Reducing Stress

In recent weeks, I’ve talked with quite a few colleagues–faculty (full-time and part-time) and graduate students–who were nervous about teaching their first class, or their first class on this campus, the first session of a new course, or a new group of students.  This concoction of stage fright, imposter syndrome, natural uncertainty about anything new, the preparations of an introvert in an extrovert’s role, and who knows what else is just one of the many types of anxiety experienced by those of us in higher education.  We can count on this situational stress at least twice a year, but admittedly it’s one of our mildest sources of stress.

UCLA gives us good data on the amount and sources of stress for faculty, thanks to their Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) national survey conducted every three years. The most recent survey (conducted 2010-11, published fall 2012) reveals some of the highest and most constant sources of stress (“self-imposed high expectations” and “lack of personal time”) and a few that are consequences of the recent economic difficulties (“institutional budget cuts,” spiking especially for public institutions) (Hurtado, et al., 2012, p. 3). The details of the results are fascinating to parse,* but for now let’s acknowledge “it’s clear that faculty members have plenty that they worry about” (Jaschik, 2012)–evident both in the degree of stress they experience and the sources of that stress.**

I could cite any number of studies documenting the stress-reducing effects of mindfulness, but I’ll focus on just part of one that I especially like.  Shapiro, Astin, Bishop, and Cordova (2005) looked at health care professionals—known for experiencing high levels of stress accompanied by depression and decreased job satisfaction—after an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) program.  A variety of measures were given after the program, but here I’ll focus on just a few of their findings.

  • 88% of the participants reported significantly decreased perceptions of their stress, averaging a decrease by 27%, while the control group drawn from the MBSR waiting list dropped by only 7% (p. 170).
  • The participants also reported a sharper drop in job burnout (10% to the control’s 4%) and a greater satisfaction with life (19% to the control’s 0%).

The majority of mindfulness studies follow these multi-week MBSR courses, originally developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and typically involving guided instruction, group discussion, and home practice assignments.   If you can’t sign up for one of these programs (here’s one in Nashville), don’t do nothing.  Do what you can. Take UCLA’s six-week, self-paced online mindfulness course ($165).  Find some of the curriculum (pieces $20-$40). Listen to UCLA’s guided mindfulness meditation podcasts (free).  Use a mindfulness app on your smart phone (free to $1.99 to $17/year; I use the second one). Return to the practices you’re learning here (“simply breathing,” “the easy way & the easier way,”the snow globe,“the vagus nerve,” and onward). Two minutes a day.

Vagus Nerve

Early drawing of vagus nerve (Bergland, 2013)


This week’s practice, like last week’s, gives you something to exercise your attention.  The vagus nerve connects your brain to your heart and all other major organs.  Neurobiology tells us that specific kinds of breaths stimulate the vagus nerve to trigger the release of a neurotransmitter–“literally a tranquilizer that you can self-administer” to slows down your heart rate and blood pressure (Bergland, 2013). What are these magic breaths?  Simple:  “a few deep breaths with long exhales.”  That’s it.

So here’s a portable, brief, easy practice for the next time you feel stressed.

  • Wherever you are, no matter what you’re doing, take a few slow, deep breaths, and take a bit longer with your exhale.
  • Visualize your vagus nerve, wandering from your brain throughout your body, to your heart–and to the butterflies in your stomach.
  • If your mind wanders, simply notice that wandering and then bring it back to your vagus nerve, or your breath.
  • Take another slow, deep breath with a longer exhale.  Trust that this nerve is giving you a soothing tranquilizer with each of these breaths.
  • Bring your attention to each breath, and then the path of this nerve.

You can take this one with you anywhere, anytime, in a crowd or in private, as you experience any of the common faculty stressors, including those reliable beginning-of-semester teaching anxieties.

* The study breaks down the reports of stress by institution type (those at public institutions are more stressed than those at private institutions), gender (women are more stressed than men), and race (Black faculty are the most stressed, significantly more so than the next groups [Latino/a, American Indian, Asian, and Multiracial/Multiethnic], with Whites reporting the least stress).

** I don’t find the popular comparisons of stress between professions useful (like this one on the most stressful jobs and this one on the least; Adams, 2013b, 2013a).  Yes, there are plenty of careers that are more stressful than ours, for a lot of reasons, but I’m most interested in how we experience stress, and we don’t experience it comparatively.  Knowing that someone else is more stressed than you doesn’t make you feel any less stressed.

Adams, Susan. (2013b, Jan. 3).  The Least Stressful Jobs of 2013Forbes. 

–. (2013a, Jan. 3).  The Most Stressful Jobs of 2013Forbes.

Bergland, Christopher. (2013, Feb 2). “The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure.” Psychology Today: The Athlete’s Way.

Dembling, Sophia. (2013, July 9). “The Best Job for Introverts Is No Job (In Particular).”  The Introvert’s Corner. Psychology Today.

Hurtado, Sylvia, Eagan, Kevin, Prior, John H., Whang, Hannah, & Tran, Serge. (2012). Undergraduate Teaching Faculty: The 2010-2011 Faculty Survey. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

Jaschik, Scott. (2012, Oct 24). “Teaching, Stress, Adjuncts.”  Inside Higher Ed.

Kreuter, Nate. (2012, Aug 20). “Walk Like a Duck.”  Inside Higher Ed.

Shapiro, Shauna L., Astin, John A., Bishop, Scott R., & Cordova, Matthew. (2005). “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Health Care Professionals: Results from a Randomized Trial.” International Journal of Stress Management 12.2 164-176.

This entry was posted in News and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.