Scene: She sits serene amid the classroom noise and handles the pressures of her work with a laser-like focus.
The power of mindfulness to transform stressed teachers, anxious students and, indeed, all of us into self-aware stress management experts is increasingly recognized by schools as a game-changing tool for improving the school experience. With the holidays on the horizon, the stress of exams and preparing to visit family can overwhelm the most ardent students of stress-reduction techniques. Consistently practicing mindfulness techniques before the rush of the holidays can elevate our stress-management skills by focusing on the following three mindfulness tips.
1. Be mindfully self-aware
Mindfulness, at its core, is simply increased awareness. The nuance of mindfulness lies in where we choose to focus awareness and the route taken to reach awareness. Few targets of awareness are more important than oneself. Understanding the people, events, and situations that trigger stress and having the ability to respond effectively is a skill learned through paying attention to ourselves. Figuring out which aspects of our identity make us feel most confident when they are affirmed can provide insight into why we become stressed when a specific aspect of our identity is challenged.
For example, if an important aspect of an educator’s identity is being a mother, and her co-workers express admiring astonishment at her ability to be present for her children despite the demands of the job, this likely gives her a mental boost that counters stress. On the other hand, if she learns these same co-workers gossip about how deficient a mother she is, it can be tremendously deflating.
Stress is a normal and healthy aspect of life when managed well and can provide insight about ourselves. Understanding which aspects of our identities are important and managing the impact our environment has on triggering stress related to these important identities is an effective first step toward using mindfulness to promote healthier responses to stress. Some strategies to start increasing self-awareness about oneself and possible triggers for stress include:
Practice self-awareness mindfulness exercises. Meditation and mindfulness exercises that begin with focusing attention on the body and mind’s current state (i.e., thoughts and body sensations that naturally occur) are powerful tools for creating a baseline understanding of how our mind and body naturally respond to our environment. The key is to observe thoughts and body sensations without judgment and learn to be more attuned to when thoughts or body sensations are moving in a direction where stress feels overwhelming. One simple technique to start this process is by practicing H.A.L.T. at least once a day.
H.A.L.T. involves asking oneself, “Am I __h__ungry, __a__ngry, __l__onely, or __t__ired?” when we notice ourselves moving toward a negative mood.
Journal consistently. Journaling can assume many forms including writing, drawing, and recorded speaking or singing. The key is creating space to reflect and consider how one is managing life’s challenges. Consistently having space for this form of reflection can provide both catharsis and enlightenment on healthier ways to manage stress. When starting to journal, don’t worry about what to write and instead focus on emptying what is in your mind.
2. Soothe the Self
Increased self-awareness starts us down the road toward stress management by cluing us into what stresses us, while self-soothing techniques give us skills to counter the stress. We gather information about how to navigate the world from our senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. When our senses absorb information that our brains process as threatening, our stress response is activated and the sympathetic nervous system automatically moves toward a fight, flight, or freeze response to protect us.
Stressful situations trigger the muscles in your body to tense, palms to sweat, and a host of other physiological responses that only escalate how stressed you may feel.
Similar to the stress response activated after our senses receive information signaling threat, we can also use our senses to trigger a calming response that activates the parasympathetic nervous system — the portion of the nervous system responsible for relaxing our body. Despite stressful life events surrounding us, we can focus our senses to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and calm us enough to make better decisions when stress is becoming overwhelming. A couple of strategies to start this process include:
Create a self-soothing toolkit. Think about sensory experiences that make you feel calm. Maybe it’s the sound of running water, the smell of fresh linen, or the soft touch of a fluffy pillow. Create a self-soothing toolkit this week that consists of two or three items that help you feel calm and practice using them at regular intervals during the day. This develops the habit of soothing oneself before stress becomes overwhelming and permits you to eventually engage a familiar coping skill that counteracts automatic stress responses.
Practice progressive muscle relaxation. Our bodies can often tense outside of our awareness when experiencing stress. Progressive muscle relaxation techniques guide conscious release of muscle tension. It can be paired with a visualization (e.g., pretend you are squeezing all the juice from an orange, then relax your hands) that helps the practice become easier to remember, particularly for children.
3. Practice inward compassion
Self-awareness about triggers and self-soothing when stressed may feel inconsequential after stress has consumed us and led to a bad decision. Whether yelling at our kids or having one drink too many, unhealthy decisions after succumbing to the pressures of stress can leave many of us beating ourselves up for what we see as our poor choices. Contrary to what our natural tendency to self-punish might lead us to believe, finding ways to show ourselves compassion while learning healthier strategies to manage stress is the best route to moving forward at that moment and in the future.
Self-compassion is less about letting ourselves off the hook and more about understanding that challenges in the face of stress are common and we deserve the space to recover from poor decisions. Recent research finds individuals who speak to themselves compassionately in the third person show reduced activation of parts of the brain responsible for anxiety. Some tips for engaging self-compassion include:
Incorporate self-compassion meditation exercises. Meditation exercises that prompt compassionate self-talk after reflecting on challenging situations can train the mind to use self-compassion more readily. The importance of moving quickly toward self-compassion lies in the ability to motivate positive change, because the weight of pervasive guilt and rumination about the past is more easily lifted. With a present awareness and forward focus, you are freed to start practicing healthier strategies to manage stress.
Take a “gratitude pause.” Self-compassion can be difficult because appreciating our lives during stressful moments feels unnatural. However, if we take stock of the entirety of our life at that stressful moment we often can find at least one or two reasons for gratefulness. Practicing these moments once or twice a day through a gratitude journal, spiritual practice such as prayer, or a gratefulness meditation can help us appreciate aspects of ourselves that are lost when the desire to self-punish arises after a poor decision.
Mindful awareness may not be the gift you asked for this holiday season, but it is the gift that will give you the ability to deal with the pressures inside and outside the classroom.
Isaiah Pickens, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist committed to bringing the message of hope through healthy living to others in the most compelling, scientifically-grounded, and entertaining ways. Whether providing a keynote address, training, or an answer to a simple question, he is here to help you achieve the best version of yourself. Learn more at iOpening Enterprises. He loves hiking and bikes and is “kind of a sci-fi junky.” Find him on Twitter and Instagram @PickensPoints.