Invisible Stress

Stress is an issue for most of us these days. 

This has escalated, particularly for teachers and school staff during the pandemic. It has been an incredibly stressful time in schools. This article though is about a problem which is much wider and more universal than additional stress caused by the global pandemic. 

“Invisible stress” is the kind of stress that creeps up on you. The sort that you don’t even realise is there. One day you are happily plodding along, everything seems normal and the next you have reached your breaking point and you can’t stop crying or you’re angry all the time or you realise you haven’t slept in months or you get ill.

Let me tell you a little story about invisible stress… 

Once upon a time there was a newly qualified teacher. She had dreamed of being a teacher her whole life. All the young teacher wanted to do was help the children in her inner city school to flourish. 

Invisible Stress

Every day she would bounce into the classroom, give those children her all, and drive home exhausted. It was a really challenging school, there were all sorts of challenges for the young teacher, including an really unsupportive Head.  Despite all that she smiled, did everything that was asked of her and the whole world thought she was coping brilliantly with the challenges of the job.

Then BAM! One morning the enthusiastic, young teacher woke up and she burst into tears.  Whatever she did, she couldn’t stop crying. A few hours later she was sitting back at home with an anti-depressant in her hand and a sick note from the doctor, wondering if she was going to have to be medicated for the rest of her career. The worst thing was, she hadn’t seen it coming. No clues, no early warning system, nothing! Once she recovered, and came off the antidepressants, she promised herself that she would never let anything or anyone make her feel like that every again!

exam stress

Fast forward 20 years and that same woman found herself in the middle of a global pandemic. Both her children were in key years at school; her eldest sitting GCSEs and her youngest SATs and finishing primary school. Of course these exams couldn’t take place because of the pandemic and she believed that life was so much calmer and more stress-free because of that. 

Ok enough third person. By now you must have realised that the young stressed out teacher was me, and so is the relieved Mum. However, I was wrong!

I have spent the last few months enjoying my time with my family. Thrilled that my daughter, in particular, had had so much stress removed from her due to the exams being cancelled. (My daughter wrote an amazing article with me last year about her struggles with anxiety which you can read here if you haven’t already).

Then a couple of weeks ago I started getting headaches, I never get headaches. So I upped my relaxation and meditation time, but they persisted. I realised I wasn’t sleeping well. Over the following few days the tightening in my shoulders started and that turned into a pain up my neck. Still I walked round finding excuses and possible reasons for all these classic symptoms of stress.

Background

Now I need to give you some background to this situation. I am very good in a crisis. I always jump into action and calm everyone else down then deal with myself later. Over the last few weeks, months, years even, the anxiety levels over exams have been slowly bubbling and rising. So, I have been calming everyone down, giving them tools to cope and, I thought, managing my own levels too. But the last couple of weeks there has been so much uncertainty about these results, the government literally changed how they were being calculated days before the results were announced. This has led to unnecessary anxiety and stress for everyone involved, me included it turns out. Now, those of you who know me know that I am passionate about mental health, but I am even more dedicated to and passionate about my family. This palarva was causing my daughter serious anxiety and my body was reacting to that and getting ready to fight for her (that’s what our stress reaction is, at a biological level). 

I didn’t realise how bad it was until it all suddenly lifted yesterday when the results came in and I got to see my daughter’s reaction as she opened her email from school with her results in.

Now I need to make it clear, that this has not been a “wake up in tears, book a doctor’s appointment” level stress. But it has been a timely reminder that despite all my tools and techniques I am still susceptible to stress at times. It reminded me that in all likelihood I would have been in a much worse state had I not used my daily practices and stepped up my self care.

I was also reminded that no-one is immune to invisible stress. 

 

Laura exam results

What can you do about invisible stress?

The problem with invisible stress is that you can’t see it until it is too late. You have headaches, migraines even, you over eat or under eat, you’re not sleeping, your shoulders are tight and you are really over emotional… these are all early warning signs.

I know so many teachers who are struggling with invisible stress but they have no idea and since I have just demonstrated that even I can be caught out, the only thing to do is to live every day as though you are trying to ease your stress. 

