How Chronic Stress Impacts Our Physical & #MentalHealth (With Coping Strategies)

Stress is any stimulus that requires us to change. Stress isn’t inherently bad or negative, but when it becomes traumatic stress or overwhelming stress is when we encounter problems. Sustained overwhelming stress over a period of time can have a negative effect on the brain and body. In the brain, sustained stress will decrease dendrites in the hippocampus which are connected to memory. The brain can also experience dendritic retraction and synapse loss in the frontal cortex where our supercomputer is housed. These changes lead directly to attention loss and decision-making impairment. Sustained stress increases frontal motor connections and decreases hippocampus ones. Our brain is rewiring itself to fight off danger and run away or to collapse to make sure we don’t get too traumatized by remembering every possible moment should we get injured.

This worked well when we were hunters and gathers and needed to be aware of the dangers all around us. However, our brain doesn’t understand that we don’t always need that in today’s world. Stress is everywhere. These changes can undermine neuroplasticity and our ability for our brain to function properly. 

The body reacts to chronic stress in a similar way. Your nervous system can be thrown into a survival strategy (fight, flight/flee, freeze/collapse) which can increase your heartbeat which raises your blood pressure and prepare your body to run, hide, or fight. Because muscles can be taut from the preparation, injuries and joint pain are more likely from the tension.

Extra glucose production to provide a boost of energy can increase the chance for Type 2 Diabetes. “The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate” can also aggravate existing ulcers and cause a surge in acid production in your stomach (Pietrangelo & Watson, 2018). The immune system, over time, begins to deteriorate, which not only leads to getting sick easier, but also lengthens the time to get better when we do get sick.

Our reproductive systems can be affected as well. Men may find that with chronic, sustained stress, their testosterone levels are affected, which can cause reproductive and desire issues, insomnia, and exhaustion. It can also cause emotional dysregulation including an increased risk of depression, reduced memory and concentration, and decreased motivation and self-confidence (Gotter, 2019). Women can also experience a loss of desire and their menstrual cycles may be affected, which can lead to reproductive issues. Chronic stress may exacerbate menopausal symptoms (Pietrangelo & Watson, 2018).

One of the issues I’ve dealt with for years is the fact that I don’t feel stressed until it hits me with brute force. That is a result of my childhood trauma and the fact that my body handles stress differently because my body is more accustomed to the feeling of it. I don’t get the feeling of an “adrenaline rush” as easily as others, and that’s why many times you’ll find people who thrill seek to be trauma victims. But that adrenaline also doesn’t allow me to feel stress in the same way, so I don’t have the ability to try to react to it, and yet it still causes the same turmoil inside my body. Just something for trauma victims to be cognizant of as you need to be more aware of your body and sensations that indicate high or sustained stress levels.

And you’re thinking, “Awesome. So now what?

The above information is to try to make it clear how truly dangerous sustained stress can be. Especially now, when we are dealing with so many changes and stressors, the chronic stress that people may be experiencing needs to be recognized and dealt before it becomes overwhelming.

Strategies to help fight chronic stress

Mindfulness and meditation
Mindfulness and meditation are a way for your brain to focus on what’s going on in the here and now. It helps with spiraling out of control with thoughts of things that need to be done or future events that haven’t even happened yet. There are a few apps that are free for educators that aid in meditation. The most common ones are Headspace and Calm.

Self-care
Self-care is a way of taking proactive steps against stress. Although nothing will mitigate stress completely (it is the body’s warning system that something is changing), it does help the body be ready. I have written about the four types of self-care that I believe to be important and have a free educator self-care course available for more information.

Set healthy boundaries
Boundary setting helps us let others know what is an acceptable way to treat us both physically and emotionally. When it comes to stress, having established healthy boundaries can help empower you to make decisions based off from those boundaries and what you consider to be okay or not okay. For example, if you set a boundary for the amount of time you are willing to work so you have enough time for your family, having a healthy work boundary will help you say no to extra things that people may try to put on your plate. Boundaries are important to respect when it comes to other people as well. When they are clear and understood, it can reduce frustration between people and even improve efficiency when everyone understands what is acceptable and what is not.

Figure out how you process and communicate during stressful times
I have known for awhile that I process out loud. Knowing this information has helped me in multiple ways both personally and professionally. I am able to tell people, “I need to talk through this” and it helps me tremendously because I am able to get immediate feedback on my thinking. That also means that the people I gravitate toward during times of stress are my friends that also either process out loud (because they understand what I need) or the ones who are great listeners. During times of stress we often don’t have the energy capacity to look around and try to figure out what we need. That’s why knowing this information is vital to alleviate the stress of just knowing what to do when we’re feeling stressed.

Pandemic specific
Unfortunately, the longer that the pandemic lingers, the more likely chronic stress is an issue as we continue to adjust to the new normal. Here are a few tips to help with chronic stress during the pandemic:

  • Set work hours and take sick days (boundaries) – As a Technology Director it was a common misconception that I was available all the time because I was “always on” technology. It was not uncommon for me to get texts or emails late at night expecting to be answered immediately. In some cases, I’ve seen teaching morph into this during the pandemic as well. Even though you can be online doesn’t mean you should be. Set working hours. Set your email to automatically respond that you will return the following day during your work hours. Also, find out what your district’s current policy is for sick days and if you would take a sick day during the year, you should be able to take a sick day during virtual work as well.
  • In cases of overwhelm, start small. When I recently became overwhelmed I started struggling to get anything done. I started making myself a small list, and at one point it was four things: Start drinking water at noon (versus the massive amounts of coffee I was drinking), eat one healthy meal, go for a walk, and one work piece that I had to get done. Did I fall a little behind? Yep. But some things also started to fall off my plate that didn’t need to be done and I had taken them on anyway. Eventually, I was able to build myself back up to a normal work day and I had also managed to implement new habits.

