Your choice: Fight and flight or rest and digest?


The amount of stress experienced by teachers would seem to be growing as time goes by. There are often articles about it in the news; see here and here for example.

Considering the pressures of the demands of assessment, the cost of living and all that is associated with living and working in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there is no surprise.

But this cannot go on. The consequences to the human body are severe.

Author's note: The discussion below simplifies the processes dealt with for ease of reading. I encourage you to do more research on this topic for a more profound understanding.

Fight and flight

Our brains and bodies were designed to effectively deal with any dangers that could surprise us.

For this reason, we developed what is commonly known as the fight or flight response.

When confronted with a potential danger, the amygdala a part of the brain that is a key comment of our emotional lives sets a series of actions within our sympathetic nervous system in process.

Actions from the sympathetic nervous system

·        Adrenaline is released into the body.

·        Blood moves from your stomach and intestines to your skeletal muscles. Your muscles need to be able to fight or run!

·        Your breathing changes to get more oxygen into your blood so the quickening heart can move this to the muscles quickly.

·        Your muscles need oxygenated blood to work powerfully.

·        Your pupils dilate and your far vision is enhanced, and tunnel vision is created. You need to see where you can go to – seeing close up and around you is not important.

·        You have a loss of hearing. You must only focus on the immediate – not just any sound.

·        Your cortex, the thinking part of the brain, shuts off. You must rely on your instincts – not your thought processes to survive.

·        Cortisol is released shutting down our immune response and providing energy to the body.

·        You only need an immune response if you live. There is no point in wasting energy fighting germs right now.

·        Ready to fight! Ready to run!

Rest and digest

Once the danger is dealt with – by fighting it or fleeing from it, our bodies move into the rest and digest phase where our parasympathetic nervous system literally calms everything down so we can rest and digest our food.

Actions from the parasympathetic nervous system

·        Acetylcholine is released into the system.

·        Breathing and heart rate slow down.

·        Blood returns to the stomach and intestines to continue digestion.

·        Pupils constrict allowing for closer vision.

·        Full hearing returns.

·        The cortex reactivates.

·        The immune system reactivates.

·        Ready to rest … and digest ...

What it means for us today

Our brains, as magnificent as they are, are not able to distinguish reality from imagination. Just think about the last time you felt like you were on a tropical island with the character in your favourite soapie or book. You lived the experience with them, didn’t you?

As a result, our brains do not distinguish real threats like a snake on the path from imagined threats like what the principal will say to you for being late. Our brain will simply respond to both events in the same way: fight or flight. And because teachers are constantly in an environment filled with threats their bodies are almost always in fight and flight mode.

Teachers are therefore more likely to get ill more often (immune system is shut down), find it hard to make decisions (cortex is shut down), find it more difficult to see the bigger picture (because of the tunnel vision) or listen to advice (because of the hearing loss). Not a good thought at all.

Taking charge of our bodies and minds

Research has shown that activation of peripheral vision activates the parasympathetic nervous system. What this means is that if we force ourselves from the tunnel vision created by the sympathetic nervous system and bring our vision to our peripheral vision, the way we see what is around us without moving our eyes or head. 

Taking charge of our bodies and minds

The following technique works well to reduce stress and anxiety.  You can use to focus yourself (and your learners) before you learn something, or take an exam, or do something like public speaking that might have made you anxious before. The technique is known as the Learning state of mind technique.

You can click below to listen to it. Before you do, please note that you cannot do this exercise while driving or working with machinery. (You can find a copy of this script at the end of the article to use with your learners, or anyone else in your life who needs some calm.)

You can download this audio at LearningStateofMind

When your peripheral vision activates your parasympathetic nervous system with this technique, you find that you are calm and relaxed, don’t you? Remember, at any time that situations in life are proving stressful, you can use the technique to bring your body and mind back to a positive and calm state.

Learning state of mind technique script

I would like you to get comfortable and find a point on the wall which is straight in front of you and slightly above your eye level … And just continue to look at that point in soft focus, noticing everything about that point … So as your eyes keep looking at the same point, don’t move your eyes.  But you can begin to broaden out your field of vision and notice what’s either side of that point and your field of vision can get wider and wider until you’re really paying attention to what you can see out of the corners of your eyes … At the periphery of your vision … And you might be quite interested to find out how far round your peripheral vision goes …. And I’d like you to extend your awareness all the way around behind you ….

Just use your senses to be aware of what’s behind you as well … And you may have noticed that your breathing has slowed down a little … And you find yourself quite relaxed, sitting there. So, when you’re really in peripheral vision … You are calm and relaxed. ...  And now, I’d like you to let your field of vision narrow back down…looking back at the point ... and you are ready to continue in a calm and relaxed way.

Via Afrika

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Read more:

Preparing learners for jobs that don’t exist

South Africa must up its game and produce more teachers

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