Before Kris Roush outlines a six-step process for managing stress, she points out that school administrators not only need to know how to help students who are experiencing stressful situations, but they themselves also must deal with their own stresses—and that dealing with others’ stress can be traumatic itself. Too often, school administrators and therapists undersell how impactful taking care of others can be on themselves—and in this podcast, Roush elegantly outlines suggestions for managing these emotions and thoughts.
PB: So I particularly want to focus on training school administrators and psychologists on college campuses. Can we start with you explaining your six step process?
KR: Sure. Well, let me give you a short background to this. It was probably several years ago that I went through something, and at the end of it, I thought to myself, you know, I have got to really deal with this. And then I realized I don't really even know exactly what that means to deal with this. And so that started my interest in researching, what do other people do when they say that they deal with something. And so I started reading and talking to lots of people and writing, and then so I, that's how I arrived at the six steps.
So given that, the six steps are, the first one is simply to acknowledge, number one, well, what happened, what is the situation? And actually you get credit for this step because you could easily choose to stay in denial about something that's going on or you could decide to minimize it and not appreciate the severity of the situation. So obviously, step one is simply, what is the situation.
So step two then is, well, what are my feelings about it, how do I feel about this, identify your feelings and express them. And then related to that, direct kind of an attitude of mindful self-compassion towards yourself for having those feelings that you're going through. And it's, you know, I think very few people consciously stop in the middle of a stressful situation or a traumatic event to notice what are they feeling and to express it. So this actually turns out to be a pretty important step.
If you can't even recognize what you're feeling, if you can't put your finger on a specific feeling word, don't get stuck there, just simply acknowledge I'm upset, just begin with that. And then when I talk about to express it, I don't necessarily mean to scream and cry or even to talk about it. Talking about it is what most people think of when I say express it. When I use the word express here, what I mean is to get that which is inside of you, outside of you. And so you could write about it, you could journal about it, you could go to the gym and you could dedicate your exercise session to releasing the energy that is the feelings that you're having.
PB: Is screaming and crying okay though?
PB: All right, good.
KR: But that is not the gold standard proof that you actually expressed your feelings. That's a shout out to the other quiet people in the world, by the way. So step three is take a look at in this situation what am I responsible for, in this situation. And again, some situations that you're dealing with, you might be the person who is at fault, or you might be the person who is on the other side of that, the aggrieved person. And there could also be some combination of above.
So, but just ask yourself what role did I play in this and how much responsibility truly, honestly is mine to take? And in looking at what you're responsible for, keep in mind that you're actually only responsible for yourself because you're only in control of yourself. In other words, doesn't it make sense that we should only be responsible for the things that we are in control of.
And so, ask yourself, well, what am I in control of? This is sort of an existential question. Well, ultimately, you realize you're really only in control of yourself, your own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Now the small print is you are responsible to anyone that you have any kind of relationship with. So your question, you know, you might say, well, this is my spouse. I'm certainly responsible to my spouse for certain things that we agreed to, for example, on our wedding day when we made our vows. I am responsible to you for this, this, and this. But I'm not responsible for you because I'm not in control of you. You are responsible for you, I'm responsible for me, and the two of us are responsible to one another.
And so, as a faculty member, I'm not responsible for my students and whether they learn, but I am responsible to them to conduct myself in a professional, competent way, and so on. So again, step three really is about taking a look at, I mean, kind of a serious sober look at, in the situation, what is mine to take responsibility for and truly what is not mine. And many of us tend to make the mistake of taking on too much responsibility or not taking enough. So that's step three.
Step four is, well, okay, now that this happened, what am I in control of doing about the situation now? So this is sort of a pause in the process to say, given that this is the situation, what are, what is within my control to do about the situation now, and then this is the brainstorming step. And so, as you probably know, brainstorming, by definition, means that you generate a list of creative ideas and don't initially judge any of them as silly or too much or too little or too outrageous, but brainstorm all possible avenues that you might have at your disposal. So after you've done, yes, go ahead.
PB: Just to bump in real fast, I mean, and obviously this is, there's not a timeframe on these steps, I mean this is, even though you're going through them right now, I mean, this is not something somebody does in an afternoon, correct?
KR: Exactly. Well, actually you're making a really good point. The beauty of these steps is, with something very minor, I mean, really something, somebody looked at you funny and it bugged you, you could deal with that in, oh, less than a minute. You could, or you could be dealing with something much more serious and that could take weeks and months, maybe even years. So yeah, it's the same six steps, but depending on the situation, it could take very little time or quite a bit of time. Thank you for bringing that up.
PB: Certainly. Yeah, and so then, and then carrying on to the next step would be what?
KR: Okay. So the next step is step five. So now that I have taken a look at what could I do now about the situation, if anything, now in step five, I'm going to make a choice about what am I going to do from today on. And so, in this step, you do it or you make a plan to do it if you can't literally do it right now. And a very important piece to step five is you have the choice to do nothing. But I really want to be clear that doing nothing is not at all the same thing as choosing to do nothing, because if, through denial, or you're not paying attention, or apathy, or fear, you do nothing about the situation, you're actually just stockpiling it.
