Pandemic lessons on anxiety

Coronavirus – a global threat and a golden opportunity.

As you know, my promise to you all is a fortnightly article on the emotional aspects of parenting, growing and learning, with no marketing creep. Well these are exceptional times, so this week I have stepped out of the usual pattern and decided to send out to both my parent and teacher mailing list simultaneously. I’ve been getting lots of messages from parents and teachers about the newsletters being down-to-earth and helpful, thank you so much! And though I know you are being bombarded with Coronabusiness at the moment, please regard this as an act of service for you to pick-up on when you are ready.
Ironically workshops and trainings on anxiety have had to be cancelled – and therefore some of the thinking that has gone into those has been adapted and channelled here to help those who have missed out on those sessions – and all my regular readers pick up on priorities in the face of imminent school closure.

Create a fire-break in your mind, deal with the virus within.

The anxiety in our heads. Starting with ourselves as the leaders of our households. Whether you are a teacher facing potentially weeks at home or a parent spinning the plates of work and childcare /cabin-fever, one thing is for sure, looking after ourselves is going to be crucial. Self-care, self-compassion and tolerance are going to be needed in abundance. Some thoughts…
• We are seeing life as it really is. All around us, every day, people have unexpected moments that turn their lives upside down. Cars crashing, cancer diagnoses, floods. It’s just not on our newsfeed. We have lived in a bubble – an illusion of our control. Now we have to live outside our comfort zone – and we can grieve, fume, put our heads in the sand – but actually life has always had the capacity to shock. 
• Now need to decide on our relationship with this shock if we are going to help those more vulnerable than us live through it and grow. 50 or 100 years ago we were culturally more at peace with uncertainty. Not now. This is a big challenge for our era where the answers are available for our instant gratification via smartphone. But uncertainty and the reality of change and death has always been a human challenge. This time of year is the Hanami – the annual cherry blossom viewing craze in Japan that resonates with the beauty AND transience of life. One of the four reminders of Buddhism is that of death. And it is a vital lens to view an appreciation of the light of life we have. There are things beyond our control. We are being forced to accept it and get on with it. Potentially for months. 
• Check in with how you are? Where are we on the spectrum of anxiety? Too anxious? Not anxious enough? It’s a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. We need to look at how we can filter how this is getting to us in the core of our being and make sure that emotional contagion is not invading the mind and growing the virus of fear. You might find yourself unable to rest due to a racing mind, or exhausted even after a good night’s sleep, unable to switch off. Little signs that we’re letting stuff on the periphery – the feeling that we are living in lack – take hold. Hoarding loo roll as though water has gone out of fashion. We are much more effective when fear has not invaded us. 
• Anxiety is contagious. And it is almost impossible to fake calm. Anxiety seeps out into our interactions. It means we are less present because we are dwelling in the future and our worries and fears, many of which are unproductive. 70% of which won’t come true and cause unnecessary suffering. So if we want to be able to support our family, we need to be present and intentional to steer the good ship in the right course, even if becalmed (OK, I know, I totally killed that metaphor). Our daughter said the other day ‘I hope we won’t spend the whole time on phones if school closes…’ She’s really diplomatic. Of course, she doesn’t have a phone. She was noticing over the weekend how our phones had become totally grafted to our hands. News feeds off, a 48-hour social media detox and I’m gradually able to be a bit more clear-eyed.

