Blog: Managing stress amidst a pandemic

Blog by Lisa Fathers, Director of Teaching School & Partnerships

Today (4th November 2020) is National Stress Awareness Day and whilst a bit of stress is normal and the adrenaline that goes with it can help us to achieve great things, having to deal with too much stress on an every-day level can have an adverse effect on your health and wellbeing.

Stress is a major problem today and everyone reacts differently to it, but too much stress can lead to longer term mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Mental ill health costs UK employers £34.9 billion each year according to Mental Health First Aid England.*

We know schools are busy places, with everyone trying to do their best, but this year the demands of supporting staff, parents, and children, together with ensuring that schools meet Covid-19 safety guidelines, have contributed to increased levels of stress, anxiety and depression with researchers saying mental health levels may worsen as infections rise and lockdowns are imposed.   

As our way of living, working and socialising changes dramatically, how do we cope with the feelings of stress and anxiety that brings?

Coping with stress in a healthy way such as developing resilience is one way to help manage stress as it can help you turn adversity into advantage and a threat into an opportunity. Stress and difficult times hit us all at periods throughout our lives, but it’s how you deal with those that makes a difference to our stress levels. Resilient people tend to have a more optimistic outlook and can often deal with stress more effectively.

Taking steps to also reduce and cope with stress is crucial. The most important thing you can do when you are stressed or anxious is to make sure you are continuing to look after yourself. Make time to relax when you need to and learn to say no to requests that are too much for you.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training is so important to ensure staff have the appropriate training to put effective stress reduction strategies into place and to intervene earlier and more effectively when colleagues or students are struggling. Being able to have an open discussion about wellbeing is vital to building a supportive culture and helping people to reach out. 

Through my work with the Greater Manchester Mentally Healthy Schools and Colleges Project – a collaboration between Alliance for Learning Teaching School, Place2Be, children’s charity the Youth Sport Trust, and 42nd Street, MHFA training commissioned by Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, has enabled teachers and support staff to spot signs of poor mental health and intervene early. 

Here are my top tips for stress reduction and building resilience: 

Notice how full your “stress container” is

We need to be able to recognise when things are building up to a critical level so we can employ some coping mechanisms. All too often we don’t pay enough attention to ourselves. The analogy of a “stress bucket” is also good to share with students- ask them what is in theirs- it’s a good way of finding out information you might be unaware of.

Begin self-care at home

Make sure you get enough sleep. This is essential! We all need different amounts. It’s a good idea to avoid screens (phones, tablets, and laptops) and exercise just before bed, but everyone is different, and you know what works for you. Remind yourself of your strengths and accomplishments as self-esteem plays a key role in coping with stress and resilience.

Take mini breaks in work

This is easier said than done in schools, but constantly sitting down really isn’t good for physical or mental health. Get up, walk around and have a stretch to keep the blood moving. Even if you exercise regularly, prolonged sitting is not good for the heart. Rather than emailing a colleague, go and have a conversation- connect and chat!

Try meditation and deep breathing techniques

Mindfulness has its origins in ancient Buddhism and encourages us to be ‘present’ in our own lives when we are distracted by our thoughts or worries. Taking five minutes to close your eyes and focus on breathing is incredibly powerful. Slow, deep breathing taking longer breaths out, increases the oxygen in the blood, creating more energy in the body and improving mental clarity.

Reduce caffeine and get active

We all know that caffeine is a stimulant and can be addictive, but excessive consumption is also linked to many chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure and headaches? Exercise is the BEST medicine. I run nearly every morning. It helps my mood and wakes me up and on days I don’t do it, I don’t feel as positive. Simply moving improves your mood. Doctors suggest getting active as part of any recovery plan – be that for mental or physical health.

Look ahead

It’s sometimes hard to focus on the future when you’re bogged down with the day-to-day. Think about what potentially stress-inducing events could be on the horizon.  How can you reduce their negative impact on you? When faced with a new challenge, make a quick list of how you could solve it. Who can help you do this?

Choose your attitude

A positive outlook on life and work can reduce stress – you have a choice whether to view complexity as fun and see problems as challenges to be enjoyed. We all have a choice how we ‘frame’ events, relationships and tasks. Workplace conflict does happen, but do try to be empathetic and remember, we never know what is really going on for someone. It is helpful if we try to assume that people are coming from a place of genuine kindness and trying to do the right thing.

Accept change

Learning how to be flexible and knowing what is in your control and what is not can help you learn new skills, adapt more easily and be better equipped to deal with a crisis.

Try something new

Is there an activity that you’ve always wanted to try? Activities such as singing and laughing release endorphins, the ‘feel good’ chemicals in your brain, helping it to reset from periods of stress. Whether it’s singing to your favourite song in the car or joining a new choir, the benefits are proven.

Switch off

We might be in a culture of working evenings and some of the weekend, but is that self-inflicted or an expectation? Challenge your thinking and take time off. You have the autonomy to manage your own work life balance. In the past I have become exhausted by placing unrealistic expectations on myself. I’m more sensible these days and family comes first. I love my job, but I know in order to do it well I need to stay healthy and energised.

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