Chronic stress isn’t something to be taken lightly, and the first step in fighting it is understand ourselves and how we think and feel. Developing a high emotional intelligence and true reflective skills are a huge part of preparing ourselves for times of inevitable stress. Sometimes that means taking care of it ourselves, but that can also mean going and seeking out professional help. Either way, to know our limits are going to be the first step in dealing with chronic stress.

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

I am not a doctor. Claims in this blog have been researched and double checked by a doctor, but please check with your own physician if you have specific concerns.

Another Reason to Pay Attention to Our Mental Health: The Kids Are Watching

One of the areas on my body that I am the most self-conscious of are my knees. I hate the way they look. I know, it’s weird. I have always called them my “fat” knees and have avoided shorts for as long as I can remember. One day when my daughter was a pre-teen, she came out of her bedroom with shorts on and said, “Mom, do these shorts make my knees look fat?” I looked at her size 2 body and said, “What?” She said, “My knees, do they look fat?” I was shocked. It wasn’t like the quintessential does-my-butt-look-big question that she could have picked up anywhere. She was specifically asking about her knees. She had been paying attention. I complained about my knees. She started to worry about hers.

There are many reasons to pay attention to our mental health: to keep our cup filled so we can be healthy for others, to be healthy for ourselves, and live our best life. Taking care of our mental health will help us reach a higher level of happiness and have less stress. However, if those are not good enough reasons, we should be taking care of our mental health because our younger generation, whether it’s our own children or our students, are watching. We have the opportunity to raise generations of kids that are gratuitous, mindful, and mentally healthy. We can influence their mindset about self-care and emotional intelligence and forgiveness, understand how kindness impacts both their brains and bodies and also the brains and bodies of others. We have the ability to impact how they feel about mental health and how accepting they are of mental health issues by educating them and de-stigmatizing the topic. If you think that learning about mental health or mental health issues aren’t for you, then do it for them.

When my eldest son reached college he reached out to me at one point because the generalized anxiety that he had in high school had morphed into what seemed to be a test/performance anxiety that was impacting his grades. A successful student in high school without much effort, he had gone to college with little to no study habits and it had shown, which resulted in him fearing tests and his anxiety convincing him he just couldn’t do it. He called me and said, “Mom, my anxiety has been so bad and this is what has been happening. What can I do?” He did this because in our house I spoke about my anxiety in the context of having strategies for coping and it wasn’t something to be ashamed of. I modeled being open, and although having anxiety is nothing to be proud of, the work that goes into healing (which can be ongoing) and the ability to find strategies that work and allow you to thrive in spite of the anxiety IS something to be proud of.

We know as teachers that students watch everything we do. If you’re a parent, you have most certainly seen your kids mimic you at some point. Usually, when they do it’s at the most inopportune times and potentially something you would not want them mimicking – like the disgust they feel about their knees. However, we also have the opportunity to model for them the behaviors and attitudes that will support their own mental health and de-stigmatize mental health for younger generations.

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

Defining Mindfulness and How It Relates to Mental Health

When I was a Director of Innovation and Technology, I was speaking to one of our teachers about mental health when she said, “I want to try mindfulness with my kids. I really do. It really does interest me. The problem is that I feel like I keep being told to try it but nobody has really discussed what it is or what activities I could do with my kids in order to practice it correctly. I literally have no idea what to do.” As I work with different districts around the country, I hear similar complaints when it comes to just about anything mental health or mindfulness related…we want to, we just don’t know how. And part of the issue is that many times people don’t even really understand what mindfulness is.

What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is more than quieting your mind. It’s more than meditating. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as, “an awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” He goes on to say, “And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom” (as cited in Defining Mindfulness, 2017). Perhaps my favorite part of that definition is the use of the term “non-judgmentally” as it’s not often that we allow ourselves to think or feel without judging if it’s right or wrong, painful or not. It is an exercise in acceptance of ourselves and who we are in that moment.

There are two major elements of mindfulness: awareness and attention. Awareness is a broader sense of what’s occurring in your inner and outer experiences. In other words, what is going on in your environment and what is going on inside your body including your thoughts and emotions.  Being aware of emotions and thoughts can have a dramatic impact on shifting them towards being more positive. Attention is channeling your focus onto a particular object or idea and then holding your attention in place for a specific period of time. Meditations are made to do this.

Practicing mindfulness calms down your sympathetic nervous system, so you are less likely to be thrown into a survival strategy (flight/flee, freeze/collapse, or fight). It has been shown to have a positive effect on depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Studies have also found that it activates the brain regions involved in emotional regulation and can lead to changes in body awareness and fear, making it less likely to react to triggers (Van Der Kolk, 2015). Also, because mindfulness keeps us in the moment, we are less likely to ruminate about failures, obsess about mistakes, fear the future, and become overwhelmed emotionally, therefore increasing our resilience and ability to cope with adversity.

Three Potential Ways to Practice Mindfulness:

Mindful Intentions

Setting an intention activates your internal guidance system. Setting an intention involves knowing who you want to be and then setting a goal to get there. An intention can be chosen depending on a situation or goal. For example, if communication with a partner is an issue, an intention might be, “I will communicate and listen to my partner without judgment.” Then, throughout the day running any communication through that lens based on the intention and asking, “Am I showing up in this way right now?” If the answer is no, then you know there needs to be a change. Many times we have goals that we are working towards. Setting an intention is like setting micro-goals to help you get there. It is action-orientated. Instead of wishing and hoping that things change or the future gets better, you’re making it happen. In the absence of setting intentions, people will continue to operate in the same way.

