Coronavirus: 7 way to protect your mental health

During these unprecedented times, it is more important than ever to focus on your wellbeing - Jo Steer offers some tips

Coronavirus: How teachers can protect their mental health

With news of coronavirus dominating the headlines and toilet roll hitting the endangered species list, even the most level-headed among us will be feeling worry and anxiety.

The first thing to recognise is that feeling that way is normal. Considering the abnormality of this situation that seems to be playing out across the globe, it’s completely OK not to feel OK right now.

Spiralling into panic, however, rarely helps anything. Or anyone.

Protecting teachers' wellbeing amid the coronavirus outbreak

So whether you’re still in school or teaching from home, the following steps will help you to remain realistic, resourceful and calm as we move through these uncharted waters:

1. Note thoughts and feelings as positive, negative or neutral

Take a few minutes out, sit comfortably and close your eyes. Take your attention to your breath, placing a hand on your stomach if you wish, and trying to stay in this one place.

When your attention is pulled away, mentally note whether it’s by a thought or a feeling, and then whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Feel free to raise an arm or squeeze a fist to add extra acknowledgement to this process.

If you’re dealing with a constant stream of negative thoughts, like a radio station forever playing in the background, this technique allows you to put a little distance between you and those thoughts; to turn the volume down; to become more of an observer than a participant.

2. Circle of control

Grab yourself some scrap paper and draw a circle within a circle. In the inner circle, write down the things that are within your control and, on the outer circle, the things that aren’t.

You’re sure to find that while there are things we can control – your words and tone, breath and body language, whether we wash our hands or not – but there’s a whole lot that we can’t right now.

Keep questioning whether your thoughts revolve around that which you can control or that which you can’t. If it’s the latter, take your attention (and action) towards what you can.

3. Keep questioning yourself

Your feelings are often a direct result of the thoughts that you’re listening to.

Therefore, if you keep finding yourself in a less-than-pleasant mood or experiencing less-than-pleasant feelings, it might be useful to go right to the source and ask yourself: what thoughts am I listening to/believing right now?

I get the best results here when I write down my thoughts as a stream of consciousness. If you’re talking yourself through apocalypse scenarios, it stands to reason that you won’t feel particularly relaxed.

Here, I suggest asking some better questions (and writing down the answers):

  • How could I look at this differently?
  • If I weren’t afraid, what might I believe that’s different to what I’m believing now?
  • What might a wise friend say to me in this situation?
  • What action could I take that might allow me to feel more at ease?

4. Disrupt the image

If, for you, negative thoughts play out more like movie scenes – if news headlines trigger mental rehearsals of The Walking Dead – you’ll probably feel less zen and more panic-stricken.  

Strive to notice when you’ve drifted off and pull your attention back to the present moment – through breath, feet, sounds in the room, etc.

And if the negative thoughts come back? My go-to here is an old Paul McKenna technique based on disrupting the images and changing the tone from serious to silly.

Let’s say you’re imagining yourself in Asda, going to war over the last carton of semi-skimmed milk. How are you picturing your opponent? As an angry, great beast of a person… or someone in their underwear, wearing a Georgian wig and tap shoes?

Sounds bananas I know, but trust me – few dystopian day dreams can survive silly costumes and a Benny Hill soundtrack.

And if it doesn’t make you laugh, it should at least distract you from worry.

5. Be honest

If you’re at home with the kids, the pressure of "putting on a brave face" amid all of this uncertainty might well amplify the stress that you’re experiencing.

And what if we slip up? What if they catch a glimpse of how we’re really feeling? We need to remember that children are often much more understanding than we give them credit for. Perceptive, too.

Having an honest conversation whereby you explain that you’re still "finding your feet" in this unusual situation – that feeling worried/afraid is a natural part of that – is surely a whole lot better than pretending that everything is wonderful… which many will see right through anyway (and it could potentially lead to them worrying more!).

Indeed, if you’re willing to open up a little, you may well empower your children to speak up about thoughts and feelings that otherwise might have remained hidden.

6. Build firm boundaries and routines at home

While working from home most definitely has its perks, it has its drawbacks, too. If you don’t want to end up completely frazzled, work to maintain firm boundaries and routines.

This might mean deciding at the start of the day on a cut-off time when the laptop goes away and the phone goes on silent/upside down.

It might mean checking your emails at three different times (e.g., 9am, 1pm and 4pm) rather than constantly refreshing, from morning to night.

Perhaps, it’s about keeping all of your "work stuff" located in one place in the house so as to not infect your entire home life with its presence.

Take a proactive approach and consider where you’re likely to slip up and fall into unhealthy habits over the coming weeks, before employing preventative measures.

If you know, for example, that you can’t resist the ping of the phone, no matter what time it goes off, have it on silent after the cut-off time.

Better still, turn it over and keep it out of reaching distance. Make it harder for you to do the unhealthy thing and easier to do the opposite.

7. Mental diet and exercise

Speaking of unhealthy habits, I’ve found that my phone is by far the biggest trigger of anxiety over the past few weeks.

Naturally, we’re eager to get the latest news on this changing situation, day by day. Just remember that continuously scrolling through news and my social media feed is the fastest way to feeling awful. Boundaries, remember?

Lastly, if you are at home, that doesn’t mean you have to stay still. Finding ways to move, whether it’s squatting in front of YouTube (check out The Body Coach TV for some fantastically short, sweaty sessions) or simply doing some housework, is a sure way to improve your mood and mindset.

Jo Steer is a teacher and wellbeing expert

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