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STRESS MANAGEMENT VS. STRESS PREVENTION
We hear all the time about stress management. However, an ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure. There are some simple but effective things we can do to prevent stress in the first place, and permanently reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of it in our lives.
GETTING BETTER VS. FEELING BETTER
Dr. Albert Ellis used to say there’s a difference between temporarily FEELING better, and
GETTING better. Stress management is typically just an example of temporarily FEELING better. To understand the difference, it helps to look at a formula for the way life unfolds. Unfortunately, this formula never gets taught in schools or colleges and universities.
It can help us understand how stress really comes about. It can also help us see how we can prevent it in the first place rather than try to simply manage it after the fact.
EVENT + THOUGHTS = FEELING > BEHAVIOR
Events can be real or imagined. Imagined events can be from the past, or about the future. Anything that happens, and that others say or do, or we remember or imagine, is technically just an event in this formula. Imagined events are what anxiety (stress) is based on. I’ll talk more about that later. What this formula tells us though is that it’s really what we think about the real or imagined events of our lives that cause how we feel. Thoughts cause feelings, not events.
There are many ways to temporarily feel better. Some are healthy, like yoga, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and exercise. Others are not, like smoking, drinking, using drugs. However, they all work in one of two basic ways. One, they give us a temporary break, time out or vacation from our life events, and the thoughts that we usually have about them. These thoughts are usually automatic and that’s why people so often ruminate, or play them like a “broken record” in their heads. Of course, sometimes these thoughts are simply too strong and automatic, and the activity can’t do what it was intended to, and the feeling can continue to build up, even make engaging in the activity difficult. When people drink it’s not uncommon for them to ruminate even more after just a few. It’s why people often over indulge. It’s the only way to shut down such thoughts. Two, they deplete the emotion or energy to move that has built up from having those thoughts. Exercise is a good example of an activity that does both.
To manage their stress, people are typically encouraged to engage in BEHAVIOR that will help them temporarily feel better. However, as soon as they stop engaging in such activities (or they sober up from drinking or using drugs), the events of their lives are waiting for them, if only in their minds, and the automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) they have about them quickly return. This causes their feelings to build back up, perhaps to same frequency, intensity and duration they were at before, or worse.
LIKE OTC MEDICATIONS
In this way, the many ways to temporarily feel better are like OTC (over the counter) medications for the symptoms of a cold. As long as such medications are in our bloodstream and tissues, we get symptomatic relief. But as those levels drop, our symptoms start to return. The reason is that the OTC meds do nothing about the underlying cause of our symptoms – a virus that’s infecting our blood and tissues. The many healthy and unhealthy ways of temporarily feeling better typically do nothing about the real underlying cause of our feelings – the THOUGHTS we have about the real or imagined EVENTS of our lives. Therefore, once we stop engaging in such activities, or sober up, our FEELINGS start to build back up. People start to notice that the only time they feel better is when they are engaging in such activities. It’s how people can become addicted to any activity. Most commonly it’s alcohol or drugs that people get addicted to, but they can become overly dependent on any activity.
FREQUENCY, INTENSITY AND DURATION
Whenever we work with feelings, we want to look at the FREQUENCY, INTENSITY and DURATION (FID) of those feelings. GETTING
better means permanently reducing the frequency, intensity and duration of troublesome feelings, like anger anxiety, depression, shame and guilt. What the above formula tells us is that the only way to GET BETTER is to change the way we think about the real
or imagined events of our lives. It’s called cognitive restructuring.
OUR FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE
Our brain is always trying to make sense out of what’s happening to us in order to identify potential threats to us. It’s the brain’s primary function. We have a built in fight or flight response to deal with real threats to our lives. Anger and anxiety are the two halves of it. Both can be powerful e-motions, or energy to move. That’s the way nature intended it to be to deal with real threats to our lives. People often start with anxiety and it morphs into anger, and they go from flight to fight.
I like to think of anger as emotional nitroglycerin, which is exactly what we’d want if our lives were truly in danger – the ability to “hulk out” to save ourselves. However, that’s why getting angry as a teacher is so dangerous. The Incredible Hulk always does extensive damage once he does get angry and hulks out, and people resent him for it, and otherwise mild mannered Dr. David Banner always regrets it afterward. Another big problem with anger is that it gives anyone a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection, and precludes people from seeing “the error of their ways” and just how much damage they’re actually doing. It’s why I like to say that anger can make an otherwise smart teacher say and do stupid things. YouTube has many cell phone videos of teachers doing just that.
