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Building Educator Resiliency: Harnessing the Power of the Emotion Cycle for Strong Mental Health

Updated: Jun 5

According to a synthesis of post-Covid research studies, about 78% of educators report high levels of anxiety, and approximately 53.5% report symptoms of depression. Although good mental health is important for everyone, it is more so for teachers because we are responsible for not only ourselves, but our students as well. When we are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety, it can lead to burnout, inability to deal with setbacks in the classroom like behavior problems and student outbursts, difficulty making decisions, and an inability to regulate our emotions.


In honor of #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth, I will be doing a series on topics related to building resiliency and positive mental health for educators. This first post in the series will focus on using a tool called the Cycle of an Emotion to help us recognize when we're in an emotion situation and where we can use interrupting strategies to better deal with the situation we're in.


Understanding the Emotion Cycle

A graphic representation of the Emotion Cycle.
Cycle of an Emotion: Adapted from onwardthebook.com. Image created by author with Canva.

In 2018, I read a book that changed my life. I am the type of person who is constantly second guessing herself, who internalizes everything, and always finds a way to blame herself when something goes wrong. This was causing me great stress, difficulty sleeping, and pretty intense anxiety. So, when I heard that Alena Aguilar had written a book all about building resiliency in educators, I knew I had to read it immediately! Chapter 2 of this book was all about understanding our emotions and how to make them work for us, not against us. What I learned is that emotions are amoral (neither good nor bad), TEMPORARY, and a part of human existence. We are all emotional beings.


In this book, Aguilar introduces the Cycle of an Emotion, pictured above. Take a second to read the cycle we all go through when we've experienced a triggering event. She prompts the reader to think about a few recent emotional experiences and to reflect on that experience through the lens of the emotion cycle. Let's do this now:


1.) Think about a recent emotional experience you had.

2.) What emotion did you feel? Can you name it? If not, use this list of emotions to put a name to what you were feeling. The simple step of being able to name your emotions is a strategy for building emotional resilience.

3.) What was your interpretation of the triggering event?

4.) What was your body's physiological reaction? For example, some people might experience flushing and headaches.

5.) What did you want to do?

6.) What did you actually do?

7.) What were the consequences of your actions?


The Connection Between the Cycle of an Emotion and Resiliency

Simply put, resiliency is the ability to "bounce back" quickly when something goes wrong. Recognizing when you are in the Cycle of an Emotion and by engaging in the type of reflective practice above, over time we'll begin to recognize where we tend to "go off the rails". Knowing this, we can begin to practice interrupting strategies to help you regulate your emotions and build resiliency.


For example, I quickly realized that when I tended to spiral was in Step 2: Interpretation. I immediately began thinking that I had done something wrong, so-and-so didn't like me, what was wrong with me, and on and on. I began to practice asking myself questions like, "What information might I not have about this siutation," "What other perspectives might there be," "What if this person is simply having a bad day and this has absolutely nothing to do with me?" This simple act of stopping and taking a breath before I began telling myself stories has greatly improved my ability to deal with situations I perceive as negatively charged.



I know for a lot of people it's between the urge to act and acting that they get themselves in trouble. If this is you, consider just taking a 5 second pause. You may have to hold up a finger (not that one...), turn away, or something to let others know you're taking a second for yourself. Square breathing is great strategy to employ during this "time out". This breathing technique has you imagine a box in your mind. As you move around the perimeter of the box, you follow the pattern of breathing in for a count of four, holding your breath for a count of four, breathing out for a count of four, and holding it again for a count of four. You can repeat this as many times as you need to calm down. Grounding yourself in the moment and recognizing three things (something you can hear, something you can smell, and something you can see) will automatically help calm yourself. This is all so important because it is physically impossible to engage in rational thought when you are experiencing stress.

Animated example of square breathing with arrows moving around a box clockwise.
Practice Square Breathing

You read that right. When you are in an emotionally charged situation, the part of your brain called the amygdala shuts down, and you are no longer able to think rationally until your body has stopped producing stress hormones and it an open up again. This is sometimes referred to as the "amygdala hijack". Think about this the next time you try to rationalize with a student who is going bonkers. Considering the average person experiences around 400 emotional experiences a day (SHRM.org), using these interrupting strategies can go a long ways towards helping us build resiliency.


The last piece to the Cycle of an Emotion, and that can greatly improve our mental health, is to simply accept that you are experiencing an emotion and be okay with it. Remember that I said emotions are amoral; they are neither good or bad. It is our interpretation of the situation and the emotion that makes it either good or bad (Shakespeare said so...). They are also temporary. It's okay to sit in our emotions for a minute, but we don't want to live there. Being able to accept our emotions is a disposition that will lead to resiliency.


Wrapping It Up

If you want to learn more about building resiliency from a source that is written directly

for teachers, I highly recommend you read Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators. There's a companion workbook with loads of reflective activities to complete while you read. The book is designed to be read one chapter per month. The thought of a book study has been circulating in my mind. If you'd be interested in participating in something like that for Onward, please let me know in the comments below. Also, let me know if you found the Cycle of an Emotional helpful.


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Title and some images created in collaboration with AI using ChatGPT and Ideogram.ai, respectively. All other content was created by the author.


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