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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

5 Ways I Allowed Stress and Anxiety to Control My Attitude

By Peter DeWitt — January 06, 2019 6 min read
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Over the last 18 months, I have been sort of on this personal journey. It started when I saw pictures of myself and thought that the angle of the picture made me look as though I gained weight. I have a distorted view of how I look because sometimes I remember my body looking like it did when I was a long-distance runner, and often feel like that is how I still look. Picture after picture made me realize that I was no longer the skinny distance runner.

As I sat down with a few friends, I began using the Lose It app. I tried apps before but I didn’t like how many calories they told me I just ate, so I deleted them off my phone. This time I was ready. It was July of 2017. I began plugging in everything I ate and drank; even all of the Coffeemate creamer and red wine I was consuming. Then I increased my cardio and began to shed some of the weight.

Over time, I lost five and then 10 pounds. A few months later, it turned to 20 and 25. And then when I calmed down on the Coffemate and quit drinking red wine, the weight loss went up to 33 pounds. What I found, however, is that weight loss wasn’t enough. I still found myself to be anxious, sometimes jealous, and would even start thinking of situations from the past that I thought were long gone from my mind. I may have begun the journey when I wanted to lose weight, but the deep insecurities I felt began long, long ago.

That’s when I began doing meditation. 10 minutes in the morning using the Calm app, and 10 minutes at night. Over the last seven months I have done it every day, and what came out during the sessions was that I needed a lot more than just weight loss. I needed to look at the stress that I was putting on myself and take control of those deep insecurities that seemed to overwhelm me some days. It helped me approach my days differently and approach my nights with a lot less anxiety and stress.

The Cycle of Stress
In my professional career, I have been fortunate enough to be a teacher and a principal, and now I work as an author and consultant. I feel very honored to do the work that I do, just as I always felt honored to be able to be a teacher and a principal. My work takes me on the road about 45 weeks a year, and I love that I get to run workshops filled with teachers and leaders. The other bonus is that I get to see North America and visit other countries where I get to meet people from social media or those who just came to learn.

Life is certainly really great in those six to eight hours that I get to work with those educators. It’s the quiet moments that began to get the best of me. It was the hectic travel to the next destination, or the pursuit to find different ways to engage people, or the stress of never feeling like I was doing enough that became a catalyst for change.

As you well know, as teachers, principals, or whatever our role may be in education, we put a lot of effort and passion into what we do. We run ourselves into the ground trying to make a better world for students, colleagues, or the families of our students, and we put ourselves at risk of burning out because of the stress we are under. There is countless research that shows principals and teachers are at risk of burning out. What starts out as a desire to help make the world a better place for students and colleagues becomes a never-ending cycle of trying to do more and more.

The stress and anxiety that I felt, and still feel from time to time, led me to some unhealthy places. It controlled my attitude in a variety of ways. When you read the following five, take time to decide whether you experience the same issues.

5 ways stress and anxiety controlled my attitude are:
I fought relaxation—Sometimes I’m home for 24 hours, and others times for a few days. Every time I got home, I couldn’t sit on the couch long enough to watch an hourlong drama on television. Sitting for more than five minutes seemed to be a chore.

The green-eyed monster—I found myself on social media looking at posts of educator “friends” who seemed to be in amazing places doing amazing presentations that were standing-room only, and I began to feel envious.

Auto-pilot-—There were a couple of times when I ran a workshop or gave a keynote and seemed to be on auto-pilot. The passion was not there because I spent too many days in a row on the road and went through the motions. Yes, I had some of those days as a teacher and principal, but I could always go back the next day not wanting to repeat that pattern. As an author/consultant, I do not always have that luxury.

Not good enough—The green-eyed monster and auto-pilot are a deadly combination because after the day was over, and I got back on social media to feel a connection with the friends and family I missed while I was on the road, I found myself seeing the same “friends” sharing their amazing experiences telling us all that we should feel blessed for what we get to do, and I began doubting myself. I began to feel not good enough and focused on my failures instead of successes.

Less focused—I’m not talking about work here. I became less focused at home. I would half listen and wasn’t as present as I should have been. That’s when I started focusing more on being present, which I learned time and time again by watching Celeste Headlee’s Ted Talk on the topic of 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation.

In the End
In education, we work really hard. We don’t take off our teaching or leading hats when we enter into our homes. They don’t get put away in the closet for the night. We go to the grocery store to buy food for our family and start to buy food for our students. We go to buy furniture for our homes and pick out things for our classrooms.

That can lead to stress and anxiety.

Sometimes the lesson we create is not as engaging for our students as we thought they would be, and in this time of social media where everyone seems to have a life that is engaging and beautiful, we begin to doubt ourselves and stress ourselves out. Stress and anxiety happen, but they don’t have to happen as much as we allow them to.

Imagine what it’s like for our students who experience the same issues I listed up above? Those students don’t have the same life experience we have. They don’t always know when to regulate themselves.

Over the last 18 months, through some very difficult work, I have become healthier and happier than I have been in decades ... maybe even ever. My hope is that in 2019 you do the same thing. Instead of stressing yourself too much about writing that next blog or using that new technology tool the cool kids on Twitter think is so amazing, I would like you to do something else first. I would like you to step back, breath for 10 minutes, and make sure you are taking care of yourself in your personal life, or you are at risk of never being happy in your professional one.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

Picture courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.