It’s also why I call anger a teacher’s #1 enemy of effectiveness. People would often ask my mentor (an REBT therapist), “Aren’t there times when it’s good to get angry?” His response was always “Whatever you can do when you’re angry, you can do better when you’re not”. That’s very true for the vast, vast majority of challenges teachers ever have to deal with.
TURTLES, JACKRABBITS, AND RATTLESNAKES
I like to tell teachers and students that when people plug into fight or flight, they become either “turtles”, “jackrabbits”, or “rattlesnakes”. Some people will suck into their shells, or run away. Others will coil rattle, and even strike out. We often see students become “turtles” when faced with school work, or social situations. But some will cut classes and school – that’s being like “jackrabbits”. Then there are some who will quickly and suddenly coil, rattle and strike out at teachers and others students. Sometimes they don’t even rattle before striking out, just like real rattlers. Students can go from “turtles” to “rattlesnakes” at the drop of a hat, especially if they don’t see any option to be a “jackrabbit” and run away. Real rattlesnakes will slither away if they can. It’s only when they can’t that they coil, rattle and may strike out.
The important thing to remember is that these responses are all defensive, just like they are in the real animals. When people feel stressed out, they are really experiencing anxiety and feeling threatened in some way. But they can quickly go from anxiety to anger, from flight to fight, from being “turtles” to “rattlesnakes”, especially when making like a “jackrabbit” is not an option.
I bring this up in this discussion because we see this in teachers as well as students. There are all kinds of expectations placed on teachers, i.e. maintaining control of their classrooms, raising test scores. Those expectations seem to be increasing all the time. It’s easy for teachers to start to believe they’re not living up to expectations, and won’t in the future. This sets the stage for teachers to perceive what students do, or don’t do, as threats to them. Misbehavior or not doing work suddenly seem like bigger threats than they are or need to be. Teachers can exacerbate such threats in their own minds as well. It’s why some start to dread going to work (turtles), some leave the profession (jackrabbits) and some are quick to lash out at students (rattlesnakes). We see the same responses in students because they too are “under the gun” in many ways, and some become “rattlesnakes”. Put two “rattlesnakes” in the same room and you’ve got the recipe for a lot of teacher-student conflict.
ANXIETY IS A FIGMENT OF IMAGINATION
Anxiety is technically a figment of (read that product of) imagination. It’s technically about things that haven’t happened yet – things that could happen, but haven’t yet, and often never do. If we have some traumatic past experiences, we’ll be more on guard for recurrences than others might be who didn’t have such experiences. That’s perfectly understandable – it could even be life-saving. But sometimes we end up on guard more than is helpful or necessary, are too quick to imagine the worse happening, and develop anxiety disorders, or even phobias. People can also imagine threats that don’t really exist, and magnify ones that do by the way they choose to look at things before, during and after they happen. They do this all the time. It’s all understandable and part of being human. It’s just not helpful or necessary.
Teachers do this with misbehavior in students. Unless a student has a lethal weapon and is attacking a teacher physically, the typical misbehavior teachers have to deal with is really never a threat to their lives. However, teachers can raise everyday occurrences to that level in their minds. Here’s a common example. A student talks back. That’s certainly not life-threatening in any way. But the teacher imagines that if she doesn’t reprimand or punish the student in some way, other students will think it is okay to do that, and she will get more talking back from others. Then she imagines she will start to lose control of her classroom, and other teachers or her administrator will find out and think she’s not a good teacher. She imagines she’ll get a bad evaluation and possibly get put on probation or even lose her job down the road. These are all things that could happen, and sometimes do, but haven’t yet. Some concern would be warranted and helpful. But the teacher’s brain can imagine all these scenarios in a flash. That’s especially true if they’ve seen it happen to other teachers, or may have had it happen to them in the past. It can happen simply because older teachers warned them about such possibilities when they first started teaching.
The end result is that a simple misbehavior quickly becomes a much bigger threat than it is, or needs to be, and the teacher plugs into her fight or flight response. He/she generates needless anxiety and that morphs quickly into anger. More often than not, teachers will quickly lash out at students when they do this catastrophizing and awfulizing in their minds. In other words, they become “rattlesnakes”.
AUTHORITARIAN MINDSETS SET TEACHERS UP
Having an authoritarian mindset and demanding obedience from students can set a teacher up to perceive more things students do as bigger threats than they are, and to be more likely to lash out. There’s a simple rule regarding emotions. The bigger the difference between your expectations and reality, the more emotion you’ll generate. Kids are always going to do things that teachers might not like. That’s been going on since the beginning of time. However, by demanding obedience, a teacher creates an artificially bigger gap between their expectations and what kids do.
