About Janna Miller & Chris Brownson

Chris Brownson is a former corps member (LA '93) and a licensed psychologist. After his two years teaching, he promptly returned to his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, to pursue graduate work in counseling psychology. He received my Ph.D. in 2001 and is now a licensed psychologist in the State of Texas, the director of the University of Texas Counseling & Mental Health Center, and the National Mental Health Consultant for TFA. Janna Miller was a 2007 corps member in the Mississippi Delta region. She taught 4th grade during her two years in the corps and then stayed in Mississippi a third year and taught 5th grade ELA. Before joining Teach For America, she majored in psychology. After teaching, she joined the doctoral program in Counseling Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Your Relationship with Alcohol Part 2: Positive and Negative Coping

bottle        (Photo Credit: Tim RT)

Last week’s post addressed how to determine whether you or someone you know might has a problematic relationship with alcohol. This week, we want to discuss alcohol use within the larger context of coping.

Coping is anything we do to manage stress. There are positive coping mechanisms and negative coping mechanisms. Positive coping lands us in a better place to address the problem at hand. Negative coping strategies, on the other hand, are those that don’t address our stressor in any way.

How does alcohol fit into this? What’s tricky about alcohol is that, like most things, it has both positive and negative effects.

What are the negative effects?
• Excessive alcohol intake is an established risk factor for several cancers.
• Alcohol is addictive. A recent study of addictive substances showed that alcohol is less addictive than nicotine, crystal meth, and crack, but more addictive than heroin, intranasal amphetamine, cocaine, and caffeine.
• Alcohol disrupts sleep. It can help you fall asleep, but alcohol increases the incidence of sleep disruptions.
• Alcohol promotes bad eating. Everyone who’s ever gotten at least a buzz from a glass or two of wine or a mixed drink has felt the often irresistible urge to snack.
• Alcohol is a depressant. This means that even though we often turn to alcohol for a boost, it actually depresses our body and our mood.

What are the positive effects?
• Numerous studies show that moderate drinking can have positive effects on heart health.
• A drink before a meal can improve digestion.
• The social and psychological benefits of alcohol can’t be ignored: it can be a soothing end to a stressful day and the occasional drink with friends can be a nice way to socialize.

So where does this leave us? The bottom line is that it is important to ask yourself which function alcohol is serving for you. Are you drinking moderately and engaging in activities that are rejuvenating for you? Or is alcohol helping you avoid your stressors? Alcohol can be a really nice addition to our lives or it can have pretty devastating consequences. It is worth considering whether we are using it for positive or negative coping.

Your Relationship with Alcohol Part 1: Defining the Problem


(Photo Credit: rogue3w)

Over the last several years, as Chris and I have worked together on TFA’s National Mental Health Team, we have fielded a number of questions related to alcohol and substance use in the corps. These questions generally center around: what is the difference between being a low-risk social drinker or a high-risk drinker? After all, not all drinking is bad. One of the biggest challenges in dealing with concerns related to alcohol is determining whether or not a problem exists.

Let’s start by looking at the difference between low-risk drinkers and high-risk drinkers.

Signs that you may be a low-risk drinker:
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends:
o   Women have one drink per day or seven in a week.
o   Men have no more than two drinks per day or fourteen in a week.

 All of the above recommendations are based on standardized definitions, where one drink equals:
o   12 oz. of regular beer
o   5 oz. of wine
o   1.5 oz. (a shot) of 80 proof liquor.

Signs that you may be a high-risk drinker:
o   Are you finding that during the weekends you often binge drink at a party and spend half the weekend trying to recover?
o   Have you started to rely on a few beers at night in order to calm your nerves?
o   Do you ever find yourself driving after having a bit too much to drink?

How can you know whether you are a low risk social drinker or possibly a high risk drinker?
  First, it helps to know the real number of “drinks” you consume. Want to know how many “drinks” are in that cosmo or screwdriver? You can use the drink calculator to find out.
o   If you are unsure how your alcohol consumption stacks up, this tool from the NIAAA helps you size up your level of risk based on your alcohol consumption habits. Plug in how much you drink and how often, and it can help you determine whether your drinking pattern is no risk, low risk, increased risk or highest risk.

If you are concerned that you or someone you know might have a serious problem with alcohol:
o   Check out the following guidelines on what qualifies as alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence: http://www.wright.edu/rsp/Security/Eap/Alcohol.htm. If these guidelines apply to you or someone you know, you might consider reaching out to a counselor or making use of AA resources within your region.

Tune in next week for “Your Relationship with Alcohol Part 2: Self-Care.” In this post we will discuss sustainable ways to incorporate positive coping habits into your routine to avoid feeling the need to rely on maladaptive coping, such as excessive alcohol consumption.

