Pandemic Neurological Changes Make Us Still Feel Exhausted
Pandemic Neurological Changes Make Us Still Feel Exhausted

At 3:32 a.m., I posted on Facebook that I hadn’t been sleeping well lately. Many people commented, some right after I posted, that they hadn’t either. We went back and forth on why. I mean, the vaccine is here. Many of us have already or will soon be able to be vaccinated against the terrifying virus that has changed our lives for more than a year. So why aren’t we feeling better?

The next day, I wanted to get to the bottom of it. I didn’t want to have to resort to buying some over-the-counter sleeping medicine because that makes me wake up too groggy to function. What got me really curious is that I want to know why I feel almost worse now than how I felt when I was teaching and things were terrifyingly unclear. So, I googled it. What I found surprised me. It’s a thing. There was quite a bit of scientific, research-based information that shows we are feeling worse. One of the best things I found was an episode of a podcast called On Being with Krista Tippett, where she asks psychologist Christine Runyan What’s Happening in Our Nervous Systems?

Turns out, it’s real. Our mind-body connections have changed, and we’re neurologically different than we were before the pandemic.

You should check out the podcast for yourself because it’d be good for you to get yourself outside for a nice leisurely walk breathing in fresh air and, according to Runyan, slowly breathing it out, to feel calmer. Also, the practical nature of the information and advice is worth listening to a couple of times.

Here’s what’s happened to our minds and bodies during the pandemic

Our bodies have an automatic feature that we tend to call fight or flight. You’ve heard it before, and it makes a lot of sense, right? We sense danger, and our bodies react by preparing us for whatever we might need to do next. There’s also a part of that reaction called freeze, where the body is essentially protecting itself by slowing down or, as Runyan puts it, “tucking in.” This freeze part is scary for us because we all have memories of times when we needed to tuck in. For some, these times happened more often; for others, they resulted in depression. When we felt this feeling during the pandemic, we wanted to feel better, and our natural reaction is to hug people we love. But guess what? We couldn’t do that.

Instead of hugging people to feel better during the pandemic, we distracted ourselves…because we had to

According to Pew Research, “The vast majority of Americans (89%) mentioned at least one negative change in their own lives.” Many of us did things to help us feel better since the usual human companionship was the thing keeping us safe. Baking bread and eating too much of it was fun for a while. Distracting ourselves with new series on Amazon Prime and Netflix helped us bide our time and gave us something to talk about in Zoom meetings. Cleaning out our houses and reorganizing our things felt satisfying … until it didn’t. The problem with these activities is that they just gave us more to do. They didn’t help us solve the problem of our needing other human beings. And, as teachers, we know first hand how critically important being together is for human beings. Now that many of us can be together and are moving towards a more normal human experience, how can we start feeling better?

So, now what? We need to learn to rewire our minds and bodies

Apparently, we’ve been in this fight, flight, or freeze mode for so long, we need to help ourselves return to calm. According to  Psychology Today, “mental and emotional healing often follows a nonlinear, recursive path. Some emotional pain never leaves us completely but instead lives on in our bodies and our patterns of relationships. Physical pain and illness add an additional layer to emotional pain.” So it’s not going to be easy, because we’ve been through a lot. But, you really owe it to yourself to work slowly at healing over time. In our jobs as teachers, we’ve been pushing ourselves to the back of our minds so that we could get the work of teaching accomplished. So, you’re going to have to do a bit of digging to see if you can give yourself the kind of time and kindness it’s going to take to get back to feeling better.

It starts by being present–which looks a lot like yoga and meditation

  1. Breathe: Runyan suggests people focus on breath first. Your breath out should be long and purposeful. Go ahead and try it right now. Breathe in, and then breathe out slowly, get it all out.
  2. Root yourself: Instead of letting yourself feel like you need to be ready to run or go, go, go–because quite frankly, teachers tend to feel like that anyway– try to root yourself. Feel your feet touch the floor. Feel your body relax into the chair. Be there and let yourself feel like staying is okay.
  3. Use the power of suggestion: Tell yourself things are going to be okay. Don’t laugh at the suggestion that it might just be that simple. Runyan talks about how just thinking about tasting a lemon can make you salivate, so we know the power of suggestion is very real. Use it.

Continue to send yourself messages of safety through sound and scent

Music and scent can really ground us and help us feel safer. So put on your favorite soothing background music and light a candle. I find roasting a chicken with onions and garlic to be a source of security for me. As soon as that smell is in my house, I breathe more deeply and consciously. What’s the music or smell that helps you feel safe?

You might also need to remind yourself that your body and mind served you (and everyone else) well this past year

Teachers kicked professional butt this year. We really did. The odds were against us emotionally, physically, technologically, and professionally. Many circumstances and people made things harder for us, but we kept kids first. We figured out thousands of ways to do things differently so that kids would know we loved them and so that they would learn this year. Remind yourself that your body and mind did more than you ever thought they could. Go you.

And finally, give yourself permission to be the hand that calms you, or ask for it when you need it

One of the things nurses do, that makes them so special, is to lay their hand on someone’s chest or arm, and pause. This act is so human, so appropriate, and does what no piece of technology can do. We’ve all done it or had it done to us. As teachers, we use this gesture throughout the year whenever children need someone to be present and words aren’t sufficient. Try to find little ways to do this for yourself. Rest your hands on your chest as you fall asleep. And, when you can’t seem to do it for yourself, know that now is the time to ask for it. It’s okay to say, “Hey, do you think you could just sit by me, so I know you’re there?” You’ve got this.

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