This article is written by Claire Holmes who is Head of Counselling at Tanglin Trust School and a Certified Mindfulness teacher.
PDF can be downloaded here.
As we emerge from lockdown and adapt to our ‘new normal’ for most of us, it is going to be a mixed bag of emotions. This blog explores finding steadiness during the transition by being aware of thoughts, finding a pause button and gaining steadiness amidst change.
Thoughts can be tricky
Thoughts are important and worth paying attention to. They are our running commentary and perception of the world. Each of us has a constant stream of thoughts coming and going. At times of transition their flow may get faster and louder.
Increased ‘thought traffic’ is our natural response in changeable times. Not knowing how things are going to turn out is unsettling. Our minds tend to project into the future to fill the space of uncertainty with “What-if” thoughts. Before we know it, one of these “What-ifs” spirals into a story of how things are going to go wrong. It is all too easy to get swept along with our own narrative. We are pre-programmed to keep ourselves safe from threat in this way.
These mental simulations activate our fear response and we believe them to be real. We start to see these thoughts as truth. Our brains actively look for evidence in our environment to support these beliefs. This becomes our filter of how we see the world and these thoughts become our reality. Before long, the thought that began it all, which may or may not be true has begun to pull us all over the place mentally.
However, we are not our thoughts. They flow through us; they arise linger and dissolve again. It’s our weaving of stories around the thought that sucks us into believing them. Seeing thoughts as mental events that are not real, acknowledging that they are not facts helps us to reduce our reactivity.
Engaging a pause button
Our body lets us know when we get wrapped up in unhelpful thinking. Experience of this varies from person to person, it might be a racing heart, shorter breaths, butterflies in the tummy or sweating. We may be able to articulate that we feel a certain way, scared, anxious or sad for example. Noticing any of these gives you the opportunity to slow things down and ask; “What am I telling myself?” Our tendency is to push difficult or uncomfortable thoughts away, but this may only be helpful in the moment. They will most likely re-surface. Engaging curiosity to explore thinking can help us to gain clarity.
What is the evidence?
Here are a few questions that we could pause and ask ourselves; Do I know that this thought is one hundred percent true? Is there any evidence that this might not be the case? Is this projected scenario certainly going to happen? What’s the evidence for and against this happening and is this really a balanced view? Could this all play out in a different way, is it possible to imagine this scenario turning out better?
What sort of thinking?
We might become curious about what kind of thinking is happening. It might be worrying, imagining, catastrophising and the like. Is it a pattern of thinking that doesn’t serve you well or an unhelpful repetitive thought? We tend to generalise and become black and white in our thinking at a time like this.
It may help to notice the “What if’s” and turn your attention to “What is”? For example, if the “What if” is “What if the cases increase and we get ill?” the “What is” may be “We are safe right now and we are doing all we can to stay well.”
Finding a different place to stand
You might like to imagine yourself lying in a field and watching your thoughts as clouds appear in the sky. Perhaps you can visualise them moving across the sky and dissolving. The next thought may do the same. Not reacting, simply noticing, being curious. Another practice is to see your thoughts as leaves, you may write your thoughts on leaves and then watch them float off down a river, or stones on a beach and throwing them out to sea. You might find it helpful to set a timer for a minute or two to do this and practice it every day to get used to this skill.
One strategy that some people find helpful is to allow themselves a designated ‘thinking time.’ You might like to find a time in the day, in a certain place that becomes your unhelpful thinking moment – do put a time limit on this. Each time you find yourself noticing unhelpful thoughts, resist the urge to get caught up in the story. Tell yourself to save it for later, at your chosen time and place. When it’s time you may find it helpful to write your thoughts down in a journal, recall them in your mind or say them out loud.
Breathing into clarity
When we get swept away with unhelpful thinking, we shut down the part of the nervous system that enables us to be steady and calm. One simple yet effective way we can find a pause button is to take a breath, notice where you feel your breath and allow your attention to settle there. Having a gentle mantra that you repeat to yourself mat be soothing, something like “Let’s take this one day at a time” or “Steady and calm with each breath.”
There is so much that we can’t control or predict. Bringing yourself back to the now can help you to resist getting sucked into those thoughts that are causing worries and anxieties. Take a moment to reset and find a pause when unhelpful thoughts come along by listing the things that you can control in this moment. A simple grounding technique is 54321. Take a breath, look around and notice 5 things that you can see, 4 things that you can touch, 3 things that you can hear, 2 things that you can smell or smells you like and two things that you can taste. Take another deep breath.
To expand on the power of the senses you might like to try this an eight-minute Safe Space Visualisation. You can come back to this recording or parts of it in your minds-eye whenever you need to find a sense of calm.
An attitude of gratitude
Connecting with gratefulness is another pause button that may be available to you. Make a list in the moment. Finding a way to record these each time create a physical list that is available for you to revisit.
