There, I said it. I’ve never considered myself much of a hugger, but since the pandemic, I have developed a new appreciation for another human enveloping me in a tight squeeze. Arms compressing my shoulders, lovingly signifying all the moments since the last time I had seen that person, is nearly all I can think about now. And maybe this realization could only have come about by the Universe saying, “Hey, you wanna look at screens instead of paying attention to the people in front of you? Well, here you go. Look at those screens all the time, then. You’ll see – you’ll miss your people.” And the Universe was right. I do.
That being said, I’m a little afraid of going back to “normal.”
When Wisconsin first opened back up, my daughters needed to go to the doctor for their yearly check-ups and immunizations. I was standing at the receptionist’s desk checking them in and a woman with twin boys, roughly eight-years-old, walked into the office. They began speaking loudly to the receptionist like 8-year-old boys do. They were not behaving poorly. They were doing nothing you wouldn’t expect from children. But for me, even being a mother of four, even being a former elementary teacher – it was beyond overwhelming. I had something like an anxiety attack mixed with overwhelm and sensory overload. The room started spinning. I wanted to put my hands rudely over my ears and ask them to stop talking. I needed out of there fast.
When I was finally able to leave the situation (and I use that term loosely, I mean, it really wasn’t a situation) I reflected on what the heck just happened. I was shocked. I’m not known to have sensory sensitivities. But, something definitely happened that day that made me almost afraid to go back into society for a while. I had become accustomed to being in front of my screen. Being with actual people in public who weren’t as quiet and reserved as my own kids tend to be, threw me for a loop.
I think about this when it comes to teachers and students returning to the classroom after being in virtual learning and how overwhelming it must be. I was speaking to a teacher about how quiet her high school students were and that they were struggling to interact with each other. This might be a result of being in a room at home, alone, working for nearly a year with little interaction, and now put into a classroom with other students. It may be something equivalent to sensory overload EVEN IF they are not known to have sensory sensitivities. And if this is the case with students who are not known to have them, imagine how it is with the ones who do.
So, what can we do about this?
First, just knowing that it could be an issue is the first step. Keep this possibility in mind whenever you see other educators or students just seem a little off. It might even get worse the further you get in the week as it becomes increasingly overwhelming. And it may feel to the person who is overwhelmed that this shouldn’t be happening because they should be glad to be back with people, which can be confusing. It’s usually confusing when how we feel and how we think we should feel are opposing.
Second, speak to students about it. Bringing it to their attention may help lessen their confusion if it happens. Ask how you can help them if it becomes overwhelming.
Third, give students and fellow educators the grace you’d want if you were having those same feelings. Read your students and colleagues and know when to force interaction and when to allow it to happen organically when people are ready.
We have been making adjustments all along and we are not ready to return to normal on so many levels. I miss my people as much as everyone else. I miss their nearness and hearing their actual laugh without the undertone of electronics humming. I miss their warm hugs. But we are going to need to slowly acclimate to whatever our future is. And honestly, the slower we take it and the more self-aware we are, the more we pay attention to others’ social-emotional needs, the more likely we are to come out of this mentally healthier than we would have otherwise.
One of my professional interests that I am most passionate about is the concept of how I came back from the strong desire I had to leave the education profession. Then, I called it burnout although it was probably a mixture of burnout, demoralization, and personal and professional adversities. Now, I call the overarching term for this as disengagement. I had no idea what had happened to me that I wanted to leave a profession that I had loved. Being so unhappy was draining and impacting other areas of my life as I was constantly overwhelmed. This experience is why I began talking about re-engagement and how one can come back from being disengaged because I believed that everyone has the right to be happy.
Many times on social media I see well-intentioned people asking about what people can do to come back from burnout. There are so many reasons people can actually become disengaged besides burnout, but what I believe they’re asking is that if we are tired as educators (which when aren’t we, really?) how can we remember why we love our jobs. People give tips that generally boil down to self-care and because social media relies on short and succinct messages, it can potentially make someone feel like the retrieval of our buried happy-teacher should be an easy task.
