By Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder
Teachers face a wide range of emotions heading back to school from excitement about seeing students and colleagues, worry about their own children, anxiety about the unknowns of how they are going to do their job, and fear about their safety. That is why self care is important this year, maybe more than ever before.
It’s quite possible that you feel a mixture of all of those feelings at the same time. And that’s okay. The important thing to remember during this time is that all those feelings are normal. There is no right way to face a situation that has never been experienced before. There are no definite answers.
It’s also normal if those feelings change frequently or you experience ups and downs. Teachers are being asked to tread uncharted waters, which is why learning to navigate them and to practice self care is important.
The current health crisis carries preconditions for trauma and post traumatic stress
It is not surprising that you may feel anxious or stressed. According to Dr. Candace Killian-Farrell, PhD, LCSW, a Behavioral Health Consultant, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), the pandemic crisis carries a lot of the preconditions for trauma and developing post traumatic stress symptoms which can include increased anxiety and depression.
The preconditions of trauma and post traumatic stress can be broken down into 5 areas, according to Bessel van der Kolk, a national PTSD expert.
Lack of safety
One precondition is feeling a lack of safety. When you face unsafe situations, that can lead to added stress and anxiety.
Killian-Farrell said one way to address this would be to create a sense of safety where you can. This could include COVID-19 safety guidelines by wearing masks, washing hands well and often, and socially distancing when possible. She said doing these give you some control over the threat and enhance feelings of safety.
She also suggests that you can try to make space to do things that make you feel safe whenever possible. While this strategy is very individualized, it could include things like watching a funny/happy movie on the couch with your loved ones or curling up with a book at night, or working in your garden. The point is that you find a normalized, safe activity that works for you.
Lack of predictability
Another precondition is lack of predictability. Most teachers are planners, and the unpredictability of the school year has wreaked havoc on many teachers’ daily lives. Schedules are upended and may change from one moment to the next depending on the state of the pandemic.
Teachers returning to in person instruction may soon have some predictability built back into their day that will help provide some normalcy.
However, for teachers who continue to do online teaching from home this can be especially difficult. Establishing some sort of daily schedule and sticking to it is important. Ways to do that include waking up and going to bed at the same time each day, establishing an online class routine, teaching at the same times, and eating meals at the same time if possible, etc.
Having a predictable schedule will make you less anxious and make stress more manageable. This can be done for your personal life outside of work as well, in terms of managing your children if they are not at school or managing your evenings at home.
Due to social distancing and quarantines, connection is another important aspect that has often been lost during the pandemic. Addressing this can help with anxiety and depression and add some much needed normalcy.
For teachers at school, developing safe ways to get social support from other teachers and staff remains important for your mental health and feelings of wellbeing.
If that isn’t possible, scheduling in regular social time, even if it through via zoom or facetime can help you stay connected.
Feelings of immobility
Feeling stuck where you are, whether that’s in an environment or an emotional state you feel you can’t escape from, creates feelings of immobility. One of the best ways to address this can be through action.
One way to combat feelings of immobility is through physical action. This is another of the many reasons doing regular exercise, even if it is a daily walk, is critical for your mental health.
Taking action to create change can also be really healing. This might be getting involved in a school project or some sort of advocacy effort.
Loss of a sense of future
During a traumatic time you can experience the loss of a sense of future Killian-Farrell said. When your future is uncertain, your expectations of the future are shaken. It’s important to plan for things, at least in the short term that you can look forward to, Killian-Farrell said.
This might be something like a weekly date night with a spouse, a socially distanced dinner date with a friend scheduled in 2 weeks or something bigger like a project you can do at home to be finished in 3 months.
Learning to address these indicators can help you ward off anxiety and encourage you to embrace self care.
“Everyone should be implementing good self-care strategies right now as a preventative measure, whether or not they are experiencing any signs of larger problems.”-Candace Killian-Farrell, PhD, LCSW
Ways to embrace self care
As a teacher, society has high expectations for your willingness to embrace these uncertain times. However, the reality is you are human, not a superhero. It’s important to remember that and not place unrealistic expectations upon yourself.
Of course, you have concerns for your students, that goes without saying, however, watching out for your own mental health is more important than ever this school year. That’s why self care is so important.
Killian-Farrell said she believes that everyone should be implementing good self-care strategies right now as a preventative measure, whether or not you are experiencing any signs of larger problems.
“The pandemic (as well as other current social unrest) is a really difficult and potentially traumatic situation that is prolonged and generates a lot of secondary adversities (financial, illness, death/loss, family readjustment, social isolation, etc.),” she said.
Killian-Farrell advised that everyone should be prioritizing their health and mental health as much as possible to minimize the impact of the situation and prevent the increase or development of more serious clinical mental health issues.
