This is Part 4 in a four part series about why the **** we are so stressed. Part 1 was about how worrying about things we can’t control causes our stress levels to escalate (and some simple solutions to help us manage this stress). Part 2 was all about how staying connected all the time can amp up our stress. Part 3 was about how staying busy keeps us stuck in stress. This week we’re moving on to the final reason…
So moving on to the fourth reason why we are so stressed: We care so much…
You may be thinking well it’s not a bad thing to care so much or too much and I would agree with you…to a point. It is essentially part of our job requirement as educators to care. If we didn’t care, we probably wouldn’t last much past our first few years of being in the classroom. So it’s not the caring that gets us stressed…it’s caring so much that we can’t stop thinking about our students, their well being, how we can help, how we want to save them, how they are doing when they leave our classrooms. If we are constantly carrying around thoughts like these and aren’t available and present for other parts of our lives, we are naturally creating stress in these other areas.
How can caring so much cause stress?
Stress can occur when we are mentally burdened with things that are beyond our control. If we are going over and over again the plight of some of the children in our classrooms but we have done everything in our control to help the situation, then we are burdening ourselves with the stress of caring too much.
Of course, we want to help and we should help by advocating for the children in our classrooms. But we need to create a balance between school and the rest of our lives so that we are able to consistently and sustainably care…for the long term.
If we don’t find a balance that works for us, it’s much more likely that we will eventually suffer some kind of burnout that could result in cynicism, self-medicating, or leaving the profession altogether.
So what’s the solution? How do we care enough but not so much that we burnout?
There are lots of healthy solutions to this question, but I want to give you a few ideas that may be easier to implement and that I have found success with in my own experience. Feel free to message me or comment at the bottom if there are other techniques that have helped you.
I advocate a regular mindfulness practice a lot, so if you’ve heard this before, bear with me. Mindfulness by definition is paying attention to what is happening at the present moment without judgement. Practicing mindfulness can be as simple as sitting for five minutes in the morning (or anytime during your day) focusing on your breathing or the sounds that you hear. Every time you drift into thought, come back to focusing on your breath. You can also practice mindfulness when doing mundane activities like brushing your teeth or washing the dishes. Fully focusing on the task at hand, this is mindfulness practice.
So how does this practice help us lessen the stress of caring too much? Well with regular practice, we start to be able to calm the incessant loop of worry and care that can sometimes happen when we are working with students in need. Instead of bringing the worry and stress home with us, we begin to practice being present with what is happening at home. Instead of being carried away by thoughts of things out of our control, we start to recognize that the pattern is starting and take some deep breaths, recognize that we are doing our best to help, and put our attention back on to what is happening at that moment. Remember, we can only do so much and because we are by nature caring individuals, our worry may bleed into other areas of our life. This can cause burnout because we never leave work at work. Mindfulness practice can help us recognize when we are getting into those habits, help us pause and come back to the present moment. It takes practice, but you will definitely begin to see results if you just start taking those five minutes a day.
This solution is complementary to the above suggestion. Between work and home, begin to create some kind of transition routine so that you leave work at work and can be fully present when you move to the rest of your day. A transition can be any activity to mark the beginning of the rest of your day. Some examples include: a classroom routine like cleaning your desk or confirming you’re ready for the next day, going for a short walk, getting a cup of coffee, doing a five minute meditation, going for a run or to the gym or listening to some music. The transition can be anything that helps you signify the end of your work day and the beginning of the rest of your day.
So how does this alleviate stress from caring too much? Well, it can get your brain in the habit of leaving work at work. You can care and advocate and help students throughout your day, but once you participate in the routine of transition, the idea is that you let yourself move into your next phase without carrying all of the worry and stress with you. So make sure that whatever you choose as your transition treat is something special to you and something you can look forward to.
Finding your tribe simply means to find people in your work life who you can confide in, go to, commiserate with and simply show your true colors to. I am not advocating getting together for a gripe session everyday, but finding people who generally think like you, care for students and try to live in the solution will make a profound difference in your stress level at work.
It’s not that your best friend or spouse don’t understand, it’s that when you are caught in the sometimes stressful cycle of caring so much for these kids, it’s helpful to have some people who understand the culture, climate and workings of your school to help you sift through what is within your control and what you may need to let go of. What I’ve also found is that most people aren’t at the same place at the same time. So, you will be able to be return the favor and be a support for the people in your tribe when they are struggling with something. We need to help and support each other because the life of the teacher is not an easy job and no one understands that more than a fellow teacher.
So I hope that it’s clear that there is absolutely nothing wrong with caring for the students that you work with every day, it’s just that stress can be amplified when we care so much that it consumes other facets of our lives. By taking some time to decompress by practicing mindfulness, setting up a transition exercise between school and home, and finding like-minded colleagues for support, you will be more likely to find the sweet spot of caring for both your students and yourself. And one thing I’ve found to be really true is that students look to us as examples for healthy living, so we need to model self-care so they understand what it looks like.
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