Self Care

Below is a chapter from my new book Leading Mindfully For Healthy and Successful Schools available here www.routledge.pub/Leading-Mindfully

This chapter will explore:

  • The notion of a healthy mind platter to support us with a balanced lifestyle
  • The role of rest and down time, reflectionand joy in wellbeing
  • How these can be built into school life
  • A practice to ‘hold yourself’ when things are difficult

I have learnt the hard way that taking responsibility for your own wellbeing is not an optional extra. As leaders, we have moral imperative to look after ourselves. Even if you can get by in the short term on adrenaline or caffeine, this is not an effective long-term strategy. Furthermore, as described in the previous chapter, we resonate interpersonally, so when we are stressed, we ‘leak’. At risk, of labouring the point, it feels important to stress that self-care is a paradox. The better you support yourself, the more able you are to support others. However, this is not the intention in and of itself, you are also just deserving of it!

Moreover, I hope this chapter will serve to illustrate that self-care goes far beyond taking bubble baths- though they can be exceptionally effective after a difficult day, or even at the start if things are that bad. Instead, it speaks to the heart of what it means to live a more mindful life. When we recognise our wholeness and humanity, we accept not only that we are not automatons but that we would not want to be. Teaching is a fundamentally interpersonal endeavour and that is why it is so exhausting but also why it is so rewarding and transformational.

The Healthy Mind Platter

Routines, or rhythms, have a role to play in keeping us healthy. Much like the sound of our heart beats, our daily, weekly or yearly practices keep us in check and make the world a safe and predicable place. They allow us to get into positive habits and achieve things that we could not have done without the structure. We recognise this easily in children. I will explore the role of routine in the classroom in Section Three, but it really is no different for adults.

Siegal describes good mental health as integration. That is the sweet spot between chaos and rigidity (2012). He introduces us to the notion of the Healthy Mind Platter. Riffing on the familiar image of the healthy food plate that reminds us of what we should eat each day, he suggests that there are seven mental activities that it is important to make time for to introduce balance and wellbeing into our days and lives.

His framework for a balanced mental health ‘diet’ is:

  1. Focus time; Closely paying attention
  2. Play time: activities that are spontaneous, playful and creative
  3. Connecting time: joining with other people and with nature
  4. Physical time: Moving the body, aerobically if possible
  5. Time in: reflecting inwardly on sensations, images, feeling and thoughts
  6. Down time: The non- goal directed focus of open attention
  7. Sleep time

(Siegal, 2012, pp. 293-4)

 With this notion of balance in mind, I think it is important to emphasise that the aim of routine is not control and rigidity but in fact greater resilience and flexibility. Routines are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Rhythm is perhaps a more helpful term as it frees us from the connotations of control. With this in mind, I would suggest saying no to dour lifestyles and clean eating and saying yes to moderation and enjoyment of life in balance. Furthermore, what works for one might not work for another, which is why Siegal’s principles are so helpful. We all need to find our ‘Middle Way’.

Rest

Though none of Siegel’s suggestions are rocket science, our busy lifestyles have moved us so far away from this common sense that the reminders to connect, to play, to take down time, to sleep feel very welcome. In a world that drives efficiency and schedules every waking moment, it acknowledges the need for time to be rather than just to do.

For those of us who are hyper organised, it can be hard to give ourselves permission to find the time for this. My tip is to (somewhat paradoxically) schedule it in, ensure a little bit of down time every day.

Watching TV does not really count. Porges (2017) explains why; when we attend to computer monitors, we are “basically recruiting a hypervigilant state that is slightly modified to provide a state of focused sustained attention. This is not a state that supports health, growth, and restoration, nor does it support the social engagement behaviours necessary for successful social interactions”(2017, 235).

Reading, taking a bath (damn I mentioned it), playing games (not computer-based ones), talking with good friends or loved ones are some good examples of non-goal-oriented time. However, all of these can become goal oriented if you let them. It requires a mindset shift. There is nothing to achieve. Meditation can help with this. 

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, author of Tired but Wired (2010), points out that we no longer incorporate switch-off moments into our days. Our society is restless. This leads to a constant desire for us to multi-task means, which that our minds are kept busy, right up until when we go to bed at night. It is no wonder then that so many of us find it difficult to sleep. In a world that valorises efficiency and busyness, recognising the role of down time and sleep feels like a radical act.

