For my Fellow Empaths

Mental health check-in board in my classroom (made by a student!)

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while now, but I couldn’t get my mind wrapped around what all I wanted to say. Finally, here I am. I have been thinking a lot lately about wellness, mental health, and what that looks like for myself and others. I have always considered myself to be a people person, and time and time again I am labeled the same in personality tests as someone who is highly sensitive to others, and just sensitive in general. I am a feeler; I feel things really deeply, I take on the joys, sorrows, and stresses of others, and I have had to work really hard to get to a place in my life where I feel like I am able to manage that in a healthy way. I just want everyone to be okay – for there to be peace and harmony and balance – and it is overwhelming sometimes to know that I can’t control that for anyone but myself. So I comfort myself by doing my little part, and this post is a challenge for you to do the same.

During October, mental health awareness week is observed. We make sure to illuminate this on social media or mention it to people if we hear about it in time, but in my opinion, mental health awareness should just be a way of life. Taking care of ourselves and checking in on those we care about should be something we do on a daily basis. We all deserve to be seen, heard, and reached out to with care. When is the last time you asked your parents, your friends, your significant other, or your colleagues if they are feeling good, if things are going okay for them, or if there is anything they need? When is the last time you asked these same questions of yourself, the person you have to spend the most time with? It doesn’t have to be serious or heavy, but it should be sincere – and my worry is not that people don’t care, but more likely, that people are too busy trying to make it through their own hectic life that they aren’t stopping to ask anyone else if they could use a leg up or a kind few words of encouragement in the process.

In 2017, I saw a documentary and a TED Talk that changed the way I look at everything. I have always been a feeler and a people person, like I said, but for the first time, I finally had my hands on some real science that made everything click. The documentary is called Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope. It illuminates the alarming results of a massive research study conducted in the mid ’90s, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. The ACEs study correlated childhood traumas in the home before the 18th birthday to negative health outcomes later in life, and the results were staggering in shining the light on the connection between psychology and physiology. Trauma – real trauma – literally changes our DNA and our body’s stress response system to make us more susceptible to serious health conditions later in life, not to mention the emotional effects. Most importantly for my work as a teacher, trauma can cause serious behavior and learning problems in school, and can make things like ADHD easier to misdiagnose. The accompanying TED Talk that gives a background of the ACEs study and a call to action is linked here by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris – take 15 minutes and watch it when you can. For the last two years, I have been reading everything I can get my hands on about the effects of trauma on our adult health and on the developing bodies of children and teens – particularly with a lens to be a better educator and help teen students navigate through levels of anxiety and depression that are higher than ever before. My passion with education has always been the human interactions, the relationships, and the lasting memories from the students in my classroom.

I recently saw a video on Instagram, and you may have seen it by now, too – a coach at a high school embracing a student who came to school with a gun. Due to working in a high school, obviously this possibility lives in the back of my mind at all times, and it is chilling – to say the least. But what a display of absolute heroism and compassion that man showed, simply by giving grace and love instead of potentially escalating the situation into something violent by taking a different approach. In the video, the teenager is clearly unstable, flailing his arms around, shouting and crying, hugging the coach back, pushing him away, hugging him again…it is clear that he needs help. I’m not saying we have to hug every threat that comes our way, or that we shouldn’t place consequences on behavior that puts the safety of others in jeopardy…but something has got to give. The video was a strong example for me of the delicate balance of humanity. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death in NC between the ages of 10-17. Yes, you read that right, age TEN to seventeen. We are losing people and we don’t have the resources in place to be able to help them, or to help ourselves when we are run down from trying to carry out the emotional work of educating children. We have compassion fatigue, we have secondary trauma, we have burnout, we have exhaustion. Not to mention, we also have our own stuff to deal with and work through. Wanting to help is not enough. We need action, we need to build resilience, and we need support and resources for when our batteries are too drained to continue to help charge others. This article does a good job of expressing the need for help in dealing with secondary trauma. This one too, for all my teacher friends!

We need more kindness, more grace, more compassion. The world needs to stop blaming others and tearing people down with judgments and passive aggressive remarks. It costs nothing to smile at someone, to check in on someone who seems like they are struggling, or to thank someone for something they did that mattered to you. It is completely free to give someone a break, to put a hand to a shoulder, or to hold someone close when they are crying or on the edge. We have to stop saying people should “suck it up” and “deal with it,” because actually dealing with it looks a lot different than ignoring it and sweeping it under the rug. We have no idea of someone else’s story, and I can say this firsthand through learning things about students’ lives that make my stomach flop and my hair stand on end. The effects of stress and trauma are long-lasting and literally health-damaging. People need to know that they can count on someone, that it’s okay to reach out for help, and that they are not alone on whatever road they’re walking on. It’s daily acts of kindness, love, grace, and compassion – no matter how small or seemingly insignificant – that keep people floating instead of drowning. And the more we all practice these things, the kinder the world becomes.

