Meditation is a strange spiritual practise, sitting in funny yoga postures and humming or chanting mantras, right? How on earth can that be of any help to teachers? This was not an uncommon response I used to get when teachers were first introduced to the idea of meditation.
Thankfully nowadays, perceptions of meditation have changed, schools and teachers are embracing it as a highly successful way for improving wellbeing. Meditation can help in relation to a word we sadly hear too often when talking about teaching; stress.
Demands, targets, new initiatives, and behaviour issues all generate stress for teachers. The Educational Support Partnership charity (UK) has recently claimed that over two-thirds of teachers say their job has adversely affected their mental health.
The effects of stress
While short periods of stress are inevitable for most of us, it is prolonged and constant stress that can have detrimental effects on our physical and mental health. Most of us have heard of the “fight or flight” response. When our bodies are exposed to danger or a threat (physical or perceived) our bodies create an adrenaline rush to get us out of danger. The hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine are released from the adrenal glands resulting in increased blood pressure, faster pulse, faster breathing, and increased blood flow to the muscles. All of which are needed to help us escape from danger. However, our bodies aren’t very good at distinguishing between actual danger and the (mostly un-hazardous) challenges we face in our daily lives, so the same response is triggered.
If we experience this fight or flight response over a long period of time, it can take its toll on our physical and mental health. Long term stress can cause cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems, and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
Counteracting the effects of stress
So, before we all get totally depressed thinking about stress, let’s look at how we can counteract these affects.
It is vital to remember the old adage “You can’t pour from an empty jug”. Teachers can’t give what they haven’t got. They need to take care of themselves first. As teachers, we often can’t change the pressures or demands on us, but we can change how we deal with them. Unsurprisingly, one of the most effective ways to combat the stress response is to elicit the relaxation response.
Easier said than done you may be thinking. We don’t all have the time to relax, as relaxation activities are sometimes time-consuming and expensive. You’ll be pleased to learn then that the relaxation response can be elicited in a variety of ways, including through meditation techniques.
Adding meditation to your everyday activities can be a remarkably successful way of de-stressing, and through regular practice, can reduce the emotional and physical consequences of stress.
What is meditation?
Meditation comes in many forms and there are numerous techniques to choose from. To clarify, meditation is simply having a relaxed awareness of the present moment. Everyone has experienced this but maybe has not recognised it as meditation. It is those times when you are fully involved in an activity and yet relaxed and aware of what is happening around you. People experience it through sport, or movement sometimes called “being in the zone”, others experience it while painting or being creative, while cooking, singing, dancing, even cleaning. It can also happen when we are more passive, sitting by a river watching the water flow past, watching the moving clouds, or on the beach watching the sea coming in.
Like any good language learner knows, practice makes perfect. As teachers we explain to students that learning English does not happen overnight, they have to keep on using the new language and practising it. The same is true for meditation. It is like a muscle, the more we use it, the stronger it gets. A single silent sitting mediation before a class isn’t going to be a cure all for all the demands placed on you. However regular meditation can act as a strong foundation on which teachers can build healthier social-emotion skills.