When You’re Feeling Stressed and Out of Time

Almost every school year as a teacher, usually in the beginning of May, I would begin to realize the year was almost over. What once seemed like a tremendous length of time was now almost gone. Earlier in the year, I had to think carefully about what to do for each class. Now, there was too much to do and not enough time to do it all. The once lengthy year was over too quickly.

 

If you feel the same, about school, job or whatever, this is a wonderful time to practice mindfulness, with yourself and your students. In fact, any time is a wonderful time, but especially if you feel stressed or out of time. The calmer you are and the clearer your thinking, the more you can do. Students are feeling every bit as strapped for time, stressed, maybe anxious, as you. It is so easy to get lost in worries. Worry, stress, anxiety are forms of feeling threatened. The end of the year can give all the thoughts and concerns that you didn’t deal with over the year the stimulus they need to burst into the open and be revived.

 

What can you do to reduce the stressful feeling? Besides being very clear with students about what is due when, and helping them figure out how long different assignments might take to complete, talk about stress levels and anxiety. Talk about planning and how taking action is one way to lessen anxiety. Talk about being aware of the story you tell yourself about yourself and your capabilities, as well as of how you think about and plan for the future.

 

Start by hearing and questioning the stories you tell yourself. It is not just the deadlines that cause the stress but how you think about them. You knew for months about most of the work you now face. The end of the year brings up the end of anything, or everything. You feel judgment day is almost upon you and the power of judgment is in someone else’s hands, not your own. You feel threatened or you feel the image you have of yourself is threatened.

 

The feeling of being judged is increased when you feel so stressed that you don’t even want to think about it. The awareness of feeling threatened can be uncomfortable, can itself seem like a threat, and so your response might be to want to turn it off and hide behind drugs or speeding thoughts or social media. But to turn off awareness you reinforce the stress. Or you might feel if you let go of the thoughts about the future, let go of the anxiety, you would crumble and nothing would get done. If you can’t handle your own sensations of stress, you might feel you can’t handle your schoolwork.

 

You feel not only less capable but more constricted and so no longer do the things that normally allow you to let go of tension. You feel anxious because you have lost touch with your own depth and want it back. You have narrowed your sense of who you are to who you fear you are, or to how you fear others might see you.

 

But take a moment to breathe in and think about this. You can only feel bad about an image of yourself because you know there is something more. To know an image is not right you must have a notion of what is right. Without a deep sense that there is so much more to you, you couldn’t recognize how this feared image is a diminished one.  

 

So instead of believing judgmental thoughts, question them. Teachers, remind students, and students, remind yourselves, of your own depths. To counter feeling time poor, slow down. Give yourself a few moments each day to close your eyes and breathe calmly, or look at something beautiful, or exercise with intensity. By giving yourself time, you feel time rich, that you have time to give, and you feel more in control.

 

In September, the year feels so long it might seem too difficult to commit yourself to meditate each morning and appreciate each moment. But for only a few weeks or a few days or a few moments, certainly you can handle it. One moment at a time. The nearness of the end can make each moment feel more precious.

 

Fear is the emotion that tells you to turn away. Instead, try curiosity. Try openness. Ask yourself: Is it easier to do intellectual work when you fear it —or when you are intrigued, open, or engaged? How can you assess your own work if you aren’t aware of your own feelings? So, instead of turning away in fear, embrace your work as much as possible with curiosity. Take your own stress as something to learn from and study. Studying your own mind and body can be difficult and complex, but it is the most rewarding course you will ever take. It is a course that lasts your whole life. When you take time to notice what is going on and be present, the world feels more open to you, spacious, limitless, and you feel limitless.

 

Practice noticing stressful sensations as soon as they arise. Where do you feel stress? Anxiety? What does it feel like? Close your eyes partly or fully and take a breath in; then let the breath out. When you inhale, notice if you feel tension in your body and breathe into the tense area. Then breathe out and feel your body relaxing, letting go of the breath, letting go of tension. Noticing the stressful sensations as soon as they arise and switching your attention from the story you tell yourself about stress to your physical act of breathing, can interrupt the stress response and interrupt fear. You feel your life is more your own. You feel more capable and alive.

Endings

What are helpful ways to bring the school year, or anything, to an end?* How do you pull everything together so the year concludes on a high note and you don’t try to cram in too much and stress yourself and everyone else? One complaint I heard from students (about other classes, of course, not my own) is that by the second week of May they suddenly have too much to do and they claim no one prepared them for this.

