As a teacher, 2021 has most likely been one of the most challenging years of your life. Without question, you deserve a good break to relax and recharge your batteries. However, switching off your ‘work-brain’ can be easier said than done, and it often takes a while to transition from juggling so many tasks and responsibilities each day to finally allowing yourself to rest.
On an average day, the brain uses roughly 20% of the body’s energy, making it the most energy-consuming organ in the body. This is why sometimes simply working at your computer can make you feel as tired as doing physical exercise. Due to the pandemic, your involuntary change of routine and naturally more sedentary lifestyle will have taken its toll on your brain. You may have over-stimulated the amygdala and created an imbalance in the use of white and grey matter.
Uncertainty and overload accentuates the problem, as stress triggers the release of hormones. Those natural built-in alarm systems can occasionally be good, but over a long period can cause structural changes in your brain and impact the functioning of numerous organs throughout your body.
Adrenaline makes your heart beat faster and as a result, you get tired faster. Cortisol can derail digestion, sleep, memory, and concentration as well as increase appetite for comfort food. For more information on the physical impact of stress on your body, you can read this article or watch this video. It will therefore of course take time to reverse these effects. You can start by being kind to yourself and being patient with your progress.
As a Head of Year with a keen interest in the school community and their wellbeing, here are the best tips I have found to help to calm the mind and make sure you get the most out of your time away from the classroom this year.
1. Step away from work and electronic devices
Try physically locking away your computer, tablets, and any teaching material. If you don’t trust yourself, give the keys to a loved one. Put your phone on airplane mode to cancel out extra noise. Even in a resting state, the brain consumes about 20% of the body’s energy, so try to avoid any to-do lists or any important decisions. Stay away from anything that requires too much emotion or thinking. You and your brain need to relax in order to truly unwind.
2. Go out and do something completely non-routine
Your brain cannot switch easily from hyperactivity to rest. When it is not occupied, it will start its default mode of wandering and wondering. Months of unnoticed physical discomfort and repressed emotions can emerge, potentially making you feel sick, or even depressed. Changing your routine or environment will stimulate your brain differently and smooth your transition into a slower pace.
3. Reconnect with nature
Cycle in the countryside, go hiking, take a walk on the beach or if you are in town, try urban gardening! It will appeal to your senses, strengthen your immune system and make you exercise all while helping you to safely socialise. You could even try “forest bathing” or Shinrin-yoku, a Japanese healing practice which consists of immersing oneself in nature using one’s senses.
Being in nature—be it untouched wilderness or simply a balcony oasis in the city – “restores our concentration through practice of effortless attention.. reduces stress and improves relevant physiological functions.. regulating our emotions, through soothing and calming”. You can read more about the benefits of urban gardens for our mental health here and the benefits of gardening here.
4. Get some fresh air and just breathe
The level of serotonin (the happy hormone) in the brain is affected by the amount of oxygen inhaled. Taking some slow deep even breaths of some fresh air increases your blood circulation, hence improving your concentration, sense of alertness, energy and eventually even your happiness levels.
5. Enjoy the sun and be in the moment
After being inside for so long, your body could be in need of some vitamin D. Unwind with some sunbathing (of course with a good SPF!). This will help you to rest whilst recharging the main vitamin that supports your immune system, whilst also maintaining healthy bones and teeth. Stopping to enjoy the sunshine and connecting yourself to everything around you will put distance between you and your worries, and lead you into the mindfulness approach of living in the ‘here and now’.
6. Sleep, but don’t oversleep!
The brain requires a higher amount of the body’s energy compared to other muscles, so you can sometimes feel exhausted once the school year is over and maybe you’ll plan to stay in bed for a few days. Unfortunately, oversleeping doesn’t reverse the ‘metabolic dysregulation’ brought on by lack of sleep. Follow your rhythm and have short naps if needed, but be careful not to overindulge. It is sometimes better to rest or meditate for 10 to 20 minutes and try to keep the same bedtime routine, rather than disrupting it with long naps in the day. This way you should be able to eliminate your sleep debt within nine days. For more information, see this article from the Sleep Foundation.
7. Have some unapologetic ‘me’ time.
One of the main difficulties of the past year was the constant intrusion of family and work obligations in our personal space. You are long overdue some time for yourself, without worrying about others. Whether it’s a massage, taking a bath, or treating yourself to an experience to share with your loved one(s); make sure you leave some time to fully indulge in something meaningful for you without being disturbed…
8. Rediscover cultural or artistic experiences
Go to concerts, listen to street buskers, go to a local museum, watch a play or a ballet, or if you can, travel to a new place entirely. Let the artists or the local guides transport you into their world, and let their magic inspire you. Feel their energy and passion, and escape from your day-to-day for a short while.
9. Exercise and have fun!
Move! Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins (another happy hormone) in the brain. It doesn’t need to be intense or long, difficult sessions. Simply aim to increase your heartbeat, maybe by taking a light stroll, playing with family or friends or just walking the family dog. If you really don’t like to move, laugh! It exercises your diaphragm, contracts your abs, works out your shoulders, provides a good workout for the heart and leaves muscles more relaxed! Read more about the ‘5 best exercises you can ever do‘.
10. Express your own creativity
Paint, write, draw, sculpt, play music, do some DIY, cook, do some gardening… Whenever you enter your own imaginary world, you can express the thoughts you might usually ignore, and then go through a sort-of catharsis. The process of imagining or creating (even badly), activates the part of your brain which exacerbates one of your senses and cancels out everything else. It helps you pay more attention and appreciate details you might usually overlook. For more information about the arts and their connection to health and wellbeing, read more here.
11. Choose Quality over Quantity
Holidays are not a time to catch-up with all the exercise, books, and good resolutions you set for your year. Holidays should be for focusing on wellbeing, slowing down, and savouring the moment. Set positive reminders to do enjoyable tasks, but try to avoid stressful ones. If you try to pack too much in, both your planning and relaxing time will become burdens. Try only setting a broad plan with no finer details. For the last few months, life has been unpredictable and demanding on you, it is now time for it to positively surprise you!
“A vacation is having nothing to do and all day to do it in.” Robert Orben