If they simply want, prefer or desire cooperation, and kids don’t cooperate, teachers will understandably get frustrated, irritated or annoyed. But if teachers demand obedience, they’ll get angry instead when kids misbehave. The reason is that a student misbehaving will be perceived as a much bigger threat than it is, simply because of how the teacher chooses to look at things. If a teacher thinks, “These kids NEED to do what I tell them to”, that equates student obedience with air, water and food in a teachers mind. Not getting air is a primal threat to our lives – we could die in minutes. Treat student obedience as a NEED like air in your mind, and it will be a bigger threat when they misbehave. Every person has a right to want whatever they want. Teachers have a right to want students to cooperate. However, if teachers start to think students NEED to behave, like we need air, water or food, it sets teachers up to overreact emotionally when they don’t.
Many times authoritarian teachers will have the best controlled classrooms and seem so confident. It’s why others will often seek to emulate them. However, there’s an old saying, “It’s easy to be an angel when no one ruffles your feathers”. When a student does misbehave, or even worse disobeys them, authoritarian teachers are more likely to go ballistic. Finding the right mindset for teaching can be a challenge.
A DYSFUNCTIONAL AMOUNT OF EMOTION
I mentioned above that generating concern regarding what transpires, or might in a classroom can be helpful. I like to hyphenate the word e-motion because it’s really energy to move – energy to help us get what we want and need, to make life better, and ultimately to help us survive. If we’re concerned about being evaluated by our administrator the next day, that concern will motivate us, and give us energy to take some helpful precautions the day before – like making sure our lesson plan is in order, and all handouts are run off well ahead of time. However, if we generate too much anxiety about how we might perform, it can literally impair our performance. We could do that the night before, or at the drop of a hat if we make a mistake during the lesson, something unexpected happens, or a student acts out. Such anxiety would be an example of what I call a dysfunctional amount of emotion. By that I mean:
1) More than is helpful or necessary for the situation we find ourselves in
2) More than we want to have
3) More than is healthy for us
4) More than we know what to do with
5) A type and amount (FID) that works against us instead of for us
Anger and anxiety, the two halves of our fight or flight responses, both fit these definitions. It’s why we so often say people have anger PROBLEMS, and anxiety DISORDERS. Depression, shame and guilt also fit these definitions. They all cause people to react or even overreact to life events. I was taught, “There’s two ways to make something you don’t like worse, do nothing and overreact to it”. Too often teachers will do the latter because of anxiety and anger – because they needlessly plug into their fight or flight responses. Too many become chronically stressed out. Some suck into their shells in a variety of ways, others leave the profession entirely. Others become “rattlesnakes” with students – often needlessly provoking more of the very behavior they don’t like in students, especially those prone to be “rattlers” themselves.
STEP 1 – DEVELOP AN INTERNAL LOCUS OF CONTROL
One of the first and most important things we can do to permanently reduce stress in our lives is to develop what’s called an internal locus of control. Most people have an external locus of control. That includes most teachers. They wrongly see what others say and do, and what happens as being the cause of how they feel. Just listen to the way you and other talk about feelings and how they come about. For example, “These kids drive me crazy”, “It really makes me angry when they do that” and “This job is really stressing me out”. This puts them at the mercy of what others say and do, and the events of their lives. This typically causes them to feel worse than is necessary or helpful, for longer than needed. That includes feeling stressed out. Without realizing it, by looking at things this way, people give away the real power and control they do have over how they feel, and their emotional destiny. They give other people and events power and control over how they feel that those people and events don’t really have. It also causes them to miss many opportunities to feel better, to be less stressed. The reason being that by looking at things this way, it means others and their life events must get better for them to feel better. The problem is, what if they never do?
An important starting point in beginning to permanently reduce the frequency, intensity or duration of anxiety and stress in our lives is to recognize that events of our lives don’t stress us out, or upset us in any way. We stress ourselves out, and upset ourselves by the way we choose to think about or look at things. Stress comes from inside us, not outside. So do any other feelings. The way we think or look at things will always be understandable given that we’re human, and what our life experiences have been, and what is happening at the moment. However, it’s what we think about our real or imagined events that really causes how we feel, and determines the frequency, intensity and duration of any emotion we generate. Thoughts cause feelings, not events. For example, someone who thinks “I can’t let that happen. That would be awful. I’d just die if that happened” will be more stressed out than someone who instead thinks, “So what? It’s happened before and I survived. I will again. It wouldn’t be the end of the world”. Someone who thinks “They can’t do that in my classroom” will get angrier when students do something. A person who simply thinks “I really don’t like when they do that” will be frustrated, irritated or annoyed.
