On tanks, the repairing and filling of them

I might have mentioned that I’ve got a small, part-time curriculum-development gig this school year. About twice a month, Cane and I develop a social-emotional learning lesson for students at his high school and facilitate a professional learning session for staff to support them in delivering the lesson. This week our lesson was focused on wellness during the holiday season, and I thought I’d share here a resource I developed for it.

I was inspired by a similar board I saw in multiple places online; I am not sure who originally created it, but I’m linking to a school librarian’s site because I’d bet money it was her or some other librarian. I revised it to include links for all the options and to make it holiday-season specific. Two of the boxes contain links to our local public library system (Multnomah County Library, which is awesome), but everything else should be useful for anyone, anywhere. It contains items to hit all the categories of a typical wellness wheel.

(source: https://www.ginger.com/activities/wellness-wheel)

Our students responded positively to this, so I wanted to share it with a wider audience, and I know that some of you are raising teens and some work with teens. This time of year is challenging for teens, y’all. If they are in school, they are fast-approaching or are at the end of a grading period, which is stressful whether they are doing well (and don’t want to blow it on their final exams/projects) or not doing well (because they may be out of time/opportunities to fix things). If the holidays that none of us can entirely escape from are not part of their religious/cultural practices, they may be feeling unseen and left out. If they are, they may be feeling anxiety about gift-giving (lack of $$$, pressure to get the right gifts), having to see family who are unpleasant or harmful, and dealing with their care-givers’ holiday stress. A break from school is not a positive for many teens. It can cut them off from IRL contact with their friends, it disrupts their usual routines, and it may mean increased responsibilities at home. For some, rather than going to school and focusing on their own lives, a school break means being at home and responsible for giving care to siblings or other family members. If they have jobs, they may be working extra shifts (and dealing with folks who are acting out their own holidays feelings). As is true for many adults, this is a time of year when grief can strike hard. Teens may be grieving people they’ve lost, the holidays of their childhoods (that felt different from how holidays feel now), or the family they wish they had (maybe once did have) but don’t.

This board is geared to teens, but it was helpful for me to create it and remind myself of the variety of kinds of self-care available to us. The table includes a link to the Monterey Bay Aquarium live webcams*, and I’m just gonna tell you: When I watched the jellyfish, I could feel my breath slowing and my body softening.

I so wish we had known in the 80s (when I was a teen) what we know now about the physical impacts of chronic stress and complex trauma (or that there is such a thing as complex trauma), and how to mitigate them. I finished up my pain management course this week, and I attended an introductory session with a doctor who focuses on re-wiring (not the clinical term) our unconscious brain so that we can respond differently to perceived threats. This is a slide I screenshotted from the session:

Chart that lists common effects of chronic stress:  inflammation, tension and migraine headaches, insomnia, back pain/chronic pain, fibromyalgia, IBS/digestive problems, high blood pressure, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, anxiety/panic/depression, obesity, sexual dysfunction
(Hey, mirror)

It was so helpful to gain a greater understanding of why simply understanding the stress/trauma that is causing physical issues isn’t enough to cure them: The action is happening in the parts of our brain that we don’t consciously control, so we can’t entirely think our way to different responses. (I have an extreme startle response, for example, and even when I know a noise is coming and that it’s not a threat, my whole body often still jumps when I hear it.) Because of neuroplasticity, though, we can create changes in our parasympathetic nervous system, which will change how we respond. Or that’s the theory, anyway.

I’ve got a lot of thoughts and feelings about the sources of my chronic stress and complex trauma, especially those that relate to working for 3+ decades in public education. The thoughts are barely formed and if I tried to share anything right now, it would just be a big word vomit. But I can say this:

Things are not the same as they were when you went to school. Our teachers and students are under constant stress, and it’s different than it was 15 or 20 or 30 years ago, and it’s not sustainable. We have got to find better ways, because a society full of traumatized and under-supported people is going to look…well, a lot like the one we’re living in.

Despite that dire last paragraph, I am feeling hopeful in ways that I haven’t in decades, and the hope is a tremendous gift. Now that I have it, I can see how long I didn’t, and what impact a lack of hope has had on me. For many weeks now, I have not been attending to much other than my health. I go to various appointments, I go skating, I make nourishing food, I tend my primary relationships, I run our household, and I rest. All of that adds up to a full-time job. I haven’t had much time for writing or any other creative work (other than the small curriculum job) or other kinds of things that have typically filled my tank (for example, dates with friends). But I’m OK with that. This isn’t the season for me to fill my tank; it’s the season for me to repair the holes in it. I’m playing a long game here.