I’m not even sure that in my own work and research that I have made this part abundantly clear: becoming re-engaged is not quick. It is not easy. It often feels like two steps forward and one step back. It took me one year to begin to believe that I could stay in the profession. It took me another two to feel like I was completely re-engaged again. Some days, even though it’s been over six years, I feel like slipping back into that negativity would be so easy. Especially with how overwhelming the world is right now. Discussion of burnout or disengagement is never flippant. I believe everyone understands that it is a serious potential affliction for professionals who are so emotionally tied to their work. Sometimes, however, people underestimate the amount of energy that being engaged takes.
While reading this may feel negative and glass-half-full, why I bring it up is because I have spoken with people who have been trying to come back from disengagement and don’t feel normal after a few weeks or months. They want to give up and forget about trying because it feels like it’s never going to end. They often think that once they decide to re-engage that their minds, bodies, and thoughts should just follow suit. But, they’ve been unintentionally practicing being unhappy in their job for a long time, and like any habit, it will take time to break.
Plus, if you find yourself burnt out, or demoralized, or going through some sort of adversity, a teacher trauma, or whatever may be impacting your engagement and you’re trying to come back, it takes time to heal. You will need quite possibly a significant amount of time to heal from the emotional response that you have had to teaching for various reasons. Trying to re-engage isn’t about being lazy versus ambitious. It isn’t about being tired versus energized. It isn’t about not wanting to versus wanting to, even though engagement includes all these things. Working toward being an engaged teacher after being disengaged is about healing a part of you that has suffered hurt.
And I have always said this about resilience: resilience isn’t about bouncing back to the person you were before. You will not be the same person and that is okay. You will be smarter. More aware. Have more strategies in your tool belt so there’s less chance of it happening again. Resilience is about being happy with the person you’ve become. If you feel like you have to be the person you were before you will also feel like you are constantly failing because you are no longer that person. That is not only part of learning, that is part of healing.
Even now, all these years later, I am still trying new strategies to keep myself engaged. It is a constant process of reflection and evolving. A couple years ago this effort included learning how to meditate. I hated it. I read the research. I knew it was good for my brain, but I did not like it. Now, I can meditate for up to 15 minutes at a time and if I don’t do it for a few days I can feel that I need it. I would never have guessed that would have been the case a couple years ago. It took work and it took time, but it was part of the process of working to keep my engagement that I had fought so hard to get back in the first place. Meditation is only one of many strategies that I have, it just happens to be one of my newest ones.
If you’re working on re-engaging or just trying to stay engaged, know this: it will be a winding road. It is not an easy endeavor. It will take time and effort. Don’t give up or feel like a failure if it doesn’t seem to be working. Adjust your sails and keep going, keep plugging away even when you’re questioning if it’s just too much Like anything that is hard, the end game is worth it.
This blog post, like many of my posts, is my version of processing my own thinking and emotions “out loud” with others so I can learn and grow best. Please excuse how disjointed it may read as I try to put all my thoughts coherently together. With this post, I was fortunate enough that my good friend, Desmond Hasty, was willing to collaborate and co-process with me as the concept for this post was due to a powerful conversation we had regarding mental health and beginning the next school year.
In the area where I live, we have a large population of people who have immigrated here from Mexico. Some of them are documented, some of them are not. Some students’ parents have become citizens, some students are the first to have been born here. When there have been heated political discussion about immigration laws and deportation (regardless of how anyone feels on the issue) teachers in our area watched our Latinx students’ fear and uncertainty rise up. They couldn’t tell anyone how they felt because they were either unsure they should feel it or they didn’t want to get their family in trouble. Some of them didn’t even know what questions to ask to begin a conversation. Some of them became quiet and reclusive. Some of them began to show behaviors consistent with trauma. When the pictures of children in cages being separated from their parents began to cross the airways, things got even worse. It didn’t matter whether they were technically able to get deported or not, many feared for their lives and those of their family members. Learning about square roots and how to conjugate a verb doesn’t seem that important when you’re facing possible deportation and being caged. In the midst of this kind of upheaval, I witnessed the mental health toll that the situation was taking on our students and their families. I have never forgotten the looks on their faces. The way their parents seemed to age 10 years in a few months. It was like watching trauma every day unfold before my eyes.
