Stressed? Learn From the Zebra!
Learn How You Can Cope in a World Packed with Unpredictability
In every city and state I visit lately, there’s the smell of something burning in the air. No, it’s not the usual summer brush fires. It’s the slashing and burning of city, county, state and federal budgets. It is common to hear of 5-15% of staff being given the dreaded equivalent of the “You’re fired, here’s your pink slip”. The stress levels are off the charts and there’s anger, denial and resentment. If this applies to you or your colleagues, lean in and read closely. If it does not apply to you today, it may apply in the near future.
Usually this newsletter is for teaching tips. For the next couple of months, let’s take the opportunity to look after you. There are some very brain-smart coping strategies to help you and your colleagues deal with these issues. One of them comes from a zebra.
The others are…
Most teachers define stress as, “I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know when it happens and what it feels like.” Stress researchers define it as a mind and body reaction to adverse stimuli resulting from a perception of a loss of control (Kim and Diamond 2002). This suggests that stress embodies both the stimulus and the resulting reaction in our body.
In short, the stress in our life is not “out there.” There are no stressful jobs, no stressful people, nor any stressful situations. There is a very real response in you. But if you tell yourself a job is stressful or a person is stressful, your life will always be miserable. You have more “say-so” over your life than you think.
There are typically three ways we feel stress: the good stress (e.g. excitement, challenge, novelty), the intense stress known as acute (which is draining or even traumatic) and the ongoing and unforgiving stress known as chronic. The last two categories of stress are evil for the brain.
Why is that?
For much of our lives, we thought of education as a position of lifelong employment with a reasonable amount of security. This helped us have more certainty about our lives. But everything’s changed. No, really: read this until you really, really get it. Stop expecting things to be like they were years ago. The rules have changed!
The federal government is broke. The more money they print to “juice up” the economy, the more inflation we have. The more they fund budgets to maintain jobs, the less our paycheck is worth.
Most of the city and state budgets are in a dangerous freefall. Unemployment and under-employment means there is much less incoming revenue to pay the same bills. Those working with budgets simply don’t have the money to pay everyone anymore. Support services and key support personnel are being cut. And it will likely get worse, much worse. Since you may not have any control over this process, stress is a possibility… but, you do always have a choice: be unhappy or adapt.
Remember, stress is the body’s response (it feels real) to the perception (everyone has a different perception of the world) of an adverse person or situation in our life. In other words, it’s not what happens to us, it’s how we respond. Now, I don’t mean to trivialize anyone’s losses, but bad things do happen to all of us. All of us will lose loved ones in our lifetime, we’ll all have health issues, we all get money problems and sometimes things can get ugly.
But you do always have a choice: be unhappy or adapt.
When lasting (chronic) stress occurs in your brain, that’s very bad. Experiments have demonstrated that exposure to chronic or acute stress puts you at risk for toxic brain adversity. It actually shrinks neurons in the brain’s frontal lobes–an area that includes the prefrontal cortex and is responsible for such functions as working memory (Cook and Wellman, 2004). We also know that chronic or acute stress is associated with a loss of neurogenesis (Gould et al., 1998) and worse social skills. But it gets worse, we know you’re likely to become depressed, gain weight, lose memory capacity and get pretty cranky (McEwen 2005).
In addition, the policymakers and the taxpayers want greater accountability from teachers on student test scores, but with less support for the process. This is akin to saying, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” Yes, this uncertainty is very tough on our brain, which depends on a certain amount of consistency for our daily sanity. But we’re just at the beginning of the change process. And, the long-term trend is not our friend. Our Congress seems incapable of fixing our economic issues. There is only one choice for you to make: adapt or be miserable. Do not count on it getting better in the short run. That means if you can’t change the bad news, what can you do?
It’s choice time. If you want to choose NOT to be miserable, how does one adapt?
Let’s go back to the zebra.
Stanford professor, Robert Sapolsky wrote a brilliant book, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.” Like the zebra in the Serengeti, we get stressed when our lives are threatened (either a hungry lion or a job loss, it’s the same.) But zebras don’t get ulcers (Sapolsky, 2001) and humans do get them. Why?
Zebras don’t worry until they have to, then they run for their life like crazy. Here’s their two-part formula: if you CAN do something about an event, don’t complain or brood over it; take strong evasive action.
There are two solutions to the issue of chronic or acute stress in your life. Each goes at the issue from a different angle, either prevention or intervention. You do always have a choice: be unhappy or adapt.
Let’s begin with prevention.
First, identify what you do and don’t have control over, then take control of what you can. The problem for your brain is that there’s no virtual Post-it® hanging on everything in our life that says, “You can control this,” or, “Not under your control.” Your brain gets confused because your brain has no automated simple way to identify the differences. That means we can muster up stress over nearly anything! But with the zebras, the nearby lions mean acute stress and no lion means “life is good.” So, 95% of the zebra’s life is good.
It’s time to begin by identifying what you do and don’t have control of.
Every single day, when something starts to feel stressful, remember this: either you have some influence over the situation or you don’t. If you do have influence, take immediate, strong, evasive action (like the zebra.) That means, either gather information, talk to the person who can do something about it, prepare a contingency plan or make a list. In short, either do something or you’ll have to adapt and “let it go.”
How do you just “let it go” and stay sane? Use the “One week” rule: if this won’t be a big deal a week from now, drop it. It’s time to adapt and change your perception of the event or person. Say to yourself, “They’re having a bad day.” or “I can survive; I always have in the past.” Life is short. If it will still be an issue a week from now, take action. In short, let go of what you can’t control.
You do always have a choice: be unhappy or adapt.
What about interventions? What do you do if things will be a big deal in a week? What if you do need to take strong action? Just two things will matter: your capacity (resources) to deal with the problem and your will (degree of intention) to solve it.
Are you at risk of a job loss?
Start with building your capacity to deal with the stressor. But how do you strengthen your brain’s capacity to deal with life?
Keep positive routines in your life intact. Eat good food; take your omega 3s, COQ10, Vitamin B, C and D daily. Be sure to work out and get sleep. This helps your brain to stay capable.
Avoid hurting your brain. Limit alcohol to a maximum of one drink per day and get six or more hours of sleep every day.
Stay connected. You need friends and family as much as ever. Make it a personal promise to call (or talk to in person) at least two people that you love or enjoy spending time around every day.
Make a plan with a daily checklist. Write down at least 5 items a day that will move things forward. Put on the list the things that will help reduce the effects of a potential job loss. If there’s a certainty of job loss, start the research of places that are hiring. Redo your resume. Add to your checklist possible alternatives that broaden your employment options. You may be able to find work outside of education. Over 25 of the major US Corporations are hiring daily. Widen your networking circle. Attend a Toastmaster’s meeting and consider joining the group. There are always choices.
Do at least two of the five things from your list every day. Life goes on, and you can survive. You ONLY need to regulate what you have control over. You can alter your strategy, your attitude or your effort. In short, your only variables to make good things happen are: 1) more effort, 2) better effort, and 3) to shift your attitude about what you have.
We still have to make the big choice: be miserable or adapt. Brain-based approaches say, “Be purposeful about life” Now, go discover choices and make another miracle happen!
Cook, S.C., & Wellman, C.L. (2004). Chronic stress alters dendritic morphology in rat medial prefrontal cortex. Journal of Neurobiology, 60, 236-248.
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