One day, care plans for trauma and ACEs will just be part of our routine screenings/physicals and education plans. This article details Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ plan to implement these changes in education – but it is going to take time, and it is going to take all of us. Mental health awareness isn’t just suicide prevention day, or a week during a month of the year. It is every day, it is lifelong. We all need to be okay, and to know how to start working towards it if we’re not. To know that it’s okay to admit we might need some help – and to know that help will be there if we can take the brave step to ask for it. It’s not huge, grand gestures that make the difference, it is small everyday tasks that can change the course for someone who is struggling. The world already has enough negativity and skepticism. What if we all took a small part in spreading something better around?

Mental health & trying to keep it together

photo by j parker photography

This post is for when you feel like life is getting the best of you.

I ran into a colleague of mine recently while I was working at a coffee shop, and he encouraged me to write this post on mental health – how to keep it together when it feels like you have too many things going on (he’s getting his doctoral degree). I’ve written about that sort of thing before, but I’ve never really written a “how to” post. I certainly don’t have a magic recipe or a button to push to make all of life’s hard things disappear.  But I’m always happy to share my own experiences and give advice, so this post is about what always works for me when I’m feeling way too overloaded. These tips have gotten me through graduate school, juggling several jobs, heartache, loss, and more.

This new school year is already proving to be a challenge for me. I can’t seem to keep my head above water and every day is a constant to-do list that doesn’t even get halfway accomplished. Clubs, department chair, budget, committees, lesson plans and grading – I have never been this behind on grading so early on. On top of that, add a second job, keeping up with this blog, trying to exercise, 2 dogs, friends, family, etc…you get the picture. I’m sure you also have your own list! I really started to feel overwhelmed this week and even as I sit here, I’m trying to squeeze in writing a blog post after school before leaving for my second job at the pub. SO. I am also writing this post as a reminder to myself of the steps I need to take so I can keep my sanity and not completely fall apart.

People frequently ask me how I’m always so positive, happy, upbeat, etc. or tell me that I always seem “put together.” I’ve gotten that comment (compliment!) a lot in my life, and I can guarantee you that I do not always have it together – I’m just really good at faking it ’til I make it! But I do tend to stay pretty positive and I try to look at life’s hardships as a growing process and as problems with solutions, rather than letting them ruin my life. Here are the steps I take when life is really sticking it to me and I feel like I’m about to explode:

1. Take a breath. The cheesiest, most overused cure on the planet – but if people would just take a second and actually breathe in and out a few times, the world would probably definitely be a much better place. Breathing does a few things, and there is a lot of science behind it, but I’ll save that for another time because I know I can get long-winded (see what I did there?). Breathing gives you a few moments between stimulus and response:  The moment something “happens to you” and however you decide to react to it. If you’re taking a few moments to just breathe in and out, you are saving yourself from overreacting, saying something you’ll regret later, breaking something, etc. You have a few seconds to think about how you want to respond. Doing this simple task – breathing – and being aware of it, has literally changed my life and my whole outlook on it.

2. Allow yourself to wallow – but not for long. It is okay to feel overwhelmed and upset. It is okay to feel like life isn’t fair sometimes, or like you don’t deserve “all of this,” whatever “this” is for you. I get it. So take that time to really get a good “Dang, this sucks” moment in for yourself, and then remind yourself that you are done feeling sorry for yourself because you have mountains to move. At some point you have to dust yourself off and start making a plan. You just have to. Otherwise, you’ll get stuck in the dark place, and that is a hard place to pull yourself out of.

3. Distance yourself from whatever you need to. Give yourself space. Remember up there in #1, where I talked about stimulus and response? We often respond too quickly to a situation, a conversation, or a moment of frustration without giving it some time and space for thinking about it. If it’s school, work, social problems, whatever it might be, give yourself some distance. Physically walk away from whatever it is and take a break. Get some air, think about your feelings, all that good stuff. Weigh your options and then respond/act once you’ve been able to process everything. I wrote more about that here.

4. Vent to a non-judgmental ear. Sometimes we just need to get it out. Find that person that can listen to you without reminding you later what you said when you were stressed out. A sounding board that can understand you’re just having a moment and need someone to say, “I hear you,” and not, “I told you so.” Typically in these moments we aren’t looking for advice – we just need to be heard and validated. There is value in that. I believe there is true healing in just getting bad things out of your brain and into the open, whether that’s in writing, talking to friends or family, or even talking to a trained professional.