I feel this same way about what has been happening in our country as of late with the murder of unarmed Black people by police officers, but particularly with the murder of George Floyd because the actual act (as in the video of his death) was so highly publicized. We know that racism all by itself breeds its own traumatic impact whether it’s systemic or specific experiences. The constant fear and hypervigilance that it takes to be Black or a person of color has to mimic the feelings of constant and ongoing abuse. We have never done nearly enough to address racism in our schools even though we are willing to begin to discuss mental health. We often address mental health as a way to moderate behaviors instead of a way to keep kids healthy and happy.
“Racial trauma,” according to marriage and family therapist Dr. George James, “is the physical and psychological impact, and sometimes symptoms, on people of color who have experienced racism.” This includes seeing and hearing about the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others. It also includes feeling and experiencing injustices in everyday life through the microaggressions black people face inside and outside of work.“An accumulation of all of this,”…“creates racial trauma.”
So, as we move into next school year, there are some questions that we (Desmond and I) have been thinking about in regard to our Black students and students of color hoping that in highlighting these realities we may be able to support students more effectively instead of backpedaling. We definitely do not have all the answers, but right now, we do have a lot of questions. We also know that we haven’t thought of them all and I encourage anyone reading to please add to the questions and/or comment with thoughts. We feel like if we don’t answer these questions, more trauma will ensue.
How can we support Black or students of color who may be too young to have the vocabulary/words to express the worries they have and the questions they want answered?
How do we support Black or students of color who don’t feel like their schools are safe places (if they did feel that way before) due to teachers being seen as authorities (as are police officers) and not knowing if they can feel safe/will be protected by White teachers (perception of not being protected or feeling safe)?
How do we emotionally support students when they find their White friends may not be the anti-racists they thought they were? How do we support and understand their grief and also address the issue of racism?
How can we be more understanding of the trauma behaviors we may see increasing as school returns? How can we provide additional support, whether that be counseling services or otherwise?
Whether school continues online or not, will we see an uptick in student truancy that is rooted in fear of systemic racism?
What impact is having guards and school liaison officers going to have particularly if they are stationed with uniforms and guns? With incidents of school shootings, how do we balance the trauma that may be present between watching a police officer murder a man with safety measures that have been put in place due to armed intruders?
How, as a community, do we move forward with an anti-racist message? How are we going to communicate that being actively anti-racist is the focus of the district? How is the district going to react when someone openly disagrees in order to best support our Black students/families and students of color and their families? How are we going to recognize and address the systemic racism in our own districts?
I never claim to have all the answers but I have addressed mental health long enough to understand that there needs to be additional support offered to everyone. I think this help should address concerns starting from mid-pandemic, to going back into our schools, and well beyond that. Many of our Black students and students of color are going to have feelings and traumas that are heightened even beyond the systemic racism they experience daily. Beginning to address these issues is really just the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully will be the catalyst to real change in the view of mental health in schools and the specific support that our students need.
When we think about this fall, the only thing we know for sure is that nothing is going to be the same. Our choices to begin school and determining the way we want to go can vary depending on everything from the number of community Covid-19 cases to typical class size versus the room size to the availability of technology. We had pandemic learning spotlight areas of equity that have always been present in education. Socio-economic disparity, the technology know-how/attitude toward education and background of caregivers, the tech-savviness and prior innovation background of administrators and teachers, and wifi access to rural areas, as examples, have always been challenges that we have needed to address. With pandemic learning, they just became more pronounced and now districts know they need to be considerations moving forward. We have learned a lot about what not to do, but are still unsure what the right answers are. Unchartered territory calls for unchartered answers.
I’ve spoken with districts who are trying to be as innovative as possible moving forward and who recognize that there is a fine line between changing everything up and overwhelming staff and students, and having the desire not to go back to the way things used to be. They understand that this could be our opportunity to do exactly what we have wanted to do in education: disrupt. When I think about our world right now in so many areas, I look at it as if we have taken everything we have and tossed it in the air. We have the opportunity to pull down only the best parts and put them back into place, and replace anything we don’t want with something better. The issue is that “better” can look different depending on the eyes of the beholder, and humanity doesn’t have the best track record of making awesome decisions when the stuff hits the fan.
In search of this something better, I have heard questions being asked that may indicate what seems to be the driving factor going into next year for some people. But as we seek answers to our wonderings, I suggest we also put our own personal-professional agendas aside and take some quiet time to really reflect on what our world has been for the last few months (and foreseeable future). Ask yourself if the questions you’ve been asking are the ones you want to drive the district/your classroom into next year.
