The ongoing impact of COVID-19 on educators has been undeniable. Since the pandemic took hold at the start of 2020, school leaders and teachers around the world have been required to deal with additional stressors, challenges and change.
It is of little surprise to know that recent research suggests a rise in educator stress and overwhelm since the start of 2020 (e.g. Rebecca J. Collie, 2021; Anna Dabrowski, 2020).
As such, writing about stress management for educators, seems timely and important. Yet, there is already a vast body of information exploring stress management techniques and ideas (e.g. Helen Street, 2011). For example, the power of self-talk and our underlying beliefs have been a central focus of those interested in cognitive approaches to stress for a long time. Many well used techniques involve challenging catastrophizing thoughts or focusing on what you can control, rather than on what you cannot. Meanwhile, those interested in the physical impact of stress offer lots of useful information about the importance of a healthy diet, adequate sleep and exercise. There is also a well-established body of literature reminding us to find pleasant things to do during stressful times. Certainly, sharing an evening with good friends can do wonders for weekly overwhelm.
Many stress management ideas and strategies have value. Indeed, many have been found to be helpful as short-term solutions. However, if strategies are to be effective for the long term, they need to be built on a foundation of self-acceptance.
If we want to sustainably manage chronic stress and distress, we need to ensure we honour and accept our ongoing emotional experience first.
Many of us are finding ourselves languishing in 2021. We are still participating in all aspects of life, still present, but we are less engaged, less motivated and more tired. The acute stress of dealing with a novel event has subsided and now the insidious process of ‘waiting for things to improve’ has taken hold.
For many of us life feels decidedly ‘flat’ in 2021.
Of course, some of you may be feeling something else entirely right now. You may be feeling energized and content with life. Alternatively, you may be feeling so overwhelmed you are barely able to function at all.
In whichever way we experience the ongoing impact of CV19, it is vital we acknowledge and allow ourselves an authentic emotional experience. We need to do this before we attempt to change and become more comfortable and functional again.
Honoring our emotions is not akin to wallowing in self-pity or drowning in a sea of inaction. Rather, it is an authentic recognition and acceptance of the reality of our emotional experiences. This enables us to act according to our needs and move forward well.
This of course can be far easier said than done.
Rather than embracing healthy humans as beings with a plethora of rich emotions, modern society has tended to label some emotional experiences as ‘bad’, and others as ‘good’. As such, many of us feel bad or weak about feeling sad. In reality, feeling appropriately unhappy in the midst of a disruptive or distressing context, is a healthy, strong and connected response.
We build a positive sense of ourselves and our place in the world when we live a connected life, expressing a mix of deep emotions authentically and appropriately (Helen Street, 2018).
The degree of distress we experience in an adverse situation is not a measure of our inner strength, rather it is about our investment in that situation. For example, if a child feels devastated about the death of a pet, they probably loved the pet dearly, and this is is a positive thing. It is so tempting to want to cheer ourselves, and indeed our children, ‘out of distress’, yet, sadness can be a beautiful way to express connection to something lost; an important means of self-care in the face of adversity; and a cathartic way to hold grief.
If we start telling a distressed person that ‘things are not that bad’ or to ‘cheer up because it is all going to be OK’, we can easily end up minimizing or dismissing the reality of their emotions. Far better to support someone who is suffering by allowing them to honour their own unique emotional experience. This means holding back from interruption and giving advice on how to cheer up. People in distress need to know they are seen and heard without judgement. They can then start to let go of their distress and consider change.
But how can we not ‘push away’ our stress and distress when life is so busy?
As a professional educator, you may well consider that ‘honouring a negative emotional experience’ is unrealistic. After all, we are often busy as parents, partners and professionals pretty much all the time. We do not always feel able to act upset when we feel upset. However, if we do not find time to explore, accept and honour our emotional experiences, they do not magically disappear. They may come out in an unexpected moment of outrage (we shout at someone when it was really our inbox that was the problem). They may dig in and slowly fracture our identity, and consequently our relationship with the world. When we constantly ignore stress and distress, we become increasingly demotivated, disengaged and disconnected with life.
It is vital that we stay connected internally, to operate effectively in the external world.
If we feel distressed but also time poor, taking a moment to check in with ourselves can be enough to begin to feel better. Many of us hold stress in the way we move, talk and express ourselves, or in tense shoulders and a headache. It is important we take regular moments in every day to ask ourselves: how do I honestly feel right now? And to remind ourselves to take a deep breath knowing that ‘whatever we feel is OK’.
If you are struggling significantly, It can also be helpful to allocate time at the end of each day to allow yourself to be as emotional as you want or need to be. For example, you may decide that between 5:30 and 6:00 is the time you will check in with you. During the day, when you feel yourself stumbling, remind yourself that you have your 30 minutes of ‘me time’ coming soon. This means you will still be acknowledging the importance of your feelings, not simply pushing them away, while also doing what you need to do in the here and now. This simple acknowledgement of the importance of your feelings may even mean you no longer feel so intensely upset.
Once we take the time to acknowledge our emotional experience, we become better equipped to function well, no matter what life throws our way. We can ensure we don’t end up feeing bad about feeling bad; or avoidant. The more we honour our emotional experiences during stressful times, the more we can be resilient, even in the face of a world pandemic.
Collie, Rebecca J. (2021) COVID-19 and Teachers’ Somatic Burden, Stress, and Emotional Exhaustion: Examining the Role of Principal Leadership and Workplace Buoyancy. AERA (American Educational Research Association) Online
Dabrowski, Anna (2020) Teacher Wellbeing During a Pandemic: Surviving or Thriving? Social Education Research
Street, Helen (2018) Contextual Wellbeing – creating positive schools from the insider out. Wise Solutions Pty Ltd
Street, Helen (2011) Live Overload. Finch publishing