Psychologist Dr Lindsay Joyce suggests an approach to overcome the stressors that do harm, even if they feel good
Ahh – the summer holidays! The reward for being a teacher: a time when we can relax and rest, enjoy endless weeks lounging on picnic rugs, and be the envy of all our non-teaching friends.
Or, if you’re anything like the teachers I know, it’s a time to race round catching up on everything that we don’t have time for during term time. Perhaps there’s the punctuation of a week away in the sun, and then it’s back home (or even into the classroom) to spend time preparing for the assault of early September.
In fact, instead of providing an opportunity for the rest and relaxation that we crave, the summer holidays can perpetuate our stress.
You see, we tend to be better at recognising our ‘threat system’ stressors. By this, I mean the things that trigger negative emotions for us – anxiety, envy or anger. These stressors might be real events: that year 9 class or the dreaded Ofsted visit. Or, they might be familiar worries: ‘where am I going with my life?’ or ‘why is everyone else more successful than me?’
But these threat system stressors are not the only ones which create a demand on our emotional reserves. Importantly, ‘drive system’ experiences and thoughts can also trigger a stress response for our bodies. And for many of us, our summer holidays are packed with these drive stressors.
You see, a stressor is actually anything which activates the body’s physiological ‘accelerator pedal’ – the sympathetic nervous system. The drive system is all about motivation, excitement and wanting: for example, the excitement of busily attending BBQ after BBQ; the cheerful desperation of trying to entertain bored children; or the determination to start a new hobby/business/acerbic twitter feed commenting on the state of the UK education system.
What’s the problem?
Unlike unpleasant threat system stressors, these drive system stressors can feel good. They can be exciting and reinforcing. Yet, they still exert physiological stress on our bodies. And they’re what tend to keep my clients stuck in holiday-time stress.
So, what can we do about it?
Our third emotional system – the recovery system – operates the body’s ‘brake pedal’ of the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s a tricky one to sell. It’s not motivating and exciting like the drive system, and it’s not overwhelming and unpleasant like the threat system. Instead, it’s the system associated with calm, safety, security and kindness.
And it’s the antidote to summer stress.
You see, when you’re experiencing recovery on a daily basis you are better able to be relaxed, sociable and creative. In short, you’re better able to enjoy the summer and all its potential.
A good place to start is to aim for 30 minutes of time each day where you can do something kind for yourself. This isn’t exciting, addictive, drive system-y time full of action, adrenaline or booze. This is the grown-up version of tucking yourself in for a bedtime story. Find something calming and absorbing to read (anything that captures your imagination works well), get comfy, and stop trying to engage with anything else. One of my clients described it as a moment where you don’t have to ‘be anything to anyone’. And then just try to relax and enjoy.
Nothing magical will happen: you won’t get an adrenaline rush, hear your brain rewiring, or see your body starting to rebuild and recover. But, little by little, you might start to notice that you feel less overwhelmed on a daily basis, that you’re able to think a bit more clearly, and that you’re no longer being swept along by stress.
You might even feel ready for September.
Dr Lindsay Joyce is a psychologist and former secondary English teacher. With her colleagues at The People Project, she now works with individuals and organisations to help them to feel and perform better. Connect with her at the-people-project.com