Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Teach for a Cure?

Has anyone studied the biochemical changes experienced by teachers while they are teaching? I guess it would be difficult to stick wires all over someone's head and body and still reproduce a normal teaching environment (in most cases). I am curious about this, though, because I had a weird experience recently with the effect of teaching on my health.

Not long ago, I was quite ill. I had seen a couple of doctors, had some tests done, and was scheduled for more owing to concerns based on the initial test results. In the meantime, I had to go about my life and work, although I was in some pain and feeling quite weak and shaky.

During one particularly horrible day, a phone consultation with my doctor resulted in her telling me that I should go immediately to an emergency room to get checked out. I said OK, I would.

But first I taught my class.

I was kind of worried about that. How could I do a good job teaching when I felt so awful? How would I be able to speak lucidly for 50 minutes? How could I walk around the classroom as I like to do? How could I even write on the board? But at the same time: How could I miss class?

I don't know what happened, but while I was teaching, I felt fine. I even felt really good; the best I had felt in days. I thought to myself, as I was covering the board with science hieroglyphics, "I am feeling so much better, I don't need to go to the hospital."

Then I finished the class, talked to the students who had questions after class, and went back to my office. I still felt good and decided not to go the hospital.

Then I crashed, and my husband rushed my collapsed self to the ER. It ended up being a very bad week overall.

Aside from the fact that the post-teaching crash was extremely unpleasant, thereby eliminating the possibility of patenting a Teaching Cure for Certain Physical Ailments, it was kind of interesting how I was temporarily able to stave off the pain and weakness by teaching. Of course, I don't really know what the students thought -- perhaps I was saying and doing bizarre things and didn't know it -- but I think the class went well.

Certainly I have had also the opposite happen while teaching, especially if I teach with a severe head cold or sore throat. In those cases, the teaching hour can be excruciating (perhaps for everyone in the room).

I would not teach if I had a serious contagious illness, but in general, it's difficult to cancel a class for a routine ailment or even a more significant affliction if the class is at a critical time (e.g., first week of the term or just before an exam).

Has anyone else felt biochemically/biophysically affected in a good way while teaching a class? Can teaching be a temporary miracle cure for what ails us?

46 comments:

Biochemist said...

With some more information about what was wrong, it might be possible to propose a logical explanation.

Tony said...

It wasn't the teaching itself but the sympathetic activation and adrenalin that helped you.
It is kind of amazing that you're so committed to teaching but next time you should rather listen to your doctor. I mean collapsing after class does NOT sound like a routine ailment to me... And even if it was, exhausting your body like that is definitely not the right long-term answer.

Anonymous said...

I think adrenalin can do a lot... I have a chronic illness, and my first week of lecturing last year (first week ever, not just first for this course) coincided with me being extremely ill, to the point of getting exhausted with very mild physical exertion (needing to lie down if I climbed a few stairs) and not being able to stand up for long. I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to get through the 2 hour class, and had thought of all sorts of back up plans, but in the event I managed absolutely fine and felt much better during the class than either before or after. I often have a similar thing with conference talks: come down with a terrible cold, or have similar problems with my long-term illness. Somehow I manage to give a good talk and even really enjoy doing it, but need to go and collapse in a heap soon afterwards.

Anonymous said...

heartwarming as it may sound for teaching to be the panacea, it may simply be a fight-or-flight response. The human body has amazing abilities to temporarily stave off many kinds of weakness/pain/infirmity when our full energy is engaged in something "critical".

It isn't coincidental that people fall ill immediately *after* a big deadline or other stressful period -- I know I have, quite often :)

Klaas Wynne said...

I think of my lectures as a show at which I have to perform, so I tend to have a big adrenalin rush. That definitely makes worries and pains go away for me.

Anonymous said...

I feel driven at the beginning of a class, and feel completely drained near the end. I always thought it was adrenalin (or maybe endorphin).

Jen said...

