I'm reading
Shaking off the flies
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Shaking off the flies
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Shaking off the flies
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
30 October 2021

Shaking off the flies

How educators (and all of us) can look after our wellbeing.

Written by Benji Gersh

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Discussed in this Story

A herd of impala peacefully grazes the savanna as a lioness creeps stealthily through the long grass. The camera pans from the crouching lioness over to the impala at the edge of the group. We see a close-up as the impala’s ear rotates. A soft crackle is heard as the lioness contracts. Suddenly, every impala head raises. A frenzied look fills their eyes, and they bound away, leaping and darting as the lioness chases.

The impala are too fast; the lioness gives up and lies panting in the shade. When the impala finally drop their heads to graze again, their backs and legs shake, and flies jump up and land again, only to be shaken off again.

Nature documentaries fascinate me. As do the machinations of trauma. I was sitting in a lecture one day, listening to the “lion chasing impala” story for possibly the hundredth time, when the lecturer asked if anyone noticed the shaking off of flies after the chase. My interest piqued. After the impala’s stress response is triggered by the approaching lioness, their body is flushed with adrenaline and cortisol, priming it to use their muscles at maximum capacity. So when they run, they run as fast as they can. And when they’re finally safe, their body does something with the build-up of hormones. They shake – involuntarily. Shaking flushes the hormones from the body. It is the calming down after; the release of pent-up pressure and the return to a softer, more sustainable state of functioning.

Unlike the impala, we unfortunately, are often encouraged to ignore our natural impulses to shake. We push on and try to keep up. The stress hormones in our bodies build, and with nowhere to go can start to wear us down.

I have seen a lot of self-help advice on the internet. Instagram is awash with pithy statements of self-love and how to deal with stress. A lot of it is surprisingly accurate  and potentially helpful. Yet between the flooding of self-help quotes and advice exists a big gap in its implementation. I observed this gap during my time working in schools and then training school staff in trauma-informed practice, and I wondered why it was so prevalent.

The answer I have come to has informed the creation of Greater Space. Our vision is that every educator should have access to sessions with mental health experts who have lived experience of working in schools. The wonderful people who start working in education tend to do so from a values-based desire to work with young people. So why do those same people experience high rates of mental illness and low rates of job satisfaction?

One part of the answer is that they don’t have access to the support that they clearly need; the same sort of mandatory support that a psychologist or mental health nurse receives in clinical supervision. By acknowledging that educators (and all professionals) are not just workers, they are people whose emotional inner lives and relational view of the world informs their work, we can radically shift the education system.

The insights that they may gain from being provided with a reflective space can be utilised to better serve their clientele. What’s good for the educator is also good for the student. This is the mission we are committed to addressing. Young people who have access to well-regulated, thoughtful and emotionally-secure educators will thrive, as will the educators themselves.

It is through experience providing this space for others that I have come up with two pieces of advice. The obvious advice we all know; the corollary to that advice is one that sometimes gets missed.

— Find someone to talk to.

If impala could talk to someone, they may not have to shake so vigorously. The stressful experiences of work can be processed with the skilful ear of a therapist.

And the parallel and slightly contradictory advice:

—  Process physically, not just cognitively.

Talking sometimes isn’t sufficient and occasionally isn’t even the best course of action. The stress we hold within our bodies can often be effectively processed through movement and breath. If you find yourself parked in front of the TV, or your desk, and stressful thoughts are spinning in your mind, the answer, sometimes, is to get yourself breathless.

Use the body’s internal systems to your advantage. If your brain needs to focus on survival, it is hard for it to also ruminate on problems. Run until you’re breathless, or do push-ups until your arms are screaming for you to stop. Dance around, skip, roll in the grass – anything that puffs you out, gets you completely worked up and then completely calmed down again.

Shaking offers an antidote to numbing and pushing on like everything is fine. It invites us into a space where there is acknowledgement of what we’re feeling, and then provides action to move it through and out of our bodies. With this intentional shaking we become like the impala and the flies. We have allowed ourselves to run from the danger our brain perceives. And from here we can drop our heads to graze again; back in our bodies, a little softer, more receptive, and better equipped to respond to our environment.

 

Benji Gersh is co-director of Greater Space. A service that supports the mental health of educators. As a counsellor and teacher, he is passionate about improving the mental wellbeing of everyone connected to our education system.

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