Give Yourself a Different Gift this Season
The holiday break is right around the corner, and for teachers, these two weeks are anticipated not only for the family time and the joy of the holiday decorations and presents but also for the necessity of untethering their brains and hearts from their work. Teachers need a time when they can disconnect from the thoughts, worries, and emotions of school.
I remember these moments well. I would walk into Christmas break like a zombie, holding on to my last bit of sanity as my body and brain kept yelling, "We are exhausted!" I also remember looking around at my fellow teachers in the hallway after the last exam period, all of us looking a bit disheveled but with giddiness in our eyes, and feeling a sense of community, a "Look! I'm not the only one on the verge of losing it!" relatability.
Now, I think about those moments differently because I also know what comes next. Some years, when the holiday break started only a few days before Christmas, I would have a "to-do list" that immediately consumed my attention. I would throw all my threads of energy into finishing up my holiday shopping, cleaning my house, and wrapping presents. I thought I was doing what needed to be done in order to make the holiday season wonderful for my family, but really what my family experienced was a crabby, highly distracted, and anxious wife and mom. Then, after Christmas came and went, my body collapsed into a mixture of sickness and exhaustion.
On the years when Christmas day came a week after school broke for the holidays–as is the case this year–, I would get home that last day and fall asleep around 8pm. Then, I would wake up the next morning feeling like I was hit by a truck. All of a sudden, a mysterious cold or flu bug would have descended on my being, and I would lay in bed all day, useless to my family.
In fact, looking back, I think I spent most of my Christmas breaks exhausted or sick, not fully enjoying the time at home with my family.
I used to think that this was just a coincidence or even that there was nothing that could be done to prevent the collapse. Now, I realize that I had a lot more power over it than I thought because the reason my body (and maybe your body) seemed to just "give up" over breaks like these is because of the stress I had stored up and left unprocessed in my body. As Emily and Amelia Nagoski say, "Dealing with your stress is a separate process from dealing with the things that cause your stress. To deal with your stress, you have to complete the cycle" (Burnout 2019). In otherwords, even when school and all of the complicated and intense stressors are gone–like over a break–we still have to process the stress that we collected in our body. One way or another, the stress is going to come out.
Which is why, this year, when the stressors have been especially pronounced, we need to figure out how to process our stress cycles in healthy ways, so that they don't result in the collapsed immune systems or extreme fatigue.
What does it feel like to process a stress cyle? Well, the best way I can describe it is to think about what it feels like physically and emotionally after you have had a really good and connective evening with someone you love. Maybe there is a warmth around your heart, a softness in your eyes, a relaxation of your muscles, and clarity in your mind. Or maybe you feel a lightness in your spirit that is accompanied by joy or satisfaction. You see, when we complete a stress cycle we are engaging our parasympathetic nervous system, our social engagement system, where our breathing is deep and regulated, our heart rate is slowed and consistent, and our mind is ready to attend to complex thinking. This is our goal–to move from our sympathetic nervous system back into our parasympathetic over and over again–pushing our body and minds to process the stress we have accumulated over time.
How do we do this? Well, there are many different ways, but here are four ways that you might find helpful as frames:
Physical Release: We can release this energy of stress through our physical bodies by performing physical activity, whether that's taking a walk at the end of the day where we notice the ways our body begins to relax and release some of the tension or whether it is stopping in the middle of the day to do ten jumping-jacks or five push-ups. The point is to be conscious about how our body is physically releasing the energy.
Intentional Breathing: Our breath is really the gateway to our nervous system. When we pay attention to our breath and allow our bodies to remember what a full breath feels like, we are engaging with our parasympathetic nervous system. For some of us, this practice of breathing will be a longer, more extended period, and for others, it might look like taking a brief moment to practice box breathing–a count of four as you breathe in, a count of four as you breath out, a count of four as you breath in, and a count of four as you breath out.
Positive Social Connection: Notice the important word here is positive. We need to have life-giving, soul-enriching social connections. We do not need complain-fests, gossip-circles, or roast-sessions. We need conversations that allow us to express our emotional beings, spaces where our physical selves and our emotional selves can be fully expressed. This is why picking out friends and loved ones who can support us and push us to be our best versions is so important. Connect with those types of people.
Somatic Touch: Similar to a physical release, those trained in somatic touch therapy know the spots on our body where touch can directly interact with our autonomic nervous system. But, if you do not have access to someone who is trained in somatic touch, there are ways we can use sustained touch to connect with our nervous system to release some of the energy. One of my favorite ways is the 20-second hug. It's as simple as that. Hug someone for 20-seconds and notice how your body begins to relax over the course of the hug. Another, slightly more intimate way, is the 6-second kiss. I promise that it isn't just an excuse to kiss someone. It works to connect and release.
So, give yourself the present of a completed stress cycle this holiday season. Try one or more of these methods, and might I suggest you do it before your body collapses. Start today, right now. Your body might just say, "This is the best present ever!"