But if you really look at it, and look at your alternatives, and from a place of conscious choice say, you know what, I'm going to just choose to not make any move at this point. Well, then, that's fine, that's totally fine, because now you're not setting yourself up for resentments that you might later have if you just, by inattention, do nothing. So it's important in step five I purposely use the word choose because I want to reinforce the notion that you are not a victim at this stage, that you have the power to make the choice to do something or to choose to do nothing.
PB: Right, and in sort of a way that inaction does become at least an action of sorts.
KR: Exactly, yeah. Not to decide is to decide. Exactly, yeah.
PB: And then the final step?
KR: Yeah. Well, the final step really is where the magic resides, because if you think about it, what it could it possibly be, what have we done so far? Well, we've acknowledged something happened, we looked at and identified and expressed our feelings about it, we took responsibility for what is ours and we did not take on what is not ours, we looked at what could we do about it now, and from that conscious list, we made a decision about if and what to do about it. So my gosh, what is there left to do? And so that answer is step six. What's left to do is let it go. Let it go.
PB: Is that, hopefully that's not a copyrighted . . .
KR: No, I don't think so. So, yeah . . .
PB: Obviously, sorry, go on, go on.
KR: Well, I mean, this is so important because all of the other steps really are useless if you don't finish off with step six to let it go. Because then what you're doing is, yeah, maybe you've addressed the situation, but you're now still carrying it around, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, and for the rest of your life. And so, usually without realizing it, you are carrying around a gunny sack of issues of resentments, of anger, unexpressed grief, all kinds of possible things, and you're wondering why you're still so, so depressed, or why you've got this anxiety going on. And it could be that you've unwittingly been carrying around all of this stress slash trauma from your whole life, and that kind of weighs down your life spirit. That is not the recipe for a happy, carefree, joyful life.
PB: And obviously the six step process can apply to whether you're talking about your patients or you're talking to students or if, in the case of what we're talking about right now, really is sort of self-assessment with school administrators and psychologists. And you know, obviously, I mean, this is what for years obviously flight attendants have been telling us, is like take care of yourself before you take care of those around you.
But it would seem like there's a certain irony here that obviously the school administrators who are working with students who are dealing with stress, those school administrators are going to take on a certain amount of stress or are going to have, anybody that's going to have empathy is going to open themselves up for some of this. Is that a correct assessment?
KR: Yeah, I think so. And I think that, not only school administrators, but most adults, don't appreciate the stress that they're under, and so they just don't recognize that there's a problem.
PB: And, in your experience, is there enough training happening in terms of school administrators and others? Is there enough training happening so that people are arriving at colleges in their capacity ready to deal with this for themselves?
KR: In a word, no. I don't think so. I don't think it's happening nearly enough, and it certainly, if it is happening, it's not starting soon enough. I think many people probably believe that they're taking good enough care of themselves because they try to relax, you know, when they can or to exercise sometimes. But I think that they're likely minimizing how much stress they're under, and then they think that the usual symptoms of stress are normal, and they settle for that.
So no, you generally don't see this training, certainly not in any kind of formal academic setting for school administrators. I am, though I will tell you, I am heartened by the fact that in the last few years in the United States, we've seen a real big push in the area of mindfulness training. And mindfulness training is simply about teaching people how to be present in the moment with a non-judgmental attitude and with an attitude of acceptance. And mindfulness training is happening more and more in K through 12, and now in college settings. So there's an area for some hope and some optimism.
PB: I also want to talk about another specific area, and I think the acknowledgement and the recognition of PTSD as a very real and debilitating symptom has over the past decade or so has become increasingly apparent, and on college campuses with many vets returning as well as I think an acknowledgement of how far-reaching sexual assault is and the PTSD effects are, that would seem that that's, is that acknowledgement that that's real, is that helping deal with it any or are we still just in one of the first stages of looking at this?
KR: Well, I agree, I think that we are acknowledging it and recognizing it more and more. And boy, I want to be very, very careful here, and very respectful here. I want to say not but, but and, and there are those who would say, gosh, I want to be careful, PTSD is being over-diagnosed. And the general population, the popular culture has taken on this term, and they're using it to describe just a tough childhood that they had, and so then they say, oh, I had a PTSD.
Well, PTSD originated usually in reference to a specific discreet event, not just my whole childhood was hard. That's really not PTSD. But absolutely in the context that you're talking about with an event like a sexual assault or combat veterans and so on, absolutely, that's a very serious, very serious diagnosis, and I would not at all put that necessarily in the same category or company of, here, just use these six steps and you'll get over your PTSD.
So, no, PTSD requires therapy, it requires usually group therapy is ideal, particularly for combat veterans and victims of sexual assault. So we're talking therapy there, we're not talking about simply a stress-management weekend workshop for somebody. But you're, it's an appropriate question because it is in the same ballpark of trauma and the need to address and figure out how to integrate this into your life, and to learn how to eventually take it in stride and not be so acutely traumatized by it. So yes, that's similar to what we're talking about here today.
