Learning to manage stress
As we approach the relentless exam season, stress levels will be rising and in some cases, they’ll become too much to bare resulting in students, parents and teachers all feeling the distress this causes. Regardless of what you think about this form of testing, at the moment there are no other solutions on offer in the system. We’ll leave that conversation for another blog!
As teachers, we’re more than aware of the stress that exams and testing can place on both students and teachers. Depending on the level of stress this causes, our lives and wellbeing can be affected. Our students’ performances can suffer and results that are so important can end up not reflecting their true ability. Sharing ideas about stress management should be part and parcel of our support as the exams approach.
So how can we deal with stress so it’s more manageable and doesn’t impact on our lives to such an extent that it affects our wellbeing? Can we manage it and begin to take control?
Actually, you’ve a lot more control than you might think. In fact, the simple realisation that you’re in control of your life is the beginning to effective management of stress. Stress management is all about taking control of your lifestyle, thoughts, emotions, and the way you deal with the issues causing the stress.
The importance of managing stress?
Living with high levels of stress can put your entire wellbeing at risk. Stress can destroy the balance in your life and in turn your physical and emotional health. It can affect the way you think and function and ultimately enjoy your life. It can be the beginning of a downturn to more serious mental health problems and depression. Recognising and reacting early is so important for the long-term health of yourself and your students.
Developing and deploying solid stress management strategies will help reduce the stress you have in your life, you’ll feel happier, healthier and be more productive, achieving a balanced life, with time for work and relationships, along with time to relax and enjoy life. Here are some stress management strategies to help you do that, but you’ll need to identify which ones work best for you.
Strategy 1: Recognise what is causing you stress
Identifying the route of your stress has to be at the top of your list when wanting to take control and manage it. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. Major stressors such as changing jobs, moving house or going through a divorce are easy to recognise, but pinpointing the sources of underlying stress is more of a challenge, but essential. Recognising the causes of stress goes hand in hand with how your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours contribute to your everyday stress levels. You might know you’re constantly worried about work deadlines, marking and all that planning which needs sorting, but maybe it’s your demand for perfection or unrealistic balance of your time, rather than the actual job demands, that’s causing your stress.
Try asking yourself these questions:
- Do you see your stress as temporary, even though you can’t remember the last time you took a breather?
- Do you see your stress as an integral part of your work, home life or as a part of your personality?
- Do you see your stress as being caused by other people or outside events, or view it as entirely normal and unexceptional?
Until you identify the causes and accept responsibility for the role you play in creating or maintaining them, your stress level will remain outside your control.
A good start is to keep a record of when you’re most stressed and what’s caused these feelings. Record how you reacted to it and begin to find trigger points so you can develop the most appropriate strategies to help you avoid these triggers where possible.
Strategy 2: The four A’s of stress management
It’s important to see stress as an automatic response from your body; stress will occur at predictable times: travelling to work, an important meeting or family gatherings, for example. Begin by deciding how you’ll handle these situations, you can either change the situation or change your reaction. When deciding which option to choose in any given scenario, it’s helpful to think of the four A’s: avoid, alter, adapt, accept.
The four A’s – Avoid, Alter, Adapt & Accept
It’s not healthy to avoid a stressful situation that needs to be addressed, in fact this will only prolong the stress. However, you may be surprised by the number of things that cause stress in your life that you can reduce.
Learn how to say “no.” Know your limits and stick to them. Whether in your personal or professional life, taking on more than you can manage is a recipe for stress. Distinguish between the “should” and the “must” and, when possible, say “no” to taking on too much. Recognise that by never saying “no” will result in people asking even more often.
Avoid people who stress you out. If someone consistently causes stress in your life, limit the amount of time you spend with that person, or end the relationship. This sounds extreme but do not underestimate the impact these people have on you. Sometimes they cannot not be avoided and then you need to try and talk to them and share how their actions or approaches are impacting on you.
Take control of your environment. If the evening news makes you anxious, turn off the TV. If traffic makes you tense, take a longer but less-travelled route. If going to the supermarket is an unpleasant chore do your shopping online. Try to find a less stressful solution to anything that can be changed.
