From Exam Stress to Burnout - is Mindfulness the answer?

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From Exam Stress to Burnout - is Mindfulness the answer?


“Mindfulness” seems to be everywhere these days and unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve most likely heard of it. Every year more and more schools, universities and corporate groups are engaging in Mindfulness programmes to help people become less stressed, more focused, more accepting and perhaps just a little happier… 

But how does it work? What is stress anyway and why do we have it?

Imagine this… You’re driving to the beach. It’s a sunny day, and the children you are with are all chatting away excitedly about the day ahead. Suddenly a van driving very fast overtakes you, and you have to swerve out of the way to avoid getting hit. Slamming on the brakes you come to a halt by the side of the road and everyone is in a state of shock. You could have all ended up in a serious accident.

How do you think you might you feel? Bodily sensations might include a racing heart, muscles tightening, maybe sweaty palms, a dry mouth? There would probably be angry thoughts flooding the brain. If you take a moment you might even notice you feel some of those things right now, brought on by just reading the story.

So what’s just happened? Well, you may recognize you’ve gone into the fight or flight mode – ready to react to the perceived danger. Adrenalin and cortisol flood through your body, getting you ready to do something. As useful as this system is, it can be triggered by much smaller events or perceived “dangers” such as an email dropping into the inbox from a certain person, a look from your boss that means  “I need to talk to you”, or even just the thought of teaching those kids next. The whole system goes to work whether the situation really is life threatening or just feels like it could be. Triggers can be imagined scenarios, those thoughts that keep you up all night catastrophizing about all the terrible outcomes that could happen to you, or ruminating endlessly about past events - the “if onlys”. This type of thinking is very stressful – a looping state where thoughts create emotions, which create more thoughts that in turn affect the body and can cause tension, headaches, stomach problems and worse. Ironically the very system evolved to keep us safe is now making us ill. 

It’s an evolutionary part of every animal’s make up (and we are animals let’s not forget!) to be on the alert for danger. Our cavemen and cavewomen ancestors that didn’t take notice of potential threats where in danger of being eaten! Fear is hard-wired into us as part of our survival kit - the problem is that we get triggered too easily by our busy lives. There are no tigers on the high street, but our caveman and cavewoman systems don’t know that. The thoughts, emotions and stress on the body and mind can be exhausting. 

Teachers are very much on the front line and can suffer from burn out all too easily. And students, with a more heightened sensitivity to stress may find it more difficult to regulate their thoughts and emotions in the face of stressful life events such as exams.

So what part can Mindfulness play in all this?

Training in Mindfulness can help in many ways. It trains the attention, so we become more aware of the wandering mind. Left to roam free, the wandering mind can take us to all sorts of places – rehashing events from the past, rehearsing (and worrying about) future possible situations. It takes us away from the present. You can mindfully train yourself to catch the mind wandering and gently bring it back. And from a teaching perspective this is a hugely useful skill to be able to teach your students how to do, as clearly you need them to be present and focused in class to receive the content of the lesson.

It also trains us how to tune into ourselves. The body is constantly “talking” to us, giving us an update on how we are. We may all recognize “butterflies in the stomach” when we are feeling nervous or anxious and most of us will have experienced how tension can manifest itself in the back and potentially create headaches. Often we ignore these messages, take a pill and carry on, or have a drink, watch mindless T.V., surf the internet, eat etc... do anything but be with how we feel. Short term, this may work to some extent, but long term, these coping mechanisms can also have a detrimental effect on our lives, relationships and on our health. 

Mindfulness is a radically different approach. It’s about being fully present with the moment, not running away from the experience, but leaning into it, being with it. Jon Kabat Zinn, who created the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) course**, says Mindfulness is:
“The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
In other words, being in the present moment, not on automatic pilot, noticing we are being triggered, waking up to the endless chatter in the head. One Harvard study (Bradt, 2010) reported that we are lost in thought, on average, 47% of the time. We aren’t present in our own lives! How many times have you eaten a meal and not really tasted any of it? Or walked down the street so lost in thought, that you didn’t notice your surroundings? Or finished a conversation with someone and realized that you hadn’t really listened to half of what they’d said? 
A key part of the mindfulness practice is getting in contact with your breath and body – finding where stress manifests itself physically (back, stomach, chest, jaw etc). This takes you directly out of your thoughts and nips rumination in the bud. Taking calming, deep breaths sends a signal to your nervous system that everything is ok, and that we don’t need to be on high alert. You may like to try this right now, by closing your eyes, placing your hand on your belly and following your breath for 10 inhalations and exhalations and just notice how you feel after.

As we learn to notice when we have been triggered we can make a conscious choice to respond skilfully rather than being reactive. And with time, we get better at it. We get better at what we practice. So if we practice noticing, practice calming ourselves down, practice awareness and non-reactivity, we get better and better at it. It literally gets wired into the brain (try Googling “neural plasticity”). You might appreciate that these skills could also have huge benefits for the children you teach. It could give them practical tools they can use to help themselves with everything from exam stress, to making better choices, from helping develop better attention in the class, to cultivating calmer, clearer, more content minds. 

But be warned! If you are interested in introducing Mindfulness into your school it really should begin with the teachers first. And they need to have their own practice going before offering Mindfulness to the children. Here is a link to an interesting article on how to avoid “McMindfulness” (Bristow, 2017): https://www.mindful.org/4-signs-poorly-designed-school-mindfulness-programs. As they point out in the article, “you wouldn’t ask a teacher who can’t swim to teach a swimming class from a textbook.”

With the UK leading the way in bringing Mindfulness into schools, into the health system and even into politics (Booth, 2017), isn’t it time to find out what it’s all about? As Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist master and advocate for peace, says “Happy teachers will change the world.”


Booth, R. (2017). ‘Way Ahead of the Curve’: UK Hosts First Summit on Mindful Politics. The Guardian. (Friday, 13 October 2017). Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/oct/13/politicians-meditate-commons-mindfulness-event

Bradt, S. (2010). Wandering Mind Not a Happy Mind. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind

Bristow, J. (2017). How to Avoid A Poorly Designed School Mindfulness Program. Mindful. Taking Time for What Matters. Retrieved from: https://www.mindful.org/4-signs-poorly-designed-school-mindfulness-programs

Walton, A. G. (2017). Different Types of Meditation Change Different Areas of the Brain, Study Finds. Forbes. (October 5, 2017). Retrieved from: http://tinyurl.com/ycn2fkbs (https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2017/10/05/different-types-of-meditation-change-the-brain-in-different-ways-study-finds/#3cdc08ab1f1e) 

About the author

Emma Reynolds is an accredited MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) teacher. She has also trained to teach Paws B, Mindfulness for students from the Mindfulness in Schools Project, UK. She offers online Mindfulness stress reduction courses for teachers and also mindfulness courses for primary students: www.mbsr-mindfulness.com. She is also the director of the English-speaking educational theatre company Blue Mango Theatre, Barcelona.

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