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  • Jesse Williams, LPC-MHSP

Going Back to School: A School Professional's Guide to Dealing with Coronavirus Stress & Anxiety

Coronavirus has shaken things up to say the least. It's brought uncertainty, death, troubled finances, grief, chaos, and political arguments. And in the process, so many people have been left with stress, anxiety, and fear. That's something many people have experienced, regardless of their job. Yet the other day, a friend of mine--- who works within the school system-- ask me to do a blogpost about the anxiety, stress, and fear that many school employees are facing as they get ready to return to school. After all, our school employees are facing an uncharted territory, and they are finding themselves on the frontline of the virus and in the spotlight of society.

But in order to do so, I felt that I need the perspective of the school employees. So I reached out to the school professionals within my own network. I decided that I needed to hear the stories. I needed to hear the fears and stressors and worries. And I realized during the process that we all need to hear their stories. Why? Because many of these problems that are being faced by school employees echo the anxieties and fears throughout our society right now. Because these are our fellow human beings who are experiencing a new territory that's leaving them worried and scared. Because we need to live in a world where we hear, respect, and honor the narratives of our fellow people. So, while I write this post from a school system perspective, I encourage all to read and explore these ideas. I felt that this is a topic many people can relate to, whether you are a worried parent, an anxious cashier, or an overworked nurse.

Top Ten Worries

As I spoke with these various individuals in the school system, I began to realize that nearly all of the responses were within the same themes, yet the themes themselves were pretty diverse. I decided to compile the results into a top ten list to show the fears/worries/struggles that were most often voiced (in order from most reported theme to least reported):

1. Fear of the constant changes/fear of the unknown.

2. Worry over catching coronavirus/students catching coronavirus.

3. Worry about students/employees spreading coronavirus to family members and friends.

4. Fear that students will not feel loved/heard/noticed (especially in online situations).

5. Worry over not having all the answers/not living up to expectations of others.

6. Fear of keeping up with their jobs amidst all of the added safety procedures and precautions.

7. Fear of people disrespecting employees and forgetting that they are humans doing their bests.

8. Worried over students not getting what they need (extra help, pat on the back, a smile).

9. Fear of the the aftermath of contracting coronavirus (spouse's losing work, family members quarantining, student's parents having to miss work).

10. Fear of the polarization/politicalization of masks/research/virus.

The Perspectives

The above list gives a broad view of what these school employees are facing, and yet, the perspectives of the individuals bring these worries and fears to life. Here are a few that incapsulate the struggles facing the school community: Pam, a teacher: "I will be teaching three groups synchronously - one group in person, another group whose day it is to stay home, and yet the other group who signed up for total online semester. I worry if I will be able to give them the time they deserve, if I can manage all of this and give the time needed to those who are actually in person (There are so many potential issues with online learning). Can I make sure they all feel 'seen'?" Kathy, a paraprofessional: "I work with kindergarteners who will be in a new environment. Can I put my arm around them and comfort them? It’s hard to see a smile through a mask. So much of learning is active and social."

Shelby, a student teacher who is working on her Masters in Elementary Education: "We are just worried how to connect with our students academically and socially when bombarded with so many other safety protocols. How do we section off these stresses during our lessons when we’re in front of our kids so that we can simply focus on the learning side of things?"

Billie, a teacher: "I am anxious about getting sick. I am worried about the health of my colleagues and students and their families. I am anxious about students not being in school because I worry about both their educational needs and social/emotional ones that are not being met."

Kenita, an administrator: "As an administrator, my biggest anxiety is not having all the answers for my parents, staff, etc....I've only been out of the classroom 5 years now, so I always look from a teacher's perspective. It's scary for everyone. It's my job to take on my teachers' burdens so that they can get in there and do what they love.... They already have [so] much to do. Invest in what you expect; I expect excellence from them so I make sure they have what they need to be excellent, especially emotionally.”

