Stress Response

For the past few years, I’ve become increasingly aware of how important breathing is. While I know that sounds very obvious, I’m talking about the kind of breathing that helps you regain control of your nervous system when you’ve been put in a fight/flight/freeze situation. When our stress systems are activated, our bodies take over in these amazing ways (my personal favorite is that muscles in the ear constrict so we cannot hear effectively—I try to remember this when either of my kiddos is stressed and seems to not be listening to me), and it can be challenging to figure out how to move through them. Reading and discussing books (like My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem) and attending conferences has solidified the importance of trying to remember to breathe when my sympathetic nervous system is activated, and so it amazes me that I have a hard time actually remembering to do this when I’m in a stressful moment.


In another few weeks, I’ll be presenting at a conference, and the session that I’m collaborating on is one where my co-presenters and I talk about what to do and remember when you’re faced with a student who is having an intense reaction in the classroom. These span the gamut from a total inability to connect to what’s happening to displaying anger. After we ask teachers to reflect on a moment where they experienced this, we ask them to pause and do some box breathing with us (here’s an example). In our presentation, it’s an important way for us to remind ourselves that we aren’t in those moments any longer, so our bodies don’t need to experience that stress in the moment. Even though this content is familiar for me in my daily life, I’m still figuring out how to apply it.

Case in point: At this same conference, I’ll be presenting a second session, this one about power and control in the classroom. During this session, I have to role play a high-control teacher who is pressed for time and needs the right answer (which just means the answer I believe is right) immediately. We practiced this session with a group, and I was “on” for about three minutes. At the end of that time, I was overwhelmed. My heart rate was elevated, I had started to sweat, and my mouth was dry. For the purposes of the session, my acting was effective; our participants thought about how they use power in their classrooms and what kind of dynamic they set up with their choices. But I felt terrible. I didn’t speak again in the practice (which was about 30 more minutes), and it took me about 45 minutes after the end of the session to feel like myself again. I debriefed the session with the other presenters, I talked with a friend, I walked around, and none of it was really helping my body to disengage from the stress that I had experienced by acting very unlike myself for just those three minutes. It wasn’t actually until I spoke with my colleague, Kris, a couple of days later, that I realized this moment put me into fight/flight/freeze mode. Looking back now, it feels odd to me that I didn’t understand how stressed I was, but I was not thinking clearly.


About a week later, I was driving home after daycare drop-off, and my car (with it’s bevy of safety features) quickly started braking, after a sensor must have wrongly picked up a signal that I was about to hit something. My adrenaline rushed (partially because there was a car behind me, and I didn’t want to get rear-ended). I felt my body change and that took me over for about ten seconds, when I thought to myself, I should try to breathe. So, I did. I went through two rounds of box breaths and immediately felt better. I was in my body, I was aware, and I had deescalated myself. That is the first time that in a high-stress situation, I was able to recall that I needed to activate my parasympathetic nervous system. I’ve known for years that I should do this, but I needed all of those exposures and all of those times not doing it to remember.


If you’re a person reading this (and you most assuredly are), here’s me, imploring you, to remember to breathe deeply and mindfully when your body is stressed. It makes a tangible and quick difference. If you’re a teacher, do this with your students. You could try it after they get an assessment back, or before or after a presentation they have to give. Administrators, try this during a difficult staff meeting, and see what happens.


For my part, I’m going to write “BOX BREATHS” on a post-it that I’ll attach to my water bottle for when I’m finished with my part of the session about control. Hopefully, I won’t feel stunned into silence for the next half-hour, but I’ll make sure to report back after the conference.