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August 911 (Part 1)

Whelp, it’s August. That means back to school business. And it typically means exhaustion, overwhelm, and stress, especially for supervisors. Given you probably think you don’t even have time to read this, I want to help you better understand how important it is to manage your stress NOW and give you some tools to help you navigate this month.

I’ve talked about stress in past articles, but I want to do a quick review of a few things to really impart upon you how important it is to take care of yourself during this crazy time. I see and talk to far too many people who believe there simply is no time and any self-care will have to wait until September, or whenever things “calm down.” But the opposite is true. THIS is the time you need to do something about your stress. We’ll save the discussion about whether or not things ever “calm down” in Higher Ed for another time.

First things first, why do you need to manage your stress now? Why can’t it just wait until you have more time? It’s because the stress response, otherwise called fight, flight, freeze, and appease - aka “fight or flight,” is a physiological process. That means it impacts you physically, emotionally, and mentally. Now, is there anything you have to do right now that doesn’t involve those things? No, I didn’t think so.

All your prepping and organizing and doing and greeting and hobnobbing involves using your whole person. When you get thrown into fight or flight, your ability to think clearly, feel appropriately, and do effectively goes out the window. When you are in fight or flight, your whole person is stuck in survival mode. Survival mode is not meant for optimizing the situation, it’s meant for surviving. That’s it. If you’re being chased by a saber tooth tiger, it really doesn’t matter much how you avoid getting eaten. It just matters that you’re alive at the end of the day.

But is that what you want from August? I guess I should ask, is that ALL you want from August? Of course, survival would be great, but what’s the point of all this back-to-school madness? Isn’t it to get everyone off to a successful school year? Doesn’t that include you and your team? For that to happen, you cannot stay stuck in fight or flight. More specifically, letting your sympathetic nervous system run the show is going to get in the way of achieving your goals.

Your autonomic nervous system is comprised of two parts, sympathetic and parasympathetic. And just like we’ve been talking about, fight or flight is the sympathetic nervous system. When your body detects a threat, it goes into this mode to keep you safe. And let’s focus on that word safe for a minute. “Safe” isn’t about achieving all your lofty goals or being your best self. It’s simply survival mode.

The other half of this system is the parasympathetic nervous system, often called “rest and digest.” We were designed to be in “rest and digest” most of the time. That’s when our body recovers and heals itself. That’s when we have the bandwidth to grow and develop. That’s when we can truly be our best. Some stress is necessary to push us forward, but when the stress becomes too much that’s when the sympathetic nervous system kicks in.

Unfortunately, in our society, most of us are chronically stressed. And of course, working in education in August, or whenever your new term starts, often pushes us past the brink. And again, this is not something that can wait to manage until you magically have time. Medical research attributes up to 90% of illness and disease as being stress-related. You may feel, “fine, just tired” right now, but that doesn’t mean you are fine. I’ve heard from far too many folks working in Higher Ed about chronic illnesses popping up or getting worse, or just seemingly normal ailments like strep throat or shingles that they’ve had multiple times. That’s because of STRESS. Pushing yourself hard for an entire month is not going to help.

Now it’s easy enough, especially when you’re stressed, to think, “But I really do feel fine now (or I don’t but there’s nothing I can do about it), so I’ll worry about it in September.” I mean lots of us put off doing things that would probably help us be healthier. I get it. But what about all the things you have on your plate? What if I told you that working longer and harder and letting that stress build is causing you to be less effective and productive? That means staying in fight or flight makes everything you do harder and worse.

Remember, this is a physiological process. The hormones involved in fight or flight causes you to hyperfocus on whatever it thinks is the threat. That means your eyes literally have a narrower focus, and your brain isn’t thinking big picture. You often can’t SEE what you normally could when you were relaxed and centered. Your ability to solve problems effectively and creatively goes right out the window.

It also means when you’re in fight or flight, all the new situations that pop up just go right into the “AGHHH, OH BLEEP” pile. Maybe the first thing was legitimately a crisis, but that second, third, and fourth weren’t. But because your sympathetic nervous system was in control, it blew those things out of proportion. That’s why you feel like you’re always putting out fires. All the things on your to-do list in August FEEL large and overwhelming because you’re stuck in fight or flight, not because they are.

Let me give you an example based on my life. About a month ago, my computer crashed. Luckily, when I got the blue screen of death to go away everything was still there. BUT it wouldn’t let me connect to any network. I’d cleverly put most of my files on the cloud to save storage space, so this was a large problem. To make things worse, it happened the morning of one of our summer Institute group calls. I had about an hour to fiddle with things, but ultimately had to do our Zoom call on my phone. But on the phone, I didn’t know where any of the settings were, and I couldn’t see everyone’s bright, shiny faces. It threw me off my game and made me feel disconnected. At one point, Alicia asked if I was still there or if I was frozen because it was hard to stay engaged on that tiny screen. That made me feel like this computer issue was an even bigger deal than before.

It took about a week to get back up and running, but that would have been shorter if I’d better managed my stress. I was hyper focused on MY computer being broken; it took over 24 hours to remember my mom had a computer downstairs. I’m not even making that up. It happened Wednesday morning, and it wasn’t until Thursday evening that it occurred to me that I could temporarily use her computer to do some of the things I’d been freaking out about not being able to do on mine.

The same day it crashed, I got a notification that my debit card had expired, and T-Mobile couldn’t process my payment. Since my sympathetic nervous system was running the show, that also felt like a crisis. I mean if my computer didn’t work, my phone was the only thing keeping me connected to the world, right? In reality, it wasn’t a big deal. I had gotten a new card but hadn’t updated that account. I just had to go in and change that information. But because I’d normally use my computer and I couldn’t that led to more freaking out. And there was another technical hick up because I used to be a Sprint customer and they were finally completely merging everything with T-Mobile. So, when I tried to log into the Sprint app, they said, “We’re shutting this down, so you need to use the T-Mobile app.” I just instinctively used all the same login info in the T-Mobile app, and it told me, “Ahh, I see you’re a Sprint customer, so please use their app.” I think I tried logging in back and forth three or four times before bursting out into tears.

