Social science seems to have found the secret to a long and happy life. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal tells us, “Go after what creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.”
In recent years, however, we’ve looked at stress as our enemy, seeking instead to live in complete ease.
One of the primary points of McGonigal’s research is that the impact stress has on our health has less to do with its cause and more to do with how we think about it. If we see stress as something to be avoided and believe it will hurt us, then it will have a negative impact. If we see it as an opportunity for growth, it can be very good for us.
An athlete playing in a championship game, for example, is in a stressful environment. If proving that they’re up to the challenge is meaningful to this person, the stress simply becomes a source of joy and fulfilment.
Most would agree that teaching is a stressful profession. There are constantly-changing demands. You have to adapt to new curriculum, new research, new circumstances, a new and more intricate way of reporting on student progress, not to mention the needs of each student. Just when you think you have things figured out, something else changes.
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Yet when I walk into a classroom, I’m filled with energy. When I think about my work, I feel as though I’m on a mission that’s still taking shape, despite over 30 years in the field.
I know that I’ve made a difference in the lives of my students and that my students will continue to make a difference in the world long after I’m gone. We’re on a constant quest for truth and we know that if we’re ever going to find it, we need to listen to each other.
Of course, teachers aren’t the only people doing meaningful work. The same could be said for any profession or life commitment. Is there anything more demanding and more rewarding, for example, than being a parent?
The key is to go from an attitude of, “Woe is me,” to saying, “What can I learn from this and how will I respond?”
This leads to mindfulness, stepping out of the demands of life into a place where you’re free to decide the best way forward.
While most stress is potentially positive, some stress is toxic and harmful. Sometimes the best response is to consciously distance ourselves from a circumstance.
When we face stress, we have three choices: we can fight, flee or learn to manage the situation. This can be as simple as making sure we’re eating well, getting enough rest or adjusting our breathing.
Of course, no one is an island. There’s tremendous wisdom in asking questions and seeking support as we manage stressful situations. There’s also great strength in acknowledging when we’ve made mistakes.
The world has been going through very difficult times in recent months. We can’t control the fact that there’s a global pandemic. We can’t control the fact that there’s a great deal of civil unrest.
But each of us controls how we respond. If we take a step back and breathe deeply, we can see the tremendous opportunities being presented to us in this moment.
Stress is simply a part of life – a very important part of life. It’s just a message that we need to face the challenges before us.
The world needs our goodness, courage and wisdom, and sharing these gifts brings us the joy and satisfaction of a meaningful life.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.
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