Gratitude Stones

Gratitude stones are simply a trigger, used in a positive way, to remind us to show gratitude. Gratitude stones are literally stones that you put into your pocket. Every time you reach into your pocket you will feel the stone, and the idea is to think of something you’re grateful for during that time. It’s even better if you have the opportunity to write it down. 

While I think that the use of an actual stone is intriguing (I imagine a super shiny and smooth one like I used to make in my rock tumbler as a kid), I rarely reach into my pockets. For me, putting a reminder on my lock screen so I see it whenever I pick up my phone is more effective. 

Arts Therapy

Coloring has its place in the practice of mindfulness. Find a picture that has an intricate pattern. A Mandala has a spiritual meaning, but it’s the intricacy that is useful for this technique. Any image similar to that will do. The process should take about 10-20 minutes and should be meditative; your focus should be drawn to what you are doing. I have personally seen this practice work with students nearly immediately. Many times I get asked about the instructional time lost to coloring…but they would lose more instructional time being removed for negative behaviors from the classroom, so it still seems like a solid strategy to me.

One of the reasons I love mindfulness so much is because of the focus on the present and withholding judgements. For myself, I have seen a noticeable difference in some of my anxiety and any lingering negativity when I spent more time in the moment and less time trying to anticipate what was going to happen next. Mindfulness doesn’t need to be difficult, but many times it does need to be defined for people if we expect them to utilize it for their own mental health and for that of their students.

This blog post is one of a series on Mental Health Awareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

Four of Many Reasons We Need To Talk About Mental Health Issues

A few years ago when I started openly discussing my own mental health issues, it was out of complete irritation that I felt like I needed to only talk about it in hushed tones to people that I really trusted. Dealing with my mental health issues made me feel less than, but the social stigma that accompanied them made me feel even worse, and at that time I didn’t need any help feeling bad about myself. I was tired of people dumbing down the impact of my anxiety to “just being nervous” or my depression to “just being sad” and implicitly or explicitly telling me to get over it. This was all difficult enough to deal with as a human, and when you added in the fact that I was an educator, it felt like it multiplied the necessity for secrecy by a million.

Or at least I thought. Until I started talking about it and others like me who were lurking in the shadows started whispering same here. That’s when I knew we needed to talk about it more, and here are five of the many, many reasons why.

You’re Not Alone
For me, one of the hallmarks of my mental health issues is to feel like I am all alone in whatever adversity I’m facing or in my feelings toward myself and others. That aloneness led me to believe that nobody understood me, and if I wasn’t careful I would wallow in that feeling. However, since making it my mission to talk about mental health issues more, I have said things like, “I have gone through my day with a smile on my face and gone back to my office at the end and cried because of the effort and sheer exhaustion I felt from acting normal when all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and not get out” and I have had people say to me, “Oh my gosh. Me, too.” And inevitably someone says, “I always feel like I’m the only one who feels this way. Everyone else seems so happy.” But, they’re not alone. My counselor told me once that if I was in a mall and all the people with anxiety had yellow shirts and all the people with depression had red shirts and all the mentally healthy people had white, there would be almost no white shirts. And that doesn’t take into account the multitude of other mental health issues. It baffles me how we can be so quick to judge an issues that are so prevalent.

One of the reasons I believe that people can feel alone even if they know that others may have the same mental health issue is because the way that we cope with symptoms or the way that symptoms present themselves may be different. For example, although I get on with my days, some people may need to spend time in bed during severe depression episodes. I have anxiety which can manifest itself in many different ways. Sometimes it is combined with fear and makes me not want to move forward. Sometimes it is an all-out panic attack where I shake and feel like I can’t stand or I black out or I feel like I’m going to pass out and sometimes I do, and sometimes there could be a trigger that just happened or it could have been from the day before and then there could be five different coping mechanisms that I need to try before it subsides. And all of that can happen in five minutes or eight hours. After each episode, I need to be willing and able to reflect and process on what just made the anxiety happen so I can better deal with it in the future. Constant reflection and adjustment. And because of that, because it feels sometimes that it is fluid, it’s difficult to ever feel on the same page as anyone else. But when I talk about it, there is always at least one other person who understands.

Destigmatization
One of the reasons I felt like I couldn’t talk about it was because of the way that having a mental health issue is going to be viewed by some people, especially since I work in education. I once gave a session on educator mental health to a group of community members. Afterwards, one of the gentlemen came up to me and told me he was very uncomfortable with me using the term mental health issues. And herein lies the problem. We are ok with discussing diabetes or a broken limb or kidney stones, but when we are struggling with mental health issues it still feels uncomfortable to other people. But, this is exactly why it’s important to continue the discussion and educate people on what constitutes mental health and mental health issues and the impact it can have on a person’s day-to-day that nobody else may be able to see.

Misunderstandings and Misinformation
In the area of mental health and mental illness the field of study is relatively new in comparison to many other fields of medical study, and there are still people who remember when we would put mentally ill patients into mental hospitals to keep them away from others. Because the field is so young, relatively speaking, there are still a lot of questions as to how things work (or don’t) and why people feel the way they do. We don’t really know, for example, why some people live with depression and some people get so depressed they take their lives. We don’t know why a child in a home who is abused may go forward abusing their own children while their sibling breaks the cycle and does not. We can’t predict why something is a trauma for one person but the same situation is not for another. There are still so many unknowns for science, it’s difficult for the general public to have the information. In the case of mental health issues misinformation can fuel the stigma and can contribute to people with mental health issues to feel alone and ostracized. Keeping ourselves educated and then educating others with what we DO know is the number one way we are going to help destigmatize mental health issues and clear up potential misunderstandings.

