At this point every year, my stress level typically begins to escalate, and I become a little more introspective as I struggle with regaining some balance in my life. I thought it might be useful this time around to try something different. Instead of simply “reacting” to the symptoms of my increased stress, I’ve decided to dig deeper to discover what triggers this feeling every autumn.
What immediately comes to mind are the physical stimuli behind this stress. September and October is a busy time for marathon runners like me. This is the period known as the the “fall running season”, and I like to cram as many races as possible into this racing window. This year I’m doing four marathons in five weeks, so the cumulative wear and tear on my body is wreaking havoc on my emotional well-being.
A further contributing factor to this annual elevation in my stress level is the start of another school year. As a teacher, I mark my calendar based on the school year, so September means heading back to the classroom and putting my head down for the long haul. It’s pointless to whine about this to non-teachers because the typical response is: “What are you complaining about. I wish I got a 2-week break at Christmas and my summers off.” That might be true, but until you’ve stood in front of a class, you have no idea how emotionally draining teaching is. It’s like being a stand-up comic, parent, and guidance counselor all at the same time.
The most persistent cause of my recurring seasonal stress is the impending arrival of Christmas. For most people, this a time for celebration and a time to get together with family and friends. For me, it’s a time when I’m filled with a feeling of mourning because it reminds me of some very unpleasant childhood memories. My most vivid Christmas memory is of the first Christmas after my mom walked out on us. My father sat sullen at the dinner table, and after we had tidied up the dishes, he grabbed the Christmas tree and threw it out onto the lawn. I’ll never forget how lost he looked, and how I could see in eyes that he thought just maybe, fighting to keep sole custody of my sister and me wasn’t worth it anymore. 35 years later, I no longer speak to, or see, my mother and I’ve lost contact with all but one of my brothers and sisters. Despite my wife’s attempts to turn this season around for me, I still find it an incredibly stressful and draining time of the year.
Now that I’ve gotten to the “root” of all this seasonal stress, just how am I supposed to respond to, and work through it? I recently came across a really helpful strategy for coping with stress by wellness coach, Adelma Lilliston. It’s easy to remember because it goes by the acronym, B.R.A.K.E. “Breathe deeply” permits me to step back from the crisis and stress, and gives me the physical grounding to respond from a healthier, more grounded center. “Reset” encourages me to label the emotion for what it really is—fear, shame, judgment, or uncertainty. “Accept yourself and wherever you are right now” reminds me that feelings and emotions are transient, and recognizing that I’m facing vulnerability is, as Brene Brown would say, a sign of courage not weakness. “Kindness” bolsters me and allows me to turn off that critical voice of self-judgement. Finally, “Evaluate your options” puts me back in the driver’s seat. There are very few problems in life that time, advice, and acceptance can’t alleviate.
By adopting the B.R.A.K.E. as a means to work through my seasonal stress, I can live a more wholehearted life grounded in physical, emotional, and spiritual calm. I invite you to consider how incorporating B.R.A.K.E. into your life may lessen your stress and lighten your burden.