2 CBT Techniques for getting out of a Stress-Cycle

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is a powerful form of therapy, in which patients learn to analyse their thoughts and behaviours, considering where they may be adding to their own negativity and unhappiness, rather than diffusing it.

CBT is often used to treat people with Anxiety, Depression and a range of other mental health problems; problems that are sadly rife amongst educators. To note one study from this year alone, researchers at Leeds Becket University found that 54% of teachers surveyed described themselves as having poor mental health, and 52% of those people had been referred to a GP because of it.

Let me just say here that the onus should always be on schools and employers overall, to look after the mental health and wellbeing of their staff.

The problem is… this just isn’t happening quickly enough. And in some cases, it isn’t happening at all. When this is the case, people begin to feel powerless, and hopeless; feeling that there is nothing that they can do in the face of all this stress and misery.

CBT Techniques such as the ones below aren’t a ‘cure-all’ for the countless problems faced by the modern teacher… but they can really help, if only because they allow you to regain some control over a bad situation.

**If you are struggling with stress or anxiety, the Samaritans offer help 24 hours a day, seven days a week**


The following tips are from my latest TES article:

1. Getting out of the negative cycle

In certain pressurised situations, when our buttons have been pushed one too many times, even the most calm and measured of professionals can feel that they have little control over their own thoughts, feelings or even actions.

Let’s say, for example, that you are the unwilling victim of an irate parent first thing this morning – and it’s completely OK to be bothered by that. But if you’re still “carrying” this misery, along with gut-churning stomach cramps into the late evening, then it’s likely you’re unconsciously adding fuel to the fire.

  • Are you continuously replaying the scene in vivid Technicolor? Try to change up the image by adding a pink wig and banana suit into the mix. Flip the negative emotion into something silly and laughable.

  • Do you loop around negative thoughts, based on how you should have handled things differently, even resorting to insults and name-calling? Consider what you’d say to a friend in this situation and instead, kindly tell it to your inner self.

  • Have you checked-in on your own verbal and body language? If you’re walking around with slumped shoulders and your eyes down, only looking up to tell anyone who’ll hear about this outrageous encounter, you’re actively turning a small albeit unpleasant moment into a day-long mood.

2. Check your facts

For me, one of the most powerful messages a patient gains through cognitive behaviour therapy is that your thoughts are not facts. Just because something pops into your head, doesn’t mean it’s reliable or true or even helpful. So we need to interrogate our thoughts.

Perhaps your mind is repeatedly telling you that you can’t cope with a looming situation – maybe a second encounter with the irate parent – and as such you’re a “pathetic waste of space”.

Not only is this a long way off from being constructive criticism, is it even accurate? Is there any hard evidence that you can’t cope, other than your thoughts and resulting sensations?

Maybe there’s even more evidence to the contrary, to show that you have coped with this and much worse.

With this in mind, it might be wise to come up with a more realistic, less emotive statement, such as: “It’s okay not to look forward to this – no one would. Whatever happens though, I’ll handle it as best as I can.”

Seven quick-win lifestyle hacks for daily happiness

Apparently, I just can’t shut up when it comes to wellbeing advice for teachers. Here’s the latest TES article, with some super easy and effective hacks for anyone forced into this ‘adulting’ lark.


That education has acknowledged a problem with mental health and wellbeing among teachers is undoubtedly a good thing, but not everything that has come out of it has been positive, or easy to interpret. For many teachers, the advice offered to keep yourself healthy is overwhelming, off-putting and conflicting.

This is a shame, as the truth is: there’s no need for a dramatic lifestyle overhaul. Small, subtle changes often yield big results and ones that you’re much more likely to maintain.

Here are some of the small lifestyle ‘hacks’ that have been making me happier over the last few years.

  1. If you’re working, keep your phone on but out of sight
    I keep it on vibrate so that I’ll hear work calls, but my brain is no longer being pulled in different directions by social media or untimely personal messages.

