Mental health week

OK, you’re reading my newsletter. Chances are you are a very committed, concerned, reflective, and involved parent or teacher who is having to do more than pivot – which would indicate perhaps one completed movement…No, in these uncertain and emotionally volatile times, you’re pirouetting! 
School leaders are pirouetting around the endless risk-management of a safe return to school for staff and children, teachers around the ‘should I stay or should I go’ dynamic as the designated year groups return and the spectre of both in-person and virtual schooling will be required AT THE SAME TIME…Parents – let’s face it, we are starting to feel so ‘over’ this…we are working as hard as we can in ever more fragmented blocks, and having to triage our multi-layered concerns around the wildly fluctuating moods of our children and teens…Not to mention our own…We’re on an increasingly shortened rope.

Totally over pirouetting / pivoting!

So this one is dedicated to US in anticipation of this half term. The desperate need for us to make sure we pace ourselves…
Some insights from the teaching world on wellbeing for THESE front-line workers…
A couple of weeks ago I did sessions on wellbeing in lockdown for over 300 teachers and school leaders from secondary and primary schools. In the ‘check-in’ poll, where we looked at how lock-down was affecting their behaviour, their feelings, their physiology, their thinking…there were some interesting and rather stark results. Neck-and-neck as the most popular responses, teachers reported feeling ‘tired all the time’ (164)- and as though they are unable to stop(127), as well as feeling that there are not making progress / not good enough: (124). There was also a lot of thinking about what wasn’t going well: (126). 
In fact these outcomes were very much echoed by parents attending the various webinars on ‘Parenting during lockdown’…so there’s a lot going on!
And all these signs of anxiety in the mind are reflected in the tension and unease felt in the body – with many school leaders reporting tension in their shoulders and jawline, a sizeable number of Junior school teachers reporting headaches and stomach upsets – a likely sign of the strains of exposure in the knowledge that there are so many parents now showing up in and around their virtual classroom…Inspections are stressful enough – but stressed parents can tend NOT to hold back in their feedback – or be unaware of how even the most carefully worded ‘feedback’ is likely to be received by teachers who are trying their best – like fish out of water – with teaching in the virtual space. 
What was a little concerning was the results of senior school teachers who reported a fairly high number of more extreme manifestations of anxiety in their bodies…with over 30 (10%) felt their ‘heart racing, tightness in their throat or chest’… It makes for an uncomfortable realisation about the wear and tear of living in anxious times and working amidst constant change and uncertainty. We are not designed to do this over long periods of time. And therefore learning how to tune in and listen to the messages of patterns of change in our bodies, our feeling states, our ‘cognition’ (stream of consciousness), and our behaviour, becomes particularly important – as part of the antidote to anxiety…( the whole antidote is self-awareness, observation and reflection, choice, and taking action to ‘re-set’ the threat circuitry) And this is especially true for teachers. 
As teachers our work – and the way we show up in our work – telegraphs out to others…to our families, our colleagues, our pupils. As Professor Jonathan Glazzard’s research (Leeds Beckett University) into teacher burn-out has revealed, very young children at primary school are able to know when their teachers are stressed and predict whether ‘it’s going to be a good day or not’. 
What we feel, we push out into the world. Our unprocessed feelings will telegraph out in one way or another, whether  in-person or via email, in the manner we talk in lesson recordings, in our task-setting, perhaps a little less generous with the detail, a little less mindful or tolerant of the struggles of our students. We withdraw from contact more, become more clipped, and our capacity for kindness dips…

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The family scene – wear and tear of the lockdown…
For families, in the anticipation of children-at-home burnout…Remember that feeling at the end of the summer break? That’s just after 6 weeks or so…How can we pace ourselves so that we can segue from school supervision into running our homes like holiday camps WITHOUT THE HOLIDAY!!!
ON top of your work, you may be the organiser-in-chief, the plate-spinner, the dynamo, the cheerer-upper, the professional, the worker, the helper, the finder of lost things, solver of all problems, comforter of all woes. You may be the caterer, the cleaner, the carer, the observer, the oracle, the cuddler, the lover, the fighter. The prepared-one, the maker of ingenious resources, the saver of lost causes, the backstop…As lockdown parents and teachers, we may be all of these things on any given day. And some of the list may sit heavier than others.

