We made it to 2021! Humankind has banned together (while staying apart) and experts have created a life-saving vaccine; there is much to be proud of. In the reality of our everyday, however, this pandemic is far from over, and people are still sick. For us educators and parents, it is time to dig deep while simultaneously protecting ourselves as we enter what is hopefully the final stretch of this dismal marathon.
A marathon is a good place to start this post; if you run long distances you may have felt that indescribable pain of ‘hitting the wall’ at a certain kilometre mark. It hurts, and it is the product of overexertion as your body starts to tell you to stop what it’s doing. The cumulative psychological toll of this pandemic is not so different from hitting the wall in a marathon; have you hit a psychological wall yet this year? If so, what did it feel like? By now, sadly, many of you will know when this happened. Enter the ‘stress cycle.’
The Stress Cycle – When the human body experiences prolonged stress, it has trouble completing the stress cycle. Here’s something new for me – a science explanation! Bare with me. When we encounter an outside stressor, say a new daily high of COVID case numbers or a student in crisis, our bodies may jump into ‘fight or flight’ mode; this evolutionary mechanism that causes our heart rates to spike, blood to flow to our extremities and the diversion of resources away from things like digestion.
These evolutionary traits were really convenient for running from those Saber tooth tigers in ancient times, but in today’s world, this mechanism doesn’t always serve us in the best ways. Why? Because in pre-historic days, you simply either fought or fled from the dangerous situation, and your body prepared you to be good at it. If you survived, you went back to your village, hugged your people, and the stress cycle ended – digestion continued, heart rate slowed, life continued, and you were all good.
Today, this is not so simple. Say you have an argument with a colleague and it kicks this ancient hormonal mechanism into gear. You can’t really jump across the table and give your colleague a swat as you may have back then. Instead, your stress response triggers, and then nothing really happens. You remain cordial and then go stew in your office afterward, stress hormones ablaze! You have not completed the stress cycle. If this becomes chronic, your body will start to feel it; your stomach may ache, your head may hurt and you might feel fuzzy. Over time, you get burnt out.
Burn out – So, if your fight or flight mechanism kicks in too often (because of constant stressors in your life) and you don’t complete the stress cycle, you have a lot of stress hormones kicking around in your body. The thing is, we can’t avoid the stressors; the stressors they will always be there, especially these days. We have to go inward.
In their book Burnout; The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Nagoski & Nagoski offer a refreshing take on tackling the stress cycle and avoiding burn out. While journalling and gratitude are invaluable practices, these women assert that you must approach the physical stress response with physical coping mechanisms. It makes sense. Here are some ways to break the cycle and get through these next few dark and stressful months.
- Exercise – Yep, as always, this is the best strategy for you to avoid burnout, it’s as simple as that. What isn’t always clear though, is that exercise can mean very different things to different people. Perhaps you run that marathon, or maybe all you can handle is a guided muscle relaxation in bed at night; both exercise, both capable of breaking the stress cycle by telling your body that it survived the stressful event. Bottom line, if the body goes into flight mode, then throw on your runners and let it fly, however that looks for you.
- Affection – Oh, this one is my favourite physical coping mechanisms. Kiss your partner for 6 full seconds, or hug them for 20 seconds. Affection and human connection alerts your body that you are safe and have survived a threat. Go hug someone in your bubble; it feels so good, and completes your stress cycle. Swoon, you guys!
- Breathing – A common, but powerful tool to get through hard times, it only takes 1.5 minutes per day to make a difference and tell your body, hey!, the Saber tooth isn’t on my tail anymore! Breathe in for 5, hold, exhale for 10, hold. It really makes a huge difference. Put it in your calendar.
- Laughter and positive social interaction – A big belly laugh is one of the most therapeutic things you can do for your stressed out body. Laughing and interacting with others, even over FaceTime or zoom can make a big difference because it reminds your brain that you are safe and in a world that is good and fun. We really need to remember and check in with these facts this year.
Let’s redefine Resilience in 2021 – Finally, let’s all agree that resilience does not mean coping through a prolonged stress cycle that never ends. This is not resilience, this is silliness, and it is bad for our health. The militaristic understanding that has come to define resilience in the past is making us sick and tired; science says so. If we do not have downtime to breathe, move, connect, feel, and recover, we will actually be less productive as humans. The very act of breaking the stress cycle and replenishing our reserves will help us to show up for our children, our students and our people. Please do these things for yourself as we head back to school – science says you will be better for it.