Breathe

Take lots of deep breaths, regularly. Breathe deeply into your stomach and as slowly as you can comfortably and see the difference it makes. Read more about breathing.

Meditate

I have said it a million times but meditation doesn’t have to be sitting in the lotus position and chanting. It can be as simple as walking to the shops without looking at your phone and being really aware of every step and how it feels in your body. Read more about Meditation.

Sleep

I know I go on about this too but sleeping is SO important. It is when we are asleep that our stress levels are processed and lower. Without enough sleep you are starting each day with higher stress levels than you should and you get nearer to tipping point every day. Monitoring your sleep is a great way to detect invisible stress too. Read more about Sleep.

Eat well

When you’re not eating well your body can’t function as efficiently as it should, you lack energy and don’t feel as positive. Read more about mindful eating and the benefits.

Take care of yourself

Run a bath, hug your children, go for a walk or a run, listen to your favourite music and dance around your kitchen, read a good book, eat food you enjoy, arrange to meet friends for a drink… Whatever it is that makes you really happy, do it! As often as you physically can!

 

In summary: take care of yourself all the time, whether you feel stressed or not! 

Lifting Lockdown: Helping our children adjust

Lifting lockdown has been a subject on people’s minds here in the UK for the last 7 weeks. We all know that eveything has to end. As much as most of us were concerned about the impact on our lives of going into lockdown, I think for the most part we have all adjusted, to some degree, to this new reality we are living in. 

Parents are juggling working from home and helping their children with school work. We all know that there is no such thing as “popping” to the shops now, because we may be standing in a socially distanced queue for anything up to an hour and a half. We dutifully take our hours exercise on our bikes or walking in the vicinity of our homes. 

We miss our families and friends, but to a degree at least, lockdown is our new normal.

At some point though, this will have to change. It already is. This week, more people have been advised that they can return to work and we were given a timeframe for certain age ranges returning to school.

Lifting Lockdown

With the announcement this week form the government here in the UK that our youngest children will be among the first returning to school, many are feeling understandably anxious about how this will work in a school environment.

Children aged 4 and 5 years have no concept of personal space, let alone social distancing so many Heads and leadership teams are scratching their heads at the moment and many parents are concerned for the ramifications this may have.

Teddy in a Mask

 No PPE is going to be supplied to schools. Honestly, can you imagine it being of any benefit with such young children anyway? There will just be lots of hand washing, cleaning of surfaces and equipment and social distancing, as far as possible. It is all very scary and different for everyone involved. 

How can we help our children adjust to this “post-lockdown” reality? 

Well, I think it is important to start talking to them now. 

Talk to them about how things will have to be different

Explain that they will not be able to hug their friends or hold hands.

If you haven’t already make sure you really hammer home that they must cough and sneeze into their elbow. They must wash their hands regularly and throw tissues away straight after use (somewhere safe like a dustbin, not tucked behind the nearest item of furniture!).  

As far as you can prepare them for what school will be like when they return. The fact they may be in a different classroom, have a different teacher and not all their class will be together. Explain that lunch times and play times will be different. 

It’s hard because none of us really know how this is going to work yet. But the more we can prepare them for the fact that going back to school doesn’t mean, walking back in and picking up where they left off, the better. 

Build up their immune system

Having a strong immune system is going to be vital over the coming months. Just by being isolated from the rest of the world for a few weeks our body will have relaxed it’s natural systems a little. Make sure you are eating healthily as a family. Lots of green veg and broccoli in particular is great for lung strength. Get some vitamin c and zinc or if you are able to take it echinacea. These are all great for boosting your immune system. You can get vitamin c and zinc in soluble tablets that taste like orange pop, really easy to get most children to drink. 

Stay calm

I know it’s hard. Children pick up on you being anxious about things and they assume (rightly sometimes) that there is reason for them to be scared. When we are scared our immunity is reduced so at the moment, more than ever it is important to stay calm. Do breathing exercises together, meditate if that is something you are able to do, make sure you are getting exercise every day (that helps your body to process any stress and anxiety you may be experiencing). Have a look at some of my free resources for ideas.