How’s Your Sleep?


(Photo credit: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig)

Getting enough sleep can be extremely challenging. For most people, two conditions must be met before we can fall asleep: 1) we must be tired and 2) we must be relaxed. As teachers, the feeling of being tired is probably not the problem. I bet you are exhausted! Instead the challenge to your sleep may be due to factors that hinder you from being able to relax. Such factors include stress (feeling like you should stay up working), anxiety (worrying about a particular student), and daily habits (drinking large amounts of caffeine). Your level of relaxation at bedtime is something you can influence. Here are some tips that should help you relax so that you can get to sleep:

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day — I know this is a tough one, but it creates an expectation and habit for your body that will really aid in your ability to sleep
  • Bed is for sleep (and sex)…and that’s it — You want your brain to have an association between the bed and sleeping. Don’t confuse your brain by grading papers in bed, watching TV in bed, eating in bed, or reading in bed. All of those activities should be done elsewhere.
  • Don’t consume caffeine or nicotine past the mid afternoon — This really varies from person to person, but if you’re having difficulty sleeping, making this change can really help.
  • Avoid alcohol at night. — Yes, having a drink does slow the system down and can actually bring sleep on, but alcohol also has a tendency to disrupt sleep patterns, and usually doesn’t contribute to a full restful night’s sleep.
  • Don’t go for a run and then dive into bed– Exercise is fine in the evening, but ideally you should finish your exercise routine a couple of hours before you are ready to go to bed. This will result in your body being more tired.
  • Establish a bedtime routine that incorporates relaxation– Relaxing at bedtime is half the battle. Create a routine that incorporates relaxation. Take a warm bath at night. Spend 10 minutes reading for pleasure. Avoid activities that activate your brain or make you tense.
  • Don’t toss and turn in bed– If 15 minutes have passed when you are lying in bed, get out of bed, do something relaxing, and go to bed again once you feel tired. When you toss and turn in bed, your brain is associating your bed with not sleeping, which is the opposite association you’re trying to create.
  • Don’t watch the clock! If you do, you’ll just think, “Crap…it’s already 1:30am and I AM STILL NOT ASLEEP,” which doesn’t help you to feel relaxed. Cover or turn around your clock.
  • Don’t worry in bed — We all worry. It’s a normal part of life. But try not to worry in bed (remember, bed is for sleep). If you find yourself worrying in bed, try writing down the things that you are worried about and give yourself permission and time to worry about them the next day. In bed, simply tell yourself, “I will give myself some time to fully worry about that tomorrow.” If that doesn’t work, and you find yourself continuing to worry in bed, get up and worry somewhere else.

I challenge you to set a sleeping goal for the next week. This goal might address the number of hours of sleep you plan to get each night, it might involve incorporating two of the tips listed above, etc. It’s up to you. But give something a try and see if you notice a difference in how you feel.

New School Year, New Health and Wellness Posts

63/365: They're back

(Photo Credit: Kaytee Riek)

Being a new teacher is tough. Trust me, I’ve been there. So my colleague Chris Bronson and I are happy to start writing metal health and wellness posts again on TeacherPop this year.

I am Janna, and I was a Delta ’07 corps member. After my time in the corps, I joined the doctoral counseling program at The University of Texas at Austin. My career plan is to become a therapist and to participate in various endeavors related to improving the mental health needs of our society. My collaborator, Chris, is a ’93 LA CM. Chris is a licensed psychologist, the director of The University of Texas Counseling Center, and the National Mental Health Consultant for TFA. Chris and I are both grateful to have the opportunity to take our knowledge of mental health and apply it to the TFA corps experience.

Our goal is to you give information that will help you tune into your wellness needs. As corps members, you spend a lot of time working for others—your students, your colleagues, your communities. But we’ll often challenge you to spend some time taking care of yourself—taking time for self-care, listening to signals your body may be sending, taking steps to get help if needed, etc.

We have a lot of fun brainstorming ideas for posts, however, we are also very interested in learning about what you may wish to hear about. If there are certain topics you would like us to write about, or if you have specific questions related to mental health and wellness, please send these our way. We will do our best to devote a post to your request. You can submit requests by emailing me directly (jannavmiller@gmail.com). If you would like your request to be anonymous, just say so, and we will be sure to honor your wishes.

So be on the lookout for our posts each week. We are very excited to be back!

Your Mental Health: End-of-Year Reflections

(Photo credit: Dawn Hopkins)

(Photo credit: Dawn Hopkins)

It’s that time of the year: things are wrapping up at school and summer vacation is in sight. Some of you will be taking a much-needed break before returning for your second corps year. Others of you will be moving on to new opportunities and experiences. This will be the last Mental Heath and Wellness post for the year. But before signing off for the summer, I wanted to leave you with several things to think about in the upcoming months.