The more we practice recognising our unhelpful thinking, pausing, and drawing on our steadying strategies the better we get at it. Notice when you manage to do this, even just a little bit and congratulate yourself. Trust in your capacity to approach this ‘new normal’ with acceptance and steadiness and know that this has a ripple effect. It not only calms us, but those around us too.
You may also like to read Being Purposefully Present in Uncertain Times which compliments this resource.
This article was written by Anne Kearns.
Yesterday I was talking to a colleague who is a counsellor in Singapore about the 8 steps towards developing resilience in time of crisis. Statistically people who are resilient have a much better chance of surviving a crisis. I thought it might be helpful to share how to do that so, if this interests you, please read on:
Developing Resilience - The Danger and Opportunity of Covid-19 for International School Educators (Part 2)
Download PDF here.
By Suzanne M. Anderson, DPST
Westerners have often oversimplified the Chinese symbol for "crisis" to mean danger and opportunity, when in fact, it means "danger at an incipient moment" (Zimmer, 2007). Linguists argue whether "the moment" is neutral or has a positive inflection in its original language. A crisis is an incipient moment--a moment when change begins and has the potential for harm and growth. Part I addressed the danger, the emotional and social impact of the Covid-19 and can be found here. Part II discusses the opportunity for building resilience while coping with the effects of Covid-19.
How is stress like carrying a glass of water?
A psychologist walked around a room while teaching stress management to an audience. As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they'd be asked the "half empty or half full" question. Instead, with a smile on her face, she inquired: "How heavy is this glass of water?" Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz. She replied, "The absolute weight doesn't matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it's not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I'll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn't change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes." She continued, "The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water. Think about them for a while, and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything." It's important to remember to let go of your stresses. As early in the evening as you can, put all your burdens down. Don't carry them through the evening and into the night. Remember to put the glass down! (Source unknown)
What is resilience?
Resilience is the ability to bounce back when things get tough. When a crisis happens, we often talk about being the victim of the event. Resilience is moving from victim to survivor to thriver. When a crisis happens, we will not return to pre-crisis normal; we will need to create a new normal. Our goal must be to grow in response to the trauma. It doesn't mean we would have chosen to go through the crisis event. It means that having had no choice, we come through it and like who we are better than who we were before the incident. Perhaps our priorities are redefined. Perhaps we realize we have a new sensitivity and understanding of what others go through that gives us a greater sense of connection. Maybe we clarify our values and realign how we live in line with our values.
As with anything that challenges us, we have the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and even to develop ourselves. The reality is that many of the things we can do to strengthen our resilience we already know. However, when crisis arises--especially protracted ones--we can spend so much time coping with the effects of the crisis, that we forget to take care of ourselves in some of the most basic ways.
Resilience is not a characteristic that we have or don't have. It is a capacity we can choose to foster and develop. Resilience can become a lifestyle.
We are hardwired for connection. Scientist Matthew Lieberman argues that our need to connect is as essential as our need for food and water (Cook, 2013). We connect better when we are face-to-face in the same room with each other. For educators in countries that have closed schools, there is limited opportunity for face-to-face connection. Educators in China have shared a feeling of withdrawal, a sense of sensory deprivation.
While we are socially distant from our wider circles, we often face separate challenges from the social “support” of being cooped up with family members 24/7 day-after-day with little opportunity to get out. In this case, it may be that we have to find ways to structure some autonomy and independence. Perhaps an overnight in a guest bedroom for children who share a room, or even spouses. Perhaps creating an agreed-upon do-not-disturb time frame in which we can think our own thoughts and do our own things, knowing that we will be undisturbed.
There are several ways to address our needs for social support. Find time to be with people who bring you a feeling of joy. Plan what you are going to do with family and friends when you can get out and travel again. Remember that anticipation is a significant part of the fun. Talk with friends or a counselor to reduce isolation, clarify thinking, get feedback, or hear some new ideas or perspectives that may be helpful. Ask for help. We often say we don't want to burden others by asking them to do something for us, but the fact is we are depriving others of a "helper's high" when we don't ask.
Share vulnerabilities. We tend to isolate ourselves when we are not feeling emotionally well. We hide how we are feeling, and think that we are the only person feeling the strong emotions or struggling in the way that we are. So, we keep them to ourselves and may become shrouded in a feeling of shame and be isolated. Brené Brown (2017) has taught us that the antidote to shame is vulnerability. And that empathy (not sympathy) drives our connection. Find people to talk to who can be with you empathetically.
And, as the people around you open up with their vulnerabilities and needs, support them. Give help when asked.
Physical health is put under significant strain when our body is more stressed and exhausted from dealing with all the change, and sometimes accompanying fear that comes with crisis. We know that stress and exhaustion lower our immunity. Think about how our immunity is affected by how we take care of ourselves.