Play

Play is how children, especially young children, make sense of the world. Play at going back to school. Pretend that you can’t get too close to each other, make it a game. Make hand washing a game. Use teddy bears and dolls to help them get used to the idea of staying a distance away from each other. Enjoy this time together. It may feel stressful at times, but having all this extra time with our children is really special. (It has been suggested that there should be more focus on play in schools when this is over too. To read more check out this article from The Guardian.)

Sleep

 Getting enough sleep will ensure that you are able to think clearly and rationally and help you stay calm. It is also important to get enough sleep as it helps your body process stress related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.

Hugs

During lockdown there aren’t many people we are allowed to hug, but we can hug our children and we must do it often! Hugs release feel good chemicals that help us feel safe, secure and content and that is more important now than ever.

Lockdown Limits

As we prepare to begin a slow and complex return to normality it is normal to have very mixed feelings about all this. It is normal to be scared for ourselves and for our children. Many people are confused and emotional at the moment, for many reasons. As parents we want our children to return to their “normal” lives, to play with their friends and continue their education. It isn’t easy for anyone. As adults we are concerned about the physical and mental health of our loved ones, we might be worried about finances if we are unable to work. We want our children to stay up to date with their learning, but equally we want them to be happy and healthy when all this is over.

One thing is for certain, life will have to return to normal at some point. When that will be, none of us really know. We are all very much in the hands of the government, the scientists and other experts right now. I urge you though, listen to your instincts. As parents we have strong intuition when it comes to the wellbeing and safety of our children. If you feel that your child is perhaps more at risk, or others in your household are, if you feel that they will be upset by the necessary changes that will inevitably have to happen in school before they return, talk to school. Explain how you are feeling, explain your situation but ultimately do what you believe is right for your child.

 

Lockdown or no lockdown I can help!

If you are concerned about how this pandemic has affected the mental wellbeing of your children, or the children in your school, please do get in touch. As soon as I am able to safely I will be back visiting schools, running workshops and teaching both teachers and their precious students how to reduce the anxiety they have been feeling and giving them tools to stabilise their mental and physical health. If you would like to discuss this with me by all means get in touch.

 

 

Supporting your child during isolation

Isolation has come to mean something very different to most of us over recent days and weeks. Before this outbreak most of us associated isolation with the elderly or those who couldn’t easily get out and about. Now almost all of us as self-isolating, in the hope that it will slow the impact of COVID19. 

Here is the UK we are at the end of our first real week of isolation. Our schools have been closed, apart from for the children of key workers, since Monday. Teachers are doing an incredible job; sending work home, putting themselves and their families at risk going in to teach those children who have to remain in school, and sharing incredibly supportive messages to help their students through this difficult time. I take my hat off to all of you. So many people pulling together to keep the essential services of our society going.

Understandably many children are finding the changes difficult. They are suddenly being taught by their parents at home, they can’t see thier friends and everything feels a little bit strange.

Isolation tips

 

I wanted to just pop online, to give you some tips to help us all stay sane during this time.   

 

Life is very different for many people at the moment, but here is my advice. 

 

Try to keep a rough routine  

Routines give security, especially to younger children. Older children may want to embrace the flexibility that this time gives them, but with Primary aged children I recommend having some structure to the day. Many parents are even reading a register at the start of the day, having playtimes, set lunchtime etc. This makes the day feel more familiar, even if you are having lessons at the kitchen table. 

 

Don’t sweat the small stuff

We are all adjusting to this temporary reality. If your child doesn’t want to do any work today. That’s fine. Give them a cuddle and watch a film. There is plenty of time to catch up on school work, what is important right now is your child’s physical and mental wellbeing.  

 

Get plenty of exercise 

Whether it is doing Joe Wick’s Youtube workouts on a morning or having a good dance in the kitchen make sure you are getting plenty of exercise. Exercise reduces your stress levels as well as keeping you physically fit. 