Earlier I gave you the formula for feelings and behavior:
EVENT + THOUGHTS = FEELING > BEHAVIOR
Three statements come from this formula:
1) Thoughts cause feelings, not events
2) Your behavior will always follow your emotions toward your life events
3) Attitude is alwayss the father of behavior
Number two simply means that if you make yourself angry, you'll behave like angry people usually do.
In math class, we all learn the simple formula a + b = c, where a is a constant and b is a variable. If a stays the same, and you change b, c changes. Likewise, if the event stays the same and you change your thoughts about it, your feeling changes, perhaps for the better, perhaps for the worse. There is always more than one way to think about or look at anything. Some of those will make us feel better, others worse. Some ways of thinking or looking things will make it easier to deal with what happens and we don't like, others will make it harder. That's simply the way it always is.
You can read more about developing an internal locus of control at:
There is also an article on this website entitled “These kids drive me crazy – actually they don’t, you do”
STEP 2 – RECOGNIZING AND REMINDING OURSELVES OF OUR COGNITIVE CHOICES
As I noted above, there is always more than one way to think about, or look at anything, including any real or imagined event in our lives. So technically, we always have a choice as to how we want to think about, or look
at what happens, has in the past, or might in the future. Some ways of doing so will make us feel better, others worse. Some will make it easier to deal with things we don’t like, and others will make it harder. Some will stress us out more, others
People often don’t realize that they always have choices. They create cognitive “ruts” by practicing and rehearsing certain ways of thinking about or looking at things. That makes those ways of thinking and looking at things automatic. Their thoughts simply pop into their minds, seemingly out of nowhere. This causes them to think they have no choice. Like real ruts on dirt roads, these “ruts” are hard to stay out of, and hard to get out of once you’re in them. These “ruts” are why people can keep recreating their past, and keep stressing themselves out needlessly.
Realizing that it’s really what we choose think and how we look at things that really causes stress is the first step in learning to prevent it. Reminding ourselves that we always have choices as to how we want to think or look at things is step two. Here are some of the important choices we always have, and ways we can remind ourselves of them.
It’s my choice how I LOOK at things
It’s my choice what MEANING I attach to what happens, or might
It’s my choice what I REMEMBER about the past at any given moment
It’s my choice what I IMAGINE will happen
It’s my choice what I FOCUS on
It’s my choice what I COMPARE things to
It’s my choice what I EXPECT of myself, others and life
It’s my choice how much IMPORTANCE I attach to what happens
It’s my choice what I spend my time THINKING about
Since the way we make such choices really determines how we feel, it’s also true that:
It’s my choice how I want to FEEL
YOUR LAST FREEDOM IS YOUR ATTITUDE
Dr. Victor Frankl survived the Holocaust. He wrote a book about that experience. One of his famous quotes is:
"Everything can be taken from us but the last of human freedoms. To choose one's own attitude in any given set of circumstances. To choose one's own way."
The short version is "Your last freedom is your attitudde".
These are all choices that we alone can make. The reason is simple. They occur deep in our brains. No one can make these choices for us, unless we let them. People do that all the time, and it's understandable and part of being human. For example, if a parent constantly berates a child, it's understandable that a child would learn to berate him/herself. If a group of kids bullies someone, it's understandable that the way that child might look at him/herself would be influenced by the way the group looks at him/her. However, in the end, we always have a choice as to how we want to look at things. These choices are the source of the real power and control we all have over our emotional destinies - how we're going to feel in the next few seconds, minutes, hours, days, etc. By constantly reminding yourelf of the choices you always have, you retain the power and control over your emotional destiny rather than giving it away to other people or events without realizing it.
KEEPING OTHERS OUT OF YOUR HEAD
What Dr. Frankl taught us by his example is that no one can get in our heads unless we let them. He never let the Nazis get in his head, no matter what they said or did. For most people, keeping others out of their heads seem like an impossible task at first. But it's like anything else. It just takes practice. But first you have to know what "tools" you have to work with. Your "tools" are the cognitive choices listed above.
Eleanor Roosevelt said a similar thing to Dr. Frankl when she famously said:
"No one can make you feel bad about yourself without your consent"
MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL KARATE
Consider the implications of this for helping students deal with bullying. Developing an internal locus of control is a big part of teaching them what I call Mental and Emotional Karate - to defend themselves against verbal and cyber attacks the way some kids learn to defend themselves against physical attack in real karate classes. The goal can be summed up in this statement:
"You can think and say whatever you want about me. That's your choice. But it's my choice how I look at myself, and how I feel about myself. And you don't get to make those choices for me. Unless I let you. And I choose not to".
