Riding the Roller Coaster of Emotions: From Reactive to Responsive

By Wendy Baron

Right about now, you may be asking yourself, “When will we ever be able to get back to normal?” Unfortunately, we just don’t know.  And uncertainty about the future is causing many of us to be anxious! According to a recent study of approximately 5,000 educators by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence1, anxiety, stress, and fear are the most frequently felt emotions every day since we began sheltering in place and doing distance learning.

The Stress Response

In this moment, it may seem impossible to be centered and calm. After all, if you are like most of us, you have a zillion new competing demands—figuring out how to best design and facilitate online learning; connecting with students who are struggling and those who are not showing up at all; leading and participating in back-to-back Zoom meetings; and trying to manage all of this with your own children needing your attention for their school work. No wonder we’re anxious and stressed! 

When we’re stressed, we become more reactive than thoughtful in our words and actions. Stress causes the body to ready itself for a fight, flight, or freeze response to an impending “threat.” Suddenly, our executive functions—our ability to be attentive and focused, make thoughtful decisions, be flexible, and regulate our emotions—goes out the window.  

If you’ve noticed yourself being impatient, irritated, angry, agitated or just keyed up, your stress response is likely “fight.” Others of us are feeling depressed, unfocused, and withdrawn, and we are in “flight.” Or, maybe, you are just feeling stuck or immobilized—“freeze” mode.  All of these reactions are completely normal!  What’s important is to recognize your reactions, be gentle and kind to yourself and others, give yourself permission to prioritize your own health and well-being, and engage in some stress relief activities.

Stress Relief and Emotion Regulation Strategies

A fifth grade teacher recently shared her daily frustration. Students are online for their synchronous learning hour, and several Zoom “boxes” invariably go dark. “Are you there?” she asks. No answer. This makes her crazy—she is ready for a fight! So, what does she do?  First, she becomes aware that her jaw is tight, which is a sign that she’s angry.  So, she stops her lesson and invites her class to take a breathing break. She guides her students: inhale, expanding the diaphragm to a count of four, hold the breath for a count of two, and exhale to a count of six. She continues this 4-2-6 breath pattern for five cycles, knowing that longer exhalations than inhalations stimulate the relaxation response. Soon, the teacher is calmer and so are the students. From this calmer, more centered place, the teacher then carries on with her lesson, later connecting with other colleagues to figure out what to do when some students leave her class.

If you are like me, and your stress response is typically “fight,” here are few stress relief strategies to try.

  • Find a comfortable position, close your eyes gently, and begin to breathe.  After a few breath cycles, do a “body scan,” progressively relaxing the muscles of your face, shoulders, arms, hands, torso, legs, and feet.  On each exhalation, release any tension in the body.
  • If it’s possible, go for a walk in nature and tune into your senses. Listen to the sounds, take in the smells and sights, and connect with the ground beneath you. If you don’t have that option where you are right now, you could listen to some music, tuning into the various instruments and vocal sounds, or enjoy a juicy piece of fruit, savoring every morsel.

One school principal is trying to find some middle ground between what the district office has mandated—which is to assign one hour of work per day in each subject area—and what teachers are saying their students need—fewer hours per day on academic assignments and more time for connection, support, and 1:1 meetings with struggling students. This conflict is causing great anxiety for the principal, as he understands both perspectives.  Lately, the principal has become more distant and less available to his staff. You guessed it—the flight response! 

If you are finding yourself in “flight,” you might try one of these strategies.

– A mindfulness practice. Find a quiet, comfortable place, close your eyes gently, and begin breathing slowly and deeply. As your heart rate slows down and you move into a more relaxed state, just notice.  Observe yourself neutrally—with curiosity.  Explore the sensations in your body, the thoughts and images in your mind, and how you’re feeling. Listen. Notice. Accept.

– Offer some self-compassion.  Know that what you are experiencing is common to humanity. Ask yourself, “What would you say to a friend to support him or her?” Now…say that to yourself.

Once you are more grounded and compassionate with yourself, you’ll be ready to listen to and engage with others more fully and your solutions will be more creative and responsive.

The other day, a high school teacher shared that a parent had yelled at her for assigning too much work. She just didn’t know how to respond—she froze.  Afterwards, this teacher really beat herself up for not being able to respond in the moment. “I am so lame!!” Here are some strategies to try when you freeze.

–    Jump up and down. Wiggle. Dance. Run. Get your blood moving! 

–    Reframe negative self-talk. When you notice that your internal dialogue is critical, reframe those messages with more positive, optimistic thoughts—in the second person. For example, in this case, a reframe would sound like this, “You were caught off-guard. Responding after you’ve had time to think is a wise approach.” A reframe can help you recover and move forward.

  • Reappraisal. Think of your circumstances in terms of a bigger picture of your life, what you are learning, or how you are turning this challenge into an opportunity. Again, in the case of this high school teacher, a reappraisal might sound like: “Ok. Maybe I’m missing something.  I’m wondering what’s going on with this parent and student?  This could be good feedback to help me be more effective with the asynchronous part of online learning.”

Supporting Our Overall Health and Well-being

Of course, there are many other stress reduction and emotion regulation strategies to try. One of the most effective and best studied is building positive, healthy relationships. In an earlier study of 7,000 educators in spring 2018 by Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and New Teacher Center2, we learned that caring relationships are a strong protective factor for our health and wellbeing. When we are in satisfying relationships, with someone who understands our problems and gives the kind of support we really want, we become less stressed and reactive, and more resilient. So…find those colleagues, friends, and family members that will really listen and be there for you. And, since giving of ourselves makes us feel better, reciprocate the love.

Take good care of yourself. Eat nutrient dense foods, exercise, play, have some down time as well as focused time, get plenty of sleep, and do things that have purpose and meaning for you. 

These are unprecedented times. We are being called on to be the best version of ourselves possible for our students, colleagues, family, and friends. And, we are all likely to blow it at times.  So, when you do, take some deep breaths, forgive yourself, and begin anew.  

References:

1Cipriano, C. & Brackett, M. (2020, April 7). Teachers are anxious and overwhelmed. They need SEL more than ever. EdSurge. Retrived from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-04-07-teachers-are-anxious-and-overwhelmed-they-need-sel-now-more-than-ever.

2 Brackett, M. & Baron, W. (2018, Spring). Research insights: Improving teacher well-being. National Association of Independent Schools. Retrieved from https://www.nais.org/magazine/independent-school/spring-2018/feelings-matter/.


Wendy Baron, MA, is a teacher, author, researcher, coach, and leader in the field of social and emotional learning (SEL). Wendy co-founded the Santa Cruz/Silicon Valley New Teacher Project and New Teacher Center after 13 years of classroom teaching. Wendy facilitates professional learning, produces webinars, engages in research, and writes about mentoring, leadership, and social, emotional, academic development (SEAD). She currently supports teachers, school and district leaders in SEL, teaches restorative practices and conscious communication classes at 1440 Multiversity, and presents at national conferences with a focus on improving health and well-being through connected relationships.

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