Of course, when you rest there are also tangible benefits to yourself and others, including again paradoxically, your efficiency. Sleep integrates learning from the day and consolidates memory. In her fabulous book Why I’m No Longer Talking About Wellbeing (2020) Kat Howard reminds us of the futility of working too late. Most of us do not do our best work at night, nor are we any good to others when we are exhausted. She cites Professor Russell Foster of the University of Oxford who states that when you lack sleep “your ability to make rational decisions fails and you become impulsive…You lack empathy and your social interactions will also be compromised” (2020, 46).

Even if we are tired, it is not always easy to sleep. A routine can really help. Howard suggests that to prepare yourself for sleep you should “set an alarm or reminder 15 minutes before you want to aim to be in bed. Close the laptop down, brush your teeth, have a skincare routine – all of those things that we rush to do at the end of the night can be done with the time that you have allowed yourself” (Howard, 2020, p. 47). I wind myself down like you would a small child, avoiding screens, keeping the noise and lights quiet, not eating too late, having a bath and reading a story (to myself).

Reorienting ourselves towards the importance of sleep and down time requires a shift in perspective. One that accepts we do not always need to be ‘on’, that good things can occur when we rest and turn inward. Katherine May’s (2020) concept of Wintering is an interesting one, I think. She suggests “We must learn to invite the winter in… [and] engage with it mindfully, even to cherish it” (May, 2020, p. 12). Once we start to think of things more in terms of rhythms and cycles, or outward expansions and inner contractions, we begin to see them everywhere and how integral they are to good health. This is obvious in the cycles of the natural world, consider a tree that loses its leaves in the autumn. Those leaves decay and feed both the tree and the rest of the ecosystem. Whilst the tree is almost dormant in the winter, the sap will rise again, ready for the spring. As we too are part of nature, it is important to recognise how our energy functions in a similar way.

The more we attune to our bodies, the more we can understand our own rhythms and cycles, whether they are daily, monthly, yearly, or over a life span. Research indicates that is not just women who have hormonally driven cycles (Diamond, 2004). However, people who menstruate need to be especially attuned to what they can and cannot do at certain times of the month. I have learnt to reframe my menstrual and pre- mensural time, not as a time of weakness but as time in, to stop and reflect. Something that makes me wiser and stronger in the long run. This is of course the way all good growth and learning happens, with outward time to learn and inward time to consolidate. Taking time in will also guide you as to what you need. It allows you to reflect on what tires you and what frees up energy, helping you focus on the things that matter. This is really what it means to lead mindfully.

Reflection

In keeping with the seasonal metaphor, the tools in Chapter Two can be used for an ‘emotional spring clean’. This ‘cleanliness’ can be maintained through a level of (gently) disciplined routine in your life.  Building in regular space for reflection is key. This can be done in several ways. I personally find a brief (no more than 10 minutes) sitting meditation first thing in the morning and last thing at night sets me up well for the day and helps me wind down at night. I also get on well with ‘Morning Pages’, a notion that Julia Cameron (1992) introduces in her now infamous book The Artists Way. She suggests writing three (though I often do two) pages of stream of conscious writing when you wake up in the morning. It is not so much writing, as a form of expression, of clearing away thoughts and worries so you can be more conscious and present in your day.

However, there are numerous other ways to journal that support both reflection and organisation. They do not have to be a free flow of consciousness or a Pinterest worthy bullet journal. It could be making good use of tech by synching up diaries and devices. The important thing is that you find works for you.

A balanced lifestyle

The space that is created through this reflection can then be applied to maintaining simplicity and balance in different areas of your life. Limiting screen time, social media and news consumption in particular, has been important for me. Likewise, reducing alcohol and other substances (sugar and caffeine very much included).

A healthy mind platter should of course be accompanied by healthy diet and active lifestyle. Looking after and respecting your body, looks different for different people. It might mean giving in to treats more often or it might involve introducing more healthy foods and a bit of discipline. What you eat effects your mood but your mood also effects how and what you are able to digest. Exposure to stress leads to alterations of the brain-gut interactions, leading to the development of a broad array of gastrointestinal disorders, including food intolerances (Konturek et al., 2011). I know this from personal experience of being able eat whatever I want on holiday and then suffering terrible IBS in term time.