You can read more about Mental and Emotional Karate at:
I would sugges.t even creating a reminder card with these statements on it, one that you could pull out at those times when you feel stressed because you’ve plugged into your old stress producing cognitive “ruts”. You could create a placard for your classroom, office wall, or car dashboard too. Having it in your classroom could be helpful to students as well.
There’s an old saying that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. So is anxiety and anger. I also once heard someone once say “Life is mind-made”. That’s absolutely true.
STEP 3 – LEARN THE FORMULA FOR ANXIETY
Learning the formula for anxiety is step 3. Remember that anxiety is a figment of imagination. It’s about things that could happen, but haven’t happened yet. The formula for it is:
CATASTROPHIZE + AWFULIZE = ANXIETY
Therefore, with anxiety, one of the important choices above is what we choose to imagine will happen. We can imagine good things happening or bad things. Imagining bad things is what CATASTROPHIZING is all about. What we choose to imagine may or may not influence what actually transpires, but it can certainly affect how stressed out we are. However, we still need to think and tell ourselves it would be awful if what we imagine did happen. If we said, “So what? Who cares? It won’t be that big a deal”, we wouldn’t feel anxiety.
There are two simple but effective strategies to short circuit anxiety that stem from this formula. One is called “staying in the now”. When you start to CATASTROPHIZE, you simply say:
“That might happen, but it hasn’t happened yet. And if it does, I’ll deal with it. Just like others do, just like I have in the past, and just like I’ll probably have to again in the future”
To make this your automatic response to imagining bad things happening, you have to practice and rehearse saying it, just like someone does the lines to a play. If it becomes automatic, it will short circuit any anxiety you might be generating. But it only works if that’s what you think or say out loud. If you slip into your old anxiety producing cognitive “ruts”, the anxiety will come back. If you keep ruminating with such thoughts, the anxiety will grow in frequency, intensity and duration.
A second strategy is to brainstorm coping statements you could think or say out loud to combat the AWFULIZING about what you might be imagining will happen. For example,
“It wouldn’t be the end of the world
“It’s happened before and I survived. I will again”
“There are a lot worse things that could happen”
“It will pass”
“It wouldn’t be that big a deal”
You could even create what’s called a “coping card”. You simply list 3-5 such coping statements on an index card. When you start to CATASTROPHIZE, you pull the card out and repeat the statements to yourself. With practice these become increasingly more automatic, and the card is no longer needed.
STEP 4 – LEARN TO RECOGNIZE IRRATIONAL THINKING
There are common types of thinking that cause people to feel worse than is necessary or helpful, including being more anxious or stressed than is. Dr. Albert Ellis called them Demandiness, Awfulizing, Can’t Stand It-itis.
We all have a right to want whatever we want. According to Dr. Ellis, the big mistake people make is to start to:
1) Think they NEED things they simply want
2) Treat their simple preferences as NECESSITIES, and to
3) DEMAND what they simply desire
This creates a bigger and needless gap between their expectations and reality if or when they don’t get what they wanted. The bigger the gap between
peoples’ expectations and reality, the more emotion they’ll generate.
For example, suppose I had a test coming up in a grad class, I could take three basic philosophical positions. One, I could NOT CARE what grade I get on it. Two, I could WANT to do well. Or, I could tell myself I HAVE TO do well, and DEMAND of myself that I do. If I don't care what grade I get before the text, it's easy to stay calm before and after I take it. However, if I WANT TO do well, I'm likely to generate concern before it, and regret and remoure after if I don't do as well as I would have like. If I think I HAVE TO do well, I’m more likely to generate ANXIETY before it, and to feel SHAME or GUILT after it if I don’t do as well as I’d like.
DEMANDS OF SELF BEFORE EVENTS CAUSES ANXIETY
We can make demands of others, ourselves or life. ANXIETY comes from making demands of ourselves or life BEFORE some life event occurs. For example, “I HAVE TO do well in my interview. I CAN’T make any mistakes”. Or, “Everything HAS TO turn out the way I planned and want it to. Nothing can go wrong”. Sometimes the essence of the demand people make of themselves is “I HAVE TO be perfect and do everything perfectly, all the time”. When people make demands of themselves like this, they are more likely to catastrophize and awfulize, and generate anxiety. For example, if a student tells himself, “I HAVE TO get a perfect score on this test”, setting his expectations at that level of perfection doesn't leave much room for error, and it will make him more prone to catastrophizing, and awfulizing. Even one wrong will be perceived as a catastrophy.
