Probably my favorite thing about Taryl Hansen is the sly way she sandwiches a life-changing sentence in between two anecdotes and then changes the subject. A few Novembers ago, over an Otero Burger in Tubac, she said, “well, it’s like they say: name it to tame it”, and then asked if I was the one who ordered extra pickles.
Turns out this philosophy is a pretty important way to manage stress. Author and psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel explains that the phrase “name it to tame it” refers to the rocky relationship between our feelings and our decision-making.
Siegal says the brain is like a two-story house: emotions exist in the “downstairs brain”, while thinking and planning exist in the “upstairs brain”. The two floors are part of the same house, but they’re separated by a solid floor. When you experience a very strong emotion, like stress, the fire alarms of your downstairs brain go haywire and you naturally think, “I GOTTA GET OUT OF HERE”. The upstairs brain hears the alarms and starts planning what to do next, after the panic has already occurred.
The trick is to teach your upstairs brain to engage sooner. The upstairs brain wants to organize, plan, and understand. So let it. Next time you experience a very strong emotion, pause and name the specific emotion, plus any other emotions that might exist. This tiny action will not only help you understand the situation better, it will flood soothing neurotransmitters to the limbic area of the brain to calm you down.
I bring this up because this morning I read Julian Stanley’s blog which claims November is one of the most stressful months for educators. Then I read an NEA article about how teacher stress is contagious—as in, a teacher’s stress stresses kids out. I was pretty amped up by the time I found this article from The Atlantic that claimed stressed American teachers spend more time in classrooms than their international counterparts. I probably would have continued clicking my way into panic, but I was distracted by 45 minutes of text messages about Thanksgiving and then I realized I had two sets of senior essays to grade….
STRESS! STRESS! FIRE, FIRE, FIRE! DOWNSTAIRS BRAIN SAYS ESCAPE! CLEAR THE EXITS!
The lesson at hand? Sometimes stress is a combination of emotions that are felt before they’re understood. As you manage your seasonal triggers, let that upstairs brain of yours do some observational work. Stand by—for just a minute or two, to breathe the panic away.
And if a breath isn’t break enough, take fifteen minutes to watch Taryl’s TED talk.