There are no surprises here. Remember to eat well (avoid sugar); drink water; get good rest; move and exercise (but don't over-train); take time to breathe deeply; practice progressive muscle relaxation (a favorite recording is by Beth Salcedo); and set an alarm or timer to take short rest breaks to move from sitting and give our eyes a rest from the computer screen. There are a great variety of routines on the Internet that can be followed in your home (a favorite is https://darebee.com with 1,300 workouts).
Part 1 of this article provided a review of the emotional reactions that are commonly experienced in crisis. It is essential that we don't stuff our feelings. That is like trying to hold a beach ball under the water with one hand. When we get distracted, our emotions, like the beachball, are going to come popping out. Find ways to express your feelings: talking, writing, or physical activity. Identify and name your feelings. That simple step can move us from reacting from the emotional center of our brain to responding from the cognitive center, allowing us to connect with more resources for analyzing and problem-solving.
Laughing and crying both exercise our muscles, bring more oxygen into the body, and provide a release of emotions. Like exhaling takes unwanted gases out of our body, tears carry away chemicals that build up in our body in times of stress. Give yourself an excuse to cry by watching a good tear-jerker movie or creating an "angst playlist" that will help you release those tears when you want to. Laughter can reduce stress and thus help strengthen our immunity. There are many ways to find an excuse to laugh, such as good comedy videos or, if you dare, do an Internet or social media search on "Covid-19 Memes."
Fear can be a significant and natural part of our reaction to Covid-19. We can use this as an opportunity for growth, to expand our capacity to cope with fear. Doing something outside our comfort zone every day (while being physically and emotionally safe), reduces the number of things that create fear in us, and puts us in touch with how bold, brave, and capable we can be.
Anxiety and panic are significant features of the unseen threat of the virus. For some of us, it can feel like nervous energy, with limited ability to move around to discharge it. Find ways to soothe yourself with calm music, a warm bath, mindfulness, or a moderate exercise routine.
Use worry and angry properly. When we use our emotions well, they serve a purpose. They get us what we need by moving us to action or getting others to move to action for us. When we worry or get angry, they are responses -- something has happened that has hurt us, or we think that something in the future could hurt us. Figure out what that dangerous thing is. And if you can do something about it, take action. If it is something outside of your control, let it go. Sometimes we might need our social support, our family and friends, or maybe a counselor, to get clarity on the problem, to sort out our power, what we can change and what we can let go.
Can you channel your emotions into creativity? Can you create art? Write music, short stories, poetry, novels? When we are out of our regular routine, we might have new eyes for seeing ourselves. Instagramer Amber Rae recommends journaling about what is coming up for you as an excellent way to channel this potential for learning and growing.
David Elkins, Ph.D. in a Psychology Today article, tells us that "The word spirituality comes from the Latin root spiritus, which means 'breath'--referring to the breath of life." Susan Santucci, in Pathways to the Spirit, shares that people in every country and language search for the unquantifiable spirit that nourishes the most profound part within us and brings joy into even some of the life's darkest moments. Trauma victims and survivors teach us that for our search for the spirit to be nourishing; we need to find what speaks to us individually, not what others tell us. One person's imposition of their spiritual practice on another can often be unhelpful or harmful.
For some, spirituality can mean a religious practice. However, during this time, many houses of worship have been closed or are harder to access. For others, it may be making a practice of gratitude by keeping a journal, compiling an A to Z list of gratitude, reading inspirational writings, spending time in prayer, mindfulness or meditation, or spending time in nature. During this time of being indoors in the winter, it may seem hard to find nature. "Forest bathing’ expert Dr. Qing Li describes a sixth sense that he says connects us with the world beyond ourselves. He suggests that we can bring the forest indoors with indoor plants, by bringing the essential smells of the outdoors in with aromatic oils, and bringing the sounds of nature indoors. He shares how essentials oils have been used in Taiwan to reduce the stress of primary-school teachers.
The hallmark of crisis is chaos. Chaos means that we lose our routines, the usual, predictable pace and cadence of our days, our weeks, and in the case of Covid-19 it seems months. For many educators, that has meant learning how to teach class on-line and learning how to use each of the tools needed to do that. Not only are educators engaged in teaching each day (an already exhausting task), but they have to do it in new ways.
Each time we step out of routine, we have to create new patterns that require new decisions. These multiple changes can lead to decision fatigue, which is not as easily as recognizable as physical fatigue. Making decisions about things that were otherwise mundane that we have not encountered before can require a lot of energy, and can sap us of the capacity we have previously allotted for the things that are most important to us.