Sabrina, a teacher: "We make mistakes. We are just as afraid as everyone else. We are responsible for SO MUCH more than just teaching content and many don’t realize the pressure that comes with the job, often with little support. Corona isn’t helping matters, it’s just adding to the list of things we must accomplish."

Susan, a college professor: "Yes. I will be scared in the classroom, I confess. And teaching is always hard, anyway, under the best of situations. So many egos and tender spirits in one room, yet it's my job to get students out of their comfort zone. How do I do that if I don't have myself in some kind of confident head space?"

How to Deal

With so many worries and fears and anxieties, it's no wonder that school employees are trying to figure out how to successfully move through this upcoming school year. Many are scratching their heads, wondering how can they navigate all of the constant changes and still keep themselves healthy enough to provide the energy that they need to do their jobs. Together, with the collaboration of the school professionals that helped me with this post, I've compiled a list of suggestions/tips/techniques for successfully moving through this difficult, new frontier:

#1 Take Care of Yourself (First and Foremost).

Many of the school professionals I spoke with explored the idea that teachers tend to place their own needs on the back burner in order to focus on taking care of others. And yet, taking care of self is a necessary piece of managing this time.

From a therapy perspective, this is important for anyone dealing with transition of any form. Anxiety is often created by transition and change, yet paying attention to your overall health can create a serious cushion for dealing with the punches of change. Just by taking care of your health, you'll naturally limit some of the anxiety, stress, or fear that you may have otherwise experienced. And health is far more than just getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising, etc. It's a holistic process that involves multiple practices. If you want to start working on your holistic health, check out this previous blogpost that was dedicated to taking care of holistic health.

Everyone's self-care looks a little different, and that's okay. Taking care of self sometimes looks like small, intentional decisions to push you in the right direction. Kenita, an administrator, stated that taking a 10-minute breather outside in order to collect her thoughts was helpful for her. Kathy, a paraprofessional, discussed how putting time into connecting spiritually/praying/grounding self in faith was helpful for her to navigate this time. Billie, a teacher, discussed how balance between staying in the know and taking care of self by monitoring stress levels was important for her to take care of herself. So maybe self-care looks like taking a break from Facebook or limiting the amount of time you spend watching news reports. Maybe it looks like going for a jog when you get home. Maybe it looks like a meditation before you go to bed. It's all about finding balance, and it's all about exploring what holistic health looks like for you.

#2 Planning, Curveballs, and Shortcomings.

Several of the professionals stated that "Teachers are planners," and that often goes for many people within the school system. Planning is a great way of preparing and helping us not feel overwhelmed. Plan for what you can. Prepare for what you can. Kick procrastination out the door and get stuff done to lighten your load for once school starts back. And for the stuff you can't control or that you can't plan? Practice letting it go. Instead of getting hung up on failures and shortcomings, try accepting the fact that stuff doesn't go as planned. That sometimes we fall short. Sometimes we fall apart. That mishaps are going to happen. And that's okay. Yet it often doesn't feel okay. In fact, sometimes it just feels like fear or sadness or guilt or frustration.

A great way to start facing the fear, guilt, sadness, and regret and to begin working on acceptance is to journal those feelings out. Try making a habit of sitting down each night to write about your day. Pick up a notebook from a store. Turn to the first page, place the date, and write "Dear Diary" (or Jesus, Great Spirit, Universe, Higher Self, whoever you think would listen with love). Then tell your narrative. Explore the good/bad/ugly. Tell the story of your day. If you make a habit of setting time aside each day to honor and explore those emotions, your mind won't feel quite as eager to have them come up at random throughout other times. And if you get stuck on some emotions, try using the Medicine Wheel to process those feelings. I've talked about the Medicine Wheel processing approach multiple times in these past blogposts. It's a great way to conceptualize the movement of emotion (from thought to feeling to physical to spiritual) and move yourself from stuck to enlightened.

#3 See the Bigger Picture: Choosing Positive Perspective.

