The 3 Biggest Lies You’ve Been Taught About Stress and How You Can Go from Surviving to Thriving

The 3 Biggest Lies You’ve Been Taught About Stress and How You Can Go from Surviving to Thriving

For most educators, stress levels slowly ramp up over the first couple of months of school. The word on the street is many of you already feel like you’ve gone from 0 to 60 on a stress-o-meter!

Yes, this school year brings unprecedented challenges. Every September we help you rise to the challenge. This  post’s self-care issue might be the most important ever because …

The Research

This is your guide to strengthening your own body’s stress response. We’ll set the record straight on three common myths about stress.

From there, we’ll unpack the three layers of stress response that can restore the calm and help you stay sane and joyful in life. This content is so critical for your well-being. You’re getting your first dose of stress-relieving info this month, and the second dose will arrive in October.

MYTH #1: My Stress Levels are Out of My Control

Stress is your body/brain’s response to a potential adverse person or situation. When you feel the situation or person are both relevant to you and you can’t do much about it, your body produces the stress response. Your stress response is directly related to the significance you assign to both the relevance and your perceived level of control. These two factors will, or will not, trigger the chemical burst of cortisol, noradrenaline, and others that produce feelings of stress (Godoy et al., 2018).

Now What? How Does This Help Me Regulate My Stress?
Knowing your stress level is within your control yields hope and power. Your stress levels are both unique and changeable. Prepare your brain with skills, beliefs, and strategies that allow you to “inoculate” yourself from most stressors.

To do this, focus on the two filters that determine your level of stress: how relevant the situation/person is, and your perceived level of control. Here are actionable tools you can use, starting today:

  • Reassess what is highly relevant – 2020 is probably not the year to get stressed out over how your partner squeezes the toothpaste or what font to use for your virtual back-to-school-night flyer. Some things just need to become less important right now. Make a list of things you commit to not stressing yourself over. When you notice your stress levels rise, ask yourself: Will this matter one week from now? If not, let it go and move on.
  • Increase control – When everything feels out of control and your stress levels seem to be escalating, start with tiny things in your daily life that you can control. Practice meditation, go for walks, or practice deeper nasal (vs. open mouth) breathing. Eat a half-cup of dark vegetables (spinach, kale, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, or cabbage) daily (Taren et al. 2015).

MYTH #2: ALL Stress is Bad!

There are many different kinds of stress (eustress, acute, contagion, chronic, and anxiety). All forms of stress release the same chemicals (cortisol, adrenaline, etc.). What regulates the impact is the duration, intensity, and whether it was your choice (vs. imposed). Some forms of stress are good for you, while others can usher in devastating and lasting health problems.

Eustress (healthy stress) produces a short burst of stress-related hormones that typically lasts no more than a few minutes. Eustress is typically a result of an intentional decision you made and is good for you. Why? You chose the person or situation!

You experience eustress daily – those moments right before class when you’re rushing around to get everything in place, your morning exercise routine, or making a difficult phone call to a parent. A tight deadline at work, getting a flu shot, or learning a new tech tool can elevate cortisol levels temporarily. Because you chose it, your level of control feels greater with this stress. As you experience these forms of stress, you are building greater resilience for future stressors. These brief experiences strengthen your stress response system as cortisol levels rise and then return to normal mind-body homeostasis.

Acute stress is an intense, short-term, adverse event. In rare cases, it can be healthy, if you choose it. Examples might include riding a roller coaster, bungy jumping, diving with sharks, skiing, competing for a promotion, or going out on a first date. But more typically, acute stress is unhealthy. Why? If acute stress is imposed on you, it can lead to inflammation.

This could be the result of an injury, a police action, local weather disaster, rape, abuse, or an accident. Your body’s immune system rushes to mitigate the unanticipated “attack” with a surge of stress-related chemicals. Imposed acute stressors place massive demands on your immune system. This weakens your immune system and makes you more susceptible to other illnesses and diseases.

Let’s connect this to your classroom. When students experience an acute stressor, the resulting trauma puts them at higher risk for social and behavioral problems.

Chronic stress is experienced when high levels of cortisol persist for a prolonged period. Chronic stress weakens your immune system. It also inhibits the ability to regulate or suppress the inflammatory response that often promotes chronic diseases. It is this cycle that explains why you’re likely to age up to 20% FASTER with chronic stress. In addition, there are clear correlations between chronic stress and seven of the top ten leading causes of death (Epel, Daubenmier, Moskowitz, Folkman, & Blackburn, 2009; Quick, Cooper, Nelson, Quick, & Gavin, 2003).

Let’s be even more explicit: chronic stress is an underlying condition that can make the difference between whether you survive a COVID-19 exposure or you end up in a hospital (or the morgue).