Hoping that you are finding ways to fill and/or repair yours. Would love to hear about them–or your thoughts about anything connected to this post. Sending wishes for health and peace to all who read here.

Cozy bed in front of a window, through which you can see a snow-covered tree.
(What self-care looks like for me right now: This is the room that used to be my office/project space, but it is now a space to support healthy sleep. Cane slept here when he had Covid this fall, and I go here any time his snoring is keeping me from going back to sleep in the middle of the night.)

*The live cam link can be a bit finicky. For some reason, it works best for me when I access it through the link on the chart. Have no idea why that should make a difference.

14 thoughts on “On tanks, the repairing and filling of them

  1. Marian says:

    I sometimes wonder if things are worse now for teens and in schools (in terms of stress and anxiety) or if the uptick is only (or partly) because we’re now measuring these things and talking about them. Don’t get me wrong—there very well could be (and probably is) an increase in these things due to the general state of the world these days—but I wonder how many of our contemporaries would say they either didn’t have the words to explain what they were feeling or were too scared to speak about what was going on in their lives when they were young. I’m glad that the stigma seems to be lessening, in large part due to teachers like you and Cane, but I can’t help but wish for a future in which we no longer have to say “it’s ok to not be ok”—not because I want to go back to the past where we couldn’t admit we weren’t ok, but because we’ve found a way to ensure we actually all *are* ok.

    “All of that adds up to a full-time job.” Yes. But unfortunately, not enough people see that. (And it runs counter to capitalism, so there’s that too.)

    • Rita says:

      I think it’s absolutely true that our stressors are less hidden than they were when we were young. But when I say that there’s more stress, I’m talking about changes I’ve seen over the course of my lifetime. When I began teaching, the job was much, much different. We had more resources–more time, more materials–and fewer expectations. I think many of the current expectations are great, but we aren’t given the resources to meet them. We have even fewer resources than we did when I started, and they just keep shrinking. Our society (in the US, for sure) is different. We do not have the kind of social safety nets that were once in place, and students now are facing a much more precarious future than they were 30 or 20 years ago. We did not regularly do active shooter drills when I started (and those, I’ve come to think, do more harm than good). On the day Cane and I facilitated our session for teachers to deliver our lesson, the principal was not able to be in our meeting because they were dealing with a person who’d camped out in one of the school entryways and refused to leave. He threw his own feces at them. Later that day, another mentally ill person, who earlier this year threatened them with a weapon, was back on our campus. That kind of stuff no longer feels extraordinary (but it’s still traumatizing). In fact, while sharing a story this week of something that happened at another school–something really pretty awful and concerning–a group of us laughed uproariously at the story. And it’s not that we don’t see or feel that it’s awful, but our laughter is about how absurd it is. I noted that we were laughing and how anyone who isn’t an educator would probably find us monstrous, but we agreed: We laugh not because we’re callous or don’t get that it’s awful, but because it’s part of how we cope, and any other educator would get it.

      I am so with you on what you wish for in the future. And that it will be really hard to do that in our current systems (including a capitalistic economy). I see us, in schools, doing so many things to students to “prepare them for the real world” that just inflict harm. And it’s coming from a place of genuine care; people want students to be able to survive and (hopefully) thrive in the world beyond school, and so they think they have to expect of them what will be expected “out there.” How do we prepare students for an often brutal world without brutalizing them? (I have some answers to that question, but I’ve already written too much here.) I sense that things are changing in important ways. I see it in our current students. They are not buying it the way our generation did; I think it’s because the systems are breaking down, and so they see less to lose by not opting in to them. I no longer feel as sure as I once did about what students need. The change is happening so rapidly and we are at the center of it. I’m sure many things will come clear only in hindsight.

      Sorry. I think I just word-vomited in a way I hoped to avoid. But I’ll let it stand.

      • Marian says:

        There’s no need to say sorry about word-vomiting, Rita. Schools and teachers here are also stretched for resources in ways they previously weren’t, and I’ve heard similarly disturbing stories coming out of our schools too. I’m sorry if I came off as minimizing what you were saying in your post—I only meant to speak to the issue of student mental health, which was something that seemed to fly completely under the radar in the schools I attended.

