Living the TEFL life can be just as stressful as any other, if not more so. I know this only too well after more than ten years in the profession. To reduce our level of stress, we first need to understand what stress is. Stress is, more than anything, the result of our perception of the events that are happening around us, and is indicated by how we react to these situations. What’s stressful for you might not be stressful for someone else and vice versa. The fact is, we’re not born with a more stress-prone DNA than other people. In the end, it all boils down to our attitude.
From the moment we encounter a tension-producing situation, our body starts chemically preparing us for fight or flight. Of course, we don’t fight and we don’t fly away in the 21st century (unless the DoS really makes us mad), and this Stone Age internal reaction, originally meant to protect us, has become a serious menace to our health. So, what can we do?
Well, we have a few options. We can keep the stress bottled up inside us. Of course, this is sure to result in frustration and even health problems down the line. Alternatively, we can display our stress through sickness, apathy, anger, drinking, drugs, over eating or in any number of other self destructive ways. Or we can get rid of your stress according to a plan, and hopefully this blog post offers a few easily implemented stress reduction ideas for tired TEFLers.
Consider your daily stress ‘buttons’
Because stress is the result of constantly being ready to fight, we have two ways of handling it. We can resolve all the conflicts in our life, or we can learn to live with them. To do either successfully we have to take a good look at some of the viewpoints and behaviour that are an integral part of our personality. The best place to begin is with an exploration of our stress ‘buttons’.
In life, there are plenty of instances that we expect to trigger stress, such as the sudden death of a loved one, a debilitating injury or illness, the loss of a job, and the overwhelming feeling stemming from moving or relocating. But the fact is, the daily hassles of the TEFL life may have a greater stress effect than these larger misfortunes. A few examples of these daily hassles are losing or misplacing things, major changes in our routine, too much to do and not enough time to do it properly, feeling lonely, money worries, too many responsibilities, and pressure to perform well.
If you make a list of all the stress factors in your life, you’ll probably quickly come across the reason. If the cause isn’t clear, try to find it. What causes you to be uptight? What makes you irritated? What frustrates you? When does that anxiety begin to creep in? Write down all the little things that you think affect your well-being. Honestly, you have to first identify your stress buttons before you can eliminate them.
If you become stressed every time you have a classroom observation or a meeting with your DoS, maybe it goes back to a childhood incident. It could be something remote. Perhaps a teacher reprimanded or embarrassed us when we were young, which programmed an automatic anxiety response we are still carrying. We need to take the time to stop and think about the reasons for our anxiety. Sometimes merely knowing the cause is enough to assuage the effect.
Every time you become stressed, mentally explore your state of mind
From this moment on, every time you feel stressed, think about how you can mentally investigate your state of mind. Ask yourself, ‘What would it take to do away with the stress in this situation?’ and next, ‘If I can’t change the people or circumstances, how can I change my point of view?’ Examining how you can change your point of view reminds you that you have power in the situation.
It also might be good for us to ask ourselves if we had expectations of approval or control in regard to the particular stressful situation. The chances are we did. If so, the actual problems may be with our expectations, expectations which are not our right. Let’s face it; we don’t want to have to provide endorsement on demand, do we? It certainly isn’t our right to control others’ actions. So, how can we expect others to be the way we want them to be? In such a state of affairs, our expectations are in conflict with what actually is. We should repeat that ourselves the next time we get upset!
Identify how you express your stress
Many mental and emotional disorders, from anxiety to depression, can be triggered by stress. Researchers even believe that if stress is repressed long enough, it contributes to cancer. Here are some of the principal ways we express stress. Do any of these sound a bit too familiar to you?
- Continual on-the-go activity,
- Feelings of being incapable,
- Excessive smoking,
- Excessive drinking,
- Excessive use of tranquilizers or marijuana,
- Upset stomach,
- Excess sleeping,
- Unfocused thinking,
Turning every game into an intense competition,
- Inability to sleep or frequent waking during the night,
- Loss of sexual interest,
- Trying to do more than one thing at a time,
- Nervous habits like tapping your fingers to swinging your foot,
- Easy irritability,
- High blood pressure,
- Frequent headaches,
- Cold hands,
- Gritting your teeth,
- Overeating or undereating.
Try to identify the ways in which you yourself express stress, and then notice that they fade away once you’ve reduced your stress levels, before or after class.
Take action to diffuse the pressure situations in your life
Teachers tend to have a lot of ‘free’ time between lessons, or shifts at least. Make sure you plan out your whole day and refuse to be intimidated by what needs to be done. Even if you can’t accomplish everything, set priorities so that you accomplish each task in order of importance. Then do each job, one part at a time.
If every time you have to meet some particular deadline you feel yourself becoming stressed, start planning ahead a little better, so you don’t continually end up in a last minute panic. All this amounts to being more rational in your approach to life. Be more realistic about what you are likely to encounter when you put yourself into potentially stressful situations. Often this alone is enough to start reducing your stress. Basically, start doing something to deal with the problem: if you can’t take direct action, how about taking indirect action? If your stress is coming from regret, you need to accept that you can’t amend the past. Nevertheless, you can get busy, which will help you to forget about the state of affairs and the stress.
Moreover, if you feel guilt about your choice of the TEFL career, be aware that it is an absolutely absurd emotion because usually nothing can be done about it. If nothing can be done, let the past be a lesson as to how to handle the future, and let go of the guilt. There a million things you can do to change your approach and relieve stress. Start smiling at the people in your life, and laughing at yourself. Stop attempting to do more than one thing at a time. Spend 15 minutes doing nothing but listening to music you enjoy. Think about meditation as an anti-stress technique. Play a game or sport to lose every once in a while. Do everything more slowly; walking, talking and even eating. Go out and really watch a sunset, or a look at a flower. Take a walk. Take your watch off for a whole week.
Balance your work with play
If you are absorbed in your work, it even happens to us TEFLers, it’s often hard to break away to spend time in other ways, such as exercising, sharing your day with your friends or family, spending quality time with your children, enjoying a hobby, or even attending to your spiritual needs. Nevertheless, this balance is critical to your overall well-being and is essential when battling stress. Maintaining your natural equilibrium must become a fundamental priority in your life as a teacher.
If you allow yourself to fall out of balance, things will go wrong in other areas of your life. If you are ignoring your relationship for your career, you can count on having relationship problems, which will then indirectly affect your career. If you aren’t exercising properly, you’ll probably get sick, which again will indirectly affect the other areas of your life. What areas in your own life are not in equilibrium? What can you do to create balance?
At night, put your work and concerns aside
By eight or nine o’clock at night, put your work and concerns aside. I know this is difficult for those of us with split shifts, but let there be a definite time when you are finished for the day and ready to relax. Be aware that it will still take two or three hours for all your internal stress hormones to be reabsorbed by the glands that produced them. Spend this time doing something that is relaxing, while also mentally engaging. This will take your mind away from the stressful thoughts of the day.
Be direct and honest; handle disputes with other people immediately
When you are not direct and honest, you repress. Repression is simply another expression of fear. Fear is a negative subliminal emotion that only creates future unconstructive experiences. Fear of expressing your true feelings dissipates your energy. The more you repress, the less energy you have to be who you really are.
If you really want to resolve problems, all you have to do is be direct and honest about what you want and don’t want. Remember to express your needs calmly, without bitterness or aggression. Don’t be afraid of hurting another teacher’s feelings. If someone cannot accept you as you are, without attempting to manipulate you, do you really need that person in your life?
If you do find yourself in conflict, negotiate a compromise before the stress sets in. Storing up hurt doesn’t work. If others have let you down, express what you need to say. And remember, never do anything that causes you to lose self-esteem. If self-esteem is the result of what you do in life, then to increase your self-esteem you need to do things that support your goal. When you do things that make you feel good about yourself, you build your self-esteem. When you do things you don’t feel good about, you lower your self-esteem.
Do what you do naturally, and delegate responsibilities to others
Some of us may believe that when it comes to teaching, we can do it better than anyone else. Research has shown that busy teachers who are less stressed than their peers have high self-esteem, think the world is worthwhile, believe they can influence events around them, and tend to see change and problems as opportunities. Start viewing your problems as decisions that need to be made.
If you have illogical outbursts, overly strict standards, or use high pressure tactics at work, you are only being counterproductive. Does your tendency to become easily irritated and aggravated really help you get the job done? Does impatience make it easier to make decisions, or does it cause you to move too quickly and mess up? Do your too-high expectations help you succeed? More likely they assure failure.
It’s time to replace the idea that highly driven behavior is beneficial. Your hardworking attitude isn’t always that healthy, or even productive. Examine your personality. Your personality is the basis of how you react to life’s stresses. Although no one is a total type A or type B personality (as defined by Dr. Meyer Friedman in Treating Type A Behavior And Your Heart) most people are inclined toward type A behavior. What am I talking about? Well type A people, in contrast to Type B-ers, tend to be excitable, competitive and goal oriented. Friedman says, ‘If you are a type A personality and can admit to it, you are halfway to kicking the undesirable type A patterns.’ Low self-esteem and insecurity are noted as the primary causes of these undesirable behavioral patterns. Friedman says that in his research study of almost 600 type A people, every single individual doubted their ability to perform their duties well enough to warrant advancement in their place of work.
Because stress prepares your body for concentrated muscular activity, exercise is a great way to relieve built-up tension. The more aerobic the exercise you get, the better. Basically, vigorous daily exercise increases your level of neurotransmitters as well as endorphins, which are the body’s natural opiates, thus making it easier for you to relax. The oxygen flooding through your system will help you detoxify more quickly and eliminate the biological factors that prolong stress.
So, how do you get started? Running, fast walking, swimming and cycling are especially recommended. When you include regular exercise as a part of your lifestyle, it assists you to keep your stress level low enough to soak up ordinarily stressful situations without affecting you. Obviously, it is best not to take up competitive exercise such as wrestling, tennis, or volleyball, because these may create all new stressful situations.
Change your eating habits
Listen and listen well: you have to stop consuming those foods which generate or worsen stress. On days of extreme stress, try to eat more carbohydrates. Proteins contain energizing brain chemicals, while carbohydrates, through a complex metabolic pathway, allow more tryptophan, a component that naturally enhances relaxation, to get into the brain.
A poor diet generates far more stress than most people can possibly imagine. Even if you just reduce your intake of foods containing sugar and refined white flour, you’ll be making a good start. Try to eliminate junk foods and fried foods (I know, the Burger King is just round the corner from the language school, but don’t do it, OK). Try replacing red meat with fish, chicken or turkey. Avoid cholesterol and, take a deep breath… reduce your alcohol intake. Eat more fresh vegetables, as many of them raw as you can manage. Also, eat fresh fruits, and whole grain bread, cereal and pasta products. Come on, you moved to that exotic country to sample the culture, why not eat the wonderful, healthy food, too.
You attract that which you are and that which you concentrate upon
The law of attraction states, ‘Where your attention goes your energy flows.’ Rubbish? Think again. You attract that which you are and that which you concentrate upon. If you are often in a negative state of mind, you draw in and experience negativity. If you are loving and compassionate, you draw in and experience love and compassion. You can attract to you only those qualities you possess. So if you want peace and harmony in your life, you must become peaceful and harmonious. Easier said than done, I know, but start eliminating the negativity in your life.
Accept that what is, sometimes simply is
There are things we can change in life and things we can’t change. To accept what is, is to accept unalterable realities as they are without wasting mental or physical energy attempting to change what we can’t. This is particularly pertinent for all those of us living in foreign cultures. It is our resistance to what is that causes our suffering and our stress. This doesn’t mean to passively accept life, though. What we have the potential to change, we should go ahead and change. However, we need to recognize that there are also things we can do nothing about.
Develop conscious detachment
In all of us there is the attached mind and detached mind. The attached mind means our state of mind is always changing from positive to negative as and when outside conditions change. This is extreme fluctuation from happiness and joy, down through neutral to our emotional vault: stress, depression, anger, and agitation.
The goal is to develop the detached mind. This means our state of mind fluctuates only from positive to neutral as outside conditions change. We accept all the warmth and joy and happiness that life has to offer while detaching from negativity by allowing it to flow through us without actually affecting us.
Remember that we detach out of astuteness, not repression. Sure, if we feel angry, hostile or resentful, we’ll have to express it, or the emotions will blow up in another way. However, as we begin to see the logic of detachment, our negative emotions will be less likely to emerge in response to situations.
Detached mind is based upon two positions of logic: 1) if you get upset, you’ll program your subconscious mind negatively, which will generate more negativity in your future. In other words you simply make matters worse; and 2) if you are resisting what is, you are wasting your energy, because you want something, or somebody, to be different than they are. It won’t happen, so why become stressed about something you can’t change?
A problem does not have to be eliminated to be resolved. Often a better solution is merely a change in viewpoint. When you’re no longer affected by a problem, you no longer have that problem, although nothing may have outwardly changed.
What other people say or do, other than physical violence, does not affect you. Only what you think about what they say or do affects you. Why allow another person’s problem to create a problem within you? Let’s say the person closest to you is often warm and loving, and you enjoy these times, but this person can also be selfish and self-centered. During those times you consciously detach and let the negativity flow through you without affecting you. It is that person’s right to be grouchy, and it is your right not to be affected. Nothing about the situation has changed except the way you view it.
Use breathing techniques to immediately destress
Use the technique of diaphragm breathing as a quick fix technique to immediately destress. You can do it in your classroom, office or even walking down the street. Just take a very deep breath and hold it in as long as you comfortably can. Then let the breath out through slightly parted lips, and when you think the breath is all the way out, contract your stomach muscles, and push it even further and further out. Then repeat the process. Within a few minutes you will find that you have greatly reduced your stress level.
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