As a teacher, it can be really challenging to reduce anxiety and switch off, but not impossible, explains teacher’s work-life balance coach, Annabel Jeffcoate.

Many teachers lay in bed at night with their mind racing, thinking about planning, marking, behaviour, safeguarding and observations. They worry about the things they haven’t completed that day on the never-ending to-do list, feeling unprepared for the next day. Asking questions such as, “How will I support every pupil?” “Am I good enough to be a teacher?” “Am I doing enough?” When the mind races, this is known to psychologists as “mental chatter” or a negative thought spiral.

Some of us, however, are more susceptible than others. In 2018, the Journal of Intelligence released a paper titled, ‘High intelligence: A risk factor for psychological and physiological overexcitabilities’.This paper highlights
the tendencies for highly intelligent individuals to be susceptible to anxiety and other mental and physical disorders. In the diagram below you will see that psychological overexcitabilities lead to rumination and worry which, over time, can lead to potential anxiety disorders. If we add on top of that the environmental triggers in the daily life of a teacher, then there is an even higher chance of experiencing one of the noted disorders below.

Challenging the chatter

In an interview with Inverse Magazine, psychologist and author of the book ‘Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It matters, and How to Harness It’, Ethan Kross explains, “A lot of the time, our inner voice serves us well: we can work through a problem and move on… if we find that we access that inner voice and we start getting stuck, it turns into chatter.” 2 The challenge with chatter is that our sympathetic nervous system (the stress response) gets initiated. Our bodies cannot tell the difference between a perceived threat and an actual threat so when chatter begins the negative thought spiral potentially stimulates two pathways in the body.

The sympathetic-adrenal-medullary (SAM) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) are two pathways that are part of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. This is often referred to as our ‘fight or flight’ response.

  • SAM is usually the initial response to a sudden stressor, for example a child is about to have an incident in the classroom and a fast action response is required.
  • The HPA axis is a slightly delayed and more chronic response to a perceived threat.

Fortunately, the body has developed negative feedback signalling. When the threat isn’t perceived anymore the stress hormone levels begin to rebalance. If we wish to stop the chatter, we must first learn how to switch off the sympathetic nervous system by removing the perceived threat. A perceived threat is unique to an individual and this is where coaching, such as the programmes at Balance for Teachers, plays a part in reducing an individual’s overthinking and anxiety.

Analysing the automation

Automated negative thoughts as first descried by Dr. Aaron T. Beck, the founding father of Cognitive Behavioural Theory (CBT), are a stream of negative thoughts. But if we pay attention to them, they can be influenced.

There are some common characteristics to these thoughts to help you be able to spot them:

  • they are usually negative
  • they make you feel bad about yourself
  • they are uninvited
  • they are self-sabotaging
  • they are believable
  • they are biased.

At first, catching these thoughts may feel tricky as they are automated. Usually, we feel the emotion without knowing the thought associated with it or we are already deep in the spiral of overthinking. That is okay.

There are two options here. If an emotion is felt, name it, e.g., “I feel sad.” Then consider what thought triggered the emotion. If the mind is racing, pause and write down the thoughts you are experiencing. Once the trigger is more conscious, instead of ruminating, a solution can be sought.

'Monitor your thoughts' diagram. Positive has three sections review, reflection and planning with arrows between and the words past, present and future below. Negative has regrets, rumination, anxieties under Past, Present and Future.

Regulating the rumination

Rumination involves passively and repetitively focusing on possible causes, symptoms and consequences of distress. Worry is defined as feeling anxious or troubled about actual or potential problems. Both definitions could lead to negative thoughts and/or perceived threats which could stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. To switch this off, we must disengage from the mental chatter so that we can stop the ruminating and worrying.

Most people ruminate or worry at times. The aim is not to stop it completely, as it serves a purpose to protect us, but instead recognise when we are slipping into these tendencies and choose to listen to our needs instead of ignoring them.

An example of a thought that can lead to rumination could be, “I was terrible today, the children in the class didn’t get it at all. I’m not good enough as a teacher.” The thought does not offer an opportunity to develop a solution. Instead, it holds us in regret and could also create future anxieties. Try to flip the ruminating thought into a reflective thought. An example could be, “I’m curious as to why the children did not understand what I was teaching? I wonder if there is another way I could try? I’ll pencil that in to research tomorrow.” In the mindset of reflection, we have reviewed the past to plan our future. The threat has been removed and the body can begin its negative feedback loop.

Opposing the overthinking

Sounds easy, yet when we are overthinking our brain has zoomed in on this one threat, so thinking clearly can feel extremely challenging. When coaching clients, I often suggest imagining you are giving advice to a child or a colleague in the same situation. This helps to reset and broaden the perspective to find the self-help advice needed in that moment. Another way to cut through the mental chatter is to think long-term. A phrase that I always say to myself in times of distress is, ‘It’s just for now and not forever.’ It allows me to realise I am not stuck; it’s just a challenging moment that will pass.

If the mental chatter continues, change the task. If lying in bed, read a book; if sat on the sofa, do an activity or household chores. Distracting the mind can also broaden our perspective and allow us to have those penny-dropping moments of clarity. Overthinking is exhausting but, by learning how to manage the mind and regulate the body, teachers can switch off to reduce anxiety so that they can feel calmer, healthier, happier and more present – even with a never-ending to-do list!

References

  1. Karpinskia, R.I. et al. (2017) High intelligence: A risk factor for psychological and physiological overexcitabilities, Intelligence. JAI. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289616303324 (Accessed: January 19, 2023).
  2. Pattillo, A. (2022) How to shut off your brain: 4 science-backed tips to stop thinking and relax, Inverse. Inverse. Available at: https://www.inverse.com/mind-body/how-to-shut-off-your-brain (Accessed: January 19, 2023).

Author

  • Annabel Jeffcoate

    Annabel is a work-life balance coach helping teachers reduce anxiety, confidently set boundaries, and switch off to feel calmer, healthier, happier and more present. She is passionate about her ‘discover life out of work challenge’ and wants to help prevent teachers suffering from burnout.
    twitter icon LinkedIn icon Instagram icon Website icon