How will you rejuvenate this summer? You deserve a break! How will you provide yourself with the time and activities needed to recharge? When I was a CM, summer break was crucial for maintaining my mental health. I allowed myself to spend at least a month not thinking about teaching at all. I took trips to visit old friends, spent time with my family, and indulged a bit by doing things like getting massages and pedicures. I found that taking a break from the things I had been so immersed in for the previous 10 months gave me the chance not only to get some much-needed rest and relaxation, but also to gain some perspective on my experience.

What did you learn about yourself this year? Often, when we have the chance to step back from an experience, we are then in a better place to reflect on things. For instance, how did you do with self-care? What activities or strategies did you find most rejuvenating? If you didn’t do well with self-care this year, how might you make the time for it next year? Perhaps you could use this summer to kick-start a regular exercise regimen. Or spend some time learning to cook fast, healthy meals. Or maybe you could pick up a new hobby. Whatever it is, balancing work with care for yourself will improve your effectiveness as a teacher—plus you’ll feel better, too!

Cognitive Restructuring Part 2: Taking Steps to Change Your Thinking

(Photo credit: Emilian Robert Vicol)

Look how happy she is now! (Photo credit: Emilian Robert Vicol)

This week’s post is the second part in a series about cognitive restructuring. Cognitive restructuring is the technical term for the process of challenging our irrational thoughts. This process involves first paying attention to thoughts and recognizing when they are irrational. If you read last week’s post, you have probably begun to notice some errors in your thinking. You may have realized that there are certain categories of irrational thoughts that you are more prone to engaging in than others. The next part of cognitive restructuring involves challenging irrational thoughts and learning replacement thoughts and behaviors. Let’s break this next part of cognitive restructuring down into concrete steps.

The following four-step process is taught at Harvard Medical School, and it’s one way to help derail stress that is caused by distortions and negative thoughts. When you notice yourself engaging in irrational thoughts, you can do the following:

Step 1: STOP. Consciously call a mental time-out.

Step 2: BREATHE. Take a few deep breaths to release burgeoning tension.

Step 3: REFLECT. Ask some hard questions regarding the rationality of your thought. The following is a list of “Challenging Questions” that can guide you in assessing the accuracy of your thoughts:

Cognitive Restructuring Part 1: Changing Our Thinking in Powerful Ways

(Photo credit: Bernard Goldbach)

(Photo credit: Bernard Goldbach)

“I should have spent longer preparing for that lesson.”

“I’m always failing as a teacher.”

“I feel like a total mess.”

“I’m sure my students won’t do as well as I want them to.”

Do you ever find yourself engaging in thoughts like these? It’s called “irrational thinking,” and we all do it at times. In fact, it can become so habitual to think this way that we don’t even realize the extent to which we are doing it. One of the most helpful things I’ve learned through my graduate training in counseling psychology is a concept called “cognitive restructuring.” This is a way to notice the thoughts I’m having that are irrational, and then come up with ways to change these thoughts so that I can have a more positive outlook on life and ultimately be more productive and happy. In this post as well as next week’s post, I will give you the tools to conduct this process on your own.

The first step in cognitive restructuring is to identify the type of irrational thought you are having. Most irrational thoughts fall into one of the following ten categories, called “cognitive distortions,” as outlined in the work of David D. Burns. Take a minute to read through them and ask yourself whether you engage in these types of thinking:

  1. All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black-and-white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure: “One part of my guided practice did not go as planned, therefore my entire lesson was bad.”

Extra Help: How to Find a Mental Health Professional

(Photo credit: Sara V.)

(Photo credit: Sara V.)

Making the decision to see a mental health professional can be difficult. Sometimes people are unsure whether they are truly in need of help; other times, the stigma attached with seeking help can make people fear that they might be “crazy” or that others will look down on them. The truth is that seeing a professional can dramatically improve your quality of life, because there are times when all of us could use some extra help in order to feel like ourselves again.

Finding the right counselor for you can be a tricky process, so here are some helpful points to remember during your search:

  • There are many different types of mental health professionals, so finding one can be confusing. They are, in short: 1) psychiatrists—medical doctors (MD) who primarily prescribe medication for treatment.  Some, but not most, also engage in talk therapy; 2) psychologists—usually a doctoral-level provider (PhD) who provides counseling, psychotherapy, and assessment, but typically does not prescribe medication (this does vary state-to-state, however); 3) licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), licensed professional counselors (LPC), and licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT), all of whom have a master’s degree in their respective area and provide counseling and psychotherapy; and 4) primary care providers, who, while not actually a mental health provider, often prescribe psychiatric medications.