While it might seem trite to say "our thoughts become our reality," it is fair to say that "our thoughts become our perception of reality." This is based in our biology. The thoughts we think the most, will cement themselves as neuropathways in our brain that fire faster and more often. Limit our media to the barrage of news and social media about this crisis so panic and fear don't become seared into our brains. Pick a couple of good sources and let the rest fall to the side.
Some of us who are staying indoors day-after-day may feel like the days begin to bleed together. Find a way to mark the days, to distinguish one from another: literally mark the days off of the calendar, have a different routine for weekdays and weekends, schedule specific things on certain days of the week.
We also want to normalize and create new habits around socially responsible behaviors. Create new routines around washing hands when coming into the home, when touching buttons out in the community, before touching our face. Pick a new greeting to replace the handshake. Our new greeting may be an elbow bump, the tapping of feet (affectionately called the Wuhan Shake), or a greeting with palms together in front of our chest and a smile as the Hindus greet each other.
The cliché "information is power" has been used by many survivors of crisis and trauma. Crisis and trauma--by their very essence of being sudden, random, and arbitrary--take away our control and leave us with a feeling of helplessness. For some, learning as much about the situation they are in serves to lessen feelings of helplessness. If we follow the path we teach our students, and find reliable sources, there is much to learn about this epidemic--people's reactions to them, the impact of confinement, the effect of internet communication on the effectiveness of mirroring neurons, the sequencing of genomes, how seasonal temperatures might affect the spread of the virus, the list is endless.
What have you learned about yourself and others? How has this situation changed you? How has it changed your values or priorities? Has this crisis helped you to clarify your perspectives on where you live, your employment, friends, and family? Is there anything that you have learned from teaching classes on-line that will inform the work you do when you return to the classroom? Will you return to the classroom?
Self-esteem is about valuing ourselves and what we can do. We can engage in activities that increase our sense of value and worth, either because we have made ourselves a priority or because we have something that is of importance to others.
For many, in the busyness of work-life we have given up things we like to do or are for which we are skilled. Now is the time to find some time to return to those things. Perhaps you can do them for a few minutes while you are taking the mini-breaks recommended in the Physical/Health Abilities section. The confinement of having to stay at home may mean we are not able to get out to do some of the things we enjoy. Still, we can make plans about what we would like to do in the future, or we can enjoy the memories of past adventures through photos or videos, or create a vivid memory to relive the enjoyment you have had doing those things in the past using all of our senses.
As you work on maintaining your social support network, described earlier, don't forget to spend time with people who admire you--the people who when you leave them, leave you feeling stronger, more capable, more creative, and knowing that you have a lot to offer the world.
Value yourself enough to make time for fun and to celebrate your successes and life events such as birthdays and anniversaries. Perhaps every night becomes "Friday night" until you can return to your routine. Maybe you find a place where you can go outside and play a game without a mask for a short time. Have a camp out under sheets in the living room. As expatriates, we so often live for the magic of travel, but in these times, we may need to find a way to create magic at home! And remember, we are living through times and situations we never thought we would have to. We are still working, caring for our children, caring for ourselves. Our coping and surviving are worth celebrating.
The goal of this discussion was to provide a buffet of options for developing and strengthening our resilience. Some items in this article may even be in contradiction with each other. What we need, what works, is different for each of us. What helps us to feel rejuvenated? What brings us joy? What reduces our stress? What helps us to be the best version of ourselves? We need to listen to ourselves and do, unapologetically, what is best for our own coping and resiliency development.
Developing a resiliency plan
Having read through this list, I hope that you have recognized things that you are already doing (Well done!), things you have done in the past (and will easily be reinstated), and some things that are new that you think might be helpful. Don't try to take on too much. Remember, change -- even good change – is stressful. Done too fast and our “slow-changing, stable brains” will resist (Guise, 2013). Aim for "Progress, not Perfection."
Psychiatrist and neurologist Vicktor Frankl, who survived three concentration camps in World War II reminds us "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." I hope these ideas help you to find a resilient way through these difficult times.
The framework for this article is based on the concepts of resilience outlined in the Community Crisis Response Team Training Manual (NOVA, 2019). The content is a compilation of ideas generated by members Singapore-based crisis response team that the educators of the Jakarta Intercultural School in September 2014 found useful and ideas of educators currently based in central and eastern China. Thank you to long-time friend Pam Schuur for once again performing her editing wizardry.
This article has been written by Claire Holmes, Head of School Counselling, Tanglin Trust School
The news of school closure will land differently with each family. The scenario of who is at home and in what capacity will vary. This will undoubtedly bring some lifestyle changes. There may well be some bumpy moments but also opportunities for family unity. This article shares strategies for maintaining wellbeing and making the best of this interim period.
