With large scale mental health issues on the rise, how do teachers navigate their own worry to help ease the burden on children?
A US social commentator, Emma Bombeck, observed “Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere.”
It is natural to worry when a goal or basic need is threatened. It may be as essential as paying rent, or it may be a plan to complete lesson preparation a day ahead of class, or the goal of connecting with every student within a tutorial. If we realise one of these is impossible (or if two goals clash, for example we lose time contacting a student and can’t complete lesson preparation) we worry. In many, these worries can be overwhelming. They effect our ability to stay calm and present. They can be distracting and cause us to be irritable with those around us.
Worry is not only a mental experience. It is also physical. On some level our body feels uptight. It may be slight tension in our shoulders or neck. We often overlook the physical side of worry as we focus on our thoughts.
So how do we motivate ourselves to get out of the rocking chair? How can staff within school communities’ support one another to stand up?
Step 1: Ensure the system supports you. We need to feel supported by the school executive and we need to understand term priorities. Is it relationships and pre-empting mental health issues? Is it meeting each part of the curriculum? Is it helping students identify gaps in learning from lockdown? Clear direction from above will help you decide where to place effort and let go of lesser priorities.
Step 2: Be willing to seek help. Worry responds to techniques in which you do a short mindfulness about the uncertainty (thereby connecting the dots for you between your mind, body and the unpleasantness of not knowing), and it can be helpful to work through a worry story to ground you. This will map out when different consequences are likely to happen. Worry stories can be completed in the presence of a mentor, a psychologist or a partner. Worked examples tailored for teachers are provided in the Chilled and Considerate Teacher Wellbeing Program.
Step 3: Permit yourself to engage in activities that distract you, after you have anchored yourself using Step 2. Use distraction techniques which lift in your mood or simply help you pass time. Develop awareness of your fallback coping strategies. Are they social or solitary? Community activities promote the release of Oxytocin. Achievement activities facilitate the release of serotonin. Soothing activities create calm (for example watching an escapist screen drama, reading a book or listening to music). Watch out for hours of mindless scrolling on a device as the dopamine hits may be followed by dips which affect mood and leave us desiring more.
Step 4: Supporting our colleagues: One on one discussions are useful. They allow us to lay out our emotions, and once we create some space, we can think through options to solve a dilemma. The key to supporting a colleague who is worrying is to know when to listen quietly, and when to brainstorm options for solving a problem. For the person in the rocking chair, there will be some worries that require the active use of techniques to manage worry (Steps 2 and 3) and others which require solutions (Step 4). When these are differentiated the person can move forward with focus.
Danielle Einstein is a Clinical Psychologist and leading expert in managing uncertainty.
For information about our programs to support schools, teachers and parents to manage worry and promote wellbeing, visit www.covid19chilledandconsiderate.com
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