Pare down your to-do list. Analyse your routines, responsibilities, and daily tasks. If you’ve got too much on your plate, drop tasks that aren’t truly necessary to the bottom of the list or eliminate them entirely. Again, not easy but it can be quite cathartic and remove stresses at an instant.
If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it. Often, this involves changing the way you communicate and operate in your daily life. Don’t avoid a difficult conversation when actually having it will reduce stress in the long-term.
Don’t bottle things up. If something or someone is bothering you, be more assertive and communicate your concerns in an open and respectful way. If you’ve got an exam to study for and your chatty classmate just won’t stop talking or distracting you, say up front that you only have five minutes to talk. If you don’t voice your feelings, resentment will build and the stress will increase.
Learn to compromise. When you ask someone to change their behaviour or actions, be willing to do the same. If you both are willing to bend at least a little, you’ll have a good chance of finding a good middle ground.
Create a balance. All work and no play is a recipe for disaster. Try to find a balance between work and family life, social activities and solitary pursuits, daily responsibilities and downtime.
If you can’t change the route of your stress, change yourself. You can adapt to stressful situations and regain your sense of control by changing your expectations and attitude.
Reframe problems. Try to look at stressful situations from a more positive viewpoint. Rather than fuming about a traffic jam, look at it as an opportunity to pause and regroup, listen to your favourite radio station, or enjoy some alone time.
Look at the big picture. Take perspective of the stressful situation. Ask yourself how important it will be in the long run. Will it matter in a month? A year? Is it really worth getting upset over? If the answer is no, focus your time and energy elsewhere.
Adjust your standards. Perfectionism is a major source of avoidable stress. Stop setting yourself up for failure by demanding perfection. Set reasonable standards for yourself and others, and learn to be okay with “good enough.”
Practice gratitude. When stress is getting you down, take a moment to reflect on all the things you appreciate in your life, including your own positive qualities and gifts. This simple strategy can help you keep things in perspective.
Some sources of stress are unavoidable. You can’t prevent or change stress caused by the death of a loved one, a serious illness, or a national disaster. In such cases, the best way to cope with stress is to accept things as they are. Acceptance may be difficult, but in the long run, it’s easier than stressing over a situation you can’t change.
Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our control, particularly the behaviour of other people. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on the things you can control such as the way you choose to react to problems.
Look for the upside. When facing major challenges, try to look at them as opportunities for personal growth. If your own poor choices contributed to a stressful situation, reflect on them and learn from your mistakes.
Learn to forgive. Accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world and that people make mistakes. Let go of anger and resentments. Free yourself from negative energy by forgiving and moving on.
Share your feelings. Expressing what you’re going through can be very cathartic, even if there’s nothing you can do to alter the stressful situation. Talk to a trusted friend or make an appointment with a therapist.
Strategy 3: Be more active
I don’t know many people who’d disagree with the fact that taking part in some form of physical activity such as sport, exercise, walking or anything that gets your heart pumping, makes them feeling good. However, when you’re stressed, the last thing you’ll probably feel like doing is getting up and exercising, but it’s a highly effective stress reliever. Exercise releases endorphins that make you feel good, it’s also a positive distraction from your daily concerns along with helping you relax afterwards.
Being active might take the form of regularly planned time at the gym, or the benefits you get from spontaneous opportunities to get outside and enjoy the countryside and fresh air. Why not consider:
- Putting on some music and dancing around
- Going for a long walk, run or a swim
- Walking or cycle to the shops rather than using the car
- Use the stairs rather than lifts or escalators
- Pair up with a friend as an exercise partner and encourage each other as you work out
Any form of physical activity can help with your tensions and stresses, but rhythmic activities are even more effective. These include walking, running, swimming, dancing, cycling, tai chi, and aerobics. But more importantly make sure you enjoy whatever you choose.
Make a conscious effort to pay attention to your body and the physical and emotional sensations you experience as you’re moving. Think about your breathing and your movements, notice how the air or sunlight feels on your skin. Adding this mindfulness approach will help you with the cycle of negative thoughts which are part of overwhelming stress.
