I’ve been thinking a lot about stress lately. Contrary to the rosy view that many outsiders have regarding academia, it is a very stressful place and in recent years, due to (increasingly) tighter budgets combined (not coincidently) with the many negative forces at play regarding education at all levels from preschool through post-secondary, it has become even more stressful. Simply being an educator is stressful today. Combine that now-normal amount of stress with my current uncertainty regarding my future and the sympathetic stress I regularly carry for my students and the teachers I work with through the Morehead Writing Project then I have reached my maximum capacity. In fact, I’m pretty certain I’m into overload.
Stress is affecting my sleep, my mood, and my physical wellbeing. I have experienced panic attacks, vicious mood swings, and my general ability to cope let alone be productive is extremely limited (veering to nonexistent on some days). Who knows how many personal and professional relationships have been damaged in the process which adds another layer of stress. Simply coping with and responding to stress takes a tremendous toll in time and energy which adds even more stress. It is a vicious cycle. As a First Year Seminar instructor I now firmly believe that I do not spend enough time talking about stress in my classes. As a teacher leader I know I do not spend enough time talking about stress to my colleagues. Add more stress.
We are all familiar, or should be, with the vast physical toll that stress has on our lives (backed up by the American Institute of Stress): heart attacks, strokes (raising my hand here, should know better as a result of past experience), ulcers as well as other gastrointestinal disorders (check, again should know better), and compromises to our immune system (I was pretty sick this spring, hmmm). Similarly, the mental toll is high as well leading to depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. But many of us probably do not realize that job stress is one of the primary sources of stress for everyone (is that reassuring or more stressful?). All this job-related stress costs our economy in terms of lost work time, increased mistakes, lessened productivity, and increased turnover rates (which is also costly).
While too much stress is very, very bad for us on many levels, it is also beneficial in some important ways that we need to remember when we talk about stress to ourselves, our co-workers, and our youth. According to the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, moderate levels of stress can boost our resiliency and immunity as well as our ability to learn and memorize. In fact, moderate boosts of physical stress can have tremendous physical and mental benefits. A TED blog post also touts the benefits of moderate levels of stress for both creativity and productivity, but warns that a person’s attitude toward stress as well as maintaining a proper balance of stress are key. Yeah, so how does one do that?
My last bout with serious stress led me to make a series of important changes to my professional and personal life. I’ve backtracked on those changes some and some of the people in my life have reneged on their promises and then I made some professional choices that, in hindsight, were not wise as far as stress levels go. But right now I don’t have any choice but to ride the stress train to its destination (which is hopefully not back to the hospital). The only saving grace is that I believe the station is in sight. It is the end of semester. My job uncertainty should be resolved soon. This is all good news. Hopefully soon, very soon, my stress levels will be back within the moderate range that will help rather than hinder my ability to live and succeed. The experience has made me wiser and, I hope, a better teacher as a result. I’ll be adding more discussions about stress to my next First Year Seminar class.