 

Get dressed 

I know that we all look forward to those days when we can stay in our pjs and just relax, but we are potentially looking at 12 weeks of pj days. The novelty wears off and it can really adversely impact our wellbeing. I appreciate that we can’t necessarily get our hair cut at the moment, but we can get dressed and make a bit of an effort. It helps us to be more productive and gets us in the right mindset, especially on “school days”.

Screen time

I am not a huge fan of screen time, but there is a place for it and this might just be one of them. We all escape into our screens when we are stressed if we aren’t careful. Relaxing your screen time rules a little over the coming weeks won’t do any harm. I’m not saying you should let them have screens 24/7 but a little extra time won’t hurt. 

Look after your own mental health 

Chances are you are focused on your children at the moment, and that is great, but it is so important that you care for your own wellbeing at the moment too. You may be trying to juggle work, home schooling, worrying about; loved ones, what the future holds, finances… Make sure you take time for yourself. Take a few deep breaths if it is all getting too much and be kind to yourself. Everyone is feeling tired, stressed and emotional at times at the moment. Allow yourself to really feel these emotions and don’t give yourself a hard time if you do snap at the children, it happens. Take a deep breath and give yourself a minute then get back to it. 

I hope that helps.

The most important thing you can do right now is to love your children and make sure they know that you love them. Take time to play games, watch films, go for walks, spend time in the garden, teach them new skills. This is the perfect time to do all the things you don’t usually have time to do. Embrace the freedom that these restrictions have given many of us in terms of our time. 

Isolation resources:

I also wanted to include a list of all the amazing online resources I have come across to help you occupy your children during this time, so here goes. By all means contact me if you find any that you think I should include:

Free audio books: 

https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/uk/lifestyle/editors-choice-book-reviews/a31401009/audible-stories-free-childrens-audio-books/

David Walliams story time: 

www.worldofdavidwalliams.com

Sir Linkalot (Spellings help):

https://www.sirlinkalot.org/spellathome/ 

Joe Wicks PE lessons:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAxW1XT0iEJo0TYlRfn6rYQ 

Live Q&A sessions with Steve Backshall:

https://www.facebook.com/stevebackshallofficial/ 

Homework club with Konnie Huq:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDlSobQTc4IifJEu6Lt22eA 

Carol Vorderman’s Maths Factor:

https://www.themathsfactor.com 

Let’s Go Live Science classes:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7EdZa24fMs 

Oti Mabuse Dance classes:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC58aowNEXHHnflR_5YTtP4g 

Edinburgh Zoo webcams:

https://www.edinburghzoo.org.uk/webcams/

Wind in the Willows the Musical:

https://www.willowsmusical.com

National Theatre: 

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUDq1XzCY0NIOYVJvEMQjqw

Paris Opera and ballet:

https://www.operadeparis.fr

Royal Institute science lectures:

https://www.youtube.com/user/TheRoyalInstitution/videos

Science with Professor Brian Cox, Robin Ince & Guests:

https://cosmicshambles.com/stayathome/upcoming-schedule

 

Don’t forget all the amazing boxed sets on the iplayer.

How to spot anxiety in students

Anxiety in students is probably the biggest issue in our classrooms at the moment. 

With 1 in 3 of our teenagers diagnosed with anxiety disorders and 7% of 3-17 year olds struggling with anxiety this is not something we can ignore.

 That means that if you teach primary aged children (3-11yrs) statistically our of a class of 30 you will have at least 2 children in your class with anxiety. If you teach secondary (11-18yrs) that increases to 10 in every class of 30!

Just take a moment to let that sink in.

Do you know which of the children in your class might be struggling?

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that as a teacher you are already juggling so many observations and responsibilities that the last thing you need is to be adding mental health officer or counsellor to your job description. 

Here’s the problem though.

We can’t learn when we are feeling anxious.

 If we don’t identify the students who are feeling anxious we may be sabotaging those all important results as well as letting down our vulnerable young people. 

Why is anxiety on the rise?

