In medicine these days, there’s this idea that stress is a terrible thing. It’s like the new smoking; we should avoid it at all costs. If that’s true, then we should be helping our patients—and people in general—avoid stress. Well, that’s not possible. And even if it was, it turns out that anything you want to achieve, and everything you experience in life—any change—is stressful for our brains.
I like to compare stress to exercise. Many of us do our best to avoid both. With exercise, we don’t enjoy feeling tired, sore, and out of shape. And we avoid stress because it can leave us feeling overwhelmed. But it’s impossible to get fit without exercise, and it’s impossible to grow and get stronger without managing stress.
My work in general, and with educators and school leaders specifically, is about helping people develop strategies to help them avoid that feeling of being overwhelmed and move from being change resistant to change ready, and even change competent, as I like to describe it.
When I work with school leaders, many of them say they think their main goal should be taking stress off teachers, and if they aren’t successful at that, they must be doing a bad job. They are reassured when I tell them that stress relief in and of itself shouldn’t be the goal. When you use it correctly, stress is actually an effective leadership tool.
There are strategies leaders can learn and use to help people better manage loss and distrust and discomfort, but we can’t change the fact that our brains treat change as a threat, and that’s stressful. What we do have control over is how we navigate change after it happens. When leaders truly understand why change is hard for their staff, it takes a lot of burden off them, and the guilt dissolves.
Resilience Is the Ability to Navigate Change
In my new book, From Stressed to Resilient: The Guide to Handle More and Feel It Less, I write about eight resilience skills—all of which are taught in school to some extent—that everyone can gain and strengthen. I define resilience as the ability to navigate change and come through it with integrity and purpose. Again, it’s like exercise. Whatever level of fitness you have (or haven’t yet) achieved, you will benefit from getting a little stronger.
Resilience doesn’t just come from facing difficulties. We all know someone who has faced lots of struggles but never seems to get any stronger, or someone who seems to constantly face adversity, but it never gets any easier for them. Struggle is not enough—we need some context and some skills if we hope to glean useful lessons from difficulties. It’s important to know that there are lots of ways to grow resilience without suffering.
These are the eight resilience skills I cover in the book:
- Build connections
- Set boundaries
- Open to change
- Manage discomfort
- Set goals
- Identify options
- Take action
- Persevere (keep trying)
The book is very interactive, with a focus on exercises instead of lectures. I encourage readers to create their own table of contents and put things in the order that makes the most sense for them. I want people to not only figure out what areas they are weak in, but also pick one that would be most useful to develop for the situation that is top of mind for them currently. If you could wave a magic wand and grab one of these skills right now, which would it be? In the book, you go to the area you want to work on, complete the four exercises there, and in about an hour, you will have strengthened your abilities.
Helping Educators Feel Less Overwhelmed
This work is based on neuroscience, but it’s all very accessible. The strategies I discuss can apply to your classroom, to other educators, and to your family. Ultimately, I hope these help readers feel less overwhelmed by the change they are experiencing so they can use that stress to lead the life they want. That requires the ability to navigate change.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with many schools and districts. I spend a lot of time coaching staff members on culture change around these ideas of stress and resilience and mental health. I work to leave them with a plan so that it’s not a one-off day of assemblies and parent and faculty meetings, but instead it’s a path forward for people to keep using this approach in settings with all the social and emotional learning that’s involved.
For individuals who use the book, I’ve tried hard to give them the opportunity to join a larger community. At the end of every section, there’s a link or QR code to scan that takes you to my website (askdoctorg.com) where readers can do three things: collect a badge for completing the skill; answer a question about the content and what was helpful, meaningful, or frustrating so they can see what others are experiencing; and get a free gift that can support them in some fun or useful way to continue using that skill.
The Impact of the Pandemic
As we’ve navigated the pandemic these past two and a half years, I find myself increasingly worried about educators, but also encouraged for students. The rate of burnout among classroom teachers has been tremendous. Our educators have carried students’ families and their own during the pandemic, and the toll it’s taking on them is terrifying to me as a physician, as a parent, as a member of society, and as the daughter of an educator.
On the other hand, I’m encouraged because our students have gone through a major upheaval and disruption together with adults watching to see what they need. We’re paying more attention to students’ mental health than we ever have before. Even though taking care of their mental health can really be a struggle, students are gaining skills and strategies that they wouldn’t have otherwise, and we’re paying attention and working on creating resources.
But we’ve done that on the backs of educators, and I’m worried it’s breaking them. It’s like watching a train wreck and thinking, “Oh, that looks bad!” Noticing is a first step, but it’s only a first step. Still, I really believe in the power of positive social change. We must notice a problem before we can address it, and I do think that the pandemic has shown a much larger percentage of people how much we need teachers and how much they need our help.
Deborah Gilboa, MD, aka “Dr. G,” works with families, organizations, and businesses to help develop strategies that turn stress into an advantage. She is a board-certified family physician at the Squirrel Hill Health Center in Pittsburgh, PA, and a clinical associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, as well as an author and popular keynote speaker.