How is it already December? If you’re anything like me it seems like just a few weeks ago that we were updating our displays, writing class lists into planners and trying to learn everybody’s name and now suddenly it’s mock exams, carol concerts or nativity plays, UCAS references and the Autumn term is about to end before you’ve managed to finish writing, let alone actioning, your improvement plan!
But instead of giving yourself a long list of things to do this holiday to ‘catch up’, give yourself permission to relax and an extra special Christmas present – self care. It’s doesn’t have to cost anything and it really is the gift that keeps on giving because the more you use it, the more you’ll enjoy the vitality and happiness it brings.
Self care and the brain
Teaching is a stressful job. You’re on from the moment you walk in the gate in the morning to the moment you walk out. And every day is busy, filled with different demands, from different people, many of which come as a complete surprise.
Teachers’ working hours across the year are similar to those in other professions, but because we work intensively over fewer weeks of the year, we experience higher levels of stress and less work-life balance.
When we experience stress the amygdala (our emotional brain) activates our central stress response system – the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and the adrenal cortex – which releases so called ‘stress chemicals’ (cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline) into the bloodstream. Our physical reaction is almost instantaneous, but we can learn how to control our stress response so that we are less at the mercy of our emotional brain. This is important because over time an overly reactive brain is less able to bounce back and that means you become less resilient to stress.
Deep relaxation and meditation can help shut down the release of stress chemicals into to the bloodstream simply by counteracting some of the effects of these chemicals. The stress chemicals cause muscles to tense up, by consciously deciding to relax, you counteract the stress chemicals.
A happy mind equals a happy body. It’s time to reconnect your mind with your body. This doesn’t mean you need to start sitting cross legged on a cushion and meditating for hours on end. It does mean you need to practice being in the present moment, being aware of your emotions and thoughts (both positive and negative) while keeping calm. It’s about learning how to press the pause button between the stimulus and the response.
“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Here are five simple self-care practices that you might like to try over the holidays. Fully embrace every day of your break and “fill up your well”, so that when you return in January, you are your most hopeful, courageous and rested self..
1. Take time just for you
If you’re forever rushing around doing things for everyone else, then give yourself the gift of time this Christmas, time to spend however you want. Without guilt and without worry. Do something that you really enjoy but never seem to have the time for.
- Will you take time to sit with a cup of tea and a good book (open fire is an optional extra!)
- Will you spend time going for a walk in the park?
- Will you finally book that massage you’ve been promising yourself all term?
- Will you catch up with friends, arrange a proper date with your partner or block off time to just play with your kids?
Do what makes you smile.
2. Take a digital holiday
Tech companies have spent billions of dollars and recruited some of the smartest people around in the name of making their products as addictive as possible. Social media feeds are endless, and we struggle to leave them alone because they trigger the brain’s reward pathways. Every time we get a like we get a hit of dopamine, which keeps us coming back for more, and there is always another post to read, article like or picture to scrutinise. And email just adds to problem. We are chronically connected.
Be bold: have a phone free Christmas Day. Focus on the people you’re with in the moment rather than capturing the perfect shot of your turkey / nut roast / Christmas tree for Facebook / Instagram / Twitter.
3. Take a power nap
It goes without saying that you should prioritise having 7-8 hours sleep every night during the holidays, read my blog post Why are you so tired? for some sleep tips, and as much as is possible, stick to a routine when it comes to the time you get up and go to bed. But why not also treat yourself to an afternoon power nap?
A power nap is a sleep session that happens during the day (ideally between 1:00 to 4:00 PM) lasting between 10 and 30 minutes. Any longer and you run the risk of developing “sleep inertia” — that unpleasant groggy feeling that takes a considerable amount of time to shake off. And naps later than 4:00 PM can disrupt your regular night time sleep.
Research has shown that power naps can alleviate sleep deficits, but they also boost our brains, providing improvements to creative problem solving, verbal memory and learning. Naps improve our mood and are good for our heart, blood pressure, stress levels, and surprisingly, even weight management.
4. Take a walk in nature
There are many studies that confirm the multiple benefits of spending time outdoors. These include improved mental focus, reduced anxiety, reduced stress levels and even improved job satisfaction. Being outside tells your brain and your body that you are in a restful place, this is the opposite of spending time on your phone which is likely to induce anxiety and pressure.
This holiday, spend some time among the trees. Trees emit essential oils or phytocides, one study showed that people exposed to phytocides had lower cortisol levels, reduced pulse rate and lower blood pressure as well as experiencing better sleep and a more positive mood. So wrap up warm and aim for a daily dose of nature this Christmas.
5. Take deep breaths
The quickest most effective way of managing stress, whether it’s induced by classroom chaos or the pressure of cooking a turkey for 20, is to breathe. Breathing properly encourages full oxygen exchange and has been shown to help with pain, depression or stress. Breathing is wonderful therapy as it tells your brain that that things are OK, even when you’re not quite sure if they are!
The more stressed you are, the faster you breathe. Your brain will notice this and read it as a signal that things are not going well. If you breathe slowly, you’re giving your brain a signal that you’re in a place of calm.
Breathe properly – unless your stomach is popping out when you breathe, you’re not breathing right! When you breathe with your diaphragm you involve the lower lobes of the lungs, when you’re relying on the upper lobes only, you’re more likely to shallow breathe and this can trigger a stress response.
A career in teaching is both rewarding and uniquely challenging. It doesn’t matter where, who or what you teach: the pace of change is rapid, the level of scrutiny is high and the workload can be punishing. So it is important that you prioritise taking care of yourself: you can’t take care of anyone else until you do.
What’s in your self-care package this Christmas? I’d love to know which of these ‘gifts’ you’ve given yourself and how it made you feel. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let me know!