There are many reasons, I’m going to list the biggest in my opinion:  

  • Greater access to information
  • Inability to escape from peers due to social media and mobiles
  • Too much screen time
  • Not enough time outside
  • Academic pressures
  • Diet
  • Sleep deprivation 

I’m not going to go into these in detail but rest assured all these factors increase anxiety levels dramatically in most people and a combination of all of them is truly toxic.

There is precious little, as teachers, that we can do about these causes of anxiety. What we need to do is to spot the signs, and of course give our students strategies to reduce their stress levels and anxiety.

What are the signs of anxiety? 

  • Feeling sick and light headed
  • Sweating
  • Needing the toilet more frequently than usual
  • Crying
  • Sore or upset stomach 
  • Blushing
  • Headaches and tense muscles
  • Teeth grinding
  • Loss of appetite or over eating
  • Trembling
  • Trouble sleeping

I know what you’re thinking. Most of these symptoms are either impossible or difficult to spot as a teacher. When you then factor in the fact that many children become incredibly skilled at hiding their symptoms, because having people knowing that they are struggling may add to their anxiety, it becomes almost impossible.

Many children develop elaborate coping mechanisms, for example “acting”. A child may create an elaborate character who is a competent student who is confident and calm and act that way at school so as not to draw attention to themselves. 

Often a child will make themselves “invisible” so that they aren’t called on to speak or demonstrate anything in class. 

Ultimately our mind is very accomplished at protecting us from anything that is threatening or scary. It keeps us safe. 

We could be crying inside with every muscle in our body so tight it feels like it might snap but we can often still paint on a smile and convince the world that we are fine. 

How can we spot those students who may be struggling with anxiety? 

Keep an eye out for students who are resistant to being seen. Those who really don’t want to read aloud, shy away from any tasks that involve being seen or scrutinised. 

Be aware of the perfectionists. Those children who always want to re-start work because something didn’t quite go as planned. Who are never happy with their finished work (if they ever finish).

Look out for the children who appear to be daydreaming a lot. They may be daydreaming (which can be an escape mechanism) but they may also be feeling lightheaded with the pressure of all the learning going on.

Spot the very physically tense children if you can. The ones who clench their jaw or who have very tight, high shoulders.

Notice patterns in behaviour: those who ask to go to the toilet more often than average, the ones who complain of a headache or stomach ache a lot. 

The children who are always tired, despite seemingly having sensible bedtime routines.

None of these are exclusively symptoms of anxiety, but they may be, and if those same children are then underperforming in tests or bursting into tears unexpectedly or over reacting to seemingly small situations, you may do well to check on them.

Most young people won’t tell you that they are feeling anxious or scared. They will communicate their need for help in other ways; they may act out, ask you to play with them, tell you their tummy/head hurts, they are tired. They may constantly ask for help understanding things. This can be a combination of struggling to focus due to the anxiety, tiredness and wanting to let you know that they are struggling.

I appreciate that this is a lot to look out for and a lot to take in. So I am going to break this blog into two parts, the next part will be giving you more advice and giving practical ways to help your students who may be struggling with anxiety.

Other blogs you may find interesting:

Anxiety in Teenagers 

Academic Anxiety

 

You can COUNT on Mindfulness

When we are asked to introduce new things into the classroom there is often an assumption that it is going to mean lots of preparation, lots of work and generally big stress! 

This really doesn’t have to be the case with wellbeing and in particular mindfulness. There are so many very simple techniques and minor adjustments you can make that will have a huge impact on your wellbeing and that of your students. 

One of the simplest techniques you can use is counting. This is particularly brilliant if you teach young children who are newly confident when counting because it reinforces their maths learning too. You can also differentiate the activity so that you count in 2s, 5s, 10s etc to make it more complicated for older children.  

How do we count for mindfulness?

It’s really very simple.

Simply explain to the children that you are going to start counting (it can be in 1s, 2s, 5s, 10s, forwards, backwards, etc whatever is relevant to your class) but tell them you are going to continue to count quietly in your heads after the first 3 numbers. They can close their eyes, use their fingers, whatever they need. You give them a target number to get to and once they reach that number ask them to silently raise their hand. Tell them you want to see if you can all get to the number at the same time. 

You can practise this many time with different target numbers, using times tables etc.