Responsibility
We all have a responsibility to have a general idea of what to look for in someone who may be experiencing mental health issues. Even during the pandemic there have been multiple commercials reminding us to check on others and make sure that they are safe. I believe we can be stronger as a community when we recognize and support each other.

However, as a person with mental health issues I am also responsible for myself. I may not be the one who caused my trauma, but I am responsible for the healing. I am worthy of healing. And part of that is understanding my own issues and how I can cope and move forward. It is recognizing when I need to reach out to people I trust for help and not sit back and wallow in the fact that they may not be reaching out to me. It is my responsibility to get help when I recognize I need it. I have come far enough in my healing to accept that only I know how I truly feel and therefore I hold responsibility for asking for help.

When we discuss mental health issues and work to educate people and destigmatize it, it allows people dealing with the issues more capacity mentally to deal with healing instead of constantly wondering if they are going to be judged for whatever it is they’re going through. If we are willing to talk about it we may be willing to support it, and that may lead to someone choosing to reach out for the help they need.

This blog post is one of a series on Mental Health Awareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here.

How Does Gratitude Improve Mental Health?

Gratitude is one of those feel-good concepts that people are just beginning to pay attention to as a way to be more positive and mindful, but I’m not sure many people fully understand the profound impact that gratitude can have on the brain and body.

Gratitude is the “quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness” (Dictionary.com). It can be shown externally and internally. Externally, gratitude can be shown by appreciating other people and what they bring to your life and telling them. It can be shown for the material things you have and the opportunities that you work for or are given. Internally, gratitude can be felt for the qualities that you possess and who you are as a person or that you have a healthy body and mind.

It needs to be felt with authenticity and realness, and should not be practiced in relation to what someone else doesn’t have. For example, it’s important to think, “I am so thankful that I have a house to live in” instead of “I am so thankful that I have a house to live in because I know that some people don’t.” If you think the latter, you may not feel as thankful if you see someone else has something better than you. Maybe TWO houses or a bigger one. Gratitude is about you and being appreciative of the things in your life. Not about what someone else has or doesn’t have.

Gratitude and the Brain
Our brains will do whatever it is we tell them to do most. One of the brain’s goals is to be as efficient as possible. It wants to save energy. So it creates connections to the things we do most in order to do them more automatically. That’s why the first time we do something we may be slow at it, but the more we practice it becomes more “natural”. The more we practice, the more connections our brain is making, and the longer we do it, the stronger the connections are. However, our brains have this amazing ability to rewire themselves – a process called neuroplasticity.

Our brains (different than our minds) have no moral compass. And because of this, if we are negative all the time or don’t appreciate the world around us, it will continue to make connections that perpetuate that kind of thinking. However, because of neuroplasticity, if we practice more positive types of thinking like gratitude, our brains can rewire to perpetuate that kind of thinking instead. Our brains cannot think of both negative and positive things at the same time, so which would you rather choose? It can take work and determination, especially if the connections are strong, but practice can make thinking in a more appreciative way your brain’s go to pathway.

Practicing gratitude can help regulate the stress hormone cortisol and increase the release of hormones attributed to feeling happy. Also, because it helps regulate hormones and the autonomic nervous system, it can also reduce anxiety and depression. The article The Neuroscience of Gratitude (Chowdhury, 2020) says that studies have shown gratitude to have these #mentalhealth benefits:

  • Gratitude practices reduce cardiac diseases, inflammations, and neurodegeneration significantly
  • Daily journaling and gratitude jars can help individuals fighting with depression, anxiety, and burnout
  • Writing gratitude letters brings hope and evokes positivity in suicidal patients and those fighting terminal diseases
  • Gratitude improves the sleep-wake cycle and enhances mood. It helps people with insomnia, substance abuse, and eating disorders.

Ways to Practice Gratitude
Gratitude journals are a popular way to practice gratitude because if forces the person to be intentional about who and what they are being appreciative about. Two tips for keeping a gratitude journal are:

  1. Withhold judgement over what you are writing down. Just write what you are thankful for. There are no wrong answers, so don’t try to make what you are doing negative (that defeats the purpose).
  2. Develop a habit by writing in the gratitude journal consistently. Maybe keep it by your bed to write at night or in the morning when you wake up. Developing a habit is where neuroplasticity is at work as well, so remember what you do the most is what your brain will want to continue to do. Help it out by keeping your journal in a handy spot and writing every day.

But, there are more ways to practice gratitude than writing in a journal. Any time you are truly appreciative you are practicing gratitude.

  • Tell others why you appreciate them and what they bring to the table, especially if it is something you normally take for granted
  • Be grateful for the dinner you are eating
  • Take time to appreciate nature during your walk
  • Be thankful for your work or opportunities
  • Make a gratitude collage – pictures of things you are grateful for or a gratitude kit where you fill it with trinkets that remind you of experiences you are grateful for
  • Don’t forget to be thankful for all of you, too. You can both be grateful for who you are and want to continue to want to grow or improve. They are not mutually exclusive.

Practicing gratitude can have more of a profound impact on the way we think and our mental health than we might even realize. There is a level of intentionality behind practicing it and it forces you to live in the moment as you’re feeling appreciative (a mindfulness technique). Try practicing gratitude daily for 30 days and see the difference it makes in the way you think. You may be surprised the impact it has on the way it changes the way you think and feel.