An invitation and a choice:
• Caution and discernment or paranoia and fear? For sure, we should be alert – but discerning. We need to be mindful of the need to prioritise the lives of the vulnerable and of all the many small things we can do to help along the way.
• Are we living in reaction and deficit? How many loo rolls are you currently the owner of? What else are you trying to stockpile? Galvanise the right attitude which will help you be more effective and strategic in your energies. What are the values that you want to live by – that will get you and your nearest and dearest through this together?
• Anxiety and analysis without action fuel more anxiety. Choice and action bind anxiety and reduce it. Recognise your anxiety. Sit with it. Still your mind to absorb it. Let it go. Take a breath, or two, or three, to stabilise your secure base –  to ground yourself and decide what you want to let in in the place of the anxiety. This grounding practice is at the heart of resiliency. Choice, agency, action empower and take the sting out of anxiety which runs rampantly into the future in our minds. 
• We are experiencing the death of the life we used to know. What is it we want to grow in its stead? As we strip back the clutter of activity around commuting, working, socialising and spending, we need to ground ourselves in the present and be grateful for the things that we have. Our homes are well stocked with resources. So many unplayed games, unused toys, an unused spice rack, we were made to be adaptive – and with that adaptation comes growth if our adaptations come from a yes-brain, whole-brain basis rather than from a basis of fear and threat. 
Distance and filter what we see, what we do: 
• Notice how you feel and act around the constant news stream. We’ve got it. We know the symptoms, we’ve got the advice for self-isolating, we know it’s going to be tough economically. How much more do we need to know, and how continuously? How is it for those around us to have us with half our head in rolling news and our presence interrupted by notifications? Decide – when you have your news binge and compartmentalise one or two spots a day – if at all- you need to check in. But be intentional about it. 
• Be careful about how you talk about it in front of the kids – and with each other. I know we’re not going to be meeting up – but we are going to be using Skype and speakerphone to try to replicate community and connection. Ask friends and family to dial it back so that young children and teens don’t get that sense of utter preoccupation and overwhelm. We are their role models. We have the fully formed pre-frontal cortex. It is our job to set limits on the stimuli for anxiety around them and mediate their experiences of the adult world. Cut the conversation short if there is too much Corona-time. Before my Brexiteer father died (bless him), I simply had to veto Brexit conversations for the sake of his blood-pressure and mine.  Corona is the new Brexit. Limit, avoid, minimise. 
• Get alerts off devices. All of them. So the whole family can compartmentalise their focus when they are using devices – so online work can be done effectively without interruptions either from newsfeeds or notifications from communication from friends. Know when the kids – and teens are going to be using devices socially – so that you can see how they are afterwards. A lot of peer to peer unkindness, aggression and mistake-making, and bullying happens online. And if they are worried because they’ve heard a good friend has become ill, you want to be able to be on the scene to help them process fears and fantasies from the online ‘Chinese whispers’
• If you are a low or no-screen family, this is less of a problem – but for those where screens are a major aspect of home-based down-time, there’s a real need to think about what home is going to need to look like.
• What will it be like if everyone is working on screens for large portions of the day and then seamlessly turning to screens as we do when we come home from the stresses and strains of the world out there? We’re going to need to find more balance.
• Less time for activities, commutes etc means more time – active decisions on how exercise, creativity, musicality, playfulness, connection and exercising our full selves is going to take consideration. If we just allow ourselves to disappear down Netflix /YouTube worm-holes we are setting ourselves up for a dopamine (pleasure) overload – we need variety and scope for seratonin and oxytocin (happiness) intake. Dopamine overload is like mainlining Haribo, cake, or chocolate (now there’s a thought!). You’ll feel sick. Not so much with seratonin and oxytocin. We get that from loving, kind, altruistic interactions, listening, playing, holding, cuddling, generosity, service. Time to reset expectations and boundaries around screens, time to dust off all the board games, gardening kits, up expectations around sharing the load of running the household – keeping it in good order learning knife skills, creating enjoyable meals. 