There are definitely questions that still need to be addressed. These questions would be ones I’ve heard that sound like:
How can we get more devices to our students? More Wifi?
How are we going to fill the learning gaps for students who struggled/never attended pandemic learning?
What online platform/tools should we be purchasing in case we need to continue online?
How can we create buy-in for teachers to want to be Google EDU certified?
These questions are good. I feel like they are ones that can and should be answered after the great questions have been asked.
The great questions are the ones that pop into your head when you stop thinking like an organizer and start looking at the people around you and asking them how they are and how the decisions of the organization are impacting them. I have spoken with teachers and administrators who took pandemic learning by the horns and enjoyed the challenge of owning it. I’ve spoken to many more teachers and administrators, however, who were exhausted and overwhelmed by the end of the year. Teachers who have said that they can’t do that again and are thinking about leaving the profession because that’s not what they signed up for. Teachers and administrators who were working 17 hour days because they didn’t know how and weren’t equipped to set boundaries for online learning. Students who dropped out of school the second it went online. Frustrated and exhausted parents, especially if those parents were also teachers or admin. So, great questions, in my opinion, address these issues. The human issues.
How is the staff holding up? I have spoken to very few teachers who haven’t said to me, “I finally got the chance to try (insert tech tool here) and was able to learn it, and I’m so (happy, excited, proud of myself) and that is absolutely AMAZING. If you had that experience I’m so happy for you. All things considered, that truly is quite an accomplishment. My concern is for the people who are also exhausted, and even if they enjoyed learning something new, have a bit of struggle in their heart for education after the massive shift that had to happen in a moment’s notice. I’ve written a few posts about it that can be found here and here. This is one of the questions that may need to be answered by actually looking at people. We don’t take the time to stop and notice very often.
How do we make people feel safe going forward? It’s interesting to me how the meaning of safe has morphed within the last few months. We haven’t had to worry about active shooter incidents as much, but have had to worry about catching a virus. If a choice is made to return to schools in the fall, we will need to worry about both, unfortunately. This question is going to need to be broken down into many more questions, all of which are imperative to answer. How many students can fit on a bus if they are not wearing masks. If they are? What about the students who ride public transportation typically? Will parents be able to choose to have their child continue to attend school online if they are feeling too unsafe to send them? If so, what happens if the parents need to go back to work and the child must go to daycare? Are they going to be required to attend online sessions/get work done with a daycare provider? Will parents be required to wear masks in schools, and if so, where will they get one if they don’t have one?How are teachers going to teach classes if they have a pre-existing health condition that makes them more susceptible to the virus should they get it?How will our decisions impact our staff and students personally? As examples.
How are you going to increase staff’s baseline knowledge of trauma and incorporate embedded SEL competencies into online learning? I was speaking to one of the districts that I consult with on a regular basis and brought up how SEL was going to be addressed in their online environment if either they needed to be online for next semester OR at minimum in the online program that they are creating. I was excited to hear that they had already contacted their purchased SEL curriculum company to find out how it could be morphed to being online (some of the videos were still VHS, for example). My question is, however, how can we embed SEL experiences into what we already do? I find that if a program isn’t embedded in learning that is already happening, it becomes the next typing program where it’s done when we have an extra 15 minutes to spare only. Also, understanding that SEL and “student engagement” are not synonymous terms and that SEL incorporates deeper competencies (see CASEL.org) is imperative.
In addition, if we return to the brick-and-mortar setting, the level of trauma experienced by some of our students along with the behaviors they might exhibit because of it may be increased. It is also important for educators to be able to recognize some issues with trauma within themselves or understand what vicarious trauma is so they don’t start to detach.
How are you going to fill the learning gaps in educator’s knowledge of online learning so they are more comfortable with online/blended learning? And some of you may be saying, “Um, you just said asking for buy-in for learning was only a good question.” I sort of did. The difference being that sometimes this question is correlated to how can we make people better instead of the great question of how can we fill in the learning gaps of educators so they are more comfortable and less stressed in what they do. When we do the latter the former will follow as well as people will feel supported. While some may complain about mandatory PDs, the truth is that good professional learning opportunities teach educators what they need to do to do their jobs well, therefore taking some of the stress off the educator from the alternative of “figure out how to do it well because you’re a professional.” Professional learning should support areas for healthy growth and innovative thinking therefore making educators less nervous and apprehensive about getting online again or the necessity of offering a blended option in the fall.
