Teachers are now reaching the end of what is often considered to be the most exhausting term of the academic year.
At this time of year, along with dark days, end of term reports, concerts and classroom tidies, many will also have the familiar experience of end of term illness. Talk about kicking someone while they’re down! You are running on empty, limping to the finish, and along comes the sore throat/ streaming nose/ headache, hitting you like a ten ton truck.
Most battle on to the end of term regardless, looking forward to the point where they will have time and space to recover….And then along comes the preparation for festive celebrations, visiting relatives, supermarket shopping trauma. Hopefully, you will recover from your illness just in time to go back to school in January, and off you go again.
While there is limited solid research evidence around exactly why we get ill as we get near the holidays, there is evidence that our stress response can be our own worst enemy.
The crescendo of workload as you get closer to the end of term may simply mean that we have been ill all along, but so busy and determined to battle on until the holiday arrives that you simply don’t notice until the end is in sight. As you do this, the stress hormones that help us cope with workload leave us open to infection.
Ongoing stress makes us susceptible to illness as the response to a threat involves signalling from the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – responsible for the “fight or flight” response – to the bone marrow, where new blood cells are produced. While this signalling gives rise to various types of white blood cells (involved in fighting infection), as well as red blood cells and platelets, it is thought to also decrease the activity of genes involved in the production of antiviral immune proteins, leaving us open to infection and tissue damage.
This makes no sense, but some argue that our stress response is simply ill-fitted to our modern lifestyles. It is an evolutionary throwback, developed when our stressors were often life-threatening, and therefore requiring immediate and powerful responses. They evolved to be used sparingly and in moments of great adversity, using up huge reserves of energy. Recovery from these experiences require extended periods of ‘camp fire time’ (resting and restoring) – allowing all the hormonal and physical changes to subside, and a return to a state of stasis.
This is great when you’re trying to escape a sabre-toothed tiger or someone brandishing a spear, but in the midst of end-of-term madness, our stressors are likely to be workload, time pressure, children who won’t do what you ask them to, parental expectations etc. None of these are life-threatening (even though they may seem it at times), yet our bodies behave as if they were. Functions that are not essential to immediate survival begin to shut down, including digestion (one possible reason why our appetites change when we experience stress) and the immune system (you don’t need to fight a cold when faced by a life and death situation). Meanwhile, we tend to become hyper-vigilant, constantly on the lookout for potential threats, to the point where even a few words in an email or text can leave us ruminating and catastrophizing about its meaning, so we then also find it hard to sleep.
So what can we do about it? One crucial skill we teach as part of the .b and .b Foundations programmes is how to identify our own ‘stress signature’. The body can sometimes act as a very accurate ‘radar’ as to what’s going on for us. We often ignore or overlook these signs as we plough on through our days in ‘driven-doing mode’, only really appreciating how stressed we’ve been when we are on our last legs.
However, if we can just stop and spend a few moments tuning in to what your body is telling you, we can then deploy some simple practices to help the stress response subside slightly. Even short practices scattered throughout the day – a .b, breathing space, FOFBOC – can be enough to take the edge off the stress response, leaving you with more reserves, and a little more mental and emotional ‘bandwidth’.
Having stopped for a moment, it’s also important to ask yourself ‘what do I need right now?’ The answer might be ‘a large gin and tonic’ or ‘a holiday’, so keep those on your ‘to do’ list. However, if the immediate need is ‘a bit of a breather’ or ‘some fresh air’ or ‘the lunch that I didn’t manage to have at lunchtime’, then the really important next step is to give yourself permission to do so.
Of course, you may then notice the little voice in your head saying ‘you don’t have time’ or ‘you can do that later’, to which our advice would be to ask yourself, ‘if this were a colleague or friend, what would I say?’ As school staff, we are experts at putting everyone else first – students, colleagues, family – but we are simply no good to any of them if we are not well in ourselves. As someone who fell foul of this principle, pushing myself to a point where my immune system really did shut down completely, leaving me unable to be present as a mother for my young children, and ineffective as a teacher and role model to my students and a support to colleagues, I learned the hard way.
I now know from bitter experience that a few moments of mindful awareness and practice peppered through the day (both during term and in the busyness of the holidays) can serve as a great resource at a time when you notice your body preparing to fight those sabre-toothed tigers. It will also leave you with more reserves to actually be present for and enjoy the holidays when they come your way.
- Have a look at the MiSP animation that explains a little more about the evolutionary origins of stress and how it can affect our perception. Have a go at the ‘Beditation’ practice that follows if you are struggling to sleep. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5ut2NYdAEQ&t=39s
- Try the guided version of the Breathing Space practice then have a go at taking yourself through it wherever and whenever you need it.
- Join us for some live online practice sessions and introductory webinars for those working in schools.
- Find out more about .begin -our live online 8-week introduction to mindfulness here.