A couple of the professionals I spoke with talked about how having a personal mantra was helpful for them. Mantras are repeated phrases we tell ourselves in order to replace negative self-talk, like "I can't do it," or "But I've always done it this way." Shelby, a student teacher I spoke with, suggested such mantras as “I am doing the best that I can,” “I am capable,” “I will be taken care of,” “Even if this is all a fail in the fall, I am still worthy and loved by so many,” or “This does not change who I am as a person." And remember: you don't want to disregard or cram the negatives (channel those into your journaling!), but sometimes intentionally shifting our focus can provide some quick relief to get through until we're able to process those feelings out.

Other school professionals talked about trying to keep a gratitude journal (list 3 things you are thankful for each day; no repeats) or trying to make a list of the lives they had touched in their school jobs. They stated that they found shifting the focus away from this singular moment in time to the greater perspective of their entire journey to be empowering and uplifting.

You can also try bringing in archetypes as a way of refocusing, enlightening, and empowering yourself. Choose an archetype that could help you be more flexible with change (The River), more focused (The Knight), or more care-free (The Eternal Child).

#4 Be Kind and Supportive.

A common theme throughout nearly all of my conversations with my school professional friends was this: we are all in this together. Lean on each other. Have compassion for each other. Have compassion for the teachers. For the adminstrators. For the paraprofessionals. For the students. The parents. The cafeteria workers. You are not alone. As Kenita, an administrator, stated, "We will not survive this without each other. Be slow to anger, quick to understand and connect. Listen to others' concerns."

This also includes being real with students. Let them know you have worry. Let them know your concerns and fears.

But most importantly, let them know how to handle that. Teach them self-care skills. Teach them to engage emotion and to process it (not cram it or ignore it). Hold a space for students to be able to be real and express their own fears and concerns. Turn this into an excellent opportunity to teach students the importance of community, self-care, and taking care of each other. Remember, students model what the adults in their lives do. As you learn and navigate the stresses and fears of the school year, you are modeling for them how to do the same. Teach them stress management. Teach them acceptance of emotion. Teach them concern and love and compassion.

Susan, a college professor, summed this up beautifully: “Students need teachers to be real. To treat them as fellow humans, with respect and love and dignity. That’s our job this fall more than anything out of a textbook.”

#5 Manage the Panic

So, what if you've tried self-care, planning, and exploring emotion; and you end up knee deep in a panic attack during the middle of the day? Try these tips:

--Ground yourself in the now. The best way to do this is to check in with your senses. Try naming 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you feel, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste.

--Breathe intentionally. Breathe in through your nose while counting to four. Hold your breath and count to seven. Slowly release your breath to the count of eight.

--Acknowledge and accept the panic attack. Try to engage it. Allow it to have space, grounding yourself in the knowledge that it is a panic attack and that they are self-limiting.

--Do a guided meditation or visualization that you are in a safe place.

--Focus on an archetype that would provide help and breathe in that energy.

#6 Know When to Get Help.

If you feel unable to stop panic attacks or the anxiety and fears are becoming too intense, try reaching out to a mental health professional. Psychology Today provides a great resource for finding a therapist in your area. Sometimes just having an outsider listen and ask questions can give you the chance to see things from a new perspective and push through those mental and emotional blocks.

We're in This Together

While these perspectives are unique to the world of the school system, the themes throughout them are being felt by so many people within society.

How many of us...

Feel that we already have so many responsibilities (and things expected of us) and that coronavirus is just adding more and more to the list? Feel that we are being spread too thin? Feel that people are looking to us for answers that we do not have? Feel fearful for our health or the health of our loved ones, coworkers, or friends?

Feel like we just can't get into the right head space to be able to do our jobs the way they need to be done?

Feel difficulty connecting to others, whether at work or home?

Feel like we can't keep up with safety protocols?

If you do, try using some of the above techniques to move through this difficult coronavirus period. Try journaling, working archetypes, taking a breather, connecting with others. Try giving and showing compassion. After all, we really are all in this together.


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