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By: Nancy Niessen

I thought I knew what Step 5 of Shanker Self-Reg was all about. As I delved into Step 5 more deeply in the Level 2 Facilitator Program, my understanding became fuzzy before becoming clear again. Step 5 is about restoring balance in all five of our domains: biological, emotion, cognitive, social, prosocial. Think about a five-prong teeter totter, a variation on something like this, but with five seats:

When one of my adult children heard about the visual I was looking for, they astutely pointed out to me that a teeter totter is about balance. With 5-seats it wouldn’t be balanced. Perfect! Balancing all five domains so that our tension is released and energy is restored is no easy feat! If we have worked on and understand the Steps before the fifth step, and in particular Step 4: Reflect, Develop Stress Awareness, Step 5 is easier. The fourth Step is not only about developing our awareness and understanding of what stress feels like, but understanding what calm feels like. When we know what calm feels like, we can better understand which activities help us to feel that way and which ones leave us feeling recharged and in that “ahhhh” state.

For example, I love the water. I love to be in it, whether it’s diving off a dock at a lake, swimming in Georgian Bay, playing in the waves, or doing laps in the pool near my home. Swimming is typically one of my restorative activities, as well as a great way to exercise. One day I decided it was time to bump up the number of lengths I was doing and kept increasing my laps by five at a time until I’d added on 25 more laps. But it was a struggle to do so, and I found that while I was happy with my accomplishment, I was also tired. My heart rate and my respiration were elevated and I was physically drained, feeling like I needed to replenish my energy. I did that by just floating and doing what I refer to as “being an otter”, or playing in the water. That was when I came to truly understand Step 5: if we have expended so much energy on an activity that our energy is depleted instead of being refilled, then what we were doing is not restorative. That might sound fairly straightforward, but sometimes we need to experience something to truly understand it. It was the floating and playing that were restorative for me that day, not the laps.

A restorative activity is one that leaves us relaxed and in what I think of as a Zen state. We are neither fixated on goals nor on doing or being more than we are in that moment when we are engaged in a restorative activity. Stuart Shanker talks about true restoration being its own reward. The point of restoring is not about going on to do anything else. It’s not about restoring so that we can achieve something else. The reward of Step 5 is the feeling of being balanced in all the domains and of having our energy replenished. That’s all there is to it. It sounds simple, but it’s pretty profound.

My experience in the pool led me to consider my 95 year old mother. I always thought of gardening as one of her restorative activities. However, she typically pushes herself to the point of exhaustion, ignoring the signals her body is giving her that it needs to rest. So, more often than not, gardening is not a restorative activity for her. It might start out that way, but as she pushes through those brain-body signals that tell her to take a break, gardening begins to drain her energy and increases the tension she is experiencing. The positive stress of working in the garden typically turns negative as a result of stressors in many domains: biological, because she is exhausted, not to mention physical pain she might be feeling from the exertion; emotion, because she is frustrated that she can’t do more; cognitive, as she’s thinking about her plan for the garden and what she’d like to accomplish; social, because she wonders what neighbours and passersby will think if the garden isn’t up to her standard; and prosocial because she immensely dislikes having to ask for help with a garden that is increasingly difficult to maintain.

So what are my mother’s restorative activities? Through talking and observing I’ve figured out a few. One thing that works for her to replenish her energy level is to make a cup of tea and become immersed in a book that has a good story line. She reads non-fiction and more challenging content, but if we are talking about a restorative activity, then the type of book we choose to read can be important. Sometimes a light read or something humorous does the trick.

Another activity that can be restorative for her is jigsaw puzzles. I remember her doing them when I was a young adult and she’s started doing them again. One Christmas I pulled out a puzzle when she seemed restless and unsettled and, sure enough, she gravitated right to the puzzle, especially when her grandkids joined her. That activity reignited her interest in puzzles and now, especially in the cold, winter months when she is house-bound, puzzles are another restorative activity that she engages in. We’ll typically stop at the puzzle table on our way through her house to try to fit some pieces in place. It’s one of the ways we spend time together and even if few words are spoken, the social contact is restorative for her as well.

How do I restore and become balanced in all five domains other than through swimming? How do I get to that “ahhhh” feeling? This is one of the tricky parts about Step 5. What restores me right now might not be what restores me another day. Our needs are fluid and changing, and that’s the beauty of Self-Reg – it takes our changing needs into account and allows for changes and choices. Some of the things I do are small, simple and immediate like Tactical Breathing, sitting quietly watching birds and nature, being outside, having bare feet, cooking, watering the garden or the plants inside, arranging a bouquet of flowers, or strumming my ukelele. Some things require a little more time, effort, and planning, like going to a movie or to my favourite beach and putting my feet in the sand. It’s important to have a variety of activities that we find restorative because we are all different, and because we need different ways of restoring at different times. What works for me might not work for you. And what works for me now might not work for me later.

What’s on your menu of restorative activities?

Nancy Niessen is a retired elementary teacher whose career spanned over three decades. Most of her time was spent in the Early Years and Special Education. During her teaching career, she also instructed ETFO’s Kindergarten Specialist AQ and was part of her local Reggio Study Group. Nancy is proud to be a Cohort 1 graduate of TMC’s Foundations Program and is delighted to be enrolled in Level 2 which allows her to delve even deeper into Self-Reg learning.