  2. Take some time to prepare food the night before
    Even with the best of intentions, chances are that if you leave food prep to the morning rush, you’ll end up with a packed lunch of hot-dog salad. Making extra portions of dinner, roasting a batch of veg or freezing batches of healthy soup are all simple ways to make this a super-quick evening job. (check out these healthy packed lunch ideas, too)

  3. Look for opportunities to be active in your day
    If you’re struggling to fit gym time into your busy schedule, don’t sweat it! Instead, set yourself a secret fitness mission to move as much as possible through your day. Take the stairs, walk the long way around, make the journey to the staff room at break. Download one of the many free pedometer apps if you’re keen to occasionally measure your progress or check out these exercise ideas you can do in the classroom.

  4. Have a water bottle nearby
    I’ve lost count of the number of days I intended to drink my 2.5 litres of water, only to finish a lesson-packed day crawling towards the nearest water cooler. I simply forget. Having a full bottle nearby has reminded me to hydrate more often, resulting in fewer headaches and more energy.

  5. Working at home? Stick to the same room
    Restrict work (and work-related items and reminders) to just one area of the house – preferably not the lounge or bedroom. Having a clearly defined workspace can help you to ‘switch off’ along with your laptop.

  6. Notice noticing your thoughts
    Before you listen to your thoughts, add a little distance between you and them by inserting the words “I notice” into your head. For example, “I notice that I’m thinking that I have X to do when I get into school; I notice that I’m feeling a little anxious about Y this afternoon.” The more I’ve practised this, the more I’ve found that I’m much less phased and more accepting of work-life stress.

  7. Explore what relaxation is to you
    Just because it’s called downtime, doesn’t mean you have to spend it lying down aided only by a family-sized bag of Doritos and a show about Hoarders. Get curious about what makes you tick. You might just find that playing sports, writing a blog or practising an instrument offers you exactly the headspace and relaxation that you were looking for.

3 Mindfulness Tips for a Restful Nights’ Sleep

Struggling to sleep? Waking up feeling anything but refreshed? Take a look at a recent article I wrote for TES, including mindfulness-based strategies for getting some shut eye. These techniques work for adults and children alike!


Thanks to a growing wealth of sleep-related research, we now know that good-quality sleep is essential to healthy brain and body function. And yet achieving a solid eight hours of sleep can seem near impossible when you have assessment objectives and mark schemes buzzing around your brain. Even when the miraculous happens and we make it to bed at a reasonable hour, how frustrating can it be to lie there, wrestling your own thoughts in the early hours.

Luckily, help is at hand…

How to fall asleep

Firstly, you can create a daily routine and lifestyle that promotes good quality sleep, long before your head hits the pillow. Leading sleep expert, Professor Matthew Walker, tells us that regularity is key – create a night-time routine and stick to it.

At the same time, when you do go to bed, ensure that your room is cool and dark. This includes having a “no-screen” policy for the last one to two hours before bed, no matter what emails may or may not be coming in.

Lastly, watch your caffeine intake over the day and swap the boozy night-cap for a camomile tea – while alcohol might appear to help you drift off, its sedative effects are extremely detrimental to both the patterns and quality of your sleep.

Now, let’s say for argument’s sake that you’ve already done all of this, but here you are at 3am, wide awake, fretting over the upcoming book scrutiny. If counting sheep just isn’t working for you, here are three mindfulness strategies that just might help instead:

1. Focus on your breath

Just begin to notice what your breathing is like; the feel of it going into your nostrils; the length; the temperature.

You can experiment with changing your breath, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Maybe try inhaling to the count of four, holding for one and exhaling for six. Can you feel the breath as it reaches your chest…your sides…your stomach? Can you feel your stomach rise as you inhale and lower as you exhale?

If thoughts come back in, which they most certainly will, acknowledge this without any judgement and return to exploring your breath.

2. The body scan

This one is great to do both when trying to fall asleep and then again if insomnia strikes. Simply bring your attention up from your toes to your head, exploring all the different places and parts in your body, noticing any sensations of tightness/discomfort and allowing them to relax. You might find that tensing the muscles one by one, or imagining that your body is very heavy and slowly sinking will help you relax.

