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New academic year, new normal- How to deal with stress

New academic year, new normal: How to deal with stress

Sarah Cole

International teacher & Coach supporting lifelong health and well-being

It’s the start of another academic year, however, this year is a little bit different. With COVID-19 and new rules and regulations, school doesn’t look like it did at the beginning of the last academic year, it feels different too.

The only thing I am prepared for (and I use the term prepared loosely) is change. You may have heard people say we live in VUCA times (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) and 2020 has certainly shown us that. We are all impacted in different ways and talking with friends, colleagues and family, one word I hear over and over is stress.

School doesn’t look like it did at the beginning of last academic year, it feels different too.

Stress is a natural reaction to a trigger, such as, taking a test. Our body, mind, behaviours and moods may change, but once we complete the test our stress levels tend to fade. COVID-19 is not a one off test and as you can see, if stress is not managed it can impact our health negatively.

How we deal with stress is different for everyone, but we can focus on what we can control. As well as, exercising, eating well and getting enough sleep. Here are some more ideas to try out when you feel stress is no longer a short term reaction; 


Take time to bring attention to your breathing. Exhale for twice as long as you inhale (2 to 1 breathing). Exhaling activates the parasympathetic nervous system. By emphasising the exhale you decrease heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension. Another breathing technique is called 4-7- 8, inhale for 4 counts, hold for 7 and exhale for 8. These can be completed at any time and anywhere, between classes or even supervision duty!

Bringing your students attention to their breathing is also a great tool for them to have. I use breathing at the end of each lesson and we build student’s toolkits by practicing different breathing exercises and they give examples of when they could use them.


Manage your time or someone will manage it for you. Schools are a very structured place, we even need to train our bladders! If you find yourself taking on too much, ask yourself this question taken from Greg McKeown (2014), before saying yes to yet another committee or duty; can I actually fulfil this request, given the time and resources I have?

If, like I once was, asking for help or saying no is not an option, lest I be seen as someone who ‘can’t handle it’ or striving to do everything (to the point of burnout and exhaustion) or feeling guilty for not helping out more. I challenge you to look at those habits and ask why? Why is that important to you? Why does that matter to you? What is enough for you? Do this gently without judgement. Another doorway into your inner being may be looking at what your values are*. What are you trying to achieve? When you can answer these questions you can choose to spend your time working from and towards these. It becomes easier to say yes to activities that align with your values and goals and no to those that don’t. This also includes self compassion. Give yourself some love and permission for self care. Set yourself up for success.

Can I fulfil this request, given the time and resources I have?

This kind of reflection is not part of the timetable or built into your workday but I would offer that if you take the time to look inward, the benefits will be there. I have offered this at my school as a type of professional learning group. Although people are willing and wanting, finding the time as a group has been difficult and can be very personal and at times confronting. But having a shared language and understanding beyond educational acronyms, does make for a winning work environment.

Positive Social Connections

Reflect on who you spend time with, do they bring energy or drain energy? When talking about energy what I am really asking is what mood do they bring? What mood are you generally in?

“Human existence is simply not conceivable without accepting that we are inescapably in some kind of mood. Moods are a fact of life and we find them everywhere” (Echeverria, 1990).

Days of the week can have moods, ever heard of Friday-itis? I haven’t either, but I certainly have heard of Monday-itis! What is the mood of the country you are living in? The primary mood at work?

The five chimp theory suggests you are the average of the five people you hang out with most (Ravikant, 2016). Ever walked into a room and felt the stress or your mood change for better or worse, as if the mood of one person or group had been absorbed by you? This has been called emotional contagion and has been suggested as a precursor to healthy social development (Prochazkova & Kret, 2017). This theory of emotional contagion is still debated but has been supported by the finding of ‘mirror neurons’ in the brain. These neurons reproduce emotions that are consciously or unconsciously detected (Goleman & Boyatzis, 2008). You might not realise this but students and colleagues will assess your mood (consciously or not) and based on this make assessments of what is possible or not at that time. For example what is possible in a mood of enthusiasm can be different from a mood of resentment. This type of neural resonance influences their actions and reactions to you and work outcomes (Lakomski, 2016; Newberry, Gallant & Riley, 2013).

Be aware of who your five people are!

Seek support and reach out even if you feel like you’re not stressed, it’s good for your health!

We are wired for connection and this time apart has been tough on the human race. When you can, hug a friend, partner, family member, release the feel good neurotransmitter oxytocin and let it fill you up. Myself and Habitual are running a webinar and 2-week short course to support you in building and cultivating positive social connections. With

– Daily instantly actionable tools

– Support and accountability

– Challenge and reflection

Click HERE for more info.

*Not sure what your values are? Check out https://www.viacharacter.org/ and complete the free survey.


Echeverria, R. (1994). On moods and emotions. The Coach Partnership. Accessed Sept 2019.

Goleman, D., & Boyatzis, R. (2008). Social Intelligence and the biology of leadership. Harvard Business Review, September, 74-81

Lakomski, G. (2016). Educational Leadership, the Emotions and Neuroscience. In Encyclopaedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory, (pp. 1-5). Springer. Doi: 10.1007/9789812875327_243-1 

McKeown, G. (2014). Essentialism. The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. London, UK: Virgin Books, an imprint of Ebury Publishing. ISBN 9780753555163

Newberry, M., Gallant A., & Riley, P. (2013). Emotion and School: Understanding how the hidden curriculum influences relationships, leadership, teaching and learning. Bingley, UK. Emerald Publishing Group

Prochazkova, E., & Kret, M. (2017). Connecting minds and sharing emotions through mimicry: A neurocognitive model of emotional contagion. Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews, 80(2017), 99-114

Ravikant, N. (2016). Naval Ravikant in T. Ferris (Ed.), Tools of Titans (pp.546-552). London, UK: Vermilion. ISBN 9781785041273


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