The causes of stress are implied by its definition -- big problem.

Have you ever noticed how the causes of stress are implied by the definition of stress?

More importantly, can the words and phrases that you use to define stress help you better understand and cope with your stress?

I believe the ways you define stress often keep you from coping as well as you might.

Of course, coping effectively with stress starts with identifying the causes of stress.

However, many of the words and phrases that are commonly used when defining stress tend to get in your way when you are trying to cope well. 

Let's consider how stress is typically defined. Too often, in my opinion, stress is defined as your reaction to a big problem. One article that I recently read used phrases like how you respond when your survival is threatened, what happens when you understand a situation to be harmful, and the way you react to an attack.

Here's the big problem with thinking of the causes of stress as big problems.

They imply that all stressors are BIG PROBLEMS.

If you think the causes of stress have to threaten your physical survival or bring you a lot of pain to qualify as stressors, then you will not recognize many more subtle stressors as being stressful.

Frequently, I will have clients and workshop participants list the stressors in their lives. They most always talk about the big problems such as...

  • school violence
  • students that seem unable or unwilling to learn
  • unreasonable demands from your administration
  • the challenges of parenting after dealing with a classroom full of kids all day
  • family arguments
  • an educator's salary and more month than money
  • a child's disability (your own or a student's)
  • too much responsibility and not enough resources or support
  • worries about the future
  • feeling inadequate and/or under-appreciated
  • having to move from the school where everything is familiar to a new school where everything is new and different

A better way to think about the causes of stress is...

...to think of them as any task or challenge that you must deal with - big or small, positive or negative.

Yes, positive tasks and challenges are also stressful.

These could include things like...

  • street noise
  • putting on a recently laundered shirt and discovering that one of the buttons is missing (and you are already running behind time)
  • getting stuck in a traffic jam
  • a coworker talking when you are trying to work on a lesson plan during your planning period
  • a co-teacher that wants to do everything his or her way
  • a fire drill in the middle of class
  • trying to warm a cup of tea before leaving for school and the circuit-breaker protecting the receptacle that the microwave is plugged into trips keeping it from working 

This last one happened at my house a few days ago. It took a whole 90 seconds to fix the problem; nevertheless, it was another task to complete and, thus, a stressor.

As I am typing this, I am beginning to notice that I am getting uncomfortably hot. It's not a big deal. All I have to do is turn on the ceiling fan above my desk. Time required: 10 seconds max, but I have to stop, stand up, and do it. It breaks my concentration. It is a task to complete, thus, a stressor.

These little mini-stressors happen all day long.

So why is it important to know that mini-stressors are causes of stress?

We can learn a lesson about why mini-stressors are important from the events of January 15, 2009. That is when Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles were forced to land an Airbus A320 into the Hudson River.

Multiple bird strikes caused the jet's engines to fail. Flying into a bird is unlikely to bring down an Airbus. But flying into a flock of birds can and did.

The same is true of these small stressors. One or two will have little impact. But encountering one after another all day long can cause you to become totally stressed-out.

Knowing this can help you protect yourself from the cumulative impact of these frequently occurring mini-stressors. Throughout the day, you can do things to bring your stress level down like...

  • taking a few deep breaths (Make this a class activity and have your students do it with you.) 
  • saying a short prayer (silently)
  • sitting still and staring out the window for a brief time (My favorite-you can also make this a classroom activity.)
  • trying to think about nothing for a few minutes
  • having a cup of herbal tea (My wife's favorite)

By using these mini-stress relievers throughout the day, you can keep stress from building up to the point that it is a BIG PROBLEM.

What is your favorite mini-stress reliever?

Do you have children? Here is a great video to watch with them to help them learn how to deal with stress. If you don't have children, watch it anyway; you may learn a thing or two yourself.


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