Prioritizing Physical & Mental Health Despite Ongoing Stress
Written by: Tiffany Creager, LSW, MSW
I was recently asked to come have a conversation with the staff at a non-profit agency about managing personal stress as they continue their great work of supporting their community. It turns out their CEO, very in tune to the stress of her employees, had decided to mandate paid self-care days. Can you imagine? Each employee was to take one day off every two weeks, paid, without using their saved personal days, to combat the stress of the intense workload they’ve been carrying, especially throughout the past few months.
The intention was to give everyone the much-needed break she saw that they needed. Instead, it caused an immense amount of additional stress. Worried the work wouldn’t get done and worried people would be left unsupported there was quite a lot of pushback. This is where I came in. I was asked to discuss the benefit of prioritizing one’s mental health, the harm of toxic stress, and offer strategies to negate the stress.
Our planned two hours turned to three and in the end, there was a deeper understanding of how a break could serve both the employees and the clients. Still, it wasn’t going to be an easy adjustment.
It got me thinking about the level of pressure we in human services place on ourselves. It seems we have come to believe that we must sacrifice ourselves, our well-being, and our time to best meet the needs of our clients or students. Instead of pausing to breathe, we power through, telling ourselves and everyone else that we’re fine.
Over and over, we push through the emotional exhaustion. We work long unpaid hours for no additional pay atop our already lower-than-deserved incomes. And for what? I know we tell ourselves, we have to. Our students need us, our communities need us. It’s the only way. But, friends, we’re not fine. And wearing our fatigue and stress as a badge isn’t benefiting us and it’s not benefiting the people we serve. I say that with love and compassion as I know we came to this field with the hope of creating real and positive change.
This feeling of stress and overwhelm is not new to 2020. This has been an ongoing issue in our field and we must pause and talk about how to support one another as we head to work each day with the same level of responsibility and conviction that we have always had, but now with the ever-changing expectations that come with teaching or working during a global crisis. Add in the changing expectations of parenting and even existing in society right now and we are all hurting.
This is when it becomes imperative to understand that the “full of heart” are not weak, sappy beings who fail to thrive. There is strength in the passion we bring to the job. There is bravery in our vulnerability and there is fearlessness in our ability to sit beside students everyday (literally or figuratively) and teach.
This is where differences are made, this is how we change the world one person at a time, THIS is where we build a compassionate, curious, strong in heart society. However, none of this is possible, if we don’t lift up the people doing the work. Together, let’s explore how we might make that happen despite the pressures, resistance and at times blatant disrespect we feel from outside sources. Let’s explore how turning inward can bring us peace.
Let’s make a commitment to not only care for ourselves but to encourage our co-workers, students, and families to do the same. Let’s create space for transformation without apology or regret.
The cost of stress
The first, and arguably, most important thing for us to work on is looking inward. It seems many of us have been conditioned to sacrifice ourselves to the point of burnout, compassion fatigue, or moral injury. It’s worth noting that we aren’t only hurting ourselves.
In fact, teacher burnout is predictive of student academic outcomes, including being correlated with lower levels of student effective learning and lower motivation (Zhang & Sapp, 2008). Additionally, teacher burnout appears to affect the stress levels of the students they teach; a recent study found that teacher burnout level explained more than half of the variability in students’ levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) when evaluated in the morning (Oberle & Schonert-Reichl, 2016).
So, how do we combat this in our profession where the demands are only increasing? We learn to release stress from our bodies even when stressors remain. By doing so, not only do we have hope of restoration and peace, we encourage the healing of our physical and mental selves. You see, this stress is not just exhausting and inconvenient. It comes at a cost.
Chronic stress causes inflammation in our bodies. It heightens our risk for cardiovascular disease, dementia, neurodegenerative disease, and mental health issues. It compromises our mood and brain function and leaves us emotionally exhausted, depleted of empathy and compassion, and believing nothing we do will make a difference. This is no way for us to live and it is certainly not who we want or deserve to be for our students, families, and for ourselves.
We must begin listening to our bodies, watching for signs of stress such as increased heart rate, tightened muscles, fatigue, mood changes, stomach problems, apathy, headaches and so on.
Pause for a moment and reflect. What happens in your body when you are stressed. Take note and commit to watching for those signs. Once we learn to identify the ways in which we carry our stress, we can begin addressing it.
Below you will find a few strategies to help release stress and begin the restoration and healing we so desperately need and deserve. Experiment and discover the most impactful ones for you.
