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June 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 9

Seven Super Strategies for Success Over Stress

Inevitably, the coming school year will be challenging—but how you'll respond is up to you.

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Are you spending your summer reflecting on the difficulties you faced during the last school year and dreading another stressful school year? Or are you spending your summer building proactive stress-mastery skills into your daily routine to help you successfully deal with the inevitable tough situations that the upcoming year will bring?
The choice is yours. In fact, making a concerted effort to build your resilience is a major stress-prevention technique.
The challenges of teaching are daunting. Besides guiding your students through the curriculum, your role may require you to be a psychologist, social worker, nurse, and even legal expert to ensure the safety and well-being of your students.
Balancing all of this with the challenges you may face at home each day can feel overwhelming. However, buffering yourself with these seven key stress-prevention strategies will help inoculate you against your stressors.

1 Take Charge of Your Internal Dialogue

William Shakespeare wrote, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." Obviously, Shakespeare was wise; research in the last 30 years has shown that thinking patterns have a dramatic effect on moods, attitudes, and emotions.
Stress does not result from events that take place in your classroom, school, or life. Stress results from what you say to yourself about those events. You have a choice about how you direct your thinking. William James, American philosopher and psychologist, said it best: "The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another."
The foundation of stress mastery is to take charge of your internal dialogue—your self-talk. First, recognize negative, stress-provoking thoughts—for example, "I don't know whether I can handle the behavioral issues I'll face in my classroom during the upcoming school year." Once you realize that you're engaging in a negative, self-defeating internal dialogue, you should short-circuit those thoughts by shouting (under your breath), "Stop this negative thinking!"
Next, challenge the validity of those stress-causing thoughts by saying, for example, "I have many skills as a teacher, and I have handled many behavioral issues in the past. I don't have to be perfect, and I can always consult with my colleagues if I run into behavioral issues that I am uncertain how to handle," or "I can take some time this summer to become even better at dealing with challenging students by reflecting on what I learned last year and reading some good books on classroom management."
During the summer break, pay attention to your negative thinking patterns related to your family, your friends, your vacation, and so on (such as thoughts that begin with, "I can't," "What if," "I don't think," "I should not have"). Practice nipping those thoughts in the bud and replacing them with rational, healthy thoughts that are calming and reinforcing.

2 Develop Psychological Hardiness

Besides controlling your thinking, stress resistance involves a whole host of behaviors that you can learn. Three components of stress resistance, referred to as the three Cs of psychological hardiness, are commitment, control, and challenge.
<EMPH TYPE="3">Commitment is making a decision to stick to a plan or goal. In your case, you decided to become a teacher because of your desire to help students learn and flourish. Your commitment to make a difference in the lives of students is certainly an honorable goal. So, whenever the stress builds, revisit that commitment in your mind. It's all about the big picture in your career, not the everyday stressors.
<EMPH TYPE="3">Control is crucial because when stressors affect you that you have no control over, you need to let them flow away and focus your attention on what you can control. One thing you can control is your thinking. When you're having a tough day, use that as a motivator to remember the big picture and let go of stressors over which you have no control. Join committees at school and in the community so you can participate in decisions that affect your school environment and your career.
<EMPH TYPE="3">Challenge involves turning obstacles you face into opportunities for success. Perfection is not the goal; instead, focus on doing the best you can and letting go of guilt or pressure from problems you have not yet overcome. Go to a print shop and get a pad of paper with "Things to Accomplish Today" written on the top. Have 10 lines numbered on each page, with a little box to the left of each number. Or create such a list on your smartphone or tablet. Checking off each box as you accomplish the item is key to overcoming the challenges of the day.

3 Practice Your Breathing

Singers and musicians have learned that they get the full volume of breath necessary for top performance if they breathe through their diaphragms. Most people, especially those who are stressed, do not naturally breathe through their diaphragms. Instead, their breathing is rapid and shallow, causing more stress.
You can determine whether you are breathing appropriately by staring at your stomach. If it moves in and out as you breathe, then you are engaged in diaphragmatic breathing. On the other hand, if your stomach does not move and only your chest and shoulders move, then you are not breathing correctly for stress mastery. Practice by folding your hands over your stomach while sitting and watching TV or lying in bed. Once you feel your hands moving with your breathing, you'll learn how to make yourself breathe through your diaphragm.

4 Release Endorphins into Your Body

Endorphins are brain chemicals that transmit electrical signals within the nervous system. They are referred to as natural opiates because of their effect on reducing stress and anxiety and creating euphoric feelings. Moreover, the release of endorphins enhances the immune system, preventing you from developing physical illnesses.
The great news is that endorphin secretion is also under your control. Prolonged, continuous exercise, such as jogging, rapid walking, and swimming, releases endorphins. Release of endorphins during aerobic exercise is the source of the term runners' high.
Hearty laughing releases endorphins, so make sure you have plenty of funny TV shows and movies built into your weekly schedule. Another endorphin releaser is listening to music. Play your favorite music in the car—and sing along. Most cable networks have music channels. Setting your favorite music channel on your TV at bedtime, so it shuts off after a prescribed time period, will also help you drift off peacefully at the end of a tough day.
Explore your senses: Take time to walk barefoot on soft grass or wiggle your toes in the mud or sand. Surround yourself with colors that are conducive to relaxation and stress reduction. (According to research, blue, brown, and pink are the best.)
Other triggers of the endorphin response that have been discussed in literature on neurotransmitters are getting a massage, relaxation therapy, yoga, and even eating chocolate.

5 Practice Random Acts of Kindness

Altruism, volunteering, and even informal helping have all been shown to enhance well-being, good moods, and life satisfaction. These behaviors are wonderful buffers against the impact of stressors.
There are endless opportunities for conducting random acts of kindness. Give food to a homeless shelter. Step aside in the checkout line for a harried mother with misbehaving children. Prepare and enjoy dinner with an elderly shut-in friend. Find at least five people a day to compliment (genuinely). Write a letter of appreciation to a person in your life who has meant a lot to you, such as a teacher, mentor, relative, or friend.

6 Develop a Gratefulness Diary

Many people get into bed and rehash helpless and hopeless feelings from the day or anticipate stressful events that they will have to deal with the next day. Then they have difficulty falling asleep, or they wake up during the middle of the night.
To put yourself in the right frame of mind at bedtime, keep a diary or notebook on your nightstand and make a point of listing everything that went well during the day and everything for which you are grateful. This simple task will condition you to focus on the positive things that happen each day rather than on the things that you are upset or worried about, which only increases your stress.

7 Spend the Bulk of Your Time with Positive People

Carefully choose the people with whom you spend time. Negative people have difficulty being positive when they're around others. They would like you to join the negativity club with them to justify their own negative, cynical attitudes and moods.
These associations can be toxic. Although you may not be able to completely avoid such people, disregard their negative, discouraging comments and suggestions and find positive people with whom to spend the bulk of your time. Listen to and absorb the positive, encouraging feedback you receive from those people.
Focus on positive emotions about the future, including faith, trust, confidence, hope, and optimism. If these emotions do not come naturally to you, revisit the first strategy and examine your thinking. You can also learn to develop positive thoughts by reading good books on the topic, such as Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman (Vintage, 2006); Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Health by Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008); and The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns (Plume, 1999).

You Can Master Your Stress

Many educators succumb to the rigors of their jobs because they don't practice stress-mastery strategies. Armed with these seven key skills, you will be able to buffer yourself against the many challenges that will inevitably invite you to feel stress during the year.
Like any skill, however, stress mastery must be practiced diligently and regularly. Engaging in such practice will surely be worth your while and will help ensure that you have a fabulous school year.

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