The importance of modelling
Children take their lead from how we deal with situations; they need us to be their steady anchor. Being calm yourself and talking positively about the school closure is important, even if you are not sure how it’s going to turn out. Think about how you can reduce your stress levels to be most helpful. If you are still going to work, let your children know how you are taking care of yourself and staying safe.
Talk to your children about the reasons for school closure
Speak with your children at a time when you feel calm. Let them know that by closing schools we are practicing our community responsibility to stop the virus spreading. Being present focused can be reassuring, saying something like “Everyone at school is helping each other at the moment, staying at home will help us to stay healthy.” Let them know that even though we are not physically together, our community is united in staying safe. Focus on the positives that this new situation may bring, more family time, a slower pace and discuss how time at home can benefit them. Promote peacefulness and cooperation, letting them know that by helping each other and staying calm we can get though things more easefully. Talk about home as a safe place; remind them of all the things that you are doing to maintain safety. You might like to make a family plan together to begin on the same page, discussing what you can all do to make the most this time.
Checking in with each other
The switch to staying at home may bring anxiety for your children. How we respond to worries is key in maintaining wellbeing. Let them know that it is okay to be worried and that they can chat to you about their concerns anytime. Keep the door open for those conversations. Making yourself available to chat when they need will help to reduce their anxiety. Avoid the temptation to tell them not to worry. This minimises their experience and may deter them from sharing with you and increase their anxiety. Instead, normalise, validate and empathise with whatever emotions they are feeling. It may be helpful to have a family ‘check in’ to hear what’s working and what’s challenging. You might like to weave in positive things that you have noticed about each other and sharing things that each family member feels thankful for.
Unwanted or unanticipated change may lead to feeling out of control even for the most flexible and adaptable of children. One way that you can help with this is to offer choices. This helps the child to feel in control in times of change. Try empowering the children with small decisions that impact them day to day e.g. creating their ‘work-station,’ meal planning, movie choices and the like.
Establishing routines will help everyone feel steady. Encourage children to include movement breaks throughout their day and things that help them to relax. Exercising in some way is important as the endorphins released break down the stress hormone cortisol. You might like to try designating zones in the house, a game area, a zen den etc…. and, of course, a dedicated study area which has good light and is comfortable to help with focus.
Choose exposure to news carefully. Select and stick to one or two reliable sources. You might like to view the feeds at the same time each day. Do avoid having news on in the background.
Moderate technology outside of the home learning requirements but be gentle on yourself if the children are having a bit more screen time than usual.
Weave family bonding activities to your routines too. These might be things like planning menus and cooking together, collectively reading a book, family mindfulness, yoga and board games. Find ways to laugh. Sing songs, create ‘learning from home’ playlists on Spotify. Head out to your garden to connect with nature for a wellbeing boost or if that’s not an option try looking after plants, watering, pruning or planting seeds in the house. You might like to create a ‘bucket list’ of things that you’d like to do together and tick things off as you go. Extending this purposefulness further you might like to try things like rearranging furniture, reorganising wardrobes and bookshelves and the like.
Child and parent one-on-one time helps our children thrive and co-operate. Schedule some special time with each of your children and experiment with siblings supporting each other with different tasks as well.
Acknowledge the importance of time alone. Help your children to identify what they can do in their ‘down time’ that helps them to relax. Remember the importance of everyone doing things that make them feel good. You might like to experiment with some new habits that you’ve meaning to try for a while. For your children, this will vary from child to child, some might like meditation, mindful colouring, journaling and reading. For others, art and crafts, spending time with their pets, playing games online may support wellbeing.
Connection is a human need, explore with your children how they plan to stay connected virtually with their friends and extended family members. Think about this for yourself too, stay connected with friends who help you to feel calm and grounded. Do seek support of an online counsellor if you need some professional support.
Making the best of it
It’s important to acknowledge that your work life might not be the same as it was before. Hold this as lightly as you can. Over this period, you may appreciate increased spaciousness and might not feel so guilty about not being busy. It may be that you and the family may even tolerate change more easefully from here on in.
Notice what’s working for you and your children and do more of it, spot times when you notice them co-operating, supporting each other and compliment them. When ‘bumps in the road’ present themselves, know that these are moments of learning about how to co-exist peacefully in this new set up. Be compassionate with yourself and know that it doesn’t all have to be perfect. There will be plenty of teachable moments when you can ask yourself “What can we learn from this?” Reflecting in this way helps you to navigate these ‘bumps.’
This situation may afford you the opportunity to look at what’s important for your family, to find some grace, emotional generosity and kindness with each other that will strengthen the family unit moving forward. This is a good time to remind ourselves of our shared humanity, to appreciate our communities’ resilience and strength in the face of adversity. There is something reassuring about getting though this together as a team.
Download PDF here.
This article is written by Claire Holmes who is Head of Counselling at Tanglin Trust School and a Certified Mindfulness teacher.