        • Rita says:

          Oh, no! You did not come off as minimizing, at all. I think student mental health was completely under the radar when we were young. I guess I apologized because I was worried that in all those words, I’m not being clear. I don’t think my thinking is entirely clear yet. There’s so much I know I don’t know. All I really know, right now, is that we need to change. Our understanding of so many things is different than it once was (which is good!), but we keep trying to do school in much the same ways we always have. And none of us understand well what our stresses are doing to us and how they are impacting the ways we respond to each other.

          I always appreciate your perspective, and I’m always glad to hear from you here.

          • Marian says:

            Thank you for this, Rita—I’m relieved to know I didn’t come off as minimizing. I’m not sure you need to be clear about your thinking before you write here. Perhaps just listing off events as you did in your comment to me is powerful enough—there’s something to be said for just laying things out as they are, even when you don’t have solutions.

            “And none of us understand well what our stresses are doing to us and how they are impacting the ways we respond to each other.” Yes, 100% this.

  2. Kate says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I just shared it with V with the recommendation of at going for at least one “bingo” row. They’re definitely feeling the stress and I’ve been looking for ways to help so this came at the perfect time!

    “This isn’t the season for me to fill my tank; it’s the season for me to repair the holes in it.” Reading this set off an internal tuning fork. Such wisdom. And hopefully you see the rewards – so much easier to fill it once you’ve repaired it! (But man is the repair part work.)

    So good to hear from you, as always, Rita.

    • Rita says:

      Thanks, Kate. You made me smile and feel good. I thought about getting all wonky to make it into a bingo board where all rows would require a range of wellness choices, but I ran out of time and Cane told me students would probably like it better if it was random. So, random it is.

      The repair is work. Not gonna lie. Would not have been possible when working full-time for money. When I would say I was retiring early because I needed to for my health, I felt like a bit of a fake. Was it really a health need? Was I making it a bigger deal than it really was? (Was I maybe just being weak?) Um, yes, it was, and no, I wasn’t. The stronger I feel the more I want to shout what I’m learning/understanding from rooftops.

      • Kate says:

        I agree with Cane! Being able to pick something that jumps out/ appeals vs feeling like you should do something to complete your row is a way to keep the stress out of the stress management tool. 😉 It’s a great resource.

        I’m glad you’re able to focus on the repair now. My mom also had to retire early from teaching due to health concerns, and you aren’t the only two teachers I know in that situation. Chronic stress isn’t good for anyone and it seems to be hitting educators extra hard. I’m grateful to you for sharing what you’re learning.

  3. Leilani says:

    Such a sweet room. ♡
    I encountered a similar wheel on Noom of all places in 2020. It was probably my biggest take away because it revealed where my gaps were. “FUN/PLAY” was the biggest one. I didn’t realize the wheel could correlate with physical pain as deep as fibro or poor sleep. I’m glad this tool is helping you! Since i don’t have much interaction with children/teens i can’t speak for them.

    • Rita says:

      I will never forget a back-to-school activity with my colleagues one year, where I was in the front of the room and asked what I did for fun and I drew a total blank. At first it was funny, then awkward, and finally kinda sad. It was one of those wake-up moments for me. We need fun/play! It’s still not something that comes easily/naturally, but I’m working on it. 🙂

  4. Ally Bean says:

    This is a great resource. I like that high school kids get guidance about how to deal with the holidays. I like the wellness wheel, too. Such a simple + profound way to start analyzing what is bothering you. When I was a teenager most of the mental health advice I ever heard was “just ignore it” as if it was my fault for being aware and having feelings.
    Ally Bean recently posted…When Muse Is Feeling Blah, There Are Random Links To Share On A TuesdayMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I don’t remember getting any mental health advice when I was a teen. I remember feeling like there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t happy and had so much to be happy about–so then I felt ashamed for not feeling happy and kept my feelings almost entirely to myself. I think what we were mostly told was to buck up. Later, I realized I’d been depressed, and even later I realized I’d been dealing with anxiety. Teens today are much more knowledgeable/aware than they were in my day! I like the wellness wheel, too. When I’m feeling out of sorts, it helps to think about what I’ve been neglecting.

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