I know exactly what you mean. I had heart issues last semester - I thought it was a heart attack, but it just ended up being a very bad case of acid reflux caused in part by my 90-minute/70 mile commute each way to the school where I teach (seat belt pressing against my chest/esophagus). Anyway, after I got to school, I felt awful - nauseous, clammy, racing heart, but I still taught my class. Adrenaline took over, and I felt fine for the 90 minutes I was in class, then proceeded to have a racing heart as soon as I got back to my office. I drove the 70 miles back to my home town, went to the ER, and spent four hours getting checked out. In hindsight, driving that far when worried about the possibility of a heart attack was probably not my brightest decision, but if I had gone to the ER in the town where I teach, my insurance would not have covered the visit. I think for me, my symptoms were exacerbated by worrying so much about them. Teaching forced me to take my mind off my own problems, and instead focus on my students' learning.

Anonymous said...

I think it is adrenalin, the academic equivalent of running away from a grizzly.

I'm really impressed that you (seemingly) were able to maintain your awe-inspiring blogging without a noticeable break. I hope you have recovered.

kelle said...

This happens to me pretty often, not just when I'm teaching. Feeling crappy but *have* to give some talk or have some important meeting. I've always attributed it to adrenaline. I even count on it, telling myself, "it'll be okay, the adrenaline will kick in and it will be fine."

sagitta said...

This often happens to me when I have a headache, even when I have a migraine. I'll go to class feeling miserable and then for the span of teaching my migraine will recede or become less noticeable. And yeah, they came back right after teaching. I think it happens when I feel under the weather though I can't recall as specifically as the headaches. The only times I've canceled class have been when I've lost my voice or when I was coughing so bad that I couldn't do a normal lecture.

Lisa said...

I've had similar things happen while teaching -- and also during ballet performances in high school. I imagine it's just the adrenaline boost from being "on stage", if you will. You do pay for it later.

Anonymous said...

It is the adrenalin response that overrides everything else? I'm 8 months pregnant with twins and have learned that sometimes 2 babies means all the pregnancy symptoms are twice as severe. All-day nausea in my 1st trimester would mysteriously disappear while I taught. Last month I gave a 1 hr lecture and expected that I'd have to sit down for part of it but I felt great the whole time.

Anonymous said...

yes! my morning sickness went away every time I taught. Of course, it came roaring back when I was done with the class.

Doug Natelson said...

Yes I have. Totally unscientifically, I think it's related to the performance "high" that actors get when they're on stage in front of an audience. If you are actually into the material, and you make a connection with the audience, the adrenaline gets going, the blood gets pumping, and you feel pretty good. This is probably also why people feel tired after teaching - your body got all geared up, and that has to catch up with you afterward.

Anonymous said...

I always feel great immediately after teaching a class, as well as during the class itself. I think that it's a stress response or maybe an endorphin release, but don't know the physiology. I also think that my mind is so focused when I'm teaching that I can't process too many other signals. You would think that, after a decade of standing in front of a class, teaching wouldn't be "exciting" to my body anymore, but I always feel good, sometimes absurdly so (e.g., when it's an exceptionally dynamic, interesting class session). On the other hand, I also feel good after I lay down on the floor and meditate for 15 minutes.

I hope you are feeling better now, FSP!

EliRabett said...

There is an adrenalin rush, very similar to what happens during a team athletic contest (you can break, rip and tear a lot of things that only show up after you stop) or a performance (actually, good teaching IS a performance. The downside is how crappy you feel if the lecture sucks).

Sharon said...

Just yesterday I felt achy/feverish walking to class and wondered how I could pull it off. Then I just forgot about it and felt fine during class. I've had this before, too. I haven't seen research on it, but I'm sure it's some kind of adrenaline/cortisol kind of thing.

Heath said...

I am a first year graduate student and I teach 3 freshman biology labs. I feel like teaching is a roller coaster. I am always pretty pumped up while teaching and then afterwards even though I have just been talking and writing I feel really drained. Maybe its because its so new (and a little scary) to me but I definitely get an adrenalin rush while teaching.

Anonymous said...

Generally speaking, I know what you mean. I feel most alive and firing on all cylinders when I'm in front of a class, and I get my best ideas there. Now that I'm retired, I miss teaching most of all.
I've never had a remission like the one you describe, but I've had the opposite. I once collapsed (a "seizure"; forbidden to drive for 6 months; no sequelae) in class and woke up in the ER surrounded by worried-looking people.
This took place the second week of class (on 9/11, in fact) and the result was to bond the class like I've never seen a class bonded before. It was wonderful. On the whole, though, I don't recommend this as a teaching device.

