Stress happens, especially in education. A packed schedule, a new request from administrators, papers to grade, an accidentally missed appointment, spilled coffee . . . your head pounds, your shoulders tense, your eyelids droop. You feel stuck. How can you get a better handle on this?
One valuable, often overlooked, and durable way to manage stress is to build positive habits, slowly and over time. Our brains are hard-wired to focus on the negative, but by practicing mindfulness, we can reprogram them — teach our brains to accentuate positive experiences and maintain serenity.
The human brain evolved with a “negativity bias,” says mindfulness expert Metta McGarvey, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Negative events and thoughts have a proportionally greater impact on our memory and psychological state than positive ones do. From a survival standpoint, it makes sense — strong recollections of bad experiences means we’re more likely to learn from mistakes and avoid a life-threatening situation.
This negativity bias also means that smaller, day-to-day stressors tend to take precedence in our thoughts, leaving less room for positive framing or constructive action planning. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
Our brains can change, physically, as a result of learning, says McGarvey. In a process called “experience dependent neuroplasticity,” neural connections grow based on what we’re learning. Repeating the same thoughts, feelings, and behaviors increases synaptic connectivity, strengthens neural networks, and creates new neurons through learning. In other words, practicing a positive habit can predispose our thoughts to be more affirmative.
The key to developing these positive habits? Mindfulness.
According to researchers at the Greater Good Science Center, a project at the University of California, Berkeley, mindfulness has two core components: maintaining an awareness of our immediate thoughts, feelings, and surroundings; and accepting these thoughts and feelings without judging them. McGarvey explains it as “single-tasking,” or approaching any situation with your undivided attention and keeping that attention on the present moment.
By approaching your work with mindfulness, you decrease the amount of energy you spend worrying about the past or the future, and you increase the amount of attention you give to present and positive experiences. But because stress and worrying can be so engrained, McGarvey explains, you need to practice (and keep practicing) the skills and habits you need to keep your attention on the present.
She offers five mindfulness exercises that build brain-strengthening positive habits over time:
Get Usable Knowledge — Delivered
Our free monthly newsletter sends you tips, tools, and ideas from research and practice leaders at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Sign up now.
McGarvey's expertise in mindfulness focuses on transformational change processes in adult life with an emphasis on supporting behavior change, especially in the context of leadership development.