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June 14, 2023/
Categories: NHLInsights, Research and Resources
Three things you can do this summer to regain a sense of wellbeing while setting yourself up for resiliency in the fall. Over the course of a school year, educators […]
Over the course of a school year, educators confront daily challenges that bring us to the outer limits of our physical, cognitive, and emotional wellbeing. This leaves us with precious few summer weeks during which to reset ourselves to a healthy balance. How can we make the most of this opportunity? From my own experience I did some research, and I would like to share three high leverage areas of focus to regain our sense of wellbeing.
Healthy Sleep Patterns
Healthy sleep is a foundational element in maintaining cognitive functions as well as physical health. As noted by renowned sleep scientist Dr. Matthew Walker; “Every major system, tissue, and organ of your body suffers when sleep becomes short. No aspect of your health can retreat at the sign of sleep loss and escape unharmed.” Yet, so often, we accept either short sleep or lack of quality sleep as simply a side effect of our stressful work. Not only is sleep important to our health, but also a necessary element of maintaining our ability to work at the outer limits of our abilities. Healthy sleep habits start with the basics of sleep hygiene.
What is “Sleep Hygiene”? In the general sense, it is a series of practices that promote healthy sleep. A few elements include: Having a consistent bedtime and wake time (even on the weekends), keeping your sleep space cooler than your normal home temperature, refraining from caffeine or alcohol too close to bedtime, cutting back on screen time (and particularly blue light) immediately before bed, and making your sleep space as relaxing a spot as possible. These factors have different effects on different people, and are well worth the time to explore as you look for ways to optimize both the amount and quality of sleep.
Recommended Summer Read: (Cited Above): Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
The foundation of this idea lies in our natural response to stress. Our bodies respond to perceived threats through the sympathetic – parasympathetic response, which we know better as the ‘Fight or Flight’ response. The sympathetic response escalates, the parasympathetic restores your body to normal operations. While the specific science is important, for our purposes let’s focus on what actually happens to our bodies. Under stress, our pulse rate and blood pressure increase, blood vessels dilate, glucose is released into the bloodstream to provide added energy to your brain and muscles, your digestive system and reproductive systems receive less blood flow (no time for either of those now) and your field of vision becomes narrow and more focused. We are ready to fight or flee.
What if a situation requires neither? This response is designed to be a short term, immediate adaptation. It’s not intended to happen several times a day, or worse yet all day. In either prolonged or frequent activation, these adaptations place a tremendous strain on your heart and your blood vessels, and ensure that there is an overabundance of glucose floating around. What can you do to prepare for this, or better yet respond to it?
The answer is to take steps to be sure that your heart and your metabolism are as healthy and strong as possible. Yes – that means cardiovascular exercise. By preparing our bodies ahead of time for this natural response, we make a dent in the potential damage caused by wear and tear. What kind, and how much, are a matter for discussion between you and your doctor. Start where you are, and advance as you’re ready. But the best time to start is now.
Recommended Summer Read: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolski
While it is the work of the parasympathetic nervous system to restore your body to a natural state of functioning, your mind is another story. While our analytical minds are among our greatest tools, they can also interfere when it comes to our sense of calm. We relive past events, looking for ways we could have handled them differently. We anticipate future events and contingencies, often activating that sympathetic response in the process. These habits are helpful in the situational sense, but not so when we’re trying to quiet and de-escalate. What can we do to help this process? The means by which each of us experience that de-escalation are as different as we are. Finding our road to a quieter mind requires authentic reflection – and there is no better time to look than during a summer break.
For some people, more structured techniques such as meditation, yoga practice, non-sleep deep rest, or prayer / reflection are the best source of this mindset. Others may gravitate towards physiological outlets such as structured breathing or exercise. (Yes – exercise has a dual purpose.) It’s not uncommon for people to find outdoor activities such as fishing or hiking as valuable opportunities to restore their minds to a more balanced state. As with the other two suggestions herein, these are personal preferences. What better time to look for yours, or to practice yours, than during some of the downtime of summer?
Recommended Summer Listen: “The Science of Emotions & Relationships” (Podcast) The Huberman Lab Podcast with Andrew Huberman YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcuMLQVAgEg
Ultimately, our goal is to establish ongoing habits and measures of support that will help us to endure the stress that comes with educating young people throughout the school year. Doing so will involve practicing an intentional approach to your physical, cognitive, and emotional wellbeing throughout the year. What better time to do so than during a summer break?
In our profession, we are fortunate enough to have our work divided into segments of time, with periodic ‘chapter breaks’ built in. Even year round staff have time in the summer that they wouldn’t otherwise. These times provide us with opportunities to step away and reflect, but also to set in motion habits that will sustain us in the chapter ahead. Please take the time to think deeply about how best to be healthy and sustain yourself going forward. Our learners need you!
Scott Laliberte joined NHLI in July of 2022 as Director of Innovative Projects. Scott has over 30 years of experience in K-12 education as a high school English teacher, elementary school administrator, district curriculum coordinator and systems leader. He is the former Superintendent in Londonderry, NH, where he has worked for eight years. He has worked extensively on a number of different innovative learning initiatives including interdisciplinary curriculum development, competency based learning, and leadership develop. He lives in the Lakes Region of NH with his wife Suzanne.