What I’ve Learned from an Ongoing Bout with Stress
It’s no surprise that seasons of life usher in waves of stress in one form or another, and if we’re lucky, the intensity fizzles out before we lose our wits.
I’ve learned recently that keeping it all together has a lot to do with the type of stress we experience and our coping strategies.
Situational stress occurs when life throws a punch that brings short term challenge and change. For example, when we move to a new home or city, a relationship crumbles, or we face loss, there are times of decision making and adjustments that can bog us down until some semblance of normal returns.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is unrelentless. It’s like a continuous assault against our nervous system that offers no rest. The worst part of ongoing stress often includes a lack of options and/or limited control over situations. Living with financial burdens, emotionally draining relationships, or unsafe living conditions are instances of stressful situations that can last indefinitely.
The last few months of my own life have morphed into an unusual combination of stressors. My typical work -life balance has always been great. I work a bit beyond regular hours sometimes but have the opportunity to explore hobbies and nurture relationships with family and friends.
Then a few months ago, came the unexpected.
Staff changes last summer left me with an enormous workload for this school year.
My supervisor and co-workers asked what they could do to help me through the year if I was indeed the only school psychologist.
That’s when it hit me. I just might be alone.
Thankfully those early plans quickly laid the groundwork for how to not only make it through the year, but to meet the needs of children and families at the level of excellence they deserve. The ideas fell into place. And I got busy. So very busy that I felt extremely needed, as if every minute gave me purpose.
On top of that, support and encouragement came my way, and I soaked it up. Despite all the training, organizing, delegating, and endless paperwork with the job, I felt like I had a whole bunch of people behind me, lifting me up. Which is exactly what happened. My church, friends, and people I barely knew prayed for me.
But like any significant challenge, it all began to wear on me.
A couple of weeks ago, the relentless headaches and physical strain, coupled with endless hours of work beyond the normal day and weekend felt like the wall runners hit toward the second half of the marathon.
After thinking it through a bit, I imagine my motivational lapse connected to situational stress that turned into chronic stress.
My situational stress had gone on long enough, and my ability to focus and stay positive momentarily slacked because the end seemed too far away. Months of work without enough mental breaks felt more chronic than a fleeting situation I could wrestle through.
In all honesty, I’m not quite to the finish line in this situation. But the need to dig in and find some guts is powerful and promises to be rewarding. There have been so many wonderful people to meet on this journey and I have grown personally in many ways. I’ve learned to depend on others and allow people to encourage me (even though I thought that was my job), and push through the tough days alongside those with plenty of work on their plate.
I’ve learned that I’m stronger than I thought I was and so many other educators and leaders are working harder than ever these days, hoping their efforts matter. I believe they do matter. I encourage you to apply your best efforts and support others and yourself today.
Some of the strategies that have worked for me to stay the course include:
Reminding myself that I have agency (control) over my decisions – I chose to work here, and I want to keep going.
Breaking my concentration from work when I’m traveling, eating, or waiting.
Releasing some responsibility to others who can and want to help.
Striking up conversations with others and cheering up as many people as possible during the day (lifts my spirits more than theirs).
Keeping my “why” in focus.
Practicing restorative breathing.
Remembering that most things are “not my problem”.
Celebrating each milestone and success.