Strategies to Reduce Stress
I encourage you to practice one of three types of meditation daily: concentrative, expressive, or mindfulness. Meditation is a powerful tool in managing stress even when the stressor is not gone. It has been shown to heal trauma, build resilience, prevent illness, enhance happiness, and prolong life.
In fact, in her book Stress Less, Accomplish More: Meditation for Extraordinary Performance, Emily Fletcher reminds us that, “In only two months, meditation can change the brain enough to be visibly detectable by MRI, shrinking the fear center and enlarging the centers responsible for happiness, love and creative problem – solving” (p. 43). Isn’t that amazing? And it’s free! You only need to build in a few minutes a day to see the impact.
Perhaps attach it to something you already do every day such as brewing your coffee, brushing your teeth, etc. In schools, I encourage leaders to teach the benefits to staff and students and begin each day with a minimum of two minutes of meditation. I, myself, have seen the great impact this has on entire schools! Enough about the why, let’s get to the how.
Concentrative meditation is when you are focused on a sound, an image, or perhaps reciting a repetitive prayer. A quick way to practice this daily is through a method called Soft Belly breathing. Simply sit up tall, close your eyes, and breathe in deeply through your nose and exhale through your mouth, keeping your belly soft and relaxed. Concentrate on the word “soft” on the inhale and “belly” on the exhale.
Soft Belly Breathing is the first strategy James Gordon, M.D., founder of Center for Mind and Body Medicine teaches in every group he runs including those in response to traumatic events such as war, natural disasters, school shootings, and so on. You can have Dr. Gordon guide you through Soft Belly breathing and other strategies described below here.
Expressive meditations are among the oldest practices and can be used to shake loose the tension of your fight or flight response. These practices can release anger, raise energy, and may even have the same benefits as jogging or biking when practiced regularly.
My go-to practice for expressive meditation is shaking and dancing. Have you ever noticed an animal stunned or sent into their fight or flight response stand up and shake before moving on when the threat is gone? It’s instinctual!
To practice this, we stand up with bent knees and relaxed shoulders and closed eyes. Take a few big deep breaths and then play some rhythmic music and begin shaking up from your feet, through your knees to your hips and shoulders. Shake your body, relax your jaw, and let the shaking take over your body. You will likely feel silly at first, but trust me!
After a few minutes of shaking, pause and pay attention to your body’s sensations. Breathe deeply. Then play some music and let the music move your body. It isn’t choreographed or for show, listen to your body. It will tell you how to move. When the music stops, relax and jot down any notes. This can take 5-15 minutes and is well worth it! I’ve started shaking every morning. I still feel absolutely ridiculous but it works so I’m sticking with it!
Mindfulness meditations bring awareness to the activity in which you are currently doing. Mindful walking, eating, breathing are just a few examples. Mindful walking is a great strategy. Walking through a beautiful park may be preferable but in a pinch, this technique can be embraced as administrators or teachers move around the building. As you walk, bring your awareness to each step, each breath. Let other thoughts wash over you, trusting they’ll return when you need them. This practice allows us to be present in our current moment, leaving the past and future off to the side. This can reduce anxiety, bring joy to small moments, and make us more in tune with our body and its needs.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “laughter is the best medicine.” Turns out, it truly is medicinal. It’s benefits? Laughter eases anxiety, boosts immunity, improves mood, strengthens resilience, shifts perspective, and strengthens relationships. How can you engage in a good hard belly laugh today? Watch a funny movie, call a friend, recall a funny thing that happened to you. If it is tough to get yourself in a laughing state, try just laughing.
I mean it! Throw your head back, force a laugh. Make it big. Slap your knee, really get into it. After a few minutes, you’ll be laughing! In my experience, this works best with kids in your midst. Adults may give you a funny look or two. Kids will belly laugh right along with you and you’ll feel the release laughter can bring!
Those of us who live with our hearts on our sleeves may find ourselves crying or wanting to cry often. Perhaps we’ve learned to push that feeling aside after years of making those around us uncomfortable with our big feelings. Just me?
Still, crying is the physical expression of stress. Sure, it doesn’t erase the stressor, but it rids our body of pent-up stress and despite what we might think, the tears will stop. When you feel the urge to cry. Cry. You may try removing the reason from your mind at that time and focusing on the experience of crying. How many tears are you producing? What physical sensations are occurring? Take the thought out of it. Focus on the mechanics and soon the crying will stop and your body will feel the benefits.