At this point, I was losing my mind and beyond frustrated. But if I hadn’t been so worked up, I would have read the prompts more clearly. It was telling me I needed to set up a new account in the T-Mobile app. Now technology can be frustrating in general, so I’ll give myself a little grace here. But my point is, if I’d managed my stress better and gotten out of fight or flight, I could have navigated the situation more quickly. It wasn’t until the next day when I went to the T-Mobile store that I started to deescalate. A lovely individual explained that she couldn’t help me, but they could online. She was so patient and helpful that I felt calmer. That’s when I remembered my mother’s computer. I went home and quickly fixed the issue.

Now contrast this to a few weeks later when my car stopped working as I was driving down the highway. I was done for the day and decided to treat myself to a trip to Costco. Suddenly, I noticed my gas petal wasn’t letting me accelerate anymore. I looked down and saw my engine light was on, so I calmly decided I’d better get off the highway while the car still had momentum. I pulled onto the shoulder and called my mechanic’s shop. When I explained the situation, the office manager said, “Sounds like something broke.” I just laughed and said, “Yes, that seems correct.” I called AAA and as I was waiting for the tow truck, I sat under a tree and was easily able to go through the many options I had for future transportation available depending on how expensive the “broke” thing was. My car is over 20 years old, so I knew it wouldn’t last forever. But since I wasn’t in fight or flight, I could easily think about my options. I could borrow my dad’s car for a while. I could purchase one if the repair would be too expensive or not worth it on a 20+ year old car.

If my sympathetic nervous system had been in control that day like it was with my computer, I would have freaked out when my car stopped accelerating. I would have been crazy angry about the, “something broke” comment, because I wouldn’t have been able to interpret it correctly. And I would have been in an emotional overload waiting for the tow truck and worrying about, “whatever will happen to me now.” Just like with the computer, I would have fixated on the car and what was broken instead of looking at all my options. Instead, I had a lovely chat with my tow truck driver about his horse on the way to the mechanics, and calmly waited to find out what was going on with my car instead over reacting.

As you navigate August, take the time to center yourself and get out of fight or fight so you can be more productive and creative. If you do, you’ll be able to respond thoughtfully instead of reacting in the moment. It’s vital for you, your team, and your students. When you don’t, you’re making things worse for everyone, including yourself.

In part two of this August 911 series, I’ll give you several tools to help you do that. I’m specifically going to talk about your vagus nerve. We’ll talk about what that is and how you can use it to jumpstart your parasympathetic nervous system. But I would be a real BLEEP if I didn’t give you at least one tool now to get you started. One indicator of fight or flight is rapid, shallow breathing. If you need to run away from a saber tooth tiger, you’re going to need to get that breath moving fast. Just by intentionally slowing your breathing, you can signal to your brain that the threat is gone. I mean after all, there must not be a threat anymore if you’re taking long, deep breaths now, right. Wink.

I’m going to show you how to do box breathing. You might have already heard of it, but again, when you’re stuck in fight or flight you don’t always remember all the things available to help you. Box breathing is a form of yogic deep breathing. It is practiced by many folks to keep stress under control, including the Navy SEALs who typically face much more deadly stressors than we do, even in August. When you focus and do this correctly, it can activate your parasympathetic nervous system.

Box breathing is easy to do and doesn’t take much time. Here’s Just a few tips to maximize this experience…

  • Focus on your breathing, not all the chaos around you. Be intentional.

  • If you can, get somewhere quiet where you won’t be interrupted – even if that means hiding.

  • Sit comfortably on a chair or the floor.

  • Breath in and out of your nose, not your mouth if possible. Mouth breathing can trigger fight or flight because folks typically breathe out of their mouth when they’re hurried and stressed.

  • Focus on breathing from your diaphragm instead of your lungs. When you’re hurried and stressed that shallow breathing comes from the lungs.

Alright let’s do some box breathing. In a nutshell, you’re going to inhale slowly to the count of four, hold that breath for the count of four, exhale slowly for the count of four, and then hold that breath for the count of four. As you go through these steps, imagine each step being a side of a box. Each time you go through all the steps, you complete the square. Do this for four rounds.

To make things simpler, here’s a script for you to use…

Slowly inhale…2, 3, 4. Now hold it…2, 3, 4. Slowly exhale…2, 3, 4. Now hold it…2, 3, 4

Slowly inhale…2, 3, 4. Now hold it…2, 3, 4. Slowly exhale…2, 3, 4. Now hold it…2, 3, 4

Slowly inhale…2, 3, 4. Now hold it…2, 3, 4. Slowly exhale…2, 3, 4. Now hold it…2, 3, 4

Slowly inhale…2, 3, 4. Now hold it…2, 3, 4. Slowly exhale…2, 3, 4. Now hold it…2, 3, 4

That’s all there is to it. As long as you focus on your breathing, you should feel calmer and more centered when you’re done. Remember, you can do this whenever you need to reset when you’re starting to feel stressed or overwhelmed. Obviously, it’s ideal to do it in a quiet space where you can’t be interrupted. But that’s not always possible. I guarantee the Navy SEALs do it whenever they feel themselves slipping into fight or flight whether it’s in the middle of an operation or battle, so don’t let the chaos around you be a barrier.

The best way to ensure your students have the best back-to-school experience – remember, that’s what all the chaos around you is about – is for you and your team to be at your best. Take the time to take care of yourself and encourage your team to do the same.

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