This is one blog post from a series on #mentalhealthawareness for May. Please sign up for my blog to receive the rest or find them here.

#MentalHealthAwarenessMonth and Defining Mental Health, Issues, and #SEL

A few weeks ago I was on a panel for mental health for #DigCitTO and about half-way through, one of the student panelists brought us back to basics. She said, “I just want to say that mental health and mental (health issues) are different. Everyone has mental health.” It reminded me of how we so often speak about this stuff and throw out these words, but I’m never confident that everyone is on the same page. This month, for Mental Health Awareness, I’m going to be moving from my once-a-week blog posts to one about every other day to address some common mental health and mental health issue topics. If you’d like to receive all of these posts to your email, please sign up for my blog.

My go-to whenever I start something new is to make sure that we have a common language around what we are discussing so we can be sure that when I refer to a topic, we all have a baseline of what it is. Right now, I’d like to define three common terms that I’ve seen used interchangeably that are actually very different: mental health, mental health issues, and social-emotional learning.

Mental Health
According to the WHO, mental health is defined as, “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Everyone has mental health. To address your mental health through self-care or mindfulness is the equivalent of addressing your physical health through diet and exercise. If you don’t take care of your physical health your body may start to fail to work as it’s meant to. The same happens with mental health which can lead to poor mental health or mental health issues.

Mental Health Issues
The term mental health issue has come about as a way to be more sensitive to those who struggle with them, but technically they are synonymous to mental illness, mental health disorders, or mental health conditions. They “affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors” (Mayo Clinic). Mental health issues can be developed from extreme, prolonged stress or trauma, but they can also be hereditary. In fact, having a family member with a mental health issue is the largest risk factor, although some argue that this is not only because of genes but also includes the repeated exposure (stress of living with, taking care of someone) to the mental health issue.

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
According to CASEL (my favorite SEL organization for amazing information), social-emotional learning is defined as “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” I often see SEL used synonymously with mental health and it is not the same although they may have a symbiotic relationship. I also see SEL used synonymously with student engagement. SEL and student engagement are not the same thing. Although there may be a small piece of engagement in SEL, to define SEL as engagement is largely ignoring the most important pieces of what it actually is. By focusing on social-emotional learning and helping students and adults understand their emotions, make positive, responsible decisions and focus on positive relationships, we are giving them the tools to make decisions and react in a way that will support their mental health.

We are in a place right now where we are willing to talk about social-emotional learning. We are a little resistant to speak about mental health, but we will do it. Mental health issues or illness feels like it’s still off the table. Defining what we are discussing is the first step to understanding what we are really talking about and de-stigmatizing mental health issues.

How a Pandemic Can Change the Way We Feel About Teaching (With tips for coping)

I have been passionately speaking about educator engagement and how connected they feel to their professions for several years, and I also address it extensively in my upcoming book, Reignite the Flames. The impact of educator engagement can be significant, and we could discuss how it affects climate and culture, innovative and divergent thinking, or even student achievement. However, for me, when I disengaged my decision to re-engage had its roots in a very basic human need: to be happy.

But those were normal times. And we aren’t in normal times right now.

Right now, during the pandemic, the goal is coping. Anything beyond that would be extra. And my fear is that along with all of the other impacts we will see from the pandemic, we will also see a sharp decline in educator engagement. People either emotionally or physically leaving the profession at record rates as the uncertainty and educational triage (coined by Philip Pulley) continues.

The first step to being able to cope or heal is to be able to name what is happening. Engagement and disengagement are on a continuum. A slide in disengagement is natural right now as we struggle through the variety of challenges that have been set before us. However, in knowing what and how it can happen we can begin to develop strategies so we don’t fall too far. Below are the five causes of disengagement and how they relate to the pandemic:

Personal adversity Personal adversity is defined as struggles that are a result of something that happens in your personal life. During the pandemic, there are multiple reasons that you may pull away from your profession because you simply don’t have the bandwidth to devote your energies to all areas of your life at once. Right now, there could be concerns about sick loved ones or family members that have passed away. Even the fear of getting the virus can be overwhelming for some people. Personal adversity can also categorize situations where there is a volatile home life. The consumption of alcohol may increase as well as the likelihood of abuse. For some people, educators and students alike, school was a safe haven from these situations and they may no longer have a place to hide.

Tip: Be sure to practice some sort of self-care, even though it may be difficult to fit it in. Do something you enjoy and take time to recharge even if you can only fit it in for five or ten minutes at a time. Find a free educator self-care course here. Of course, if you are in an abusive situation, please seek help immediately.

Professional adversity Professional adversity is defined as the struggles that happen that are in direct relation to our jobs. The move to online learning may be an example of professional adversity for many people, and the lower the comfort level with technology the more anxiety may be felt. Also, the complete uncertainty of not knowing when we are going back, what that will look like, having little control over what our students are accomplishing, and the dichotomy between what/how we know we should be teaching and what/how we are teaching are all concerns that could increase professional adversity.

Tip: Focus on what you do have control over. These are extraordinary times and circumstances. Assume everyone, including students, are doing the best they can.

Burnout With an increase in the number of hours that it takes to learn a new platform, learning a new way to teach, and the potential newness of being “always online” and available, some teachers are reporting working more hours than ever. Couple that with the possible responsibilities of child-rearing, providing learning opportunities for your own children, taking care of pets, or even having extended family members staying for the pandemic, burnout is a very real issue right now. Even being isolated can be exhausting. We are not made to try to juggle everything we are juggling right now.

Tip: Create “work hours” and stick to them. Any communication after 4pm, for example, gets answered the following day. Remove notifications.