The best questions we ask will always be human-centered. This is especially important in the midst of a crisis. I do believe that there is value in all questions we ask as all of them will provide a more proactive approach to any issue. The questions we ask and focus on, though, will not only drive our decisions but will also send a message as to what we value as a district, school, and classroom. By beginning with and focusing on human-focused questions we will not only be sending the message that our people are cared for and safe and we believe the best learning will grow from that, but we will be setting up an environment where educators and students believe that message to be true.
Years ago when I began speaking about educator mental health, I was met with a lot of blank stares and uncomfortable glances. When I began speaking about educator trauma and the impact of disengagement, I was told that people didn’t want to hear sad things, that educators shouldn’t have mental health issues and if they did, they certainly shouldn’t talk about it. I was told I was going to get fired or I was going to get someone else fired. I was turned down by online education article sites because the content wasn’t something they were “interested in sharing” and by conferences because it rarely fit their theme. But I believed in it wholeheartedly and secretly held onto the idea that it was my purpose and I was at least planting the seed of recognition and destigmatization.
Lately, the topic of educator mental health has been blowing up. There are books and blogs and podcasts and articles written about educator mental health, adult social-emotional support, mental health issues, and burnout. The pandemic has highlighted the need to support teachers so they can best support students. The emergency learning and in some cases utter chaos that the move to virtual learning has caused has brought about a sincere look at the wellbeing of educators. And the part of me who has been trying to bring attention to this matter for years has finally felt vindicated! Like all the times that I had felt bad about myself because my message wasn’t well received or recognized as valuable is finally worth something. If you have ever been looked at like you were crazy more times than you were accepted, you may understand my point.
Now, people who weren’t speaking about it before have been practicing their own vulnerability. Articles are being written in regards to the very topics I’ve been toiling over! There is the part of me that is rejoicing that attention to mental health is becoming a more accepted conversation to have (although I believe mental health issues are still off the table in many ways). However, there is the other little part of me that knows how education works. I’ve been in education long enough to understand the New Hot Topic in Education, and the trends tend to wear out and die down, sometimes with a lot of talk and very little action.
When I began speaking about educator mental health and mental health issues it was not because I could see the pandemic coming. It was because being an educator was already challenging and nobody was willing to recognize the toll it was taking. We were in the era of being “for the students” many times meant “at the expense of the adults.” Being an educator is also incredibly rewarding, don’t get me wrong. Living and loving your purpose can be one of the greatest life experiences. But, there has increasingly become an expectation that educators are willing to give up taking care of themselves in order to take care of others. Some may argue that this is not an expectation, but in doing so they’re ignoring the undercurrent of assumptions and martyrdom that are forever present. The pandemic was simply the cherry on top of many already burnt out people. This is not a new phenomenon and it will not go away when the pandemic is gone. This is not a trend. It is not something we can speak about now so people feel they’re heard in their greatest time of need and then forget it later when we move onto another hot topic. This is not a new concept. It is just one that we have been hiding from for a very long time.
My fear is that at the end of this pandemic we are going to settle into our new normal and miss the still present deer-in-the-headlights look that many of our educators are wearing. And in true educator fashion, their students will be doing well because the teachers will be giving everything they have to make sure of it. So, because the students are doing well we will forget to address the educator mental health AND mental health issues because the conversation never continued past educators are burnt out because of the pandemic.
Educators are burnt out because teaching is hard. They also can be demoralized, traumatized, and be facing adversities that we don’t even understand all of which may require different support and coping strategies. Zeroing in on pandemic burnout is missing the bigger picture of how does this look in a month? In the fall? In a year? In five years? The pandemic did not bring on these issues. It only magnified the need that was already there.
Moving forward, the conversation needs to shift from the recognition of “this is what is happening” to the action of “this is what we can do about it.” Bringing attention to the issue is great. That is a fantastic start. This topic doesn’t need to be difficult anymore like it was years ago. We have a catalyst to push us forward and make changes. By bringing action to the conversation the topic of educator mental health, mental health issues, and addressing the whole educator can get teeth into our culture and can become an Expected Education Topic We Address instead of just a New Hot Topic in Education.
