Handling Increased Stress and Anxiety During COVID Times In the (Virtual & Physical) Classroom

Rear View Of A Woman Stretching Her Arms at Desk

By Tom Szigethy

I often think of a certain level of stress and anxiety as a given and a constant, but the reality is that it can fluctuate up or down at any moment of the day. We teach people to avoid stress and often leave out the physical practices that can reduce it. The classroom (virtual and physical) can add to stress due to a certain level of material that is required to be addressed during the time of meeting. During this time of COVID we are all well aware of the additional stress placed on faculty and students to complete the work necessary for each course, while realizing the added difficulties of technology, or risks of meeting in smaller groups in person.

As much as I would like to imagine that if I do not focus on stress it will reduce itself – this is not the case. I have found over time that when I ignore my stress it actually increases. The following are some thoughts about how to create a stress reducing classroom. Please recognize that this is not an exhaustive list but will hopefully generate some additional ideas for you. None of these ideas need to take a lot of class time, but will hopefully help the class to run smoother with more focus on classwork.

Compassion

Encouraging students to be kind, compassionate and respectful to themselves will go a long way to help them to manage stress. As they increase the ability to have self-compassion (also grown through regularly meditating) they will also increase their ability to be compassionate with others. I often ask students: What is your self-talk when something goes wrong or you do not reach a goal? Is it understanding or is it harsh? Students always speak of how harsh this language is in their heads and defend it saying that the purpose is to motivate so I ask how many speak to their friends this way. Not one student has ever stated that they would speak to their friend this way. Students need to create boundaries regarding how they treat themselves in trying times. We are often our own worst enemy. Compassion starts at home. If we know how to be gentle with a friend who is struggling, then we also know how to be gentle with ourselves. We just need to prioritize ourselves and say we are worth the effort. The same behavior is useful if practiced by staff and faculty. Imagine how much more compassionate we would all be to each other if we first practiced compassion for ourselves.

Name it

Acknowledging how stressful these times are for you and your students will help the class recognize that they are not the only ones going through this. There is comfort in numbers and, although it does not eliminate the cause, it helps for everyone to be comfortable sharing that we are in this together.

Generate ideas

Students brainstorm to identify specific ideas related to your class that will assist in managing stress, for ex; Would it help to set aside a 5 minute check in in the beginning of class? Just because people state stressors does not mean the class has to resolve those stressors – the class is there to sit for a moment with the person in the stress. Admitting that stress is uncomfortable and we can support each other through it – at the conclusion of this time guide the students through 3 deep cleansing breathes. This helps students to let go of the tension that the stress causes. Now the professor can guide the students to leave the stress to the side and bring their attention to the material for the class.

Students naming ideas can help to guide students to generate ideas on how specifically your class may be able to support each other through these trying times.

Meditate

Consistent meditation practice has been proven through research to reduce stress and increase the immune system – two things that we all need. Obviously no one expects a class to be flipped to accommodate a long meditation class each week, but there can be a pattern of starting a class or inserting a 2-3 minute meditation in the middle of class to settle anxiousness that may start to rise. I recognize that many faculty are not familiar with this practice, but this requires allowing students to settle into their space and focus on their breath. They can be directed to sit back in their chairs with their backs straight, shoulders squared over their hips, feet flat on the floor and hands resting lightly in the laps. Now spend a moment or two guiding them to focus on their breath and recognize where they feel it in their bodies. By focusing on the breath we take a few minutes to live entirely in the present moment. Worry and fear live in future thinking and regret lives in dwelling on the past so the only place for peace and happiness is to be in the present moment. Students will get distracted and this is OK – the practice of meditating has 4 parts:

  1. Focus on the breath
  2. Be distracted from the focus on breath
  3. Awareness of being distracted
  4. Refocus on the breath.

If you take 2-3 minutes to walk through the above exercise, take note of the change in the energy of the room at the end of the meditation. Often the mood is calmer and more relaxed. What you are showing students is that they can actually impact their stress levels by focused breathing, which is a useful tool to have in any situation. The more our students are empowered to address their stress they realize they have choices, and this too can reduce fear. This will also increase their ability to focus on the remainder of class because you have given them a moment to let go of their worries and recognize that they are safe in the classroom.

Note: Deep slow breathing to the diaphragm floods the body with oxygen and reduces stress, shallow quick breathing only reaches the top part of our lungs and increases the sense of anxiousness and urgency.

Give focus/take a break

Most activities that we all engage in, whether they be exercise or a creative outlet (hobbies), assist to reduce stress because it gives our mind something simple to focus upon.

A. Exercise helps us to physically release stress from our muscles. Backs become sore due to our holding stress by tensing our muscles for longer durations than necessary. Exercise done correctly can help to reduce the muscle tension. Yoga was designed to release the stress from the body so that a person could focus easily on meditation. We hear about the “runner’s high” when people have their systems flooded with endorphins due to the exercise which improves mood and reduces stress. We cannot stop every time we feel stress and exercise in that moment – what would happen if in a particularly long lecture or heavy discussion there was a 5 minute break for students to do jumping jacks or stretches or take deep cleansing breaths? We can take a few moments to change the focus in class – for ex; toss a bean bag, but catch it on the back of the hand – allow play to assist in clearing the minds of students so they have a better ability to focus for the second half of class. This does not have to take long to rejuvenate.

We know through research that students who take a 10-minute break every hour of studying retain more information than the student who does not take a break.

B. Creative outlets (hobbies) also allow people to relax and focus on the task at hand that is happening in the present moment. For a few minutes of performing the creative task we are able to give our brains something to focus on besides intellectual worries and concerns. Research has shown that activities like knitting can reduce stress. The crafting industry began after World War II in an attempt to help soldiers with PTSD. Explore ways to use art in assisting students to understand the concepts of class. Auditory and visual learning are the most common, but lessons can be brought to the other senses as well, giving students the chance to learn in a different way relieving stress and opening the mind in the process.

Choice

Helping students who are stressed to see where their choice resides can be key. When we are faced with challenges in life often the stress comes from putting our energy into trying to change something that is out of our control. As I become in tune with a situation and identify what I can and cannot control then I can act. I find it easier to let go of the elements out of my control when I identify that something is not within my control. Fear will lead me to want to control and attempt control of people, places or things will increase my stress. Acknowledging that some things are scary, recognizing what pieces are within my purview and letting go of the rest is key to managing incoming stress. The ability to have choice empowers me – I may not like all the choices placed before me, but that does not negate the fact that I have choices.

Journaling

Our brain is designed to problem solve so even in times of calm my brain can create problems to be resolved. When we are stressed the mind can work overtime. Sometimes we feel anxious or stressed without knowing why and in those times it can be helpful to put pen to paper and allow myself the freedom to just write. Getting thoughts on paper allows us to give the brain a break from thinking through a difficult problem over and over again. Strain can run through our brains through thought just like a screen on our phones runs in the background and drains the battery. Writing is a good method to stop the background thought from endlessly running.

Gratitude

People who write a daily gratitude list have been shown in research to be happier people. This practice helps the brain to shift from looking for problems to identifying things to be grateful for (glass half full rather than empty). It is recommended to write three original items daily (no repeating from day to day). I have found that since I can be a cynical New Yorker, it worked better for me to write a list of 10 things per day. This can be a great way for students to get to know each other as well – they can set up a class GroupMe chat where everyone posts what they are grateful for and be inspired with what people come up with.

Hopefully one or two of these suggestions will be helpful in the classroom. Please stay safe and let me know if you would like to talk through additional ideas for managing stress in the classroom during these challenging times.

Tom Szigethy
DuWell – Duke University
Ts86@duke.edu