of it is out of your control?
2. The deep-dive breath: This is a kundalini yoga breath practice and visualization. Inhale for four counts, hold for four, and exhale slowly for four counts. You can increase the holding of breath by a few seconds once you find the rhythm of the exercise. As you rhythmically find this breath, each time you inhale imagine diving deeper into a pool of blue water. As you complete your last breath and exhale, imagine yourself floating to the surface, renewed and weightless.
3. Energizing breath: This one—which is also from kundalini yoga—is a little odd, but give it a try. Pant like a dog with your mouth open and your tongue out for 30 seconds—try to take three energizing pant breaths per second. Then continue for another 30 seconds with your mouth closed as you take short belly breaths through your nose with one hand on the belly.
After a full minute, switch to the deep-dive breathing above. This is an excellent technique to use before you walk into school. There are many health benefits to this ancient yoga breath.
4. Calming sound: The right sound can be very powerful for engaging a calm response. Tibetan bowls and chimes are sounds I listen to almost daily for a few minutes—not the whole 11 hours available at the link—to clear my mind. If those sounds aren’t right for you, try searching on YouTube for nature or water sounds, or whatever sound you associate with a calm state of mind.
5. Space for reflection: In your office or a space at home, create an area that’s just right for you to relax in—furniture, pillows, lighting, pictures, a gratitude journal, music, art, snacks. Make sure you regularly relax in this special space for at least a few minutes.
In your classroom, you might just have a plant or some flowers, some hand lotion, or your gratitude journal. One of the benefits of doing something like this up in your classroom is that you are modeling for students a way to intentionally calm yourself over 30 seconds or one minute of quiet breathing or focusing on a stimulus.
6. Peer support: Partner with a colleague to share and reflect on a challenging day, hour, or week. Be present with your partner for 7 to 10 minutes two or three times a week or as often as you both agree. In these few minutes together, practice validating what you’re hearing from each other—listen to learn, not to respond. Ask one another a very important question and listen deeply to the answer: “What’s most important to you in this situation?”
As you listen, you begin to co-regulate, calming each other’s stress response systems. In Beyond Engagement, Brady Wilson writes that when we feel that attention is being paid to us, our bodies produce more of the neurohormone oxytocin, which produces a sense of trust and bonding.
These simple strategies won’t fix every problem a teacher faces, of course. But even a little bit of stress relief is helpful, and the more teachers can regulate their emotions and improve their well-being, the more they’ll be able to help students do the same.