In my humble opinion, eating plenty of plants that are fresh, local, seasonal, and organic where possible, whilst also making sure you have enough of what you enjoy (if veg does not float your boat) in moderation is the key to a truly balanced diet. There are of course environmental reasons to go more plant based too. More and more studies are indicating how our physical and mental wellbeing are linked to the health of the planet (Hamilton et. al, 2021).

Get outdoors. A large-scale study by Exeter University found that spending at least two hours a week was a crucial threshold for health and wellbeing (Whit et. Al, 2019). The Japanese practice of shinrin yoku, Forest Bathing, is one simple and mindful way with proven benefits. It simply involves observing nature and breathing deeply[1].

Drink plenty of water. I heard Kathrine Birblisingh, Head of Michela Community School, talk about how she only drinks water and herbal tea throughout the school day, avoiding caffeinated drinks. Whatever you think of her political and pedagogical persuasions it is hard to deny that she is clear headed and energised. I try to do the same. At the very least, I make sure water is the first thing I drink in the morning (warm with some lemon is particularly good for the system).

There seems to me no more damning inditement of how unentitled we feel to attend to our body’s most basic needs than Howards research, which indicates that many teachers drank less water at school purposefully to avoid taking time out to go to the toilet (2020, p. 40). I know of too many teachers who get repeated UTIs as a result. She cites a study which says that nearly three-quarters of teachers say their workload is having a serious impact on their physical health (ibid). Chronic back pain is another common issue, as Howard again notes, in most other professions there is an HR department to ensure that you have an ergonomically acceptable desk set up, but in teaching we make do with broken chairs, the sofa in the staff room, shaky monitors and/ or broken laptops. If we continue to shovel food in our months crammed over our computers, or absent mindedly whilst we are on duty and then many of us will continue to suffer from crippling IBS and other digestive issues. And what else can we expect, our bodies need time (and mindfulness) to eat, rest and digest properly. As Howard says “we push a little harder, for a little longer, and can forget that, in doing so, we are sabotaging ourselves a little in the process” (Howard, 2020, p. 45).

How might you realistically build some of this into your busy working life? Again, Howard has some great ideas. She suggests thinking about the daylight you have access to at work. She points to the impact that spending much of your day in environments that lack windows or without access to fresh air might be having on your sleep and physical health. I know some winters, arriving and leaving in the dark I would not see day light until the weekend. Horrific. Find 15 minutes to walk during the working day or just eat lunch outside. There are ways to do this. It can be lovely to eat in the canteen with colleagues and students. It provides an opportunity to be social, to be visible, to build relationships and to be in an environment that is not your office or classroom. But taking quiet time for yourself in amongst the school day is also very valid. Could this be done in a quiet corner of the playground? Or a nearby park? Howard also suggests standing to teach and when sitting, being mindful of your posture. The benefits for you and your students strong and aligned physical stance are manifold. Section Three will consider this further. 

Joy

Finally, to return to Siegal’s platter, it is important to make time to play and have fun. This is not only enjoyable but also good for our wellbeing. In fact, the two are totally interconnected. Wellbeing as become another dreary thing to do. As the inimitable Psychiatrist Dr Clare Short advised a group of sixth form leavers recently “forget about wellbeing, make time for doing what you enjoy” (2021).

Porges (2017) explains the role of reciprocal play in recruiting the social engagement system, which is extremely important for the normal functioning of the body: supporting our enthusiasm; motivation and digestion amongst other things. Play also allows us to try things out in safe way, allowing for more creative responses. On a neurological level our brains are able to try out new firing patterns when we play, increasing our neuroplasticity, literally helping to rewire our brains. Crucially though this play should not be solo, Porges’ research indicates that is solitary play is something different, self-soothing. Whilst it also has an important function, it does not bring the social engagement system online.  A Longitudinal Harvard study by Grant & Glueck[2] is clear, relationships are the most important factor in health.

Relationships

Therefore, who you surround yourself with, at home and at work matters. Is helpful to ask yourself who nourishes you? Where do you feel felt and seen? Who am I able to be play and be myself with?  Establishing support networks and mentors that inspire your growth is key. Remember that number one on Siegal’s list is focus time. Ensuring that we are learning and have a sense of purpose matters for our motivation and wellbeing. In Sections Two and Three, we will consider this in relation to the culture of learning that we might create in the classroom and in the wider school.

However, it is all about balance. It is necessary to have friends who you do not discuss work with and with whom you can explore and nourish different parts of yourself too.  