I’ve had great feedback from adults, parents and children themselves who have used a mix of mindful breathing and body scans to get to sleep. Click the link below for a child-friendly 6 minute body scan from ‘GoZen’ to get you started with your children.

3. Explore difficult sensations

When you’re kept awake because of fears, anxieties and other difficult emotions, become curious about the sensations in your body. Ask yourself questions like: is the feeling smooth or sharp? Is it pulsing or aching? Is it flowing or throbbing? What colour/shape would I give this feeling?

As counter-intuitive as this may feel, exploring how negative emotions feel within the body can be an empowering alternative to listening to your inner-monologue of thoughts and worries.

QUICK PICS: You can’t pour from an empty cup.

My friend and I went to a beautiful spa on Thursday. It was our Christmas present to each other for the second year running.

Post-thirty, we both realised that what we needed more than household objects, sweet treats and fleecy blankets, was some quality time together (while being massaged with hot stones into a state of Nirvana.) We’re both so busy that moments like these have become so rare over the years, but this only makes us treasure them more.

As we were sat chatting, pre-hot tub, my friend – who runs her own business and is one of the most hardworking people I know – turned to me and said,

“You can’t pour from an empty cup.” 

At this time of year, a lot of us feel like our cups are empty. The dark, icy mornings; the constant sniffles; the pressure to be a social butterfly; the headache of finding perfect gifts for picky family members without going bankrupt…

Sometimes, we just need some moments to ourselves. To recharge. To be selfish. To be silent. To be.

Sometimes, we just need time to re-fill our cups.

Even though I haven’t done it justice, I couldn’t resist throwing in some pictures from ‘My Little Farm Spa’ – http://www.mylittlefarmspa.co.uk – a working farm as well as a spa, the hygge/mindfulness factor is through the roof! 

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Teacher Wellbeing: Does your morning set you up for rock-star teaching?

What is your morning routine? Do you even have one? I suppose it’s quite an American concept – something that most of my rather sarcastic British friends would feel was quiet ridiculous and even self-indulgent.

What? You don’t just roll out of bed, throw on your clothes, chug down a coffee and race off to work?!

And this is exactly what I used to do, in the years BT (Before Teaching). The idea of course, was to maximise sleep and therefore feel more refreshed and rested for the next day. Only I’m not sure this ever really worked.

When I began to feel overwhelmed with work in my first teaching position, and every minute of the day seemed to be occupied with thoughts of the to do list, I decided it was time to experiment with my morning routine and take back a little time, just for me, before I went out there to face the world.

What I quickly realised was that I didn’t feel any more crappy if I missed 30 minutes extra sleep; in fact, I felt a lot more emotionally prepared to face school, and my workload, because I’d had that time for me.

Just like an actor prepares to go on set or a rock star performs a number of rituals before they go on stage, many teachers might just find that they benefit from cultivating a morning routine.

My own individual morning routine has changed again and again; with my job, my mood, my exercise routine or the latest book I read. At one point, I was staring at a focus board while incense burned, then I would read through positive quotes about life and set an intention for the day. Yes, seriously. It was nice and I found myself surrounded by unfamiliar silence (in my mind too) but I didn’t feel particularly energetic, and my hair smelt like burnt lavender.

So I changed my routine – I stayed later in school on an evening, setting up my lessons, and went swimming at the local baths in the morning. It was a bit of a race time-wise (I really worked ‘drowned-rat chic’) but I felt amazing. At the baths, I would mix up fast power-lengths with ‘meditative lengths’ (Yes, seriously!) in which I would focus on my breath, and use all of my senses of feel the soft blanket of water around me. Sometimes, I’d throw in some ‘gratitude lengths’ too and I’d force myself to think about everything I was so grateful for in my life. Even on the worst mornings, when the pool was jam-packed and there seemed to be a convoy of kamikaze granddads directed towards me at every turn, I would come away feeling energised, strong, calm and grateful. I’d arrive at school knowing that I’d already achieved something; something for me as a person, not as a teacher.

