How do you manage stress?
A study carried out by Sir Cary Cooper found that teachers are in the top three most stressed occupations, alongside the health and uniformed services. This will come as no surprise to a teacher as being ‘stressed out’ is an inevitable part of the job. The emotional labour involved in teaching is enormous as we are often engaged in ‘surface acting’, where we regulate our emotions and mask our true feelings. To create a warm and safe classroom climate, we display positive emotions and may suppress negative emotions when interacting with students, parents and colleagues. It’s a professional response, but it comes with a cost. Coping is therefore key.
To avoid exhaustion and burn-out, what do we do?
No Pressure Then
One of my colleagues is ‘stressed out’ and she has tried everything over the years: zumba, salsa, yoga, reiki, the Alexander technique, aromatherapy, cupping, running, going to the gym, swimming, punch bags, acupuncture, judo, hydrotherapy, hynotherapy, crystal therapy, pilates and Nordic walking. She’s done the lot and whilst they have all offered something and some have been more effective than others, she is still ‘feeling stressed out’.
Another one of my colleagues is stressed as well but she doesn’t mind. In fact, she says the stress is doing her good and she might well be right. Exposure to a moderate amount of stress that doesn’t get on top of us can make us stronger. If we are able to manage stress then we can steel ourselves for further ‘attacks’.
Richard Dienstbier’s theory of ‘mental toughness’ suggests that going through some stresses with recovery in between can make us more mentally and physically robust and less reactive to future stress.
He says, “…once we begin to toughen we experience an upward spiral where toughness leads to choices that in turn continue to toughen us.”
My colleague hasn’t tried Feldenkrais, ballroom dancing, tobaggoning or indoor sky-diving but what she has tried is to create a sense of control and for her this is working. She welcomes some stresses (of the moderate type) and she has become far more skillful at dealing with them. She is known to others as a ‘tough cookie’ and people think that nothing phases her. Plenty phases her but she has developed a mental toughness to cope.
Alter, Avoid, Accept
One way of controlling your feelings in order to develop a positive state and keep the plates spinning is to see stress management as a decision making process and adopt what Professor Stephen Palmer at the Centre for Stress Management calls the 3A’s model. This is where you look at each stress-producing situation you find yourself part of and ask:
Can I alter this situation?
Can I avoid it?
Must I accept it?
Altering refers to either eradicating or diminishing the source of stress by changing something, e.g. through time management, planning ahead, problem solving, communication, organising, or coordinating.
Avoiding refers to the ability to remove yourself from a stressful context or to work out how not to be there in the first place, e.g. saying “no”, delegating responsibility, withdrawing or walking away.
Acceptance is essential in those situations that you cannot change or avoid and this does not mean that you are helpless or you have ‘lost’. It means you need to arm yourself by building resistance through eating well, getting enough exercise and rest, building a healthy support system, and practicing relaxation techniques.
The 3A’s model is useful to have in mind because it helps you develop your emotional intelligence and helps you become aware that you are not powerless even in the most stressful situations. The model helps us to realise that we can always make decisions to help us alter, avoid, or accept stresses with strength.
Another useful mental model to have up your sleeve comes from W. Timothy Gallwey and this is called STOP. In his book The Inner Game of Work, Gallwey explains that the STOP strategy can help us to take control of our thinking:
S – Step back
T – Think
O – Organise your thoughts
P – Proceed
This tool enables us to change our internal rhetoric and consider our next move so that we intelligently manage a range of stresses. We can STOP before replying in a conversation, we can STOP at the beginning and end of the day to set our priorities, we can STOP to address mistakes and we can STOP because we need to take a break. We can STOP for everything because we are the CEOs of ourselves.
Some stress in our lives is necessary in order to make us stronger as it can increase our immunity and making us more resilient. When stress becomes chronic, or when we feel we’re no longer in control, our health and wellbeing take a hit. Combined with whatever relaxes us, the 3A’s model and STOP can help us take time out and empower our thinking so that stress doesn’t have to be so stressful.
In some cases, stress can actually be a force for good. So, how are you going to manage yourself?