Work-life balance - Take a deep breath

10th October 2008 at 01:00
When stressful situations arise, decide how much control you have and take action. There's no point in worrying, says Margaret Wehrenberg

Teachers repeatedly say they love to teach, but much else about the job stresses them. This in turn triggers self-doubt, anxiety and panic, but simple tools can give teachers back control.

First, do not neglect to look after yourself. Think about the aeroplane instruction: in case of emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. The best way of strengthening yourself is to sleep, eat nutritious food and exercise. These controllable lifestyle issues go a long way towards eliminating physical and mental damage.

Learn to breathe and relax. Do yoga, meditation or ask a therapist if you are unsure which route to take. Controlling your breathing is the key to stopping panic in its tracks, and relaxation wards off anxiety-related tension.

Then, dig in and take care of what you can control. Identify whether your stresses fall into minor inconvenience, major inconvenience or catastrophe. Do not waste energy contemplating minor inconveniences. No one but yourself suffers when you ruminate about unfairness or irritation, and school life is filled with both.

Change your inner dialogue to: "While I would prefer not to have this inconvenience, I can handle it." Once said, forget about it. Literally, imagine changing the channel in your mind to a fresh thought, as you would change the channel on TV. This takes practice, but it works.

When catastrophe looms, list every aspect of the situation and your degree of control. Then, "plan, don't worry." Figure out what you can prepare for, write it down, rehearse it and then stop thinking about it. For example, if preparing pupils for an external exam, plan and complete revision well in advance, but do not worry while awaiting their results. With or without your concern, their grades are now totally beyond your control.

If the anxiety still materialises, return to your contingency plan and concentrate on the tasks at hand. Interrupting worry with a simple instruction: "Stop!" and refocusing attention is a great way to handle ruminating anxiety.

For things in your control, but not in your skill set, get help. Try mentoring with a colleague, especially "reverse mentoring". This could involve an experienced but technophobe teacher pairing up with someone more comfortable with computers. In return, the more experienced practitioner can help their younger colleague handle their seemingly overwhelming paperwork.

Another option is to observe excellent teachers at work, whether in your own school or beyond. Your line manager may agree to a day off to see how other teachers control their classroom or convey a topic. It is an excellent way to absorb new ideas.

Consider talking to a counsellor or psychologist about options that do not involve medication, such as breathing techniques, cognitive behavioural therapy or planned desensitisation.

But whatever you do, don't isolate yourself from that terrific anti- anxiety activity: human contact. Through it you can rediscover your ability to learn, have fun and control anxiety.

Dr Margaret Wehrenberg is a clinical psychologist with a therapy practice in Naperville, Illinois, US. She is author of The Anxious Brain and The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques.

RELAXATION TECHNIQUES

- Reduce anxiety with stress "recovery drills". Take two-minute breaks throughout the day. Stretch, call a friend to say hello, drink water, or take a stroll round the school grounds. Little recoveries de-stress a long day and add up to a less stressful life.

- Make clear distinctions between work and leisure, scheduling times for planning, paperwork, marking and even for checking emails from pupils and parents. Then keep to your schedule.

- When you have finished work, plan a little transition time: breathe, meditate, take a walk and clear your mind of thoughts related to school. Tell yourself tomorrow's work can wait.

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