5. Prioritize. Make lists! Even if making lists isn’t your thing and it doesn’t bring you satisfaction like it does to me (which I can’t even begin to understand), making lists is the number one way to make sure you can accomplish all you need to accomplish – and in the order that it all needs to get done! So you’ve had your time to feel sorry for yourself, and now you have to make a plan on how you’re going to make it through. I usually keep several lists – for to-dos at home/errands, things I need to do at school, a list for the blog, a list for pictures I need to take for the blog, a list of workouts and groceries for the week, etc. You can do this easily on your phone, too. I set a million reminders a day and Siri always comes through for me if I don’t come through for myself. There are tasks that have to get done RIGHT NOW, and things that can always get done later, so put dates or times next to your items. Prioritize and then get to work. Focus on one thing at a time. Then the next thing. Then the next. And let me tell you, life doesn’t stop, so your lists will keep getting longer, but as you start crossing things off, it balances out. Even people who fly by the seat of their pants have to have a plan of attack if things are ever going to get accomplished.

6.  Do not be too proud to ask for help. I cannot stress enough that we are only human. We are not magical superheroes with more than 24 hours in a day or limitless energy and peppiness. If someone asks if you want help with something, or if you want to split something up, and you’re about to seriously go off the deep end, let. Them. Help. You. Give up the control and let someone know you are overloaded. There is no shame in admitting that you have a lot going on and could really use a little help. Then, the next time you’re feeling more on top of things, maybe you can pay it forward and help someone else who’s fighting to keep their head above water. It feels good to know we are needed, so let someone know you need them!

7. Be physically active. This is so key to keeping it together, and it is usually where I fall short, so I get it. You’ve heard the saying, “A tired dog is a good dog?” The same applies for humans! You may not be chewing up your favorite pair of shoes, but without releasing your negative energy, tension, and stress from your day-to-day life, you are going to be bottling up some pretty serious stuff, and when it has no outlet, it starts to leak like poison. No matter what you believe, you can’t deny the scientific proof that exercises releases endorphins. It also helps give you some head space and clear your thoughts. I know – you’re busy. You don’t have time to exercise, you’re too tired to exercise, you’ve got a million other things to do. But I promise you the payoff is so worth it. You can read all about how yoga changed my life here, but I also love to walk my dogs, do tabata circuits, and lift weights! Anything that gets you moving is better than sitting around feeling too overwhelmed to be productive. You will never regret it afterwards.

8. Check in with yourself throughout the day. Something that makes a huge difference for me is being mindful and aware of how I am feeling. That sounds so obvious, but a lot of us don’t stop to think about the why. We just go through the motions without thinking about what’s going on in our bodies or minds. Am I tired? Cranky? Does something just not feel right? Did something happen that made me feel this way? Am I clenching my teeth or wrinkling my forehead or tensing up my shoulders? Throughout the day I have to constantly remind myself to breathe deeply, unclench my teeth, and relax my shoulders. Those are the three biggest ways I can quickly just feel calmer. Make sure you’re checking in on yourself and taking care of your needs.

9. Fake it ’til you make it. My high school students can’t believe that I am “always in such a good mood.” What’s my secret? The secret is I’m not always in a good mood! But I DO believe that moods are contagious, and if you can fake it and put on a good face – even if it’s just to yourself – you can really help frame your mood, your day, and the moods of those around you. I’m not saying you have to act like Little Miss Sunshine, but even little things like not complaining when someone asks how your day is going can make a huge difference. Smile and tell yourself that you can handle this and have this covered, and then remind yourself of that as you start to take one thing at a time.

10. Celebrate. Life is short, and adulting is hard, and if we don’t give ourselves things to look forward to or celebrate our accomplishments, then what’s the point? When you cross a big thing off your list, or when you complete something you’ve been working on for a long time, do something that you enjoy, buy yourself a new something, treat yoself. Make plans with people you love and just go celebrate the fact that we are all making it through somehow. I think that’s something we deserve to celebrate, don’t you?!

Finally, and I think maybe most importantly, is to just be realistic with yourself and know when too much is really too much. Everyone has a different threshold level for how much they can pile on their plate. You have to be able to admit to yourself when your metaphorical food is about to splatter all over the floor. If you are focusing on too many things at once, you can’t do everything well. Sometimes you have to look at what’s really important and let go of one or two other things – even if it is only for now, until you can clear some space in your life. I continue to re-learn this every so often, but at least I’m really good at telling other people what to do 😉

 

I really hope this helps even one person out there who may be feeling overwhelmed like I am right now. We are going to be okay – we have to be! The world keeps on turning and life keeps on going. The sun will rise tomorrow and it is up to us to choose the tone of our days. Today, let’s choose joy.

Oh, and if you’re wondering…I didn’t get the post finished before my shift. That’s life! 🙂