PB: And it would also, I mean, somewhat along those lines, it would seem like one of the difficulties in training school administrators how to manage stress, whether for themselves or for students, is that stress is such a subjective experience, and there's no real single-size solution, just like what you're speaking about in terms of PTSD obviously has a different, needs a different approach as opposed to perhaps, say, stress over final exams.
KR: Right. Well, yes, I think, in a way, actually you're right. Stress is very unique to the individual because stress is in the eye of the beholder. It depends on your, on the person's interpretations of the event. What, if you and I both get, for example, trapped in an elevator, we're both experiencing the same event, but I, because I'm claustrophobic, I might go into an all-out panic attack. You, who don't have that way of interpreting being trapped in an elevator, you could be framing that situation as, ah, this is a relief, because now I don't have to go to that meeting I was dreading.
So I'm having a panic attack, and you're relaxed and happy and pleased. Same event, different reaction. So actually, yeah, we all get stressed by different things, but I would say the solution is ironically similar, not different for all of us. And that solution then is to consciously address what's going on, maybe using the six steps, and look at how we are thinking about the situation, and is there a different way of thinking about it.
PB: And I want to go back to that idea of, I mean, you're making it sound, oh, not so simple, but you're making it sound as if this is very achievable to have these approaches, but it still sounds like it's not happening enough at schools. Can you, could you make any recommendations on how to have these trainings happening and how to have this culture more at schools? I understand that's a very large question to ask.
KR: Well, I think, like I said, one of the reasons more training is not happening is because people are not recognizing that it is the problem that it is. For example, in American corporate business world, I can tell you that the statistics are that, well, 70% of all illness, get this, 70% of all illness is linked to stress. Seventy-five percent of American workers experience stress symptoms each month. Employers spend 200 to 300% more on the indirect costs of health care related to stress, like absenteeism, sick days, lost productivity, rather than on spending for direct health care payments.
And then, I think it's what, $300 billion a year is lost in businesses in the United States because of unaddressed stress. So maybe, when you can kind of be hit with some of those facts, you might be more compelled to take it more seriously, particularly when you can point out how it translates to the bottom line.
PB: Right. Obviously, some resource allocation in terms of prevention of those losses would be a good argument, and sometimes it is difficult to, just as we were saying before, that that's, recognizing stress or trauma can be very subjective, and that's sometimes hard to put into a spreadsheet.
KR: And I would, if I can sort of deviate just a little bit here, just a few years ago, I became concerned about the stress and the trauma of paramedics and EMS providers. And I started learning a little bit about that whole world, and I discovered that there is something that's called Critical Incident Stress Management that paramedics will go through when they've experienced some kind of critical incident stress, or like mass casualties, or a particularly difficult call.
And in talking with folks, it's sort of a formal process where a trained professional facilitates a group sharing about the event. And everybody in the field that I talked to kind of said, yeah, it's great in theory, but very few people feel comfortable speaking in front of their peers about their feelings and so on. And so I started thinking, well, what happens when that paramedic can't handle it and needs some extra help. Well, what happens is they get referred to a counselor to talk about it individually. And here's what's interesting.
The counselor typically does two things in that situation. They listen empathically and they validate the person's reality. And so they establish a rapport and they validate what's going on, and believe me, that is very therapeutic. The second thing that the counselors will typically do is they will help the paramedic to reframe, to think about the trauma differently. And what that means in the psychology world is typically an approach called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is probably the most common therapy approach these days, and has been easily since the 1970s or '80s.
So I got to thinking, if this counselor, after the fact, is going to help the paramedic to think about it differently, why not come up with a list of beliefs, a world view that the paramedic can use at the beginning of their career? A list of balanced beliefs and life perspectives to have through which to filter the trauma and the stress that they experience so that they don't have to learn after the fact how to reframe it, but start with a frame of reference that is balanced and has perspective.
And so from there, I developed stress inoculation training so that you're not even doing stress management, you're doing stress prevention in the first place. And so my six steps became only one of a three-part workshop on helping, kind of the ultimate providers who are going through the ultimate stress, EMS providers. So that's why I emphasize reframing quite a bit, and what are your beliefs, because that will help you to prevent the stress in the first place. Remember in the elevator, you were fine because you interpreted being trapped very differently from how I interpreted it.
PB: And certainly one of the important steps is for colleges and for individuals to be able to find these resources, like yourself, and to find training seminars like the ones that you've designed and hosted. Are there any other, just to wrap up here, are there any other resources that you can suggest for individuals and colleges, either associations or websites that are really good, that you found to be really good sources?
KR: Sure. Let's see, stress.org is the American Institute of Stress. Stress.org.UK is the Stress Management Society in the United Kingdom. And one that I really like, that I can't wait to share with folks at the leadership conference, is simply, mindtools.com, mindtools.com. It's got a lot of information about human relations training topics, certainly stress management, emotional intelligence, leadership qualities, it's just fantastic. My students just love it, by the way.
PB: Kris, that is a great endorsement and thanks . . .