Demoralization Most educators got into education with a moral obligation to make a difference in another person’s life and to create change. When something happens: politically, within the district, within the school, or a virus that is keeping everyone at home and any of these things make you question your efficacy, it can cause demoralization. The general way to begin healing from demoralization is to try to find your identity as an educator again. However, in these times, it may be developing your identity as an online educator. Demoralization can accompany burnout but is often overlooked as a reason and unfortunately, healing from demoralization is different than healing from burnout.

Tip: Spend time focusing on passion areas. Reflect on how your identity as an educator has morphed during the pandemic. What areas can you still feel passionate about?

Secondary traumatic stress Secondary traumatic stress, or compassion fatigue, is when you work in a profession where you may hear about other’s traumas and be impacted by their stories and struggles. You may develop the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or trigger PTSD that you may already have. It can be more common for people who are particularly empathetic. Right now, we have spent part of a year with our students and know the struggles they may have at home. Now, we sit in our own homes and wonder how they are, if they are eating, or if they are safe. I have spoken to teachers who have students they haven’t heard from in weeks. This can all be a catalyst for developing secondary traumatic stress.

Tip: Compartmentalize. This is so difficult during these times, but learning to compartmentalize what your students are going through will keep you healthier in order to help them. Continue to reach out to them and offer your support, but understand ultimately that the only real thing you have control over right now is your own health.

Teacher Trauma Teacher trauma, in this case, can span several different types of struggles. I would say that there is a potential to experience teacher trauma if you had a sudden transition to online learning without a chance to say good-bye to your students. There could also be teacher trauma if you have had a student or co-worker pass away from the virus. Being in the times we are in, there is a chance that your grieving may be delayed as the reality doesn’t set in because you are not seeing these people every day and it’s difficult to comprehend. Even grief for the state that we are in right now may be significant.

Tip: My counselor says you need to “feel to heal” and step into the emotion. Recognize when you may be in a cycle of grief and actively work through it. Understand that it may be ongoing and reappear when we begin to enter our buildings again eventually.

My hope with this blog is two-fold. First, I hope that the information is a catalyst for addressing any disengagement that you may be feeling. Second, I hope that school districts choose to recognize the struggles, anxiety, and grief that people may be feeling and address it not only now, but understand that it will continue well into the school year when we get back to our brick and mortar settings. Whichever of these you are feeling, whatever you teach, and wherever you live, you are not alone.

Four Ways You “Should” Give Yourself Grace

It can be a bit overwhelming with all the “you shoulds” right now.

You should be working online, offline, harder, smarter, on technology, not on technology.

You should be connecting with parents, students, your teaching partners, teachers who know about technology and those that don’t, teachers who might be struggling, your professional learning network, lonely friends and family.

You should find time to disconnect.

You should work harder but don’t work too hard in case you burn out. You should make sure all the work still gets done though, regardless.

You should be positive.

You should practice self-care, gratitude, self-compassion. You should practice empathy for your students but not too much. You should understand what is within your control and let the rest go.

You should stick to a routine because that’s what’s best for everyone. You should be ok if the routine doesn’t get followed, even though it’s what’s best.

You should. You should. You should.

While so many of these statements are true, I find that the more I should be doing something, the more guilt I feel when I’m not doing it. With all of the things I should be doing right now, I’ve also discovered several ways I need to give myself grace when the “I should be doing…” turns into “I’m struggling to…”

Overwhelm
Being overwhelmed can show up with more symptoms than just the acute feeling of freaking out, although that can happen as well. Someone who is overwhelmed can procrastinate, avoid people, feel a lack of motivation, break their normal sleeping and eating patterns (particularly if they are a stress eater), and become easily angry or frustrated with things they may not have before. Pre-pandemic, my to-do list was a source of overwhelm, however, since the pandemic it’s not only my work that causes these feelings. It is the overall way that our life has shifted, the constant flood of information (especially since much of it is contradictory), and how I “should” be doing things that I am not.

When I get overwhelmed and find myself sitting on the couch staring into nothingness avoiding writing a blog post, I first try to let go of the guilt I feel for not getting everything done that I could possibly do. Then, I look at one thing I could get done on my to-do list. My deal with myself is that if I can check one piece off I can take a legitimate break and feel good about getting one piece done. It usually works for me and sometimes, once I get into doing the one task I feel the accomplishment with checking it off and I find a bit more motivation to get something else done.

Forgiveness
I have often spoken about my views on forgiveness of others but the additional time that I have had alone with my thoughts has made me keenly aware of areas that I need to forgive myself and my shortcomings as well. I’ve had to reflect on mistakes I’ve made and areas where I’ve failed, and let go of the guilt of letting people down or not being my best. Time wasted in being disappointed in myself is time that I could be improving myself, and the first step is forgiving myself when I believe I could have done better and realizing punishing myself won’t help anyone.

Also, forgiveness needs to come in the form of understanding that we are all doing the best we can do at any given time. If I need to take some time for myself because I am overwhelmed or burnt out, I need to be able to let go of my guilt in order to move forward.

Control
There are few things we have control over right now. We can’t control the pandemic. We can’t control when we go back to school. We can’t even control if students are doing their work, like, at all. And if you’re like me, if I can’t control something it feels out of control. While I would always recommend that we focus on the things we can control, the pandemic has made it even more important. We will drive ourselves crazy if we are trying to control the things that are out of our control right now. We do have control over the way we treat people. We have control over how cognizant we are of our safety and the safety of others. We have control over doing our best and recognizing that others are doing the same. We do not have control over other people and their actions. Let the guilt go when it centers around something someone else “should” be doing.