Sadly, when I moved jobs to a school further away, I couldn’t accommodate my morning swim. I switched to morning gym sessions and started hitting the treadmill at a gym on the way to school, getting ready in the changing rooms. It’s true that getting up at 5.40AM isn’t for everyone, but I can’t describe how energetic and empowering it is to arrive at school at 7.30AM, knowing that you’ve run 5KM. I felt unstoppable.

Last year, a broken leg abruptly ended my morning gym habit, so now it’s ten minutes of YouTube Yoga followed by Berocca and avocado-peanut butter toast (don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it.) Sometimes I review my gratitude diary too and have a sneaky peak at my monthly life goals (Yes, I really do this!) then off I go. Even in the car, I alternate between ‘mindfulness driving’, 80s power-ballads and podcasts/audio books. I regularly find myself wishing my drive home was longer because I want to hear more about the health benefits of Tumeric or because Harry Potter is about to go undercover in the Ministry of Magic (God love that Polyjuice potion!)

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Finding my zen… if only these leather trousers weren’t so itchy.

Being a teacher is a lot like being a rock star or an actor; sometimes you wake up feeling like a gloomy Monday morning, but you’ve still got a show to put on; people have bought tickets and they deserve a good performance. I was always told that the children should never see a difference between your worst day and your best. There’s nothing worse than a teacher who inflicts a bad mood on their students.

I really encourage you to think about what you could change or add into your morning routine.

You might find that not only do you teach better lessons, but that everything just feels a little easier; a little brighter; a little better. Surely, this is worth the loss of twenty minutes sleep?

Teacher Wellbeing: Never put your happiness on hold.

This weekend I came across one of my favourite poems: ‘Days’ by Philip Larkin. I love the simplicity of this poem and the message, at least as I see it, to live in the moment and enjoy each and every day.

When I was previously unhappy in my job, or indeed in my life, I’d put off happiness constantly. I’d tell myself ‘I’ll be happy when I get these last ten pounds off,’ or ‘I’ll be happy when I’ve bought my own house,’ and certainly, as a teacher, it was a case of ‘I’ll be happy when it’s my next school holiday.’ In reality, no item on this tick list ever made me ‘happy.’ Even the granddaddy of school holidays, Summer, never lived up to this kind of street cred and I often found myself just as unhappy, only in a different situation.

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She was eternally grateful for that one ‘good hair day’

I realised a couple of years ago that the old cliché is true and that happiness truly does come from within. It’s about the things you choose to notice and choose to ignore; it’s about what you’re consciously grateful for every day; it’s about how you choose to eat, move, interact, challenge yourself and others, and most importantly, think.

Nowadays, I still look forward to holidays just like I used to, but there’s less desperate urgency about it. I focus more on the small-wins of every day life: a gorgeous class to teach, a new idea to try with a tricky pupil, a lesson plan that gets the creative juices flowing, a free period, a homemade soup for lunch, a post-school Netflix binge!

I’d like to point out that my natural disposition is to be cynical, sarcastic, anxious and negative (and that’s on a good day!) so thinking this was hasn’t come naturally – I’ve had to force it. Cultivating this kind of attitude has taken years of effort and still continues to challenge me – it’s not like I don’t have bad days, or hormones… but it’s incredibly powerful to know that the feeling that you’re looking for is available to you right now, if you only open your eyes (changing your body language massively helps too!)

So please – enjoy your day and take notice of everything good around you. I’ll leave you with this awesome poem:

Days

What are days for?

Days are where we live.   

They come, they wake us   

Time and time over.

They are to be happy in:   

Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor   

In their long coats

Running over the fields.

Philip Larkin 

 

 

 

Are you a resource-miser? Share instead!

If there is one thing that infuriates and befuddles me, it’s the numerous colleagues that I’ve met in different sectors of education, who refuse to share planning, resources and ideas. They keep them under lock and key in filing cabinets; they hoard them on their personal memory sticks; they remain silent when colleagues say they’re not sure how to teach Chromatography to year 6, knowing full well that they have a brilliant lesson under their belt. Even when these resource-misers do put things onto the shared drive, when they move year groups, subjects or jobs, everything miraculously disappears.

It begs the question: what is the purpose of our planning, prep, ideas and resources? Surely the answer is that it’s to teach, support and help children to learn.

resource miser

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As far as I can see, sharing your hard work has the following benefits:

  1. Other staff will be really grateful and probably likely to return the favour when you’re in need, saving you time and effort.
  2. More children will be taught a lesson that you created. More children will learn and benefit from your hard work… so without doing anything more yourself, your ‘learning royalties’ just keep totting up. That’s a great feeling.
  3. Teaching can be very insular, with staff only really being aware or caring about what’s happening in their class, year group or subject. Sharing at least allows you to ‘give’ to the school as a whole, without doing any extra work.
  4. Every teacher has their own style and every class is different, so others may well adapt your lesson to suit them, and who knows… you might decide to use their alterations the next time you teach this. No matter how proud I am of a lesson, I always have to make some kind of change to suit the class/time of day/my mood/their mood.
  5. In term time, the majority of teachers work constantly. Keeping up with the ever-changing demands of the classroom can be incredibly stressful. If we can make things a little bit easier for others – if we can give them the odd lesson that saves them an hour’s planning on an evening – then surely that’s a good thing.
  6. It’s so easy to share – just save it on the shared drive.
  7. It’s a really nice thing to do. Doing nice things makes you feel good.
  8. Your colleagues will appreciate you even more and hopefully respect your professional and supportive attitude.

Just to play devil’s advocate, let’s look at the other side. Being a resource-miser has the following benefits:

  1. No other soul will ever benefit from your blood, sweat and tears. Everyone else will have to work and suffer just like you did – no easy rides for anyone.

Point made.

So please spread your resources around school like jam on toast. The more you spread, the sweeter it will taste. And the more mouths you’ll feed.

 

Teacher Wellbeing: I kept a Gratitude Diary for a year and this is what happened…

Editor’s update (20.11.17): Since writing here, the big change is that I felt ready to leave the security of secondary employment and ‘go out on my own.’ Looking here at the benefits  I noticed over a year ago, I wonder if had I not developed and maintained this daily habit of gratitude – and through this happiness – if I’d have had the courage to leave my safety net and leap into the unknown. As it was, I felt a strong sense of trust in both myself and the world’s plan for me. I knew that this was something I needed to do, and that whatever the result was, I would be grateful and happy for the experience. I still keep a gratitude diary – in fact, I’ve migrated to the Six-Minute Diary – and have now branched out into gratitude washing-up! 


This last week, I came to the end of my ‘gratitude diary.’ I tend to use online calendars to keep track of events and tasks, so when I was given my school diary last year, I thought I may as well try out the latest ‘fad’ in positive thinking. Every day – usually on a night – I have written down as many things as I can think of that are good about the day: things that I’ve done and enjoyed, funny conversations or complements I’ve been given, lessons that have gone really well and just generally things that I’m grateful for.

After a year, I’ve noticed the following things:Gratitude Diary cover

  • I seem to feel a lot more positive and it seems more natural. When I started out, my instant reaction to problems would be negative – I’d have to think really hard to re-frame this in my words (and my head) to appear positive. I had to force it. After a year, I feel like my natural reaction is instinctively positively.
  • I’m often complemented on my cheery disposition. People tell me that they love to see me because I’m always happy and positive, and apparently inspire and motivate others with my sunny outlook. This is probably the nicest complement I could receive.
  • When things do go wrong, and I do allow myself to sink into the misery of a bad situation, it doesn’t last as long as it used to. I just keep telling myself that ‘the only way out is through’ with the certainty that the bad feeling will pass.
  • I am more forgiving of others. I don’t seem to get anywhere near as angry or annoyed at people any more – I certainly don’t carry around bad feelings towards others. I feel like I’ve developed a greater sense of empathy towards people: I actually try and think about the other person’s side of the story and consider why they have acted in a certain way, rather than immediately writing them off because they haven’t met my expectations.
  • I’ve become more accepting of both people and situations. Where I’ve realised that good friends and I have grown apart, I’m okay with that. I’m happy to accept this as part of life and wish them happy, fulfilling lives.
  • I moan less. I worry less too! My situation hasn’t changed – neither have the things that I used to complain about – but my attitude is much more ‘c’est la vie.’ While I still plan ahead and look to changes I can make to improve my situation, I can do this without taking anything away from my present situation; I consider myself lucky to have the problems that I do.
  • I protect myself from ‘Dementors’. If I always feel down/upset/angry after talking to a particular person, then I make a conscious decision to distance myself from them and instead gravitate towards happier people. When I come across people who behave in a consistently cruel, arrogant, selfish and bullyish manner, my initial reaction now is to feel sad for them. People that have to bring others down rarely feel good about themselves deep-down and often miss out on the genuine, rich friendships and connections that the rest of us enjoy.
  • I am much happier in my job. Even after a ‘bad’ lesson, I can pick out at least 5 things that went really well – a brilliant question or answer in discussion, a student who made me laugh, a support assistant who got the best out of a challenging child, a child who worked really hard on a piece of work… Even at times of the year when the deadlines are looming, I still feel genuinely grateful to be able to work amongst such wonderful adults and children.
  • I am much happier in general, day to day. I realised a few years ago that if I based my happiness on some future goal i.e. I’ll be happy when I lose a stone; move house; get a new job; have 2 weeks in the sun… then I’d never keep a hold of it. My gratitude diary reminds me be mindful in appreciating even the most mundane moments of my daily life. As a result, I’m much more content overall – just from noticing what was there all along.

Gratitude Diary 1We hear it time and time again: what you focus on is what you get more of. Taking a few minutes each day to think on all of the wonderful things/people/moments/challenges that have been part of my day is something that is now part of my daily routine. What I once thought to be a fad is now a good habit and one that yields countless results.

Next year’s diary has arrived today and with it the prospect of more love, joy and laughter ahead.

 

Teacher Wellbeing: Mindfulness over multi-tasking

I’ve often read that one of the keys to mindfulness, and indeed happiness, is to do one thing and one time. Pure focus and concentration on that one thing. 

Still…I find it so unbelievable hard to put this into practice.

It’s often joked about that women are used to multitasking; in some ways, ‘we’ almost hold it over men and laugh at them, because they can’t do three things at once like us. In the teaching community, many of us wear our multitasking abilities like a badge of pride, bragging and moaning at the same time about how much we’ve done by 9AM and how much more we have to do.

Yes, we get an unbelievable amount done… but is it good for us? I doubt it.

Teachers often complain that ‘kids these days’ have 3 minute attention spans; that they’re overstimulated by technology. Yet, I know so many teachers that tell me that they can’t get through a TV show without thinking about their ‘to do’ list; that they wake up at 3AM thinking about seating plans and checking emails on their phone; that are continuously accused of ‘being somewhere else’ even when they’re in the room.

There’s no wonder that many people say it takes them a couple of weeks into summer before they can even calm down and relax.

Summer holidays though are a great opportunity to embrace the art of doing just one thing; to sit and read a book outside, with the sun on your face and the breeze in your hair, and the noises of holidays all around you.  There are endless opportunities to practise mindfulness – to listen, touch, taste, smell, see and feel all the things that are normally there, but aren’t normally acknowledged because your mind is somewhere else – to exist in the present moment.

Throughout my holiday, I’m going to strive to pay attention as much as possible, and just do one thing at a time. This is going to mean breaking a few bad habits and I don’t expect it be to an entirely smooth ride, but I’ll do my best, safe in the knowledge that my brain really needs a holiday too. She’s had a really hard year. She really deserves to truly relax.

Editor’s update (20.11.17): Since writing this post, I’ve read a number of books about Mindfulness and watched some fascinating talks promoting it’s scientifically-proven benefits. As a result, I’m now signed up to a course with the British Institute of Mindfulness in January 2018, so that I can pass this information onto my students. The more I’ve learnt about this topic, the more I’ve become convinced of the need for it to be taught as a means of battling the anxiety and depression that has become prevalent in our schools. And I’m not just thinking of the students! Look out for more Mindfulness coming your way soon…