To Manage Stress, Teachers Need to Prioritize Themselves. Start With Self-Care.
I always thought I was an organized, well put together, “work smarter, not harder” person who took things in stride, was optimistic and calm in stressful situations. That is, until this past May. I was teaching a very challenging group of students, many who were struggling with social-emotional and mental health issues. It was like navigating rocky waters every day. I thought I was handling things fine. Until one day I began to experience what I thought were symptoms of a heart attack.
To make a long story short, after being rushed to the hospital, hours of tests and visits with multiple specialists, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. Test results showed that there was nothing wrong with my heart. So how did all this happen to a healthy person? In a word: stress. It really is a silent killer. So, under my doctor’s orders, I left work for the remainder of the school year and began to embark on my summer of self care.
Teaching is recognized as an incredibly high-stress career—as stressful as an emergency room—which is compounded by the fact that many of us are not doing things that would help us manage that stress.
When I looked back on that school year I realized I had stopped doing things that I previously enjoyed that were also good for me, both physically and mentally. I used to go to the gym, attend spin class and ride my bike. But it had been over eight months since I did anything that you could call physical activity because I would come home from work exhausted every day and just want to take a nap. I didn’t, though, because I was busy catching up on work, doing the things I couldn’t get to during the day because so much of my time was spent working with students through their issues. It became a vicious cycle. I was worn out both mentally and physically and my body just got to the point where it said, “no more.”
As a whole, teachers aren’t great about taking care of themselves. We work too many hours, don’t get enough sleep or exercise, eat too many unhealthy foods and don’t spend enough time doing things that refresh and energize us.
Too many teachers have reached the conclusion that this just part of the job; there simply isn’t enough time to be a good teacher and take care of yourself. Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, this is a recipe for disaster. Teaching is recognized as an incredibly high-stress career—as stressful as an emergency room, according to some researchers—which is compounded by the fact that many of us are not doing things that would help us manage that stress.
So why do teachers struggle to make time for self care? We think busy is normal, we don’t realize how dire the situation really is and it’s hard to say no. You have probably heard the analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask before you can assist others, but in actuality it is really challenging. In some ways, it’s easier to take care of others.
Putting Self-Care First
Let’s take a moment to define “self-care” so we are all on the same page. Simply put, it means to look after yourself in a healthy way. This includes looking after yourself physically, mentally and emotionally. It means doing big things, like getting exercise, and smaller ones, like taking vitamins. Self-care also means that you continue doing the things important to you—seeing friends and family, taking regular vacations and taking off the occasional day from work. When these things are neglected, it can cause problems—from depression to blood pressure spikes, weight gain and other maladies. Those who neglect self-care usually do so because they’re stressed, burnt out, overworked, have no time or otherwise live crazy and hectic lives. Which sounds very much like the life of a teacher.
Obviously, this is very bad for our overall health. But there is hope—as long as you’re willing to make self-care a priority. If you’re one of those individuals reading this and thinking, “I don’t have time…” this is precisely why you need to make self-care a priority. If you attend to yourself, you’ll find that you have more energy, less stress and have a more positive outlook on life.
My cat, Duke, knows a lot about self care. He eats when he’s hungry, naps when he’s tired and plays until he doesn’t want to anymore. Cats live life on their own terms and that is exactly what we teachers forget. We are so beholden to others and their needs, deadlines, and mandates that we forget we have choices. Teachers need to take back their lives and live it on their own terms. And it all begins with making self care a priority.
Here are some quick ways to find quiet and restore your energy during a hectic day.
As I’ve learned this past year, you can’t pour from an empty cup. You must learn to fill up your cup before you are any good to anyone else.
- Have a quick boost of protein with a snack of nuts, protein bar or meat and cheese roll-ups. Your body needs energy to stay sharp and on your game. This is one thing I do right. When my kids had snack, so did I. I make sure I keep my body fueled up, which is especially necessary if you work with young children or kids with special needs.
- Pay attention to your body. Every once in a while shrug your shoulders, hold for a few seconds and release. Most people, especially women, tend to hold their stress in their shoulders. You would be surprised how doing that a few times during the day helps relax you.
- If you can target specific things or situations that make you stress, get yourself a stress ball and give it a few squeezes when you are feeling tense.
- Keep pictures of your favorite places or people you love nearby. Take a minute to recall a happy moment or something you are looking forward to doing. I have always had a picture of the beach where my family and I spend our summers. It is a welcome reminder of my happy place and I immediately feel a sense of relief when I think about the next time we will be spending time there.
- Find some relaxing music and let it play in the background while teaching. There are quite a few teachers who do this in my building. You can go on YouTube and find tons of relaxing music that will play for hours if you want.
Now after a tough day, and we all have tough days, I take the scenic route home and listen to music. I make time for my hobbies and I read for fun. (Feel free to indulge in fantasy or romance novels. The idea is to take time to escape reality and get lost in the book.) I bought a Fitbit, connected with some friends and started walking. And I’m committed to spending more dedicated time with my family—even if I have to schedule it in advance. There is nothing that will relax you more than doing things you enjoy with people you enjoy being with.
My last piece of advice to create some kind of morning or night time routine and stick to it. Each night I take a hot shower, do a 10 minute meditation, turn on a nature sounds app, diffuse some essential oils and hit the hay. I have found when I break this routine I don’t fall asleep as easily or I sleep fitfully.
Remember, it is OK to take time for you and not feel guilty about it. As I’ve learned this past year, you can’t pour from an empty cup. You must learn to fill up your cup before you are any good to anyone else. Everyone's self-care may look a little different, and there's no single way to take good care of yourself. Try some different strategies until you have a full toolbox: something that energizes you, something that helps you unwind, something that helps you manage when you're having a hard time.
Above all, when you are having an especially rough day, remember to give permission to make yourself a priority.