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Managing Stress and Anxiety in Uncertain Times

Mon Oct 12, 2020 at 07:30 AM

Balancing teaching responsibilities with a variety of other work and nonwork demands can be difficult in the best of times, but the challenges of maintaining some semblance of balance can be far greater in our current environment. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, social unrest stemming from racial injustice, and the upcoming presidential election are causes of a great deal of stress and anxiety, even before we consider how our own routines, responsibilities, and expectations may have shifted and changed during this time. Faculty burnout has long been a concern in higher education, although the current climate has been described as the “perfect storm” for higher than ever levels of burnout. It’s also been noted that many of us are experiencing a depleted ‘surge capacity.’ While it may seem difficult - if not downright impossible - to take time for self-care, it’s critical for our long-term health and well-being. How can we go about doing this?

Focus on the things you can control.

Take a few minutes to create a to-do list of the things that are causing you stress (e.g., unanswered emails, a bill that needs to be paid, an assignment that needs grading). Identify 1-3 actions you can take today that will address one or more of the items on your list. Let go of the idea that everything needs to (or can!) be done today.

Identify activities and routines that help improve your well-being.

Carve out time for activities that make you feel good and that don’t create additional stress. These might include taking a walk, exercising, listening to a favorite song or album, drinking a cup of coffee or tea, reading a book, etc. Try to make time for at least one of these activities each day. While it can be easy to let them fall to the bottom of your to-do list, remind yourself that you’ll feel better afterwards and that your work will actually be of higher quality if you give yourself time to rest and recharge.

Make time to detach from work - mentally and physically.

With many of the traditional boundaries between work and nonwork having broken down during the pandemic, it’s especially important that we find time to walk away from our work. Setting - and sticking to - defined work hours, creating beginning-of-day and end-of-day rituals to mark the boundary between work and the rest of your life, and shutting off email alerts on your phone can all help encourage detachment. It’s important to make time for breaks during the workday, too!

Take some time to write.

Anxiety is an emotion characterized by tension and worried thoughts. Taking time to free-write in a journal can help slow down our thought processes and give us time to work through our thoughts and feelings. You may consider starting a gratitude journal, which has been linked to positive psychological benefits. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic, you may consider using some of the The Pandemic Project’s prompts.

Make time for quality sleep.

Sleep has many benefits for our health and well-being, including strengthening our immune system, enhancing mood, and improving mental health. The National Sleep Foundation has created a helpful toolkit that offers a list of tips for improving your sleep quality during COVID-19.

Though it’s often the first thing to fall off of our to-do lists, taking time to care for ourselves is critically important - both so that we can maintain our own well-being, and so that we can continue to care for those around us. Think about how you talk about stress and stress management with your students as well. Students are also experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and uncertainty. Consider taking five minutes at the beginning of class to ask students to share a few words describing how they are feeling currently or what they are doing to take care of themselves. Remind students of the resources available on campus, including the OU Counseling Center and SEHS Counseling Center. Trauma-informed teaching can further inform how we have these conversations and design our courses. Lastly, if you have tried working through the suggestions here and others and are still feeling overwhelmed with stress and anxiety, seeking out the support of a trained counselor or therapist can be incredibly beneficial.

Additional Resources

Related CETL Teaching Tips

These plus other teaching tips and resources are offered in CETL’s Productivity and Teaching Hacks: Faculty Resources.

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.

About the Author

Caitlin Demsky, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Management in the Department of Management & Marketing. She teaches courses on organizational behavior, human resource management, and work and stress. Her research focuses on employees’ stress and well-being and the work-nonwork interface. Photo by Nathan Dumla on Unsplash. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.View all CETL Weekly Teaching Tips. Follow these and more on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.