Uncertainty
I have been asked on several podcasts over the last couple of weeks what it is going to look like when we go back. My response is this: the sooner that we understand that nothing is going to be the same when we go back, the sooner we can be ready to adjust to the new normal. At the minimum, school at the beginning will not be the same. We will be grieving family members and school personnel that have passed away because we never had closure. We will be trying to acclimate students and educators back into day-to-day school and a structured, brick-and-mortar learning environment. We can guess what this is going to look like but we don’t really know. We don’t even have a good idea when we are going back. And when we do, will it be safe? How many more waves of sickness will happen before we can settle in and not worry about dying?

I have massive feelings of uncertainty toward the future and worse, how I can improve my own skills in order to help people adjust to a future we will be able to predict or have little preparation for. I sometimes feel guilty for wallowing in uncertainty and that I may not have what it takes to help educators and students when they need it. By letting go of this guilt and giving myself grace, I can focus on what I can do right now and have hope that I will be able to support others when the time comes.

There are so many things we should be doing and feeling right now. But, I think the most important thing we should do is allow ourselves room to be human. To grieve experiences that we will never have because of these unique times. To miss our students and co-workers. To understand that we are not superhuman and having a bad day is ok. To spend a few minutes wishing we could give someone we love a hug. Forgive ourselves for all the things we should be doing so we can move forward with less guilt about the things we are doing.

Time to Be Still

When I was little, I remember my grandma, Nana, telling me how much her and my Bupa loved dancing when they were younger. Being that they weren’t a naturally affectionate couple, I loved picturing them doing something that was just for them in that moment before the momentum of life took over. I had to imagine it because I never actually witnessed them doing it. I never once saw them dance.

A few days prior to my grandfather passing away, we had a benefit to help pay for his failed lung transplant. My Bupa struggled with breathing from his Pulmonary Fibrosis and didn’t have the energy to try to walk so he spent most of his time tied to a wheelchair and oxygen. But, that night his one wish was to dance one more time with my grandmother. He got up out of the wheelchair and was able to stand long enough to do it for one song and the entire time I remember wondering why this wasn’t done a million times over their lifetime if it was the one thing he wished for before he passed away.

But as adults we know exactly this happens. There’s work and kids and pets and sports and…and…and…and the last thing we think about is the stuff we really wish we could be doing instead. The little things that we used to do but life got in the way.

This time we are forced to spend at home has been difficult for so many reasons. There is so much to do and yet nothing we can do all at the same time. We are trying to take on multiple jobs: parents, teachers, workers. It’s far from the vacation you may look forward to normally. We are trying to live our entire lives inside the square feet of our homes. I know that I have been on an emotional rollercoaster – laughing hysterically at my dog tripping in the kitchen and giving me a dirty look one minute to five minutes later nearly sobbing when Michael Scott left The Office when I don’t even like the show let alone watch TV. Even if I wanted to leave my house there’s nowhere to go, and being in Wisconsin doesn’t afford us many days to get outside. I feel lonely even though I’m surrounded by people. I feel like I have major cabin fever and can do nothing about it.

However, this time we have is unprecedented time to spend with our families that we don’t normally have and may never get again. I feel like the Universe has been flashing the yield sign and when we didn’t, it decided to do it for us. Something to make us look at each other again in the eyes and remember who we are as individuals, families, and communities. Time to be still. Recalibrate. To do the little things that we haven’t done because we have been so busy that we forgot we even enjoyed it. Time to do the things we love to do with our families so we don’t need to wait our whole lives to do it again, like dance.

Thanks to Roman Nowak for sharing this image with me.

Answers to Five Common Online/Virtual Learning Issues

In some of the long term contract work I do with districts, I have the honor of helping them set up virtual learning environments and coach teachers and administrators in best practices for the planning, implementation, and ongoing maintenance that virtual learning requires. Coming from the realm of being a technology director, I can also look at the situation from that lens. Some districts have been working on virtual programs or charter schools for years already, and I’ve been able to see what has gone well and not so well.

In crazy world we live in and have had to adapt to in a short period of time, I have never been more proud to say that I’m an educator. I’ve watched districts with no plans for this type of emergency whatsoever (I mean, how could you possibly anticipate something like this) jump full-force into meeting the various needs of their students. Even my own kids’ district sent out multiple emails from the guidance department with support numbers and also had a plan for students to pick up meals or have them delivered in record time. Teachers have been resilient and persistent in doing what is best for their students and quickly taking on learning management systems and online assessing with all the creativity and awesomeness that educators consistently exhibit. I really am seriously so incredibly proud.

I’ve also seen some of the mistakes that in a well-planned rollout will still sometimes happen, forget that this endeavor was a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants implementation. I thought that I would answer some of the most common questions that I get from teachers as they are going through a virtual implementation hoping that they will help anyone still struggling.

How much work do I give?

When moving to an online course, this is probably one of the most common questions I get from teachers who have a difficult time imagining how their classes should look and how much work their students should have. While typically I would highly recommend to backwards plan a unit, match the plan to the allotted timeframe, and break it up for online, in this sometimes day-to-day planning that we are doing right now because of the situation can make planning look a little different. My next recommendation is to plan what you would typically do in one week in class and migrate that work online while replicating the communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking that would be happening in class (for more info, keep reading to How do I teach?). My friend, Anne Stanislawski, created this website for her teachers and students to help guide parents and students weekly in their learning. Teachers meet in their PLCs via Zoom and plan a week at a time. As of this blog post, the first grade page is complete and the rest is still under construction.