Anonymous said...

I had a heart attack during class, I am thankful for the students that called 911 and took care of me until the ambulance came.

gravitysrainbow said...

I'm no physiologist, but I'd guess adrenaline is your culprit.

GMP said...

I was extremely nauseated while pregnant with my second kid, and would barf incessantly for months. The nausea would only abate during class time -- or, more likely, I would over-ride thinking about it to focus on teaching.

Anonymous said...

I gave a presentation at a conference once where a similar thing happened. I was very, very ill. But it was my first invited talk at a conference, and I didn't want to miss it. I gave it anyway, and although I have absolutely no memory of what I said (or did), I received many compliments on it. I guess I was clear...

FrauTech said...

Maybe it's the fake until you make it thing. Our bodies are pretty good at ignoring pain/sickness when they think they have to for survival (up to a point obviously). And supposedly just smiling and pretending to be in a better mood can actually put you in a better mood.

Anonymous said...

It could be adrenaline - the same physiological adaptation that allows injured athletes to keep playing. Or, that allows an injured mother to get her child out of the car after a car crash.

Rosie Redfield said...

It's not just hat having something critical to attend to distracts me from whatever physical problems I might be experiencing. If I teach when I have a bad cold, my nose stops running for that 50 minutes.

It seems that the mental state of 'I have something very important to do right now' can somehow (temporarily) turn off some of the physiological effectors of illness.

Anonymous said...

I agree that adrenalin is likely to be a major factor. Also just and attention shift can make you feel better. When you're sick or in pain it's hard not to think about and that increases the perception of pain/illness. When you're lecturing it takes that focus away from your feelings and so while you may be as sick you may not experience it as acutely because it is the dominant thought in your head. It's like pinching yourself to distract from the pain of a cut - we can only focus so much.

missphd said...

I agree with the "performance high"/adrenaline theory. I used to play in an orchestra and no matter how much I was sick with coughing and sneezing before a concert, I never coughed or sneezed on stage. Something about the adrenaline or perhaps the concentration seems to temporarily stave off the illness.

Female Science Professor said...

I considered titling the post "Adrenaline Rush", but decided that was too boring.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely! I also always assumed it was an adrenaline rush. I also find that I'm full of energy for the hour or so after class ends, and then I crash.

Alex said...

Talking about physics always makes me happy, no matter what. So, yeah, I'd give a lecture to take my mind off an illness.

Anonymous said...

I agree with everyone attributing your "cure" to adrenaline. In my martial arts training I have hurt myself many times while sparring, but I never know it till 5-10 minutes after I stop. Though I'm surprised it is still so strong for teaching.

I hope you are all better now! Please take care of your body. Academics seem to always forget to take care of their bodies. In fact, unhealthy behaviors are encouraged in my experience. But your body and mind work as a team, not as enemies :)
Maybe Steven Hawking would disagree...

TriPartite Academic said...

This is not quite the same thing, but I am currently being treated for breast cancer and I'm in the chemotherapy stage. Overall, I've had minimal side effects and good energy, but I worried about my ability to teach a 2-hour class, twice a week.

I've had absolutely no trouble. In my case, I think it's part adrenaline rush and part the joy that teaching brings me. Many colleagues, knowing I would be teaching while receiving treatment, urged me to go to the Dean and get him to cancel my class, but I couldn't bear not doing the thing I love most. Frankly, I think not teaching would be making my recovery more difficult.

lauren said...

Oh, it's most definitely adrenalin. The same phenomenon is at play when dancers break an ankle or tear a ligament during a performance and don't even notice until after the curtain comes down.

Anonymous said...

When I feel sick and need to teach I just take a quick shot of vodka (or two) and just let my buzz carry me.

Female Computer Scientist said...

Eek! I hope you feel better soon / are all better now.