DEMANDS OF SELF AFTER EVENTS CAUSE SHAME AND GUILT
SHAME and GUILT come from making demands of ourselves AFTER life events. It most often comes from SHOULDING on ourselves afterward. For example, "I SHOULD have done better. I SHOULDN'T have gotten so many wrong". If instead I simply thought and said "I WISH I had done better. I WISH I hadn't gotten so many wrong", I generate REGRET and REMORSE instead. How much shame and guilt, or regret and remorse will depend on how much I SHOULD on myself, or WISH I'd done better.
DEMANDS OF OTHERS CAUSE ANGER
ANGER, the other half of our fight or flight response comes from making demands of others. If I simply WANT my kids to do what I ask them to, when I ask them to, I'll bet FRUSTRATED, IRRITATED or ANNOYED if or when they don't. However, if I think they NEED TO or HAVE TO do what I ask, I'll get ANGRY instead if or when they don't. By thinking they NEED TO do what I ask, and perhaps even treating their obedience like air, water or food in my life, any disobedience becomes a bigger threat than it is, or needs to be. That makes me more like to plug into fight or flight. Too often teachers will DEMAND OBEDIENCE instead of INVITING COOPERATION. Teachers with an authoritarian mindset are more likely to do the former.
The essence of anger is "They HAVE TO do what I want, and be the way I want them to be". How old does someone thinking and talking like that sound? Like a child perhaps? That's why Dr. Ellis called anger an adult throwing a temper tantrum.
START LISTENING TO YOURSELF
Start listening to the way you and other teachers you work with talk about things, including the daily tasks of the job, and with or to students. Listen for verbs like NEED TO, HAVE TO, CAN'T, SHOULD, SHOULDN'T. I suspect you'll start to realize that there's a lot of DEMANDINESS going on. You could also write a few simple phrases on a piece of paper and see what pops into our mind. For example "I HAVE TO" or "Students SHOULD". The thoughts that come to mind quickly are probably ones you have frequently, and that are a regular and automatic part of your mindset for being a teacher.
People can and often do equate everyday wants, preferences and desires with air, water and food in their minds. They create what are called PERCEIVED NEEDS. A perceived need is something that we think we need, perhaps even like air, water and food. However, we can live without it, and won’t die if we don’t get it. If we couldn’t get air, it would be AWFUL. We’d die in a few minutes. But if we don’t get all those other things we simply think we need, it would really just be unpleasant, inconvenient and uncomfortable to some degree, not awful. My grandparents used to call this “making a mountain out of a mole hill”.
CAN’T STAND IT-IT IS
If we didn’t get air for more than a few minutes, we couldn’t stand it – we’d die. If we didn’t get water for more than a few days, we couldn’t stand it either. We’d eventually die. There are a lot of things that happen that people wouldn’t like. We all have the right to like or dislike whatever we want to. The mistake people make is to tell themselves they can’t or couldn’t stand it. But they’re not going to die like they would if they didn’t get air or water. So they could stand it – they just wouldn’t like it.
You can read more about irrational thinking at: www.teacheresp.com/TeacherTool4.html
TOP AND LOWER PORTIONS OF OUR BRAINS
The top portion of our brains gather information from our surroundings through our eyes, ears, nose, etc. It assesses that information, always looking for potential threats. Meaning gets attached to such information with words. The way we choose to look at things is passed down to the lower portion of our brains that control our emotions. The lower portion is basically blind, deaf and dumb with regard to what is really happening around us, or to us. It doesn’t even know whether we’re responding to a real or just an imagined event. The lower portion takes the word of the top portions, even if it’s exaggerating or lying. That’s exactly what people are usually doing when they tell themselves they NEED something that would simply be nice to have, or that it would be AWFUL and that they COULDN’T STAND IT.
A THINK-FEEL-DO THERMOSTAT MODEL (see diagrams below)
I like to use a thermostat model to help people see what they do to themselves by the way they choose to think about, or look at things. Imagine an old-fashioned thermostat with a needle you can push up or down to adjust the temperature. There are three columns – one each for what we THINK, FEEL and DO. We can choose to set our THINK thermostat anywhere we want to. Many people do it automatically without realizing they are. Where people place the needle on their THINK thermostat will determine what emotion, and how much of it they end up with. Please examine the thermostat diagrams below.
If they simply WANT TO do something, or have something turn out a certain way before some upcoming life event, they’ll generate CONCERN. How much will depend on how badly they want it. But if they turn their THINK thermostat up to HAVE TO, they’ll generate anxiety instead. The more they think they HAVE TO do something, or be a certain way, the greater frequency, intensity and duration of anxiety they’ll generate. When people get stressed out, they typically use HAVE TO in constructing their thoughts and comments. Listen to yourself and others and I'm betting you'll find this to be spot on.
