From basic mediation exercises to learning to say ‘no’, there are many simple changes teachers can make to improve their physical and mental health.
The pressures of teaching can be difficult to manage and it can sometimes feel like you have no time to switch off. So if you ended last year feeling overwhelmed and anxious then the start of the new year is a good time to make some changes.
But learning to cope better with stress does not happen overnight and takes some effort on your part. Here is a list of some simple, scientifically-proven practices to help you unwind and improve your mental health.
Learn the power of your breath
It may seem intuitive, but so many of us end up holding our breath, especially when we’re stressed. Breathing exercises work with the cardiac muscle to shift our vagal tone toward a parasympathetic balance. In other words, breathing deeply takes our body from a fight-or-flight state towards a calm and balanced one. Being aware of your breath for a few minutes every day, right before your class begins, or even with the students, can have amazing benefits for your health.
Try following the exercise below or if you want a deeper practice, try Pranayama, the art of yoga breathing.
- Breathe into the diaphragm through the back of the throat for four seconds.
- Hold for four seconds.
- Breathe out slowly through the back of the throat for six seconds.
- Hold empty breath for two or more seconds, then repeat.
Getting more hours of shut-eye is critical for our physical and mental health. Research by the University of Pennsylvania, for example, found that subjects who were limited to just 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week felt more mentally exhausted and stressed. Their mood improved greatly when their sleep pattern resumed to normal.
Thankfully, there are techniques to try to help you get better sleep. Improving your sleep hygiene is a great way to beat sleeplessness and a few changes can really help. First up, ditch the afternoon coffee. Caffeine stays in the body forseveral hours after you consume it and new research suggests it may even disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm, proving to be almost as bad as bright blue lights (see below). So you may want to limit your coffee to the morning, or switch to catechin-rich green tea.
Another tip is to lose the laptop and smartphone at night. A recent study revealed that the blue screen light can delay the circadian clock, suppress levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin and even lead to groggy mornings. Lastly, new research suggests that sleeping on your side – compared to your back or stomach – can help your brain.
Take the simple breathing exercises discussed earlier a bit further by exploring the practice of meditation. This is about training the mind to acknowledge its content without becoming identified with it, and often involves concentrating on the breath – a good way to focus your mind. Choosing to follow your breathing (or concentrate on another object in a sustained fashion) is a form of “focused meditation”. Another form of meditation – open monitoring meditation – involves non-reactively monitoring the content of experience from moment-to-moment, primarily as a means to recognise the nature of our own thoughts and emotions.
Scientific research over the past decade has shown that meditation can have physical and long-lasting effects on the body and brain (pdf). As a more immediate mechanism to reduce stress, meditating can also trigger the body’s relaxation response (the opposite of the fight-or-flight response). With more consistent practice, the brain can even be rewired, resulting in elevated levels of mindfulness, equanimity, compassion and empathy. And these traits can also be shared with your students for a calmer classroom.
The good news is that it doesn’t take decades of sitting cross-legged to benefit from meditation’s effects. Even a short 10-minute meditation practice can help you start your day with a positive attitude, and more resiliency against stress. The Headspace app offers daily 10-minute meditations for 10 days, which is a simple way to give meditation a go. That’s enough time to see if you like it, and experience some of the benefits.
You can also try the following exercise:
- Scan your body slowly, from the top of your head down to your toes.
- Become aware of your body’s various sensations, whether that’s pain, tension, warmth or relaxation.
- Observe, but don’t judge these sensations.
This technique focuses your attention on different parts of your body as you progressively relax each area, while helping you become more aware of your bodily sensations and the thoughts that come and go.
I can say this from experience – and seeing my mother juggle her own classroom and students – being short on time makes it even harder for us to say no. Perhaps we are too busy to realise our time deprived schedule, but being stressed and tired automates our behaviour, so that we say yes to more and more out of sheer habit. Planning and rehearsing how to say, “I wish I could, but I can’t really take on more responsibilities” (before the task is asked of us) will habituate us to respond this way.
Improvements to your wellbeing doesn’t require monumental change; just getting a little more sleep and a bit less stress on a regular basis will have profound effects. Other simplicities include taking the time to enjoy what you enjoy most, stroking your pets, exercising, or simply laying around listening to music. We must all remember that educators are also caretakers – and caring for the caretaker is just as critical to the wellbeing of our community.