It's interesting you bring up this question now, I was just wondering something similar recently while enduring a horrible stomach bug. While lying in bed, I felt miserable and was trying not to throw up. My son was Not Sleeping, so I got up to go tend to him. Amazingly, during the time I was with him, I didn't feel sick one bit. As soon as he was settled and I left his room, I felt incredibly sick again. This cycle happened a few more times.

I like the sympathetic activation / adrenaline theory. :)

Anonymous said...

Like a lot of other commentators, I have noticed that my pregnancy complaints go away during lecture (except the shortness of breath - that one is fun when you are talking to a large room w/o a microphone). But, yes, the exhaustion afterwards from the concentrated effort is often near overwhelming.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I still get an adrenaline rush from teaching, even after 28 years. There is a bit of a crash afterward, though.

I give all my lectures extemporaneously, with no notes. I use "slides" for about 1 lecture out of 30. My preparation before a lecture consists of reviewing the list of topics, but at odd times I find myself thinking about how to present material (when I biking or in the shower, for example).

I've never understood how some people can rehearse their presentations word-for-word without getting terribly bored and boring (though I urge my students to rehearse their presentations, since they are otherwise incoherent).

nicoleandmaggie said...

Yet another example of how I am broken: teaching doesn't seem to give me this adrenaline rush you all speak of. It makes me feel progressively worse throughout the hour, though I apparently fake energy extremely well based on reports from my students. The more the class goes on, the more drained and sucky I feel. Also, I have never unknowingly injured myself in martial arts: I feel it at the time! Maybe something is wrong with my sympathetic nervous system!

Ace said...

I just had to sit down from pain during class. The same pain would normally have me doubled over, whimpering, and possibly passing out. I did choke a little and had to remain seated but did finish class.

Another time back in grad school I had I had a guest lecture in a grad class so I was honored to be asked. I was sick vomiting all morning,. I had to actually pull over and vomit on my way to campus (on the freeway!). I did the lecture fine.

So yes the adrenaline and all that...

Ace said...

PS: I'm pretty sure it's possible to record from a prof during lecture. Rosalyn Picard at MIT lectures with "wearable computing" on trackng her heartrate, GSR etc.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I have had the same experience in my clinic. I feel awful until I start seeing patients, then while hearing about other people's chest pains, belly pains, passing out, etc. I feel great. After clinic I realize I need the Tylenol. I have been spared the irony (to say the least) of having to go directly from clinic to the ED so far at least.

Anonymous said...

In my early grad years, I was a TA for Calculus. I had two consecutive sessions in the same day and each session was 2 hours. I have some chronic problems, and I was pretty sick one day. Still, I began the first session and I was feeling pretty good (yes because of adrenaline:)), then in the second session, the effect of adrenaline diminished. I was feeling bad, but still continued. Then, I just fainted in the class. I can say that it was a horrible experience. After all, students were very afraid/anxious that something serious happened to me. Therefore, I believe that it is always better to leave the class instead of experiencing such thing.

Anonymous said...

LOL:
"I think it is adrenalin, the academic equivalent of running away from a grizzly."

The those of us (high school teachers) who teach every day for a living must be masochists!

It is true that I have also felt the same (flying on adrenaline then really bad at the end of the day) but now I am also a graduate student sitting on classes and even with the most interesting of them, my symptoms (if I am catching cold or have a headache or am merely hungry!) are much WORSE! So : not having the responsibility on your shoulders of teaching a class will likely make you feel worse because of the lack of the adrenaline rush you have teaching a class...

RJ said...

It's the performer's high - having to be alert to all that's going on outside you while progressing the material.

It also leads to the crash - so many teachers spend the first week of their holidays ill and exhausted - literally - the adrenaline has run out.

Anonymous said...

We are not a school of great resources, and every spring/fall, we have to wait for a "switch" from heat->AC and vice versa to be made. Well, this past spring, I had to fill in for a teacher in a classroom that was boiling hot as the AC hadn't been switched on yet. I took off my suit jacket and was sweating away.

One hour into the 1.5 hours, I felt dizzy. I said "screw this... if the school is too cheap to get a really HVAC system, they don't deserve quality teaching." I kindly told the students that I wasn't feeling well because of the heat and ended class. No one was upset.

Passing out for the class isn't worth it!