This article explores the helpfulness of being ‘purposely present’ to avoid getting swept along with the collective anxiety as Covid-19 becomes increasingly global. It comes from a place of acknowledgement that we can’t control the news or other people’s reactions; we only have control over ourselves and how we respond.
Where is your mind?
Most of us have probably noticed ourselves more future orientated than usual, getting caught up in the ‘What-ifs,’ weaving a story about what might happen and perhaps feeling more anxious over the last few weeks. This is normal with what’s happening in the world around us and of course, future planning and thinking about precautions is useful but it’s the rumination in times of uncertainty that is troublesome for us. Being ‘purposely present’ means intentionally bringing yourself back to this moment rather than getting caught up in unhelpful thinking patterns. When we are worrying about the future, we are operating from the part of our nervous system which causes a state of hyper-arousal. It’s from this place that we tend to react rather than respond, things feel more overwhelming and out of our control. When we are more present focused, we slow things down for ourselves, we move into the part of our nervous system that helps us relax and we make much better choices.
Awareness is key. When you notice that you are caught up in worrying or catastrophising, your body will often give you signs that help you recognise this. Your heart may beat a little faster, you may feel breathless, sweaty, fidgety or have that ‘butterflies in the tummy’ feeling. This is your anxiety signature, it’s different for everyone and it’s helpful to get to know yours so that you can make a choice to be ‘here.’
Purposely present techniques
You might like to tune into your breath from time to time or drop into your body by breathing into places of tension and inviting these areas to relax. Tuning into ‘the soundscape’ – being aware of the sounds around you is another way of being present. Be aware that when you practice these things your mind will wander as all minds do, the skill is to notice where it went and gently bring your focus back to where you want to place your attention, over and over. You might like to try this for a short period of time during the day, sometimes setting a timer can help you to mind the time.
It might be helpful to bring yourself back to the present by simply noticing your feet in contact with the ground. Naming the emotion (s) that are here in any given moment helps us to not get wrapped up in its story and stay present too. Acknowledging what you are thankful for, connecting fully with others, offering random acts of kindness are other things that you can try to connect with the present. Engaging your senses also helps you to be in the moment as this helps you to focus on your interaction with your environment, savouring your food, even just for one mouthful is a good way to do this. Adopting a ‘one-pointed focus’ on anything that you are doing in the now helps you move from indulging the ‘What-ifs’ to connecting with the ‘What-is,’ helping you to feel more in control.
Take a Breathing Space
As a meditation teacher I share with my class, a ‘mini – meditation’ called a Breathing Space. This technique helps us to press reset, it’s like taking an internal selfie to ‘check in’ with ourselves. It combines some of the ideas above into one exercise. Punctuating your day with this strategy can be an interesting experiment. To do this, make a choice to pause, take a breath, connect with an attitude of acceptance and non-judgement and then:
∞ Notice where you feel the breath most obviously and let your attention settle there. Notice the inbreath and the outbreath.
∞ Dropping your attention into the body, notice any body sensations.
∞ Turn your awareness to your thoughts – what are you telling yourself right now? Registering not reacting.
∞ Name the emotion/s that are here.
∞ Tuning into the senses: what do you notice in your visual field? What is here to be physically felt right now (touch of your clothes on your skin, feet in contact with the floor etc….), what can you hear, smell and taste?
∞ Now making a choice to carry on with your day
Fitness for the mind
All this is a bit like taking your mind to the gym. As with physical fitness you’ll need to practice. At first try your ‘purposely present’ strategies when you are not feeling overwhelmed. You’ll literally begin to re-train your mind, carve out new neural networks in your brain and the more that you do this the stronger these skills become. This makes the possibility of creating a pause, to respond rather than to react more available to you in times of overwhelm.
Meditating regularly helps to cement these neurological adaptations. There are many apps to help with establishing this, they have recordings and courses available on them; Insight Timer, Headspace and Calm to name a few.
Perhaps choosing to be present on purpose is indeed a ‘present’ or kind gift to ourselves in these difficult times. Cultivating being ‘purposely present’ may become a life-skill that helps you to find more stability and spaciousness in your day to day life even after this period of uncertainty has passed. If you are up for it, experiment with the strategies shared here that feel useful and fit with you, choosing to bring yourself into the present whenever you need to and explore your experience with curiosity.
You might even like to try a Breathing Space right now before you continue with your day.
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By Suzanne M. Anderson, DPST
Westerners have often oversimplified the Chinese symbol for "crisis" to mean danger and opportunity, when in fact, it means "danger at an incipient moment" (Zimmer, 2007). Linguists argue whether "the moment" is neutral or has a positive inflection in its original language. A crisis is an incipient moment--a moment when change begins and has the potential for harm and growth. Part I of this article will address the threat, the emotional and social impact, and Part II, to follow, will discuss the potential to respond with or build resilience in the response of Covid-19.
