Self-support for teachers during COVID-19
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 123 No 3, 11 May 2020, page no.20
There is no easy stress management solution for teachers and school leaders right now. It’s in your own interests, however, to find a mindset that will protect your wellbeing in the months to come.
When you first signed up to be a teacher, you probably didn’t imagine being a frontline worker in a global pandemic. But the Australian Government’s decision to keep schools open during the COVID-19 outbreak means that is where teachers find themselves.
How are you responding to this brave new world of work? Are you feeling steady or scared, even panicked? Do you feel up for the challenge or undervalued, frustrated and resentful? Or maybe you find yourself cycling through these and other emotions.
These are justifiable emotions to feel. They may well propel you into finding some solutions or lobbying for change.
When it comes to your own wellbeing, however, it pays to check that you aren’t staying stuck in a negative reaction, which then attacks your own body. Chronic stress levels are toxic to the body, interfere with clear thinking and undermine your immune system, something you definitely want to protect right now.
So what type of approaches might support you over the months to come? Here are some to consider.
Acceptance, control or both
Write down all aspects of your situation that you are struggling with. Then categorise them according to how much control you have over them. Where you do have some influence, practise some active problem solving – it is great for mental health. Alone or with your colleagues, brainstorm some possible solutions or courses of action, then select an option to try. When we exercise autonomy in our lives, even in small ways, it improves wellbeing even in the most difficult of situations.
Where you discern you have little or no control, acceptance can be better for your mental health. A 2016 study conducted in the American and Australian military, where soldiers have no say in how they do their jobs, illustrates this well.
Researchers examined the impact on soldiers’ mental health of five different coping styles: active coping, acceptance of demands, seeking social support, humour and denial. They found that in this low-autonomy setting, acceptance of the demands was the best approach. The more soldiers accepted their role and the situation, the more mental health symptoms decreased.
Acceptance may sound unpalatable to some, especially Union Representatives, as it can seem like passive resignation. Consciously chosen, however, it is an aspect of wisdom. Remember the serenity prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Now is the perfect time to apply this.
Your version may end up sounding like: “I can’t control the virus or the government guidelines right now, but I can help reduce anxiety among my peers and students, by attending to my own emotional regulation.”
Responding vs reacting
Talking about emotional regulation, it’s critical to your wellbeing. It involves being able to notice and name strong emotions, then taking a few moments to regroup so that the higher part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, can get back in charge.
Failing this, we get consumed by emotions such as anger or fear and speak or act from that place. Invariably, this won’t end well, on two accounts.
Firstly, as Newton’s third law states: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Every outburst of rage or panic will set off a chain reaction among your colleagues, students or family. We’ve had enough ugly toilet paper scenes in supermarkets already.
Secondly, every emotion is accompanied by a physical change in your body. When angry, for example, your muscles tighten, the breath shortens, blood pressure goes up and your immune system is suppressed. One study found that even one five-minute episode of anger can impair your immune system for more than six hours.
In short, failing to regulate our most challenging emotions results in self-harm.
The reality is, unless you are superhuman, you will find yourself triggered, again and again. Simply notice this, name it to yourself, then “take ten” until you can feel a shift. A short walk, journaling or debriefing with an objective listener are good ways to re-centre yourself. If you are in the classroom or a meeting and can’t leave, gently breathing into your lower abdomen helps reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Reasonable vs impossible expectations
Adapting to teaching online overnight, keeping up with the ever-changing social distancing rules for schools, supervising your own children’s schooling – the current demands on teachers are massive.
So now is not the time to be a perfectionist.
Yes, you have rules you have to comply with.
Sometimes the most impossible of “rules” come from our inner boss. How realistic are the expectations you have of yourself? Are you expecting yourself to tick the boxes in all areas of your life? If so, now is the time to talk to your inner boss and negotiate something more reasonable.
What matters most
If there is one thing that this pandemic is reminding us of, it’s just how much we value and need each other.
Supportive relationships are the number one determinant of wellbeing, physically, mentally and emotionally.
To help protect, strengthen or repair your most important connections, ask yourself which relationships, personal or professional, need some TLC right now. Then apply some genuine appreciation. For relationships to thrive, we need to receive five positive to every one negative comment, as shown by research into enduring marriages and high performing teams. Don’t forget to include self-appreciation so you aren’t dependent on others for feeling valued.
You may or may not be able to fulfil all the demands on you right now, but if you can get to the other side of this period with relationships intact, even deepened, you can truly claim: “job well done”.