You can even use the alphabet, songs or nursery rhymes. The important thing is that they are focused solely on the one task in hand. They can’t be thinking about other things, messing with their friend or their shoe, because if they do they won’t be able to reach the target at the right time.  

I told you it was simple didn’t I?

 

If you want to discover many other simple wellbeing strategies why not check out my FREE Resources page.

Meditation – It’s not what you think!

Meditation is a word that wasn’t used much when I was growing up but over the last few years it has grown in popularity to an extraordinary degree. 

For years if anyone mentioned meditation we pictured someone sitting in the lotus position with their hands in a mudra, while chanting “Ommmmm”. This stereotype is I’m sure what many people imagine when someone suggests that they meditate.  

Fortunately for me you don’t have to conform to this image, although you can if you wish to of course. My legs are long and my feet are big and my joints are damaged by my acromegaly so twisting myself into the lotus position is impossible, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t meditate every single day. I meditate while I’m waiting to collect my son from school, while I do the housework and as I go to sleep most nights.

So what is meditation?

What does meditation mean?

Well, it isn’t quite as limited as many believe. Here is the definition according to the online Oxford dictionary:
verb
  1. focus one’s mind for a period of time, in silence or with the aid of chanting, for religious or spiritual purposes or as a method of relaxation.
    “I set aside time every day to write and meditate”
    • think deeply about (something).
      “he went off to meditate on the new idea”
    • plan mentally; consider.
      “they had suffered severely, and they began to meditate retreat”
      (Oxford Online Dictionary)

Personally I use two types of meditation:

  • focusing my mind on an issue or subject and either studying or letting my mind find a solution
  • trying to empty my mind as much as possible and just relax

I find both incredibly useful one for finding answers and both for calming my mind. I’m sure others would say that either there is only one form of meditation or there are countless, and both are probably right. Whichever method I am using the result is my brain is calm and my body feels restored. 

I don’t tend to chant or make any noise at all while I am meditating. However, I do use singing as meditation, and always have since I was very young. It is one of my favourite ways of calming my body and clearing my mind. Does that count as a different method? For me it is focusing on one thing and letting my mind find a solution. It is very different to sitting in silence with a problem I need resolving though so maybe it is?   

I also use work and manual tasks such as gardening, baking, decorating, cleaning the car as meditation. Whether it is creating something like a worksheet, digging up weeds, stirring a batter or kneading a dough, painting a wall or polishing the car it is possible to focus so completely on the task in hand that you lose yourself in the moment… meditation.   

I focus on the task in hand and I forget everything else for a few minutes, or even hours. This is meditation.   

Often when I am writing I find the solutions to problems I have been having the same way I would when I sit in silent meditation, so writing works for me as meditation too.  

Reading a book can be meditative. You focus whole heartedly on the task in hand and escape into another world. It is incredibly calming and relaxing too. 

Painting or creating of any form can be meditation. Whether you create using clay or wool or wood you can turn it into a meditative practice. 

Walking is a very popular form of meditation. Many people walk labyrinths or just walk mindfully in nature as a form a meditation.  

Dance and yoga can be meditative, going for a run can be meditative.  

Meditation is so often about how you do something rather than what you are doing.  

So the next time someone recommends that you try meditation to help you with your stress, anxiety or depression, don’t dismiss it because you can’t sit still and chant.   

Whatever works for you, the important thing is to take time to really concentrate on the task in hand. Switch off from your planning, step away from your worries, turn off technology and just be present doing whatever you are doing. 

The reason, I believe, that meditation has become so popular over the last few years is because our lives have become so busy. we see it as a badge of honour if we are juggling more than someone else. The busier we are the more important we must be. We never stop and just pay attention to what is happening here and now.  As a result we are exhausting our brains and we never give our minds time to rest and recharge so our mental health struggles. 

Taking just 5 minutes a day to meditate in some form is life changing. Obviously the longer you can manage the better.  

“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” – Zen Proverb 

Other blogs that may interest you: 

Saana Meditation Cushions

“Colouring in” as meditation

 

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: