Stuck in a vicious cycle of negativity? Let's break it

When you find yourself anxious, don't feed the feeling - cut it off with these tips from wellbeing expert Jo Steer

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We all know the concept of the vicious cycle.

But for the growing number of burned-out teachers turning to cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), the understanding stretches a little further. 

As an alumnus of that group, I can tell you honestly that as simple as a concept it may be, it was something that I’d never really thought about before.


Quick read: Four ways to get your inner critic to pipe down

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Fixed as my mindset was, and as powerless and hopeless as I felt, the idea that I could starve the anxiety I had inadvertently been feeding, was a game-changer.

The process may not completely counteract the exhausted misery that comes with working 70-hour weeks in a toxic school environment (only a letter of resignation can do that), but it will allow you to see things from a different perspective.

Moreover, it will help you to regain a sense of control in a situation where you feel yourself to have very little. 

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Let’s imagine that your lesson is being observed by the snootiest, most difficult-to-please member of SLT. Your thoughts may include worry about the observer hating the lesson, the kids messing about or lacking understanding of what you’re trying to teach.

As your mouth goes dry, your heart races and your palms begin to sweat, your body language turns negative and closed. 

In this scenario, the stress and anxiety don’t start with the situation – as unpleasant as observations might be – but with the cycle of negative thoughts and images, focused on the potential for everything to go catastrophically wrong.

This, in turn, triggers a series of uncomfortable emotions and physical sensations as our brain senses danger and prepares our body to fight, fly or, my personal preference, freeze. 

And so we react – whether we’re conscious of it or not – through our words, behaviour, tone and body language, often eliciting a reaction from those around us and reinforcing the initial thoughts and emotions.

At this point, you’re heading straight for a self-fulfilling prophecy. So how do we break the cycle?

1. Acknowledge what’s happening and the role that you are playing in reinforcing this negative experience. Mindfully notice the thoughts that you’re having and question whether they’re reliable, trustworthy or constructive.

Are you repeating unhelpful thinking habits? Would you say them to a friend facing the same situation? If not, then it’s probably not a good idea to repeat them to yourself.

2.  Breathe. Slowly and consciously, squeezing your fist to acknowledge the appearance of a thought, before returning attention to your breath.

Not only will this help you to detach from those pesky unhelpful thoughts, it may also calm the uncomfortable physical sensations you might be experiencing.

3.  Be aware of your actions. If your body language is closed or slumped, switch it up by standing tall and looking up, with arms by your side. This calm, confident body language will disrupt the nervousness emanating from the brain.

4.  Remember that it’s OK to not feel OK; that it doesn’t mean anything. Like a bad taste in your mouth, or the horrific pain of stubbing your toe, it will pass.

Jo Steer is a teacher and experienced leader of SEND interventions

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