The point is, as you turn your THINK thermostat up, you cause your FEEL thermostat to go up as well. Where you set your THINK thermostat is totally up to you – it’s your choice alone to make. People often set it higher than is helpful or necessary without realizing because the way they choose to look at things is so automatic. But there will be emotional consequences for where they do set it.
Teachers often DEMAND OBEDIENCE instead of INVITING COOPERATION. In demanding obedience of students, they think "THEY HAVE TO (NEED TO, SHOULD) do what I say". A teacher with an authoritarian mindset will typically go there. Demandiness defines an authoritarian mindset. That will cause their FEEL thermostat to get set at ANGER if and when students don't do what they tell them to. If they have an eternal locus of control and wrongly blame students for how they make themselves feel, it will only add to their anger. But if they instead invite or request cooperation and set their THINK thermostat at simply WANTING students to do what they ask of them, and students don't, they'll just get frustrated, irritated and annoyed instead. How frustrated, irritated and annoyed they get will depend on how much or badly they wanted their students to do what they ask of them.
STEP 5 – LEARN TO CHALLENGE YOUR IRRATIONAL THINKING
Learning to correct your irrational thoughts is the way to bring your THINK thermostat down and keep it there. In other words PREVENT stress. If you practice and rehearse such corrections enough, they become automatic, and essentially work like grammar check on a computer. If you should suddenly turn your thermostat up, an alarm will sound and it will be quickly turned back down. You can always turn your THINK thermostat up because the way you’ve thought about or looked at things in the past is “rutted” in your brain. Once you create such “ruts” you can’t get rid of them. You can only make new ones, and hope they will compete for use with your old ones. But people often do slip into old “ruts”.
I’ve always thought of old cognitive “ruts” as being like asphalt pathways that can never be torn up. Many take us to an emotional swamp – some place we’d rather not be emotionally, like all stressed out. Practicing ways of challenging such thoughts is like laying new pathways down from the end of the old ones. These new pathways take us away from our emotional swamp and to a better place.
DEMANDS OF SELF (ANXIETY)
There are some simple questions you can practice and rehearse asking yourself to challenge irrational thinking. For example, when you hear yourself thinking or saying out loud that you HAVE TO do something, you can practice
“Why do you HAVE TO? You HAVE TO, or just WANT TO?”
People are usually quick to answer such questions with “Because….” and go on to list all kinds of reasons why they HAVE TO do something. But the only correct answer is:
“I don’t HAVE TO, I just WANT TO. I don’t HAVE TO do anything”
If you thoughts or comments use the verb CAN’T, you can ask the following simple questions:
“Why CAN’T you? You CAN’T, or just don’t want to?”
The only correct answers are:
“I CAN, I just don’t want to.”
These same question can be asked at those times people are SHOULDING on themselves. For example:
“I SHOULD have done a better job”
“Why do you HAVE TO be perfect?”
“I SHOULDN’T have done that”
“Why CAN’T you make mistakes like everyone else?”
DEMANDS OF OTHERS (ANGER)
The same questions are used to challenge demands of others, like students, that will predisposed a teacher to become angry if or when students don’t do what the teacher wants them to.
“Why do they HAVE TO? They HAVE TO, or you just WANT them to?
We have every right to WANT them to do what we ask. Of course, they also have every right to want to do what they do. You can disagree with that, but it won’t help. You can argue with them about it, placing your wants above theirs, and it will just make things worse. I prefer to stipulate their right, and then find a way for both of us to get as much as possible of what we want. However, start to demand that you get what YOU want, and things will get ugly. The same will happen if they start to demand that they get what they want. If both do, it can lead to WWIII.
The only correct answers to these questions is:
“They don’t HAVE TO, I just want them to. They don’t HAVE TO do anything”
Answering this way turns your THINK thermostat down a notch, from “They HAVE TO” to “I WANT them to”. This turns your FEEL thermostat down from anger to frustration, irritation or annoyance. You still have energy to move, but not that emotional nitroglycerin that’s as hard to handle as the real nitro always was in those old cowboy movies. Then it becomes a matter of problem solving. “How can I get them to cooperate as much as possible?” It’s just taking care of business instead of something personal. And if consequences are employed to do so, follow the three R's of consequences. They should be Related, Reasonable, and dispensed in a Respectful way. That's more likely to happen if we don't make ourselves angry.
Remember that the formula for anxiety is: CATASTROPHIZE + AWFULIZE = ANXIETY. So AWFULIZING is an ingredient in generating anxiety. If you’re AWFULIZING, the questions would be the following. Since anxiety if a figment of imagination, and about things that could happen, but haven’t yet, the questions would be in future tense.
“Why would it be so AWFUL? Would it be AWFUL, or just unpleasant (or inconvenient, uncomfortable)
The only correct answer is:
“It wouldn’t be AWFUL, it’d just be unpleasant/inconvenient/uncomfortable”
CAN’T STAND IT-ITIS
If you were telling yourself you couldn’t stand what might happen, the questions would be:
“Why couldn’t you stand it? Would you die or go crazy just because of that? You couldn’t stand it, or just wouldn’t like it?”
The only correct answers are:
“I could stand it. I just wouldn’t like it. I’m not going to die or go crazy just because of that.”
You can read more about correcting irrational thinking at:
STEP 6 – CHOSE TO HAVE UNCONDITIONAL SELF-ACCEPTANCE (USA)
The reason this is important is SHAME. Shame comes from believing you don’t live up to expectations. We all have a lot of expectations placed on us, and place more on ourselves. That means plenty of opportunities to feel shame. Expectations of teachers have been increasing, even in unrealistic and unfair ways, i.e. making teachers responsible for test scores. Shame about the past can breed anxiety about the future. If you believe you haven’t been living up to expectations, it’s easier to imagine you won’t again in the future.
SHOULDING ON YOURSELF
People generate shame by making demands of themselves AFTER something happens. They SHOULD on themselves. For example, “I SHOULD be doing a better job in the classroom” or “I SHOULDN’T be struggling like I am”. People can get into a vicious cycle of making demands of themselves before and after events. They can constantly be telling themselves they HAVE TO do something before, and SHOULDING on themselves afterward. Telling themselves they HAVE TO do something before makes them more likely to generate anxiety, which can negatively impact their performance, causing them to fall short of expectations. This sets the stage for SHOULDING on themselves afterward. SHOULDING on themselves afterward makes them more likely to think they HAVE TO do something the next time.
WHAT USA MEANS
The solution to SHOULDING on yourself is to choose to have USA. Unconditional Self-Acceptance means that you choose to see whatever you think, feel, say or do as understandable, given that you’re human, fallible, and what you’ve been through in your life so far. It also means you’ll never be the first or last person, or teacher, to think, feel, say or do what you did. You’ll never be the first to make a mistake, or not do something as well as you could have. It means that no one is perfect, and everyone makes mistakes. It means choosing to believe that we all do the best we can at the time given our prior life experiences, and what we have to deal with. Finally, it also means choosing to see yourself as an FHB or Fallible Human Being like everyone else – who at times thinks, feels, says or does things that make your life worse instead of better.
You can read more about USA at: www.teacheresp.com/TeacherTool2.html
LABEL AND DAMNING YOURSELF
People also generate shame be engaging in the fourth type of irrational thinking – Labeling and Damning. For example, telling yourself “I’m so stupid for doing that”. So a final thing you can do is to practice challenging any labeling and damning you do of yourself. For example:
“Why are you stupid just because you did that? You’re stupid, or just did a stupid thing? You’re stupid, or just did something you didn’t like? You’re stupid, or just a fallible human being like everyone else?”
Smart people do stupid things all the time. Doing a stupid thing doesn’t make anyone a stupid person. Labeling and Damning is an example of over generalizing, like calling an apple bad just because it has a small bruise. It’s condemning the doer instead of the deed.
HAVE UNCONDITIONAL OTHER ACCEPTANCE FOR STUDENTS
This means choosing to take the same attitude toward what others like students think, feel, say or do. It doesn't mean you have to like, agree with or even tolerate what they do. It just means that you choose to see it as understandable given what their life experiences have been. This helps temper your emotional response to things they do that you don't like. It's a way to combat DEMANDINESS, AWFULIZING, CAN'T STAND IT-ITIS and any tendency you might have to LABEL AND DAMN others when they do things you don't like. You're also less likely to take what students do personally if you practice choosing to look at things this way and it become automatic to do so.
It can be very helpful to a classroom atmosphere to let students know you have UOA, and remind them of it when conflicts arise. For example, "Look, I know that the way you look at things, and what you feel or say and do because of that is understandable given what's happened to you, but I really don't want you doing that in class". When they know you have UOA, they are more likely to come to you when they are struggling with something, even something unrelated to school. UOA also allows you to reach out to hand help students who do things you don't like. It also will allow you to hang in there longer for them, perhaps when others have given up on them. That can become very important with some students.
PREVENTING STRESS INSTEAD OF MANAGING IT
Practice all these new ways of thinking and you’ll PREVENT stress in your life instead of having to MANAGE it after the fact. An ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure.