Keeping mentally fit this year
Seven fundamental ways teachers can improve and maintain their own mental health
After a year of distance learning, people are rightly concerned about students re-adapting to the stress and demands of in-person learning. But what about teachers? They are a vital component in helping children cope with their stress, worries, depression, and social anxieties. They are also a model of emotional balance, stress tolerance, and self-management. So, how can teachers maintain their own mental wellness?
While the internet can provide several self-care activities like relaxation and meditation that work, evidence-based therapy shows that mental wellness is a deliberate, conscious activity, not a disjointed series of self-care activities. Contemporary therapeutic practices are based on the idea that mental wellness is—for most of us—a set of skills that people learn, practice, and master over a lifetime.
What are these skills about? Tolerating distress and managing emotions.
That’s what mentally healthy people do well. They handle worry, sadness, panic, hopelessness, frustration, and anger—all the emotions everyone experiences—in such a way that those emotions don’t explode into destructive behaviors or evolve into persistent problems like anxiety or depression. Mentally healthy people don’t have fewer or less distressing problems than others. They, too, lose loved ones, get fired, have money problems, and say the wrong things just like everyone else. They simply handle those problems and their emotional responses differently than people who are overwhelmed by similar problems.
If mental health is a set of skills, where does one start? Start with the hundreds of books and workbooks that teach evidence-based distress tolerance and emotional management skills. But before that, it helps to review some of the fundamentals.
Sleep, eat and move
Research has consistently shown that anxiety, depression, and other psychological problems are dramatically impacted by physical wellness. For that reason, any program for managing distress and regulating emotions starts with sleeping well, eating right, and exercising daily, as well as treating physical illnesses and avoiding illicit drugs. The bad news is that if you’re failing at one of these, you may throw off the others along with your ability to manage stress and emotions.
For instance, let’s say you’re worried about an upcoming meeting with the parents of a disruptive child. You’re unable to fall asleep. You’re now tired during the day, so you eat high sugar foods, throwing your metabolism off and increasing rather than fixing your sleepiness. You skip exercise because you’re too tired. Because you’re tired and physically inactive, you’re now more vulnerable to negative thoughts and emotions, which makes sleeping harder. It doesn’t take long for this downward cycle to become mentally, emotionally, and physically unsustainable. Adopting a rigorous, uncompromising program of good sleep hygiene, daily exercise, and a well-balanced, nutritious diet is indispensable for mental health.
Sleep, eat, move: that’s the first step in achieving and maintaining mental health and balance.
Pay attention to your thinking
Bad things often make us feel bad whether it’s pile of papers to grade, an upcoming performance review, or an email from an angry parent. But most of the time, we feel bad not because something bad has happened, but because our thoughts and beliefs are making us feel bad. True, effective, and practical self-care starts with paying attention to all the distorted thoughts and negative beliefs that cause us anxiety, worry, fear, sadness, or hopelessness. Some therapists will make their patients list all the bad thoughts they have when they are feeling negative emotions. That’s because mental health starts with learning to recognize the thoughts and beliefs that trigger negative emotions and maladaptive behaviors. Acknowledging these thoughts is the first step to managing them and the emotions and destructive behaviors they cause.
Keep bad thoughts at bay
The quickest way to prevent bad thoughts from overwhelming us is to stop them.
Nearly all distress tolerance and emotional management programs will teach some form of thought-stopping or distraction techniques. The goal is to occupy the brain in an effort to keep bad thoughts and emotions from having room to bounce around. Remember, the emotions and behaviors caused by bad thoughts harm you. They push you to behave oddly and make poor decisions. Thought-stopping follows the same principle you instinctually follow when you touch a scalding hot pan. Your first and most obvious response is to get your hand off the pan. The same applies here, get them off your mind.
The basic techniques of thought-stopping include engaging in activities you enjoy, helping other people, doing brain work such as math problems or puzzles, watching emotional movies, thinking about good memories, or stimulating your senses. There are bookcases full of behavioral therapy, emotional management, and distress tolerance books loaded with techniques. It’s one of the easiest mental wellness techniques to learn. The good news is that when you recognize bad thoughts for what they are and you can confront them and their attendant destructive emotions, eventually quiet down. And just putting distance between yourself and those thoughts and emotions may be enough to change your perspective to something more balanced and constructive.
