23rd March 2020
These are unprecedented times we are now living in. We are being asked to accept and live in a new reality. With a change such as this, fear, worry and anxiety are inevitable so if you are feeling like this, know that right now, this may not be pleasant, but is perfectly normal. We are struggling to find a reference point to relate this back to and we forget that there is a mammalian part of our brain that sets off alarms when a threat such as this is presented. The mind goes into overdrive trying to figure it out so that it can protect us. So in a sense our mind is being a caretaker to us as it attempts to predict outcomes and guard us against harm, but in reality for us, this may not feel like protection but rather just fear and worry.
Let’s face it, as teachers, we like routine and knowing what comes next! We work in schools which yes are by their nature, unpredictable environments, but yet they provide a strong sense of security through predictable daily routines where a bell calls us in and out of class, along with a certainty of when a term begins and ends. We plan our daily, weekly and monthly lives around all of it. So at a time like this, when there are many unanswered questions, we may have a constant feeling of uncertainty in this ‘unknowing;’ a stark contrast to what we are used to. This is perfectly normal and yet we do need to put measures in place now to protect ourselves physically, emotionally and mentally. Essentially, it’s a time in history where self-care has never been so important, not just for us but for our families and our communities.
There are some really simple and practical ways for you to ease yourself into some good self-care practices over the next few weeks and months in order to place less pressure on your body, to ease your mind and to soothe your spirit on a daily basis.
- As best you can, keep a lightly structured routine in place. This will give you a sense of purpose each day and will help to keep your mind more balanced.
- Choose carefully what you ‘feed’ your mind with each day; immersing yourself completely in news and updates can be harmful. Listen only to reliable sources of information in relation to Covid-19 and when you feel you are hitting ‘saturation point,’ switch off from social media for a while.
- Once a day, write down on piece of paper (or journal), all of your worries and fears. This will help to keep you ‘checked-in’ with, and become more aware of your thought processes.
- Talk to a loved one about these anxieties as this can release a ‘valve’ on any built up pressure in the mind and sharing can really help.
- Practice gratitude – make a short list of all of the good things about today (there will always be at least one thing, even if it’s a nice cup of coffee!)
- Whilst we think worry will solve a problem, it never does so it is important that we take a proper ‘mind break’ from worrying on a daily basis. Once you have written your fears or worries down, close your eyes and imagine each worry is a brick you are carrying. Take all of the bricks, put them in an imaginary bag and put them down, even for an hour or two and engage in some enjoyable activities that create a space for you to relax and even have some fun with e.g. board games, a silly movie, floor picnics etc. This will take your mind off the fear and when you do return to the ‘bag of bricks,’ it may just seem that little bit lighter to carry; your mind will find it easier to cope with as it has had a ‘rest’ from it all for a period of time.
We know our bodies love routine as above, so try to include a balance of the following where possible:
- Plan and eat regular meals – lack of school routine could result in lack of eating at regular intervals and right now, we need steady intake of ‘fuel’ in order to keep our bodies healthy and well.
- Stay hydrated.
- Create a space each day for some light exercise or yoga (or both) – if you love your workouts and are missing the gym, access many of the online gym resources. Exercise releases endorphins (feel good hormones) and is an excellent way of relieving stress.
- Fresh air – thankfully spring is here and the days are getting brighter so whilst practicing social distancing is essential, you can still get outside, get moving and explore nature.
- Access your internal ‘breathing space’– when we access our parasympathetic nervous system through conscious breathing and meditation, the body slips into a space where it is actively renewing and rejuvenating itself which strengthens all of our systems, including our immune system. Where you can, take some moments every day for resting and conscious breathing. Activating and then returning to your calming ‘set-point’ every day is crucial:
- 4/5 Breathing – breathe in gently for a count of 4 and breathe out slowly for a count of 5
- Breathe/Feet – notice your feet, wiggle your toes to ground yourself and breathe in and out gently, slowly and consciously (repeat)
- Mindful Senses – notice in this moment what you can smell, feel, hear, see and even taste (when you are eating or drinking)
- Check-In Practice – head, shoulders, stomach and feet (check in with each and breathe in gently and consciously as you relax each body part)
- Become aware when you are in the stress response – heart racing, sweaty palms, feelings of anxiety and worry and then use your breathing, feet and five senses to gently bring you back into the present moment. This will ease the stress response and you will begin to feel calmer.
- Connect with others, even it is online or through the phone. This is one of our basic needs as humans and without it, our spirit will feel the pinch. Over time, it can affect our well-being in all ways.
- Volunteer in some way even if only over the phone – this will provide you with a sense of purpose and again, will link you into your humanity which will lift your spirits hugely.
- Get back into activities that you once loved – painting, drawing, cooking, baking, sewing or reading. Take an online class and learn something new.
- Through meditation and conscious breathing, connect into your intuition or ‘gut’ in order to find solutions and respond, rather than react to daily challenges.
- Spend time in nature and breathe in the fresh air – this will soothe your mind and calm your spirit.
- Laugh! Yes this is such a difficult time but if something is funny, you have permission to laugh; it is the best medicine after all.
Many of you are teaching online every day and this may be providing structure and routine for you, and for your students but do be careful to balance this with some or even all of the above self-care practices. My lovely friend said to me this week, ‘we must be the calm within the storm now, and we must also be the calm in each other’s storm.’ I agree. This is a storm we will weather best if we are united but we must begin with anchoring in our own calm ‘set-point’ first and foremost. This is, and will always be our first port of call; our only starting point of real value. We put on our own oxygen mask first. Never before has this been more important to us and to those around us.
Ann-Marie Ireland is a former primary school teacher, motivational speaker, published author and researcher. Her company Breathing Space Ireland (www.breathingspaceireland.ie) offers courses and workshops in self-care, renewal and well-being for educators. She is currently conducting research related to teacher self-awareness as part of a Masters by Research in DCU. She has worked with Education Centres and various educational bodies nationwide for almost 10 years and believes that the school is a human community where pupils, teachers, school leaders, staff and parents can thrive and flourish through the practices of mindfulness, gratitude, compassion and self-care.