A Caveat

Now of course none of this is easy to make happen if you are forced to take work home. You are much more likely to reach for the sugar, the caffeine or the alcohol if you have just had an exhausting lesson, day or week. The guidance to ‘park your ego at the door’ or prioritise ‘self care’ can sound insensitive when there is just so much to do. This is particularly apparent in toxic institutions, where fear- the threat of league tables, Ofsted, parental complaints, I could go on…- drive the culture and it often feels like we have no a choice but to work in the way that we do.

One side effect of the secularisation of mindfulness, away from the more religious or communal ethic of Buddhism, is that it has become overly focused on the individual. Whilst I am making the case to start with yourself, I am not suggesting that it is all on you. Nor should we be gung-ho about opening ourselves up, when we are not ready or in environments that are not safe. The ego has a necessary protective function. If you are in a high stakes environment that judges you on your performance, going against the grain in ways that this book will suggest, could make you dangerously vulnerable. I know from my own experience, that trying to change culture, to make it feel safe for others to be honest, creative and to fail, in an environment which was fundamentally not safe for me was impossible.

There are times when what is needed is to do the deep work, changing yourself first, so that you can create a better environment for others. However, there are also times that you just need to get out and find an environment that you are better supported in. Part of leading mindfully is, having the discernment and courage to know which is needed and then act on it. There is no shame in seeking help or moving to a more supportive environment. We cannot change our institutions through individual personal reflection alone, culture is key. That involves other people too.

Ultimately, your own self-care has to be held in a broader culture of care and mindfulness. Otherwise it is more like bailing water out of the lifeboat. The rest of the book is dedicated to exploring how we can approach our leadership and classroom practice in a mindful way. Nonetheless, you are also responsible for your own health. It depends on others but starts with you. Another paradox.

Holding yourself

If or when things get difficult, it can help to have some practices to ‘hold yourself’. The intention of the Introception Practice and the attachment questions in Chapter Two is to support you to develop your knowledge of yourself, both mind and body. What stresses you and how and why you might respond in particular ways. This final practice builds on these and aims to allow you to step into a more authentic form of leadership that is secure and open to others.

It is a practice that can be done initially very intentionally, as a form of psychic protection when you when you are not feeling strong. Over time it can become a habit, both a more natural, or integrated way of being and a resource to draw on in times of stress. It requires taking only a few seconds before you enter the meeting, classroom, assembly or begin a new lesson, to prepare yourself, much like an actor would prepare for going on stage. It has really helped me before difficult conversations or interviews. Think of it as the last bit of planning, you are after all the most valuable lesson resource. In Chapter Nine I will suggest how this might fit in amongst a routine for the students.  It is a very brief practice that can be done before entering the classroom, or a difficult meeting or presentation. It can also be done in moments of difficulty. If you find yourself having a stress response (for example sweating, palpitations, quickened breathing or tensing muscles) or if you find yourself disassociating from your body. Either you can nip to the loo or do a more discreet version of the practice in the room. It is as follows:

‘Holding Yourself’ Practice:

Acknowledge: Do a quick body scan, where are you holding tension? How are you feeling? Notice, non-judgementally any emotions that arise.

Pause: Breathe and be with what arises for a moment.

Release: In whichever way feels good for you. You could try a shakedown: starting with your arms; then your legs and progressing to shaking your whole body. You could do some strong fire breathing (where you emphasise a fast exhale) or you might feel release by rolling your shoulders or rotating your neck. Yawning, sighing, laughter or even a silent scream can effectively release emotions stored in the body too.

Centre: Feel your feet on the floor. Notice your spine from your sacrum to the cranial bones at the back of your neck. Have your hands by side, palms open. Be still and notice where your breath is coming from. Breathe into your belly and lengthen your exhalation. Look around our classroom, be in the now. Smile and enjoy it (it is the best job in the world). Then begin

Summary:

  • To have good mental health requires a ‘balanced diet’ of activities and modes of being
  • Focus time, time to closely pay attention and learn new things is important
  • But so is play time, connecting time (both with other people and with nature), making time to be physically active, taking time in (to reflect and be in your body; non- goal directed down time and sleep time
  • This requires a shift in mindset because the temptation in the profession is to be ‘on’ all time
  • We must prioritise for these things because they matter and because they will enable us to lead in a more strategic and emotionally healthy way

[1] More information about this is available at https://www.forestryengland.uk/blog/forest-bathing

[2] Information available here: https://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org/grantandglueckstudy

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