Common misconception: Worksheets for the class – A common misconception I see in the assigning of work is a teacher will divide the number of minutes of the class by how long worksheets will take to get done (ex: I have 60 minutes and each worksheet I have will take 10 minutes so I will assign six worksheets). In reality, that number of worksheets wouldn’t get done within that timeframe with any direct instruction and student questions, and you most likely wouldn’t assign six worksheets normally anyway. Plus, creating interactive lessons in a variety of other ways will help students gain a deeper understanding of the content you’re teaching.

Common misconception: They have more time – Another common misconception I’ve seen is assigning work that would not be able to be done within one day’s time. For example, it’s unreasonable to assign a student to watch a two hour video and then do a worksheet with it as well. That wouldn’t be able to be done within one day at school, and keep in mind that in secondary this is only one of multiple classes.

Where do I focus?

On yourself and on your students. Give yourself grace. Give your students grace. This is like the beginning of the year all over again. You know your students as learners, but you may not know them as virtual learners which can be very, very different. Focus on establishing norms and expectations online. Create a new classroom culture by building off the ones you were fortunate enough to establish in the face-to-face environment first. The content will come and the more time you spend easing everyone into this new reality the faster you will be able to move later.

How do I teach?

Many times when I get asked this question, it is really about how the teacher provides direct instruction. This is an easy fix. If you would like to provide DI to your students, that can be done either by creating a screencast of a presentation (I’d recommend Screencastify) or whiteboard for students to watch on their own or via a video conferencing system like Google Meet or Zoom. Created videos should be kept to under five minutes.

In looking at creating other activities for students, it’s important to create opportunities for students to connect and collaborate. Want your students to do a Socratic Seminar? You can still do that using Google Meet or Zoom. Want to listen to your students speak in Spanish or play their instruments? You can. Use Flipgrid. Want your students to experience creating their own podcast about how the world is changing and predicting how their life might be different after the virus? Have them create a micro-podcast on Synth.

Practically speaking, there are ways to add accountability to your teaching as well. This tends to be one of the areas that teachers struggle with the most because you can’t actually see and monitor what your students are doing. For example, add interactivity to instructional videos (either self-made or from a variety of sources) with EdPuzzle or Playposit. Add instructional content to any webpage with Insert Learning. Curate information with Wakelet or have students use Padlet for a variety of purposes (including timeline and mapmaking and creating video and voice notes). Also, this is a Symbaloo of digital assessment tools that might be helpful.

There are teams of educators online collecting resources to help with this transition. Rachelle Dene Poth writes amazing tech blogs that are student-centered and focused on collaboration. Jen Casa-Todd, the mother of social media leadership, has been curating resources for online learning. Katie Martin always has phenomenally put-together blog posts with tons of information and resources.

How do I still allow for personalized learning?

I know that the initial reaction for the transfer online was quick and I would imagine, relatively painful. Some educators had never used Google Classroom or any other learning management system before, and teaching and learning online is different than teaching and learning in a brick and mortar classroom. The goal, however, should be to get to a place where we are offering students voice, choice, and pacing options so they are able to customize their learning as much as possible. THIS is an ideal time to allow more autonomy in pacing. Even if it is week-by-week to begin with, removing the constraint where students need to be given the work by 8am and finish by 3pm each day would be an easy step forward.

Also, creating opportunities for students to have voice and choice in their learning is still important. Even baby steps like giving students the choice between three different critical thinking questions to answer in a discussion would be appropriate. Still allow them to show their learning in a variety of ways. Some students might enjoy creating a media project or podcast, and some students might still want to work with their hands. HANDS ON PROJECTS ARE STILL APPROPRIATE! One school district I was working with to move to a virtual program was setting up a maker-like space that had project supplies that students could pick up or get shipped to them if they didn’t have them at home.

What else do we need to remember? And how is this specific to NOW?

Digital Equity
The inequality in digital access goes beyond the number of WIFI hotspots and Chromebooks available. We now are adding in the ability for parents to be able to teach and learn online themselves and the support that they are able to give students both online and offline. All of a sudden, some students may not have anything to eat all day (not even a school lunch). There will be a difference between parents who are able to support students if they have a third grade education or a graduate degree. I have two graduate degrees and cannot do math over an 8th grade level! Some students will have parents who are at home, some will have parents working at home, and some will be spending their days with babysitters or AS babysitters if their parents are still working. The disparity in how students will be operating in the most basic level throughout the days could be vast.

Family time is valuable
Students may have an unprecedented opportunity to spend time with their families at home. This time is valuable and I feel like if they have that availability, it should be respected. I have also seen some people make mention of assigning tasks that the whole family could do. Please be aware that some parents are now unexpectedly homeschooling multiple children plus they may be trying to work from home. In the past having families as part of the learning may have seemed like a reason to give them togetherness time, but being sensitive to the unique situation that might be happening now is imperative.

Students are scared
Students have never seen anything like this in their time on Earth. Neither have most of us. They don’t have a lot of reliable information when it comes to navigating what is going on. If you’re discussing Maslow’s and bringing in the Hierarchy of Needs, school content is going to take a low priority with them if they are really scared as to what is going on. This can be intensified if their parents are suffering any kind of additional economic hardship because of the virus.

As I said, in the long-term consulting contracts that I do, part of my work is with virtual programs and charter schools to plan and implement this new type of learning. If there is anything I can do to help right now, please use the contact me button at the top of the page and let me know.

Our students need us the most right now as humans. As the people they want to connect with. As the ones who remember them every day and talk to them and look them in the eyes. Now, this has become more of a challenge, but it can absolutely be done. Noticing our students and maintaining those relationships with them needs to be our main focus right now. The rest will come.