De-schooling and De-working is going to be a process of adjustment – we will need to adjust our expectations.
• Productivity is going to look rather different. We’ll need to co-create a routine of sorts and be able to be flexible.
• IGNORE the multi-coloured COVID parenting timetables online. Dial it back. Plan for 3 or 4 main components of the day where there might be some learning-based activity. THEY ARE NOT GOING TO DO AN 8-PERIOD DAY ALLOWING YOU TO WORK WITHOUT INTERRUPTION. Have 3 or 4 blocks to shadow some form of learning structure. But that can be split up over an expanded day that dances to a much more bespoke and kind rhythm. Look at non-academic pursuits, reading time, music, writing, crafting, playing, and gardening.
• Teachers need to be realistic about the adjustment period. How much can be set, we definitely want kids and their parents to feel that they CAN do this – as early as possible. So manageable tasks. Lighter touch plans with very clear and more selective learning outcomes. The kids are going to need to be more self-sufficient and less reliant on instant teacher feedback. Equally teachers will need to live in uncertainty themselves – we won’t have the instant feedback of faces in the classroom, question and answer sessions and being able to see the quality of dialogue building in the class as the lesson or scheme of work progresses. How much work is going to be markable over this period of time? Clear-sighted thinking about what and when for each group will be important. 
• YOU ARE NOT THEIR TEACHER. I am a teacher. But my daughter needs me to be her mum. I am the worst teacher when I try to teach her. Somehow I don’t get frustrated at other people’s children. Even when they don’t get it or don’t concentrate. That’s a red rag for me at home. 
• Let go of the academics being a top priority. Exam candidates will need to follow advice from the school and you can create the soil around their practice and preparations…their schools will be in touch online and the support they need from you at this stage is more to do with moral support, continuity and stability. For all our kids, they DO NOT NEED – and neither do you – the distressing and destructive dynamics of you micromanaging and pushing them to excel in every single thing they do, there’s enough stress floating around. And if you imagine they are on the front foot and full focus all the time in school you are dreaming. They are usually one of 30, there’s loads of leeway there to take the foot off the gas, they navigate that day independently under the teachers more distant gaze. 
• BE AWARE of the ghosts in your school room. I am haunted by MATHS and feelings of helplessness around maths. So when my daughter is helpless and triggered and needs my help. I am probably the worst person to come to her aid, I am in danger of dumping on her my own baggage and creating a really toxic disconnect where I make her feel as stupid as I felt when trying to fathom out long division (never did quite get it, I think I got off the bus way before the bus stop method arrived). 
• You need to captain your ship and preserve your energy and calm for where it’s needed. They need to be more independent in their work and in their play. ANd it’s their work. Not your work. Be 100% present in ‘golden time’ and care-giving time – but mark out a rhythm of togetherness and separation. 
• Team work, flexibility and communication are the watch-words. If you are a single parent, how can you create a deal where they are set up for an hour or two – to do a structured activity for part of that time and spend time where they choose some independent play. Create a secure base for a routine. Set up the environment to help them thrive independently. Ensure they know the deal – they need their space, you need yours. This means space to work, and space to chill with a coffee. 
• Know the fakeness of a gift given resentfully. This applies to the gift of your attention. Even small children know that such a gift isn’t really worth having. So respecting time apart is going to be important. It preserves the quality of the time we will have together. If you are constantly having to help and switch your attention, that kindness will result in overload / burnout and you’ll be exploding at them over something totally minor later on. 
• The Montessori mantra is something we all need to remember ‘Never do something for a child that they are capable of doing for themselves.’ All those times we ‘save time’ by taking over, chopping the onions and making dinner because we can’t bear to stop and make sure they don’t stab themselves ‘helping’ us cook. Now is the time to teach them HOW to use the washing machine, stack the dishwasher, fold & store their washed clothes, to Marie Kondo their drawers, how to cook a recipe and make a meal. By the end of this sh*t-storm, I’m hoping I might get breakfast in bed out of it!!!
With love and gratitude to you all. Email me with questions and ideas you’d like to see explored in the future with the new face of parenting, teaching and learning upon us.
Emma. P.S. Don’t forget – if you get stuck – or you feel your teen needs help with motivation or a more objective sounding board for handling friendship dynamics get in touch for a coaching call.
Next up independent play.

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