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I am very aware that as the half term has worn on, I have been finding it imperative to dig deeper and actually act on the many wellbeing-in-lockdown points of advice I’ve been discussing in my webinars. The ongoing wear-and-tear of working and tiptoeing around each other’s spaces, the lack of variety, the CONSTANT catering and loading and unloading of the dishwasher…is starting to grind me down. 
But equally, as our daughter’s mood has fluctuated, watching her battle with loneliness and grief at being separated from her beloved school – and even more beloved play-mates has been really hard. Supporting her with her feelings of despair and disengagement, her difficulties focusing, the ready rise to frustration when the magic of maths seems as distant a possibility as Hogwarts. 
We’ve had to adapt our work and our expectations, knowing that when these aspects are dialled up on the emotional mixing-desk, she needs to break up her day more…meaning our days are broken up more, and taking her to the park when you’ve only just begun to get your head around your own work has such a corrosive effect on your own self-efficacy. 
The realisation that there is NO ONE to take up the slack…no restaurant to kindly make my meal and serve it to me. No child-care support…No visits to grandparents…EVERY activity needs some sort of managerial intervention of one kind or another – setting up Zoom meetings for our daughter, liaising with the parents, setting reminders, trouble-shooting teething problems with connecting. Ditto for every online music lesson, drama group. Thanks Boris, we can now meet in parks, so that’s a new thing to add to the routine…blah, blah blah…
Hell, I’ve even done more Joe Wicks! Even though I find the constant ‘shout-outs’ and grandstanding hard to bear, he’s right about the endorphins. And so to help start the school day with more zest, God help me…I have been dragged into proficiency with spider-man lunges!
The past few weeks has felt like a master class in helping our daughter manage her mood, manage her mind when the gremlin-worries start to chatter. Having burned through all the border-line inappropriate comedies we can think of, we’re now re-visiting the Harry Potter films in order…And I have to say, I am truly proud of how our little one has learned to recognise when her head and heart are not in her work, and take action so that she can return refreshed. She’s learned safe ways to externalise pent-up feelings within, and that she CAN trust us with more of her worries, and we’ve had the change to be there for each other more meaningfully. All of which is amazing – and will stand her in great stead for the future.

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There have been some belly laughs too…a peak moment was the third in the series of Relationships and Sex Education lessons. Of course, having done loads of workshops for sixth form on healthy relationships, consent and equality, and been on the record in various podcasts, talking about the imperative to be more forthright and ready to discuss sex and sexuality with our youngsters…it was like catnip for me to be by her side as a ‘trusted adult’ as we watched the slides and did the activities and discussions together. 
Of course the third in the series was one where they’d saved the best till last. Very professionally done, clear diagrams and illustrations, great explanations, read by the teacher. Covering all the details about periods for girls, bodily changes, eggs and sperm etc. And then we got onto the details of puberty for boys, wet dreams, spontaneous erections…
Much of the ground we’d covered previously – but had been forgotten – so yours truly was doing her best with supplementary explanations, gestures etc…So far, all so good…Until the script seemed to step aside from the scientific anatomical description to introduce slang terms for erections (interestingly none were mentioned as relevant to the female anatomy). It was the ambush of the reference to ‘boners’ that totally slayed the ‘trusted adult’ in me…the whole family disintegrated into hilarity…Probably the best virtual schooling moment for that teacher – to be able to beam the information straight via YouTube… and by far the funniest virtual schooling experience for us!
Having said that, bad days are still bad – and good days don’t just fall into our laps as they might have done previously…and it is exhausting. All of this is going on in and around the pressures of work – trying to write and prepare webinars and deliver coaching sessions. If it wasn’t for the good weather and the break-out space of the hammock in the garden for doing my coaching calls, I think I’d be totally done in.