Strategy 4: Recognise the value of friends and the company of others
When you’re stressed and feeling out of sorts, it’s very easy to become isolated and withdraw form social situations. However, spending quality time with others can often make you feel better. Face-to-face interactions will release hormones which help to deflect depression and anxiety. So, make sure you plan this time with family and friends and learn to feel confident to share your feelings as well as offer support yourself.
Strategy 5: Make time for yourself and things you enjoy doing
Implementing some of the above strategies will bring other significant rewards. You’ll feel you’re taking charge, this will then help you develop a more positive attitude, reducing some of your stress and allowing more time for carving out time for yourself. Looking after yourself is a necessity, not a luxury. Taking part in things you enjoy will provide a broader view on all your stresses and help you keep things in perspective, appreciating all the positives you do have.
Plan for leisure time. Include rest and relaxation in your daily routines. This is your time to recharge your batteries.
Make this part of you daily routine. Finding time everyday for you, should be part of your new routine, non-negotiable and could be anything that you enjoy, it doesn’t need to be productive or have an outcome.
The power of laughter. This includes the ability to laugh at yourself. Laughing actually helps your body fight stress.
Take up a relaxation practice. Finding a technique that suits brings many benefits; your stress levels will decrease and your mind and body will become calm and centred.
Strategy 6: Manage your time better
We’re sometimes our own worst enemies – poor time management can be the cause of stress. When you’re stretched too thin and running behind, it’s hard to stay calm and focused. Plus, it’ll lead to you cutting back on the healthy things you should be doing to help reduce your stress. Following these rules can help you achieve a healthier work-life balance.
Plan your time better and don’t over-commit. Avoid planning things back-to-back or trying to fit too much into one day. All too often, we underestimate how long things will take and end up rushing or being late to our next appointment, creating ourselves even more stress. Allowing enough time and then some in case, will be more productive in the long run.
Learn to priorities. Make a ‘to do’ list of tasks and work through them in order of importance. Do the high priority items first. Get particularly unpleasant or stressful things out of the way early. The rest of your day will be better for it.
Break things down into small, more manageable steps. If a large project seems overwhelming, make a step-by-step plan. Focus on one manageable step at a time, rather than taking on everything at once.
Learn to delegate. You don’t have to do it all yourself, whether at home, school, or on the job. If other people can take care of the task, why not let them? Let go of the desire to control or oversee every little step. You’ll be letting go of unnecessary stress in the process.
Strategy 7: Maintain balance with a healthy lifestyle
In addition to regular exercise, there are other healthy lifestyle choices that can increase your resistance to stress.
Eat a healthy diet. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress, so be mindful of what you eat. Start your day off on the right footing with breakfast, keep your energy up and your mind clear with balanced, nutritious meals throughout the day.
Reduce caffeine and sugar. The temporary “highs” caffeine and sugar provide often end in with a crash in mood and energy. By reducing the amount of coffee, soft drinks, chocolate, and sugar snacks in your diet, you’ll feel more relaxed and you’ll sleep better.
Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs may provide an easy escape from stress, but the relief is only temporary. Don’t avoid or mask the issue at hand; deal with problems head on and with a clear mind.
Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep fuels your mind, as well as your body. Feeling tired will increase your stress because it may cause you to think irrationally.
Strategy 8: React early and don’t let stress build up
Reacting early to stress will avoid it building into something bigger. As soon as you sense your stress levels going up, find a simple, easy and at hand way to relax. The fastest way to reduce stress is by taking a deep breath and using your senses – what you see, hear, taste, and touch, or through a soothing movement. By viewing a favourite photo, smelling a specific scent, listening to a favourite piece of music, tasting a piece of gum, or hugging a pet, for example, you can quickly relax and re-focus yourself. Of course, not everyone responds to each sensory experience in the same way. The key to quick stress relief is to experiment and discover the unique sensory experiences that work best for you.
As your stress levels grow over the next few weeks, as the exams approach, look after yourselves and those around you. Share these tips and try them out. You’ll be surprised how quickly they’ll begin to help if they become part of your daily approach to stress. However, if your stress is not reducing and you feel you’re really struggling, share this with someone – your manager, a friend, a GP or partner. Whatever you do, don’t suffer in silence…there’s help out there.