STRESS: Define it. Identify it. Manage it.

By Heather L. Sorge

Stress. The mere mention of the word can bring on feelings of anxiety.

Stress is unavoidable and comes in many forms, affecting our daily lives. Deadlines, schedules, life events and financial obligations all contribute to the constant strain placed upon us.

But what can we do about it? Let’s start by breaking it down into three steps:

∙ Define it and understand it
∙ Identify the causes
∙ Find ways to manage it

What is stress?

Stress is the body’s way of responding to a threat or demand placed on the body. The threat can be real or perceived. It is a natural chemical reaction designed to help you respond in order to prevent injury. During response to stress, your heart rate will increase, your breathing becomes faster, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. This is also known as a “fight or flight” response. Illness, thoughts, and your environment affect stress levels. Physical, mental and emotional responses occur as a result.

What’s causing your stress?

Educators have an extremely rewarding, but highly stressful job. Work stress coupled with pressure from home can make for a toxic mix that can damage your health and happiness. Class sizes have increased, departments are short staffed, there is a never-ending stream of reports, observations and lesson plans. In addition, school employees are making much larger insurance contributions and higher pension payments. Many local associations are also currently working under the terms of an expired contract, contributing to poor morale.

Education support professionals (ESPs), who often have even less control over their work environment, face continual threats of privatization, have little job security and are often paid less than a livable wage. Sadly, despite being essential to our school districts, they do not always receive the communication and support they deserve, in fact many people do not even know what an ESP is, leaving many feeling unappreciated and isolated.

All people handle stress differently. The important thing is to find what works for you to cope with it. The first step is to address whether the stressors can be addressed.

Is there something that you can do to alleviate or diminish the reason for the stress?

Is it a short-term situation that will rectify on its own soon? Would you benefit from better organization? Is there a lack of communication which needs to be addressed and improved?

But what if the stress isn’t temporary or changeable?

Stress management practices
Finding stress management techniques that work for you can be life changing. Below are eight strategies that hold promise.

Exercise
The number one strategy for alleviating stress is exercise. The American Heart Association recommends at least two weekly 30-minute sessions of moderate physical activity or one weekly 75-minute session of vigorous activity. Getting out for a brisk walk and getting fresh air can be help.  Remaining sedentary poses health risks, contributing to stress. We need to move at least every 90 minutes.

Divert emotions
Redirect your thoughts. Interrupt negative thoughts with positive ones. When a negative thought enters your mind, quickly think of three positive ones to replace it. Sometimes we just get stuck in the negative. Remember, you can’t live a positive life with a negative mind.

Talk
Seek out colleagues, friends or family members. You are not alone. Make yourself available to give and receive support. Never be afraid to ask for help! There are others who understand what you’re going through. You also have resources at your disposal as an NJEA member, such as AID NJEA. The AID-NJEA helpline has served NJEA members and their families for nearly 20 years. NJEA members and their families have access to this free, confidential service, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Dial 866-AID-NJEA (243-6532) or email helpline@njea.org.

Sleep
Seven to eight hours is ideal. Try setting an evening alarm to encourage a healthy sleep schedule. Unplug: Do not use your phone, tablets or TV in the bedroom. These electronics affect your internal clock because they emit short-wavelength, artificial blue light, which suppresses the sleep inducing hormone melatonin. The more these devices are used prior to bedtime, the harder it is to fall asleep and stay asleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Limiting screen time even 30 minutes prior to bed will help regulate your sleep cycle. Not getting adequate sleep has been directly tied to weight gain and depression—so get your ZZZZZs!

Water
Not drinking enough water makes it difficult to stay focused, affects your mood and disrupts your cognitive function. Drinking water is good for your skin, decreases constipation and normalizes blood pressure. While the goal of eight, eight-ounce  glasses per day was widely promulgated on the internet, adequate water intake is actually dependent on body size, activity level and environment, and varies with each individual.

Saying “No”
This is a difficult word for many of us to say. It seems we are constantly being asked to do more and more. It’s OK to say no and recognize that we need to set boundaries. Being proactive and being involved is important, but so is “me time.” We need time to regroup and rest so we can be at our best. Give yourself permission to say no!

Meditation and breathing
Many meditation and relaxation techniques can help you destress and reduce anxiety. These can include mindful breathing, yoga and guided meditation, just to name just a few. These techniques can help you relax, improve sleep and produce a calmer more focused mind.

Laughter
Many have said that laughter is the best medicine. They may just be right! Researchers from Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California discovered that watching humorous videos affected levels of cortisol, dopamine and other hormones that contribute to stress and mood. The researchers concluded that laughter counteracts the stress response and improves markers of physical well-being. So, bring on the comedy movies, visit a comedy club, or share laughs with a few friends over dinner.

Getting started

Workplace stress
Your local association can play a role. The best way to combat long-term stress is to organize. In these times of layoffs, transfers and privatization it is difficult to find collective solutions to job-related stress. The very act of organizing members around the issue of stress begins to reduce some of the isolation and demoralization that come with difficult working conditions.

The local association’s health and safety committee can work with the regional UniServ field representative to address workplace stress. The committee may:
∙ Meet and identify stressors.
∙ Strategize worker involvement in workplace decisions where possible.
∙ Identify conditions that may be addressed through the grievance process if not otherwise resolved.
∙ Develop a public awareness campaign about the problems schools face, the efforts staff are making to overcome them and build support for those efforts.
∙ Educate and support staff in individual efforts that can alleviate some effects of stress, such as support networks and information on nutrition, rest, exercise, relaxation techniques and other stress reduction measures
∙ Promote AID-NJEA, a helpline staffed by active and retired school personnel.

If your local association does not have a health and safety committee, organizing around workplace stressors may be a great way to start one.

Stress outside the workplace
Start by making a personal plan for positive action. Write down your current behaviors and then write down strategies you can use to improve those behaviors, perhaps using some strategies that we have discussed in this article. Take notes, and use a journal to record and reflect upon what works for you and what doesn’t. Continue to use your support system and talk to family, friends and colleagues. Remember, it’s about progress, not perfection. Take things one day at a time and try to stay focused on the good things happening in your life. A positive attitude alone goes a long way toward a happy, healthy life!

Symptoms of Too Much Stress

Racing heartbeat
Fatigue
Chest pain
Insomnia
Sleeping too much
Agitation
Irritability
Upset Stomach
Muscle aches
Low energy
Headaches
Eating too much/not enough
Frequent colds/illness

For more information

WebMD: “10 Relaxation Techniques That Zap Stress Fast,”
bit.ly/relaxation10

Communication Workers of America: “The Physiology of Job Stress,”
bit.ly/jobstresscwa

NIH – U.S. National Library of Medicine: medlineplus.gov/stress.html

Heather Sorge is the Campaign Organizer for Healthy Schools Now through the New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC). Prior to joining WEC, Sorge worked as a paraprofessional in the Holland Township School district for over 10 years and as an NJEA organizational development consultant. Sorge has been a strong advocate for New Jersey’s school staff and students.

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