By Michelle Robert
Raise your arms, step over that line, and let the smile spread across your face. You made it! You finished the Kansas Continuous Learning Program. Whew! Now find a comfortable seat, grab a cold drink (water, of course!), and take a deep, cleansing breath. Reflect for a moment. How are you feeling? Exhausted, sore, drained? Relieved and accomplished? Maybe anxious, tense or irritable? My guess is that you’re experiencing all of the above. And for good reason. Not only did you cross the finish line, but many of you pushed, pulled, dragged, cajoled, threatened, and begged some of your students across the line as well. Sadly, some students chose to never finish, leaving you with feelings that range from resentment to deep sadness and concern. It was certainly an unprecedented challenge, and on a personal note, I commend you all for learning and applying new skills, being there for your students, and seeing it through to the end.
This metaphorical marathon that you just participated in has probably resulted in a very literal depletion of your mental and emotional reserves. This might lead you to ask, “If this was a mental and emotional expenditure, then why does my physical body feel as though it just ran a real marathon?”
There’s plenty of science to answer that. Please humor me as we take a quick jaunt back into high school biology. But first, let’s consider that we are all whole beings, and we can’t experience sensations or stimuli in one compartmentalized component of the self. Body + Mind + Spirit = You. So an emotional distress will somehow, some way manifest as a mental and a physical distress as well. It’s a three-way vice-versa that applies here - it doesn’t matter which component experiences a sensation first, the other two will correspond. And that correspondence often perpetuates a vicious cycle.
As a quick example, take a moment to remember the last time a loved one said something hurtful or angering to you. It’s difficult to even pin-point where the initial reaction was experienced, but I’m sure you can think of examples of how each component (body, mind, spirit/emotion) did respond. It’s like dominoes toppling into the next.
We owe this ripple effect to the release of stress hormones by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic (meaning automatic) nervous system (ANS). This system creates arousal in most of the body’s systems - circulatory, respiratory, digestive, vasomotor, endocrine, etc. Blegh, lots of science terms. But just remember this - autonomic is automatic. Think back to your hurtful experience with a loved one. Did you have to tell your blood to rush to your face? Did you purposefully shorten your breath and make your mind race? Did you hand-pick specific thoughts and emotions to experience? Of course not. It was all automatic. And in this reaction (many know it as the fight-or-flight reaction), your ANS became dysregulated, off kilter, out of whack, choose your favorite idiom. And returning to our first premise - if the physical body is out of whack, then the whole being is out of whack.
So what was the point of this mini science lesson? It’s two-fold: 1) to lay the foundation of how we can invite restoration (that’s coming soon); and 2) to help relieve any guilt you might be experiencing regarding how you responded to the stress of teaching during a pandemic. The undesired effects of your recent stressors (possibilities are irritability, mood swings, lack of motivation, inability to focus, joint pain, sluggish body or brain, anxiety, unexplained sadness) are not your fault. Feeling this way is not something you’ve done to yourself nor invited into your life. Rather, your biology is simply responding to chronic stress just like every other human on the planet. So take another deep breath and let yourself off the hook for a moment. Extend some grace and offer yourself some compassionate, empathetic words. You’re human, responding like other humans.
The good news is that you’re not alone in this. Knowing that not one of us has come through this quarantine unscathed can bring some comfort. However, that collective commiseration doesn’t satisfy for long. None of us wants to remain in this dysregulated state! But are we just at the mercy of our ANS, waiting and wondering when it will regulate itself?
The answer, and even better news in all of this, is NO. Our ANS has an equal but opposite branch called the parasympathetic nervous system that can automatically bring our body (and our whole being) back into a state of regulation, an even keel, a bounce-back, choose your favorite idiom. It calms everything that has been aroused in the fight-or flight reaction, bringing forth the opposite reaction that is dubbed the rest-and-digest action. Ahh, doesn’t that sound lovely?
This parasympathetic system is largely governed by a powerhouse nerve called the Vagus Nerve. Don’t worry! I’m not going to launch you into another science lesson. But let’s just say that when our vagus nerve is healthy, toned, and supported, we can bounce back from dysregulation in quite an effective and efficient way.
So here is the best news. We all have the power within ourselves to kick-start that rest-and-digest process, and to maintain and support the health of our vagus nerve. It sounds technical, but it’s much easier than you might think. You may have never heard the words, “tone your vagus nerve”, but I can almost guarantee you’ve heard of most of the common ways it can be done. How many stress-relief articles have you read that tell you to breathe deeply, practice yoga, meditate, get enough sleep, engage in recreational activities, and take daily walks? These are all effective ways to lower stress, because they’re all effective ways to tone your vagus nerve and support a healthy autonomic nervous system.
I’ll go a little further with some suggestions that are not as common:
So, before entering another teaching marathon, give yourself some time to recoup and adopt one or two of these activities into your daily life. Choose something that resonates with you and doesn’t feel like another task to complete. Hopefully, you will have bounced back by August, ready to see your students again - whether face-to-face or via Zoom. And if I may, with the mention of your students, I’ll offer another tidbit. After you have practiced self-care and feel a bit more regulated, consider the many stressors that hijacked your students’ nervous systems. Their lack of motivation, focus, and organization were most likely manifestations of their own dysregulation. If you have a chance, share this information with them.
One more side note, or rather, a caveat: This information is not to suggest that there are quick fixes for depression, general anxiety, or other mood disorders. These are simply suggestions to invite restoration after a period of chronic stress. If you feel your nervous system is in a constant state of dysregulation, I urge you to seek the care of appropriate professionals.
If you would like FREE courses that dive deeper into the role of the vagus nerve, self-care strategies, and mindfulness practices, be sure to register for any of the 6 courses offered by Michelle Robert from June 3rd - July 8th. These courses, along with over 150 more on various topics, are offered through Greenbush University - a six-week virtual opportunity for professional development offered by Greenbush - the Southeast Kansas Education Resource Center. They are free to every Kansas educator, pre registration is required. Visit this website for more information.
About the Author
Michelle Robert is the owner of Higher Power Health & Yoga - a small yoga studio in Osage City, KS. She is also a former 5th-grade teacher who became a stay-at-home mom of four kids, and then discovered the beauty and necessity of self-care and yoga. Her studio serves as an umbrella for the many services she offers in the health and wellness world, including life coaching, mindfulness education, and self-care education. She also offers professional development in-services to districts interested in implementing mindfulness strategies with students of all ages. Contact Michelle with questions or interests.
Website - www.HigherPowerHealth.net
E-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org
YouTube Channel - Higher Power Health
Facebook - Higher Power Health & Yoga
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