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, as well as ways to create action in the conversation, in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.
One of the reasons that I think mental health can be a difficult concept for some people to make sense of is because it’s so complicated. It’s so multifaceted that when we say to someone, “What’s wrong?” they may be able to start at a million different points in their life where the pain may have originated. And there are so many different moving parts to try to keep up with. For example, for me I have the regular mental health day-to-day stuff: practicing mindfulness, self-care, etc. But I also have the stress of the moment or stress of stuff that is coming up. I try to build resilience for challenges that are unexpected. But, I also need to deal with the pain and mental health issues caused in my childhood, as well as forgiving people who have hurt me, coping with the goals I haven’t met or practicing acceptance for all the things I want to be but I am not. I waver back and forth between trying to stay proficient in my mental health while trying to heal my mental health issues. And it feels like there are only so many things you can do at once.
There are areas I have become pretty close to understanding and accepting as my own. For example, I know my professional purpose. I can tell you that I support teachers because I believe that when we support teachers we best support students. I have known that for years. I know that I have a healing nature and that people feel comfortable enough to open up about topics they would typically feel uncomfortable discussing, hence my knowledge-base and experience discussing mental health. My professional purpose is solid, I feel. I have done the necessary reflective work to know where I belong. However, I also have other areas that need attention. My personal purpose, for example. I’ve been putting in a lot of work trying to figure that out lately. From the existential, why am I here to more practical what is my role in the things that happen to me? But, like mental health is multifaceted, healing and growing is as well. There is so much more than our personal and professional purposes. As humans, we are on multiple journeys at any given time to try to become our best selves. And I’ve found one of these journeys, for me, to be self-love.
This was a realization for me a few counseling sessions ago. I’ve been putting in the real work to try to actually heal. Not the healing that we sometimes do when we place feelings into a box and only sometimes revisit them like a photo album in our head and feel bad and maybe cry before we put them back again, but the kind of permanent healing that allows for forgiveness and to move on. And this kind of work is not for the faint of heart. It’s difficult and taxing and sad to relive old wounds on purpose, forgive people who probably don’t deserve it, and fill the psychological holes that they left and you feel like you shouldn’t be responsible for. It’s been one of the most grueling things I’ve ever done, especially since it is so much more comfortable staying in the anger and sadness where you’re used to. It’s like the epitome of “productive struggle.”
But, I’m roughly 42 years old and I’m just now figuring out that the way I feel about myself isn’t anywhere near healthy. It’s difficult to love yourself as a child when you’re constantly told how worthless you are, but to blame all of my feelings of unworthiness on my childhood would be short-sided because I have still had the choice to allow myself to feel this way up until now. And when self-love is your issue, it doesn’t matter when people tell you that you’re amazing or intelligent or a good person because in your head you have a million reasons why they’re so wrongand you will prove it if they just know you long enough to figure it out. And how can you love others correctly when you don’t even love yourself? All the times I’ve been jealous or unkind was because I couldn’t stand that I didn’t feel like I could ever measure up to what the other person was doing no matter how much I truly loved and supported them as best as I could.
I don’t think that what I feel is unique, although the depth of it and my willingness to admit it might be. But, one place I might be ahead of the game is that I know it and now that I’ve been able to name it, I can try to move forward and heal. What does that look like for me? It looks like learning to love my body now while understanding that I can both love it AND improve it. It looks like learning to accept that I will never be the best. There will always be someone smarter, kinder, wiser, better than me. But, also knowing how lucky am I to know these people and that I’ll be better because I do. It means knowing that I am capable of both keeping up with my mental health and healing myself from my past and I don’t have to choose one over the other.
These mini-journeys that we go on are just as important as finding our overall purpose. Sometimes I look at it like someone threw a 1000 piece puzzle on the table and told me I have a limited amount of time to put it together. But it can be done step-by-step. Find the corner pieces. Look for the edges. Match the colors. And eventually, it starts to become one clear picture. As more of the puzzle falls into place, we can feel more like we are supposed to feel when we are mentally healthy and able to be our best selves. It can take work, but nothing worth it is ever easy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.