Even in the best of years, teachers deal with a lot of stress — standardized tests, challenging interactions with students, preparing and delivering lessons and labs. But especially now, in the middle of a pandemic, it can be hard deal with the stress in a healthy way. One way to combat stress and anxiety is through mindfulness. Simply put, mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to your emotions and being present in the moment without judgment. This practice helps us direct our attention away from unhelpful, invasive thoughts and focus on being kind yourself. Mindfulness helps us process stress in a healthy, productive way, which improves mental and physical health.
How can we practice mindfulness in a way that helps us as educators? Here are five mindfulness techniques that can help you process stress while teaching. Please note, this post is not medical advice. If you are dealing with serious stress, anxiety, or depression, you should consider contacting your doctor, a mental health professional, or a help line like the one offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for further guidance.
- Focus on your breath: Oftentimes, the best way to reset in a stressful situation is to stop and focus on the breath. When we’re busy or stressed, we tend to take short, shallow breaths. Pausing to take a few deep breaths can help you feel less anxious or angry. I know that I recommend this to my kids in stressful situations! One easy way to focus on the breath is to place one hand on the chest and the other hand on the belly. Breathe in deeply through the nose, feeling the lungs fill with air and focus on the hands moving. Breathe out from your mouth, and again focus on the hands. If you’re breathing deeply, the hand on the belly should move more than the hand on the chest. Repeat the breath, adjusting to fill the lungs fully. This exercise can continue for a few breaths (try at least five), or for several minutes as you focus on the sensations.
- Set reminders for mindfulness: Take a few moments throughout the day to stop and reconnect to yourself. Some people set timers, others use notes. But, most importantly, in these moments, focus on what is happening in your body and your mind before proceeding with your actions.
- Focus on sensation: Are you guilty of eating a hurried lunch or snack between classes, not remember what you ate a few minutes later? An easy mindfulness exercise is to slow down and focus on the food you are eating. Take a few bites of your food and focus on the flavors, colors, and textures. Are you enjoying the food? Does it satisfy your needs? Imagine the food nourishing your body and mind. This is especially important for our “treat” foods, or even that morning cup of coffee! Take time to enjoy the taste and texture of your favorite treat as you eat to fully appreciate it.
- Focus on one task at a time: As a teacher, I’m sure you are a professional multitasker. It seems like there is always another fire that needs to be put out, whether it be communications with parents, a lesson plan, grading, or more. However, while you may be making progress on many tasks, none end up being completed. This can lead to dismay, disappointment, and anxiety. We’ll never get away from multitasking, but we can strategize to more fully complete our work. Start by setting a small goal to focus on one project and complete it. This could be as small as writing a single test question, or as large as writing your curriculum. Each completion adds up and leaves us with a sense of accomplishment.
- Get up and move: Sometimes, when we hit that mid-day slump, we need to get up and simply move! Our lives — especially now, when we’re largely stuck in front of a computer all day, and in our homes at night — are becoming more and more sedentary. This can result in mental cloudiness, fatigue, and stress. Inject some gentle movement into your day to recharge yourself! This can be a long walk around the neighborhood, or a short yoga video. Below is a video geared to the mid-day slump, designed to be done in the office (even in work clothes for when we get back to the class/lab/office).
These are just a few strategies to help you get started on your mindfulness journey. Here are a few additional links to help you explore mindfulness and mindfulness practices a bit further.
- “What is Mindfulness?” from the University of Minnesota
- “How to Cultivate Mindfulness” from the Positive Psychlopedia
- “Mindfulness Exercises” from the Mayo Clinic
- “Seven Ways Mindfulness Can Help Teachers” from the Greater Good Magazine
- “Finding Focus in the Fog – Wellness Tips for 2021” from the NIH OITE blog
- “7 Simple Ways to Sneak Mindfulness” Into Your Teaching Day from We are Teachers