Part 1: The Danger: The Emotional and Social Impact of Covid-19
Over the last couple of weeks, I have talked with international school educators in central and eastern China, where Covid-19 has forced the closure of schools since the Lunar New Year, and where they are expected to be closed for a number of weeks. These educators are both Chinese and internationals. Some have remained in China, some have gone to neighboring countries like Thailand, and some have returned to home countries, such as Australia and the United States. Not all had choices about whether to leave. Those who remain seem to mostly be Chinese educators whose homes and families are in China, and international educators with pets, who would have had to navigate finding care for, or moved with, their pet—often an expensive and drawn-out process in the best of times. Every educator with whom I spoke is working harder day-after-day, around the clock, to support continued learning for their students; to remain connected with their colleagues in various time zones; for some, to support their own children's education; and, to eke out, in the very little time left, some time to care for themselves.
Talking to people who have survived traumatic situations always has a profound effect on me. Usually, I am onsite. Usually, I have come to where the crisis has occurred and talked to survivors face-to-face. This time I have been providing support remotely—while living in a Covid-19 affected country—however, sitting in the relative comfort and freedom of my home and office in Singapore. Even at a distance, these conversations palpably conveyed the impact of the virus in a way that I have not often felt. And, as always, these conversations impressed me with a profound picture of human endurance, resilience, and creativity. There is no playbook, no set of guidelines on how to survive an epidemic, effectively on house arrest, or unable to go "home." These educators are making it up as they go along, trying to make the next best decision, professionally and personally.
For those who are not infected, but none-the-less have had their lives significantly altered, the emotional impact of Covid-19 can be overlooked. Unless you are infected, the danger of this virus is invisible, we only see its impact on the society writ large. And while the threat is active (the virus is spreading), the focus is on efforts to stay healthy—to survive. When infections subside, routines are reinstated without evidence of the previous disruption. Also, for those of us strongly affected, but who have not had the virus, the strength of the emotional and social impact can seem larger than it “should” be—after all we “should” be grateful we didn’t contract the dreaded illness. The very real emotional and social burden and accompanying recovery are not given proper due.
Even without the stressor of the Coronavirus or Covid-19 disease, everyone has a pre-crisis equilibrium that is either already distressed or already resilient. Educators have the day-to-day challenges that life brings—kids trying to get through exams, health issues, challenges with student’s parents, learning difficulties, elderly parents to care for, and living in a foreign country where ex-pats often don’t speak the language. The virus can feel like a weighted blanket coming down on top of all of life’s challenges. Those living with the impact of it must find a way to move around, to do the ordinary things of life, while lifting or holding up the weighted blanket at the same time.
While we may be tempted to want to jump to coping and resilience, for many people, the impact must first be acknowledged. There is a series of reactions and emotions that are not uncommon in crisis—the crisis reaction (NOVA, 2009). Just like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief helped create order out of the chaos of grief and loss, so too can understanding the stages of a crisis reaction help to create some feeling of order and understanding out of our responses to a crisis or disaster. Without understanding this pattern of response to a crisis, victims and survivors often feel like "they are going crazy," and they use those exact words. They hold it together on the outside (think Facebook feeds of how good life is) and see each other doing that while experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions inside and assuming they must be the only one feeling some of the strongest emotions one can experience in a lifetime.
When a crisis first begins, we often experience shock, denial, and disbelief. Almost, universally our response is, "I can't believe it!" The event feels impossible, surreal, or incomprehensible. Some of us experience the unfolding of the incident in slow motion, others in fast forward. Some of us feel frozen, unable to move. Often, we are reacting with our old brain (the same one a lizard has), with only our instincts to survive. At this stage, we may also experience regression—we may look for someone else to tell us what we should do. Often, we may go back and judge ourselves harshly for having not used our human brains to organize, plan, analyze, and manage the crisis.
As the denial and disbelief begin to wear off, we can experience what feels like a cataclysm or roller coaster of emotions. Often the first reaction we experience is fear and terror. It may feel as if the “veil of immortality” has been ripped away as we “think” or “know” we are going to die. This may have been experienced by some who were sick for other reasons at the same time as the Coronavirus started, and ended up at the same medical facilities as those who are later found to have the virus. Several educators have described experiencing panic and anxiety attacks that they have not experienced before. We are also feeling ongoing fear when someone around us coughs or sneezes.
It is not uncommon in situations like this for us to feel anger, fury, and even outrage. This can be directed towards the cause of the crisis (the virus) or towards those trying to provide help in the aftermath. There can also be a strong experience of secondary injuries--when we go to people or organizations seeking help and support but perceive those responses to be unhelpful or insensitive. Employers can be guilty of creating these secondary injuries: employers often expect us to get on with our work, to keep functioning at past performance levels or maybe higher levels without recognizing the personal and professional impact of the crisis.