Chronic stress can result from constant fear, poverty, work overload, systemic oppression (based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation), chronic abuse, insufficient stress tools, and more. Chronic stress can also lead to anxiety and other mental health challenges. When students experience chronic stress, they are at higher risk for behavior problems (learned helplessness) and behavioral issues (hypervigilance).

Now What? How Does This Help Me Regulate My Stress?

For starters, continue to challenge the mindset that all stress is bad. Remember, healthy stress strengthens your stress response for future stressors. For those purposes, welcome healthy stress to build those stress-managing muscles for what lies ahead.

  • Daily exercise is a powerful habit that improves your immune system, which regulates your stress levels (Puterman et al., 2010). Commit to walking around the block every morning, lunch, or afternoon. This 20-minute investment every day will pay huge dividends resulting in less sick days, fewer sleepless nights, or the brain fog that accompanies unhealthy stress levels. Exercise “inoculates” your immune system.
  • Stop the continuous stream of complaints. It’s uncertain whether COVID-19 might take months or years to go away (if at all). Complaining about masks, social distancing, or constant changes ALL imply the situation is out of your control and will increase your stress levels. Stop killing your own immune system! Embrace what you have and reframe what it means to wear a mask (superheroes wear them!). Your mask demonstrates you care about others, so relish every day and promise yourself to make your day (and that of others) absolutely amazing.

MYTH #3: My Stress Levels Don’t Impact Anyone Else

The contagion effect of stress explains how your stress levels can be picked up by people around you (Dimitroff et al., 2017). A closer look at this “second-hand” stress reveals the impact your stress has on your students.

  • Highly stressed teachers tend to have the poorest student outcomes, such as lower grades and frequent behavior problems.

    On the upside, less stressed teachers have students experiencing greater success in school.

  • Teachers’ depressive symptoms in the winter negatively predicted students’ spring mathematics achievement.

    On the upside, teachers who manage their stress levels throughout the various waves during the year have a stable impact on student achievement.  

  • Classroom experiences of students with highly stressed teachers were of lower quality than that of their peers with less stressed teachers.

    On the upside, less stressed teachers typically create a better overall classroom experience for students. (McLean & Connor, 2015).

Now What? How Does This Help Me Regulate My Stress?

It’s not just you that suffers from stress. Your students, your family, and your friends can all be impacted by your stress levels. For everyone’s benefit:

  • Focus on you. You matter. Your health matters. Your emotional well-being matters. In school, your stress is like second-hand smoke exposure to your students. Prioritize your health and your students’ well-being by focusing on self-care this year.
  • Focus on them. Your ultimate goal as a teacher is to improve student learning and development. Your stressing you out is counterproductive to that goal. Find a mantra that reminds you of this and post it where you can see it daily. “When I’m at my best, my students can do their best!”

Remember, for the most part, your stress levels are within your control. Some forms of stress are OK. Your stress levels impact you and those around you.

Next month you’ll get even more tools to help you regulate your stress levels. Until then, choose one of the tools presented to get you started on the empowering path toward a less-stressed you.

If you’re serious about having a great year, chose one or more of these tools and make an implementation plan. Here is a reminder of the options above:

  1. Reassess what is highly relevant; increase sense of control
  2. Exercise daily
  3. Stop the stream of complaints. Stop complaining about COVID-19. Your complaining gets approved and then spread by your students.
  4. Prioritize your health; focus on you and you’ll stop the spread of second-hand stress
Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Doyle, W. J., Miller, G. E., Frank, E., Rabin, B. S., & Turner, R. B. (2012). Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109(16), 5995-5999.
Dimitroff, S. J., Kardan, O., Necka, E. A., Decety, J., Berman, M. G., & Norman, G. J. (2017). Physiological dynamics of stress contagion. Scientific reports7(1), 1-8.
Epel, E., Daubenmier, J., Moskowitz, J. T., Folkman, S., & Blackburn, E. (2009). Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Annals of the new York Academy of Sciences1172, 34.
Godoy, L. D., Rossignoli, M. T., Delfino-Pereira, P., Garcia-Cairasco, N., & de Lima Umeoka, E. H. (2018). A Comprehensive Overview on Stress Neurobiology: Basic Concepts and Clinical Implications. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience12, 127.
McLean, L. & Connor, CM. (2015). Depressive Symptoms in Third-Grade Teachers: Relations to Classroom Quality and Student Achievement. Child Development, 86, 945-954.
Puterman, E., Lin, J., Blackburn, E., O’Donovan, A., Adler, N., & Epel, E. (2010). The power of exercise: buffering the effect of chronic stress on telomere length. PloS one5(5), e10837. Cassidy, S., Thoma, C., Houghton, D., & Trenell, M. I. (2017).
Quick, J. C., Cooper, C. L., Nelson, D. L., Quick, J. D., & Gavin, J. H. (2003). Stress, health, and well-being at work.
Taren, A. et al. (2015). Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience10, 1758–1768.
Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications.

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