 

And teachers, when preparing students for the standardized tests at the end of the year, can wonder if they did enough. They can be angry at the state for imposing new requirements; angry at the principal, a student or themselves if they feel they didn’t teach well enough or an issue remained unresolved. Stress arises whenever something lingers that you feel you can’t control or handle.

 

While it might seem difficult, a teacher should begin the year by planning the end. Ask yourself, what do you want students to be able to do at the end of the year? What skills, knowledge, and deep understandings do you think they should have? What standards must they meet? This is the backwards design process. Once you know where you’re going, you can develop a process for getting there—and let students know the plan. I encourage you to take a further step and have students help in the course design. Find out, once you have answered the above questions for yourself, what students want to know and think they need to know. By incorporating students into the course design, they will be better prepared, and engaged. Maybe part of the crisis mentality at the end of the year comes from students having distanced themselves from the class at the beginning.

 

In a good year, the end energizes me. I wake up to the fact that I have so little time left with the students. I want to give them whatever I can. Even if I am tired of all the effort teaching takes, I don’t mind so much. I pay closer attention. I feel the value of each moment. During the year, I sometimes resist the work; now I can’t.

 

Not being prepared for the ending can occur not only in school, but anywhere–when a relationship breaks up, or there’s a death, or you’re preparing for an event. It can be a total surprise or shock, make you feel like something was going on of which you were totally unaware. You might feel you weren’t paying attention. If so, one strategy that might help is to pay attention, moment by moment, to your feelings, or to whatever arises.

 

Why don’t people pay attention? Think about why you don’t. Some scientists argue that frequent use of multitasking with social and other media doesn’t help. And attention training is not usually part of education. ‘Attention’ comes from the root ‘attendere’ which literally means to reach or stretch towards and can also mean mental focus, interest, and caring. You show you care with your attention. Attention requires energy. You might not pay attention because you don’t care or you consciously or unconsciously resist the experience. To attend well, embrace well.

 

Also, you might stop paying attention because it reminds you of the very fluid nature of the world. Change can be upsetting, or a relief. Taking a breath means change. Perception is change. Learning is change. This goes way beyond what I understand. But I do know that fear arises when I cling to an end as if it continues and does not change. Even endings end. Change is another way to say living, feeling, understanding. I need to trust in my ability to know, however incompletely, and feel the living world.

 

So, it’s helpful to learn for yourself and then to teach students about attention. Teach about caring for the moments of your life. Mindfulness can do this. With mindfulness, there is more clarity about what needs to be done, more kindness, and less stress. Try the following practice:

 

Take a moment. Let your eyes close and your mind relax. Have you ever just sat by a stream and watched the water pass by? Picture that stream, the water, the scene around it. Maybe there were trees nearby. Maybe there were rocks in the streambed around which the water streamed. Eddies were formed by these rocks. Some were small eddies, some large. And the water continued on, adjusting. Notice that you can focus either on the constantly passing water, or the whole– the trees, the rocks, the streambed, the sky. The two types of perception, on an individual rock or drop of water, or on the whole scene, support each other. You can go from one to the other fluidly. Maybe you could see the sunlight reflecting off the water, sparkling, like a jewel. Maybe you could feel a sense of comfort in looking at the stream as a whole and the scene around it. Just feel it. Isn’t there is a sense of beauty in the whole? Just take in the whole scene and rest in it. If any thought comes, or feeling, let it be carried away in the stream and then return your mind to the whole.

 

We all draw conclusions, about others, about the state of the world and, of course, about how our day, month, or year went. These conclusions can be a way of trying to exercise control over our lives, trying to create a secure image of the past that can be projected into a secured future. We are also creating an image of who we are. “The year went well; I am a good teacher.” “The year sucked. Do I suck?” But can a year be summed up in any judgment or statement? Is any thought or abstraction of an event as encompassing as the event itself? Specific lessons can be learned. But other than that, is it possible to hold our images and ideas more lightly? Can we enjoy our memories without being so judgmental?

 

It’s helpful to reflect on and appreciate, at the end, all you’ve done and learned. The value of reflection at the end is not only about what lessons you have learned but about coming back to your life right now. It is to view being in a classroom or anywhere from a larger perspective. You are a human being living a life of which this school, this situation is just a part. The purpose of an ending is to bring you back to where you began: vulnerable, not knowing what will happen, but open to what occurs. In a classroom, that means at the end of the year, reflect not only on what has been learned in school, but what does being in this situation feel like right now. What do you feel, now, about this new, unknown, beginning, and about going on with your life without the structure of this class? Always return to the reality of being a human being, in relation with others, now.

 

*This is a newly edited version of an older blog about endings.