As an educator, you know that teaching can be extremely stressful. The profession requires you to teach specific academic content, respond to students with care and sensitivity, and communicate clearly and effectively with everyone: students, parents, colleagues, and administrators. Given these stresses, it is essential to take time to care for yourself. In fact, learning to balance the emotional demands of teaching with other professional and personal pressures is central to the teacher’s art, and vital to professional longevity.
Data from other caring professions (and teaching is definitely a caring profession) shows that mindfulness practices decrease burnout, increase compassion, and allow for more effective communication. In addition, work by Dr. Tish Jennings in the UVA Curry School of Education and her colleagues on the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education project found that their mindfulness-based professional development had positive impacts on teachers in and out of the classroom (http://www.care4teachers.com/).
What’s going on in the brain?
We all now know that stress can have a negative effect on our health and wellbeing. When the body is in chronic stress (stress that is prolonged) the sympathetic nervous system is activated (what we call the ‘fight-or-flight’ mode) – our breathing and heart rate increases, our ability to properly digest food decreases, all of which can lead to muscle tension. This mode also increases the amount of cortisol in our blood, which leads to weight gain and suppresses our immune response. [how-stress-affects-the-brain]
Another fact about the brain — the brain continues to make new cells throughout your life (a process called neurogenesis) – even into old age. On average, a person makes about 1400 new brain cells (neurons) each day. Things that cause more neurogenesis include learning new things, exercise, and getting enough sleep. On the other hand, being constantly stressed, seeing life from a ‘glass-half-empty’ point of view, and not getting enough sleep can lead to decreased neurogenesis. [new-brain-cells-many-triggers-for-neurogenesis]
How Mindfulness Helps
How can we address this imbalance and get back to a more centered place? Mindfulness practices lead to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system – or the ‘rest and digest’ mode. It is in this state where we feel relaxed and calm, where our digestive systems operate as they’re supposed to, where our immune system is activated and healing can occur. [meditation-relaxes-your-nervous-system]
Simple Mindfulness Techniques to Try
There are several simple ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. One of my favorites is diaphragmatic breathing. Simply put, breathing like children do – instead of breathing from the top part of your chest, put your hand on your belly and as you breathe in let your belly distend into your hand. When you exhale it will naturally retract. Repeat three times, each time letting your belly fill up like a beach ball. This practice activates the parasympathetic nervous system and allows you to calm down and feel more centered.
Other practices for making new neurons, which restore and refresh you: keep your mind open to new things, get out and go for a walk, and (best of all!) catch up on your sleep!
Susanna Williams, PhD
Faculty and Researcher
UVa Mindfulness Center
School of Medicine
School of Nursing
UVA Mindfulness Center
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