Listen to your body signals
Your body gives you signals that it is struggling with managing stress, even if you feel fine emotionally. Some signs that indicate you need to step up your self care include:
- feeling more overwhelmed
- experiencing more irritability
- feeling more anxious than normal
- drinking more than usual
- neglecting normal healthy habits
- experiencing gastrointestinal distress
- noticing increased muscle tension
- having frequent headaches
- increased fatigue
- disruptions of your normal sleep patterns
Self care strategies
If practiced regularly, these self care strategies may help you manage your increased stress:
- getting regular exercise
- eating a healthy diet
- decreasing caffeine/alcohol intake
- implementing relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation or prayer
- practicing progressive muscle relaxation
“When you are in a helping profession, you are also spending your work time caring for others. This is a lot to manage in ‘normal’ times, but during a pandemic it can be incredibly challenging.”-Candace Killian-Farrell, PhD, LCSW
Teachers may experience compassion fatigue and burnout
Teachers also need to be aware that they may experience compassion fatigue and burnout. You have to care for yourself in order to be able to effectively care for others.
You know you’ve heard this before, but when it comes to taking care of others it’s important to remember the airplane-oxygen mask analogy. In case of emergency, put on your own oxygen mask before helping others put on theirs.
Compassion fatigue and burnout is a common outcome for many people in helping related fields. Self-care becomes vital to manage the stress of caring for others, especially at a time when you are having increased stress in your own life.
“Many teachers right now are having a difficult enough time caring for themselves, as well as increased demands on parenting or caring for aging relatives. When you are in a helping profession, you are also spending your work time caring for others. This is a lot to manage in ‘normal’ times, but during a pandemic it can be incredibly challenging,” Killian-Farrell said.
Because teachers may have little time when they are not actively attending to the needs of others, Killian-Farrell said this makes things like carving out small bits of time in the day for being by yourself, or with others in a non-caregiving social capacity, particularly important.
Those small moments of time, like a quiet walk, a half hour of yoga, or a relaxing moment before bed, can all help you tend to your own needs and help center yourself.
Dealing with stress and anxiety at school
In the best of times, teaching can be stressful. This year the stress will likely be increased.
When moments of anxiety hit during school, there are some stress management techniques you can do while in the classroom, like deep breathing. Killian-Farrell said some people find having a mantra – a word or phrase that is meaningful and calming to them, really helpful to combat anxiety in the moment.
Taking a time out to calm down may be something you want to incorporate each day during lunch or downtime. If you need to remove yourself from others during your downtime or leave the building for a few minutes that is okay.
Taking 5-10 minutes during the day to do something renewing can also be powerful. This article gives 5 quick tips teachers can do during the school day to relieve stress.
“Ultimately, there may be some anxiety during this period that is legitimate, and that’s okay; you just have to learn to manage it,” Killian-Farrell said.
Ways to handle worry
If you catch yourself worrying about something, don’t beat yourself up, but try to reframe your thinking in a way that’s more helpful. Killian-Farrell gave some ideas you might try.
One idea is to talk through your worries the same way you would help a student work through theirs. Put things in perspective and realize that things you have no control over, are taking away your energy if you spend time worrying about them.
Another option is to allow yourself 30 minutes a day to worry, like first thing in the morning or at night before bed and write it all down. Journaling can be a good way to deal with those worries. Get them out and on paper so you can get them out of your mind.
When your allotted time is up, remind yourself that is your only allotted time to worry each day. If something comes up during school, compartmentalize it, and remember you can always pull them back out during your worry period.
Prayer, bible study, and meditation are other ways you can deal with your worries.
Killian-Farrell said mindfulness is also important in managing anxiety and depression. Focusing on the present moment and taking things one step at a time is cliché, but it works.
If you are present and focused on whatever task or activity is in front of you, it gives your brain a break from the persistent worries or ruminating that often occur in your mind, sometimes not even in your conscious awareness. This can be incorporated through practices like meditation, yoga, and exercise as well as purposeful focus in the moment, she said.
Why self care is important- no excuses
As you face uncertainty, anxiety, and stress this year, remember why self care is important. Take the time for yourself so that you are able to take care of the other people and things in your life.
Focusing on the safety measures you can take and working to stay as healthy as possible in every way – physically, using self-care, and seeking professional help as needed – are all tools teachers have to help them fight this challenge.
According to Killian-Farrell, anytime you experience feelings, thoughts, or symptoms that affect your functioning in any way, such as lower productivity at work, your ability to manage important family responsibilities, or difficulty getting out of bed in the morning you should seek professional help.
If you have persistent symptoms of anxiety or depression, sleep disruption, and/or physical symptoms that aren’t able to be managed by self-care, it may indicate you need clinical treatment. And of course, any time you wish you were dead or have any thoughts of hurting yourself you should get help immediately, she said.
“I can’t stress enough how common seeking professional help is, particularly among individuals in the helping professions, during a time of crisis such as the pandemic,” Killian-Farrell said.