Among the most basic techniques of thought-stopping is mindfulness. Most of our distressing thoughts relate to the past or the future. We beat ourselves up for losing our temper in a class or we imagine the impending catastrophe when our principal finds out. Mindfulness is based on the simple principle: bad thoughts and emotions are rarely aligned to our present circumstances. It is a way of managing stress, problems, and emotions by focusing on what you are doing now, seeing now, and hearing now, rather than focusing on the past or future. Breathing exercises, focusing on one sense, body surveys, meditating, and even doing puzzles are all mindfulness exercises you can do to bring yourself into the present to quiet negative emotions.
Change your beliefs
At some point, mental wellness requires changing bad thoughts into healthy ones. In therapeutic terms, this is called “cognitive restructuring,” but it simply means thinking about your situation in realistic, compassionate, and constructive ways. For instance, say you have an upcoming performance review and its inspiring worry and distress. Distraction and thought-stopping can help, but you still have to face the upcoming performance review. Start by thinking about your past performance reviews. You probably worried yourself sick about them too, but you got through them. Soon you’ve changed a wrong belief (“I can’t do this”) into a more realistic belief (“I can handle this because I’ve done it in the past”).
Therapists who work on emotional management call this way of thinking, “Action-Belief-Consequence,” or “ABC.” Many of us think only in terms of “action” and “consequence.” That’s why we have problems handling stress, tolerating distress, or managing negative emotions. Here’s how action-consequence thinking works: a particularly troublesome kid in class today ruins the whole class. You feel powerless and become enraged, frustrated, and overwhelmed. You say to yourself, “That kid’s bad behavior made me get angry.” That’s action-consequence.
What is actually happening is that the student was out of control and as a result, you thought, “I’m helpless, I can’t control this.” The consequence of that belief is anger and frustration. You made yourself angry, not the student. Action-belief-consequence. The child’s unruliness can’t be changed, but the belief can be changed from “I’m helpless” to “I can handle this.” Most importantly, you’ve separated your emotion from the problem, and that is the first and most effective step towards solving any problem.
Replace worrying with planning
The only thing separating worry from a clinically diagnosable anxiety disorder is the degree, not kind. Although some people don’t have anxiety, every person worries at one point or another. Why? Because things go wrong. While worrying is normal, worrying too much harms you mentally and physically. Worry releases stress hormones, prevents you from sleeping, compromises your ability to manage yourself, and elicits all types of bad behaviors.
The most effective way to deal with worry, fear, and panic is to change worrying into planning. Unlike worrying, planning doesn’t hurt you. It doesn’t release stress hormones, it doesn’t shorten your lifespan, or make you lash out at your students. Let’s say there are multiple COVID cases in your school this week. You’re worried that the school will switch to distance learning which comes with its own set of challenges. Realistically, you can use thought-stopping, distraction, or mindfulness to calm the worry, but the problem is real. Any day now, you might get the school closure email in your inbox. Instead of worrying, start planning and preparing for the move to distance learning. What can you do right now to be ready for the change? In terms of mental health, the more thoroughly you plan, the less you worry. You are in control, not the situation, not your bad thoughts, and not your negative emotions.
Ask for help
Finally, some people may need help learning and practicing the skills required to achieve and maintain mental wellness. There’s nothing wrong with this. Some people hire trainers to help them in the gym to achieve their goals. Others get just as physically fit by going it alone. Good therapists do the same thing for you. They provide you with practical skills, advice, and techniques you can use to manage your thoughts, reactions, emotions, and behaviors. They can practice them with you and help you refine those skills. Some of the advice may not be welcome, such as eating right, exercising daily, or making plans. Do it anyway. Trust the therapist. Work toward mastering the program.
Why these skills matter
If this seems like a lot, remember that mental health is a lifelong project. Think of it this way: if mental wellness is a set of skills you can learn, it’s also a set of skills you can teach. Techniques you successfully use to handle stress, tolerate distress, manage negative emotions, and control destructive behaviors are techniques that students can successfully employ, too. In this sense, taking care of yourself really does mean taking care of others. The next time you feel overwhelmed, remember this: you help your students when you help yourself.
Students may also need extra attention when it comes to mental health this school year. Take a read through our recent blog about preparing for the mental health needs of K-12 students.
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