This stress response is not only limited to times of violence. Major life changes can trigger similar stress reactions in people. This month, for example, I have taken a new job as a president of a high school. I moved to a new city, started new work, and am getting to know an entirely new community. It is an exciting change for me. It is also one that has required me to refocus on self-care. Throughout the years, I have developed the image of self-care as a bike tire. Getting from point A to point B on a bike is easy when the tires are properly inflated. However, if you have low tire pressure, then that same journey from point A to point B can be laborious! You will use a lot of energy and arrive at your destination exhausted.
Self-care is much the same. I have learned that I need to keep my tire “properly inflated” in order to go about my day. Working a new job with new people and situations requires me to be at the top of my game. Given the impact of toxic stress and how easy it is for individuals and organizations to reenact the “there and then” in the “here and now”, I, as a leader, need my tire to be well inflated. With an inflated tire, I am at my best. I am ready to learn, engage, listen, and bring all of my creativity to what is before me.
My ideas about self-care have changed over time. It used to be that self-care was quite episodic in my life. “I need a vacation!” was what I often called self-care. The problem for me was that when I came back from vacation I often needed another vacation two weeks later! What I had been calling “self-care” was in reality shutting down. I was exhausted from going so long with low air pressure in my tires. What I really needed to do, instead of shutting down at those times, was to check in with my brain and recognize how the patterns of stress throughout my life had taught me how to survive but not how to thrive.
Our brains are meant to help us deal with momentary episodes of stress. The brain does a great job of this. However, in the context of ongoing stress and fear this same brain response can be toxic. In the context of ongoing stress, the brain stays on overload, developing deep neural pathways that stay with us for life. These pathways, often characterized as fight, flight, and freeze, are exhausting to live with day to day. Our bodies are not built to be constantly tense, amped up and ready for the next attack. It takes a lot of energy to remain alert. The irony is that the neural pathways we create during ongoing stress are eventually unable to distinguish a stressful context from non-stressful one. In essence, even when threat and adversity have passed, we continue to live as if it hasn’t and we remain on edge. This is our emotional brain on autopilot. There is not much we can do when we are experiencing life from this unregulated perspective.
Developing a self-care plan that actually allows us to be in our rational brain is key to regaining our sense of well-being. We can keep our tire inflated with a self-care plan that is specific, daily, and manageable. For me, this means T.I.P.S.E. It is the name of my self-care plan. It stands for Time, Intrigue, Prayer, Sleep and Exercise. Under each of these categories, I have developed four or five small things I can do on a regular basis. I pick and choose a couple of them to during the day. For instance, under sleep, I have developed the habit of not jumping out of bed immediately in the morning, but rather spending five minutes waking up and breathing. I also make time during the week to intentionally connect with a good friend. This is important, as it is intentional. I have found that life can get so busy that my attention to friendships can become almost accidental.
In addition to my T.I.P.S.E. method, I have developed the habit of deep breathing throughout the day for three minutes. I love this. Recently, I came across alternate nasal breathing, which is another great breathing exercise. This has been wonderful, as I can do this at anytime during the day--and even sometimes unobtrusively in meetings where I find I need to add a little air to my tire!
Overall, I have found T.I.P.S.E. and breathing exercises to be great forms of self-care for helping me keep my tire inflated. In brain speak, what I am really doing is “firing and wiring” new neural pathways that move me towards regulation and away from reenactment (the importing of the “there and then” into the “here and now” of the moment). My self-care practices set me up for less stress through the day, giving me greater access to my creative energy. I am a better colleague to others now, as I am more available to be supportive to myself and those around me. For me, self-care has given me an experience of fullness and a more authentic sense of self. This is an experience of connection with God for me.
As I take up my new job, I have found that each day has brought different challenges. The road has already been varied, from hilly, to rocky, to straightaways, and wonderful scenic routes. I am finding that I don’t choose my roads but I do choose how I show up on them. I am learning that having an inflated tire sure helps me get from point A to point B!
* Learn more about self-care and congregational care practices on the ICTG Training Page. Here, you will find dozens of resources, including the ICTG Congregational Assessment Guide, seminars on becoming trauma-informed, modules, forums, and more!