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So…burn-out. It simply doesn’t go away by itself. This isn’t something we can or should leave to chance. This is one of those oxygen-mask-on-the plane moments. 
If like so many teachers and parents – and students – I’ve been working with, you feel exhausted, and yet you can’t stop or still yourself even to do just one thing…read the signs…anxiety, and chronic stress need attention…not just to identify – but to ACT. Action binds anxiety….
Anxiety hits our central system. The twin strains of pandemic and lockdown press all of our primal panic buttons. Health, wellbeing, family, finances, society. And simultaneously restrict us from many of the stress-relieving resources we had access to previously. Sharing problems with friends in the pub, having holidays, seeing comedy, laughing, experiencing the joy of live music, cheering our team on, treating ourselves to a slap-up meal. Somehow Deliveroo doesn’t quite cut it. 
We need to be resourceful and intentional in managing our minds. We have a fairly good idea of what brings us down… where is there scope to minimise that? What is in our control? Shorter and less frequent calls with people who grandstand how well they’re doing, or their children are doing, or who just want to chase the COVID-conversational drain…Can we be more time-focused and make endless Zoom or Teams meetings less baggy? 
OF course there are many things not in our control. Each other’s mood at home, for example. Interruptions when the wall has been hit with French grammar, or one of those science experiments that require eggs, white vinegar, your ENTIRE stock of cornflower, bicarbonate of soda etc…(I KNOW! First world problems…)
What we do need – over this bank holiday and the half term that follows, is a stock of things that are going to lift US up. Reset our mood. Be a form of proper RE-creation. So aside from whatever is going on the planner for golden time for the family, or planning for the onslaught of next term…make sure you MAKE time for yourself. 
No one is going to give you time…nature abhors a vacuum – and that’s especially true where our time is concerned. When you feel like you can’t stop, that’s EXACTLY when you need to. Sometimes we absolutely have to slow down in order to speed up. So as well as having healthy self-awareness, we need some healthy selfishness – some self-compassion to recognise where you are at and carve out some time for deep relaxation, and proper self-care.

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For me it’s going to look like this:
-Some long baths where the maximum multi-tasking I will do is read my kindle and sip a gin and tonic. 
-Swinging in the hammock listening to my favourite podcasts
-Early nights in crisp, fresh sheets
-Getting up early in the morning to have a part of the house to myself with a coffee
-Reading magazines on the sofa
-Not allowing ANY work to encroach on the time I am setting aside for myself or my family time
-Catching up with some long neglected friends I need to phone. 
 
What will YOUR list look like? 
How can YOU do more for yourself, and indirectly those you love and work with by getting properly busy doing nothing?
Mental Health Awareness week has been an exceptionally busy one for me. It’s been amazing. I’ve been talking about ‘Lessons from unexpected change and uncertainty’, ‘Transitions and separations – how to foster meaningful connections with friends in lockdown and build a readiness to return’, ‘Thriving at sixth form and beyond – how to use time apart in lockdown to shape your future around character strengths, purpose, and fulfilment’, ‘Quality sleep – why it matters, and how to get more of it’, and my favourite new workshop – ‘How to use your body and brain to down-regulate from anxiety and still your mind from worry.’ 
I’ve totted up that I have worked with more than 2000 people in England and all around the world via Zoom, Teams, etc etc. It is truly amazing what we have all been able to do to come together, connect and keep going in lockdown. But we shouldn’t underestimate the cost…and we should definitely aim to pay ourselves back above and beyond our normal wellbeing routines practice. 
Drop me a line – what’s working to replenish your stocks of kindness? What’s nurturing YOUR spirit? Savour it, learn from it, pass it on…
Now it’s time to deepen my own practice and start SLOWING and STOPPING…If what we feel gets pushed out into the world, let’s have a go at being mellow!
Peace and love,
Emma.

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