Dealing With Stress

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Test day nerves, we cant completely get away from them, students are either calm or kicking, so how can we as their tutors help out with their last hurdle of learning to drive.

The first type of strategy is physical. Stress shows in our bodies, so if we can get our bodies to relax this will help to reduce stress.

Chewing gum can help with this. It is believed that if you are chewing gum your brain thinks that your body is eating. If you are eating it means that your body can relax a bit more. You will often see some of the most highly stressed people in the world
, premiership football managers, chewing gum.

A quick Google of chewing gum will reveal its numerous benefits. The act of chewing will boost oxygen to the brain, which increases alertness and memory.

A 2008 study led by Australian researcher Andrew Scholey, a professor of behavioural and brain sciences at Swinburne University in Melbourne, showed that chewing gum reduced the stress hormone cortisol in study participants. They reported feeling less stressed and more alert.

This benefit is simple to achieve if you always have some gum in your training vehicle within easy reach. I always tell my pupils it’s there for them if they want to help themselves, they do not need to ask and I offer if I think they need reminding.

Another way of dealing with stress is by shaking. I do not mean you should cause your pupils to tremble with fear or try and physically attack them. It has all gone badly wrong if that happens! I mean the act of loosening the body.

We are all familiar with how our body tenses and stiffens up under stress. For me this is most obvious if I am in the rare and unusual position of buying a round of drinks. This is quite often accompanied by profuse sweating as well.

What the shaking should be doing is loosening our muscles, ligaments and joints, as we are more relaxed when we are loose. The process of doing this will increase oxygen to the brain, which in turn will promote alertness and memory.

My therapist pupil told me that colleagues where she worked often came back into the staff room shaking. She implied this was as a stress relief strategy rather than anything they had learned from the client during therapy.

The way I have used this is to get the pupil, when pulled over, to just shake the stress off in the car. As always they must be comfortable with what you ask them to do. If you were ever at one of the local test centres and saw some idiot with his pupil doing star jumps that was probably me. My pupil was
a teacher and knew about these types of stress-busting techniques so we went for it.

Another pupil of mine when on her test would bounce her legs up and down if we pulled up at the traffic lights. The dance she called it. These shaking techniques worked for both of them.

The next one she told me about was breathing. We all do it and if we don’t we
die. So to be more specific it’s diaphragmatic breathing, more commonly known as belly breathing. This is a deep breathing technique that promotes relaxation and reduces
stress. According to the University of Texas Counselling and Mental Health Center: “diaphragmatic breathing allows one to take normal breaths while maximising the amount of oxygen that goes into the bloodstream. It is a way of interrupting the ‘fight or flight’ response and triggering the body’s normal relaxation response.”

So what’s the technique? When pulled over safely, and with your pupil’s agreement, ask them to breathe in through the nose for a count of three, deep down into their stomach. Hold for a count of one, and then breathe out through the mouth for a count of four, emptying their stomach of the breath. I like to tell my pupils “in with the calm and out with the stress”. A cycle of three or four of these deep breaths will often restore a pupil.

I always have my eye mirror set at an angle so I can see not just the pupil’s
e yes but also the side of the face. Besides ensuring mirror checks, I want to see how they are reacting to what is happening around them. Specifically I look for tightening of the lips and other evidence of stress. A simple reminder to them to keep breathing will often lighten a tense situation.

Besides these physical techniques there are others that I think good instructors use instinctively. The first of these will be laughter – a good line up of dad jokes will make the lesson much more fun for both of you. While driving could be a matter of life and death the process of learning will not be helped by making it too serious. To laugh together at a mistake and then ask how can we improve next time will do so much more to aid your pupils’ learning than any criticism would.

The process of laughing is good for us. It increases our oxygen levels which in turn heightens alertness and memory retention.

Now I am not a natural comedian so I resort to my collection of dad jokes. An example of the type of joke to use might be: “I’ve fallen in love with a horse, we are in a stable relationship”. With this sort of joke you can keep trotting them out.

They may not get a belly laugh but I can keep using the same ones, as my objective is to produce a smile. Smiles are sunshine on a rainy day and this all helps the learning atmosphere. One of my young pupils summed me up brilliantly. She took delight in telling me that my jokes were as bad as her dad’s and I told the same ones each week. Needless to say that didn’t stop me!

Occasionally you will have a pupil who doesn’t respond to your wit. Remember it’s your job to respond to them in a manner that’s appropriate for them, as that’s what they are paying you for.

The last way to relieve stress is through coaching. I think a good number of driving instructors, while never having had formal training, tend to coach naturally. How does it help to reduce stress?

Firstly it’s a peer-to-peer style of driver development. You are not lording over your pupil but working with them. Instructing can become very negative. The instructor can be frustrated by a pupil’s inability to comprehend their words of wisdom.

Think back to when an authority figure was telling you to do something and you didn’t understand, but when one of your mates took you to one side and explained, it all became clear. But that stress of dealing with an authority figure when things were not going well made you worse.

The instructional style is fault-based and looks back to what has been done. Coaching looks forward to what will be done. The difference here is that we go with the positive rather than dwell on the negative.

This is a much more positive process for your pupil. If they have chosen which way to go forward, they will have a greater commitment to that path.

This is where GROW models come to mind. Obviously certain things need to be done, but your pupil should be aware of these and work with you to achieve their goals. When I’m indoors and I choose to do the washing up I’m certainly less stressed about that than when my wife has told me to do it and hidden my Marigolds.

With coaching there should be awareness and a sense of responsibility from the pupil.

Your job, for which you are being paid, is to provide the knowledge, skills and a safe environment for this to happen. Note the latter bit: a safe environment. Your skill as an instructor is to ensure this.

When we have, or are developing, 
the necessary skills with the right kind of support we feel happy that we are achieving something. This is less stressful than struggling with something we are not sure about or doing something of which we’re uncertain.

Learning to drive can be stressful and it’s important to look at ways it can be made less so. I am ever grateful to my therapist for sharing some of her techniques with me that I have been able to use to help my pupils.

Remember that the driving test is probably going to be the most stressful thing your pupil will face. One of the best ways of dealing with that is for them to be ready and properly prepared.


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