Carrie Fisher once said, “take your broken heart and turn it into art.” This idea of healing through art is backed in science. In his book, “The Transformation”, Dr. James Gordon reminds us that, “drawings are one of the simplest, most reliable ways to bypass the fears that arise from our amygdala and the hope-limiting doubts of our ‘rational’ left hemisphere. They give us immediate access to the great storehouse of the right brain’s intuitive wisdom” (p. 61).
Creation allows us to experience and express big emotions in a safe way. There are numerous ways to access that intuitive wisdom through creation. Paint, dance, draw, knit, imagine, bake. What is your favorite way to unwind using your creativity?
I remember as a 21-year-old kid feeling the intense trauma of 9/11 from afar. I didn’t know what to do with the emotions that overwhelmed me but didn’t necessarily feel like they were mine to experience. I was in college in Indiana after all. Still, I decided to honor the victims in some small way and ended up creating two large collages.
The process was therapeutic and the outcome acted as a memorial in my small world. Fast forward to me at age 38 navigating my dad’s journey with dementia. I was reminded by a group facilitator that I could introduce my children to my dad in a unique way. It took me months to create a scrapbook that introduced my daughters to my dad. It was fun. It was painful. It was healing. I give these two examples as a person who still draws stick people and feels stressed out by the idea of coloring as a reminder that creativity can be therapeutic for us all. It can give context and meaning to our stress, our loss, or our big emotions.
Exercise, hug and play
There are so many simple ways to let our bodies know we are safe so that we might release the stress and engage in healing. In addition to the above listed, we know that physical exercise reduces stress, improves mood, builds brain cells, and reduces the risk of depression and dementia.
Take a walk, run around the block, play a game of basketball, do some yoga in your living room – give yourself the gift of a quick workout. Can’t find twenty minutes to exercise? You may also have heard of the benefit of a twenty-second hug! Just twenty seconds of affection in a safe and trusting context can give you the benefits of a quick jog.
Finally, get together with friends. Our brains are wired for connection and when we satisfy that need, we tell ourselves that we are safe. When we are safe, we can unwind and we can heal.
Making habits stick
There are countless ways to prioritize our mental and physical health by releasing the stress from our bodies. So often though, as we place everyone’s needs above our own, we struggle to find the time. We might set our alarms with big ambitions of hour-long workouts before work.
Perhaps we read the benefits of meditation and decide we have twenty minutes a day to give! Then, slowly (or quickly), that protected time is given to others. Or we skip just one day and agree to try again – usually next Monday. Just me again? This has been my pattern. However, my hope has recently been renewed as I began studying the work of Dr. Rangan Chatterjee. His recommendation? Five minutes.
Can we give five minutes a day, five times a week? I don’t know about you, but that seems doable to me! He goes on to suggest that we tie our new desired habit to an existing habit. For example, can you do five minutes of yoga while your coffee is brewing? Perhaps you can take your evening cup of tea outside and practice mindfulness in nature each evening.
The reality is that five minutes a day works. Eventually, you might feel so great that you choose to increase that time. If not, that’s okay. My challenge to you (and to me) is to commit to five minutes a day, five days a week, for one month. Will you join me?
So many of us have been drawn to the field of human service and education because we aim to make a difference. We believe that the world can be a better place and are honored to be a part of that transformation. But the events and stress of 2020 have left me wondering, at what cost?
Furthermore, what if the greatest impact we can make starts with caring for ourselves, encouraging others to do the same and shifting the expectations so that we become less of a society driven by seeking perfection and competition and more of a community that believes when we care for ourselves and others, we all benefit.
In the end, I’m learning, that is all that matters. I look forward to the day when we grant permission to prioritize physical and mental health. I believe that day is coming and I believe it starts with us.
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Read more of Tiffany’s Blogs:
Chatterjee, R., & Winfield, C. (2020). Feel better in 5: Your daily plan to feel great for life. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.
Fletcher, E. (2019). Stress less, accomplish more: Meditation for busy minds. Place of publication not identified: BLUEBIRD.
GORDON, J. S. (2020). Transformation: Discovering wholeness and healing after trauma. SAN FRANCISCO, CA: HARPER ONE.
Nagoski, E., & Nagoski, A. (2020). Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Oberle, E., & Schonert-Reichl, K. A. (2016). Stress contagion in the classroom? The link between classroom teacher burnout and morning cortisol in elementary school students. Social Science & Medicine, 159, 30-37. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.04.031
Zhang, Q., & Sapp, D. (2008). A Burning Issue in Teaching: The Impact of Perceived Teacher Burnout and Nonverbal Immediacy on Student Motivation and Affective Learning. Journal of Communication Studies, 1(2), 152-168
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