As we try to get help, fix what has been broken, and make sense out of what happened and why it happened, we often feel confusion and frustration. Confusion and frustration seem particularly salient with the Coronavirus because in the early stages, information about the disease and how to respond seemed hard to access and continually changing. Timing was another barrier to clear communication--the impact of Covid-19 began to unfold at a time when international schools in China were breaking for a week, and school administrators and educators were traveling. We are likely to see growing confusion and frustration as schools make plans to re-open (or not), student quarantines (or not), and so on.
As we try to figure out what happened and why it happened, we may experience guilt and self-blame, feeling that they “if only” we had done something different, our circumstances in the crisis could have been prevented. We will see our colleagues and friends wrestle with the many “should(s)” that survivors tell themselves. “I should have left,” or “I should have stayed,” or “why did I go overseas to teach in the first place?” The conflict between family left at home and those who have gone overseas can be highlighted: when something disastrous happens, those at home who didn't want what their loved ones to travel can begin to feel justified.
We may feel shame and humiliation if we blame themselves for how we chose to respond and cope, and especially if our lives are changed for the worse, physically, financially, relationally, or otherwise. Shame and humiliation can be exacerbated if details about our lives in these areas that have remained private become public. For educators, especially those who have left China, there has been for many an extra financial toll—renting temporary accommodations—sometimes needing to relocate during the duration, additional travel expenses, and more. For others, there is a subtler experience, of having to live indefinitely in the homes of family and friends without autonomous control of many of the fundamental routines of one's own time and space.
As we begin to realize how our lives have been irrevocably changed by the crisis, we may experience grief and sorrow. Each and every physical, material, and intangible loss we experience can trigger its own grief, its own sorrow. The apparent losses are for those who become ill and for those who succumb to the illness. There can be material losses of financial resources that are having to be re-channeled into staying safe. There are many other less tangible losses that are harder to identify. There is a fear of losing time and experience for many students and teachers. Many students have lost school trip opportunities they have anticipated for years. There could be a loss of afternoons and summertime if school days are run longer to make up for the lost academic time.
For many, there appears to be a sensory deprivation—the loss of being with people face-to-face during this time when most communication is done through a computer. The loss of independence as families in China are in homes—all day, every day, for days on end with little opportunity to go outside. When schools re-open, there are educators and students who may never return, and they left sadly without proper goodbyes. This compounds the grief of third culture kids and families who experience many transitions.
The loss of feeling the air on one’s face as masks are required to go outdoors. The loss of energy—every time we change our routines, it takes extra energy to develop a new pattern of activity. Educators have been forced to learn a new approach to teaching solely through technology, relating to their students while observing child protection protocols, as well as learning to use new technologies to deliver educational content, all being done in the context of unstable and inconsistent Internet connections. Some having left for the holidays without their laptops have found themselves running or taking classes with only a cell phone. Many educators have helpers who have not been able to return after the Lunar New Year, thus have taken on domestic workloads in addition to increased professional workloads.
The loss of certainty that comes with the normal anticipated pace and sequencing of life and the school year. Educators are having to meet and run classes across international times zones. Typically, families are setting dates and making reservations at this time for the school summer break. The most essential looming question is, "When will this end?" Without knowing that answer, we are not able to plan.
Having experienced this cataclysm of emotion, our hope and goal is a reconstruction of equilibrium--otherwise described as creating a "new normal." It is not possible to go back to normal as it was before the crisis. Still, it is possible to create a fulfilling new normal--that while recognising the losses of the crisis--recognizes the unique strengths and growth that have occurred as a result of the crisis. More discussion on the reconstruction of equilibrium throughout and after this crisis will be addressed in Part II.
It is essential to recognize that we will all have very different reactions and ways of coping or creating a new normal. Strong opinions about the “right” and the “wrong” way to cope can create tears in the social fabric of an organization. In this situation, these tears in the social fabric may emerge between the "stayers" and the "leavers," and between those who had a choice to leave and those who did not. By recognizing that each individual will have their own unique experience of reacting and coping and by allowing and supporting each other, we can help to maintain or strengthen the fabric—the relationships—within our organizations.
In a crisis that is time-limited—the disaster comes and goes, and recovery begins quickly—these strong emotions will most often taper off after the one to three months. But in a long-term crisis where the disaster keeps unfolding, these reactions can last much longer and can come on strongly over and over as the crisis comes closer—there is an infection nearby, a friend is infected, as teachers return to China to start school again, or as there are notices that teachers may have to work differently to deliver a complete school year for students. Essentially, the longer the duration of the incident, the more significant the impact. As of this writing, the WHO has issued its 44th daily report and with no definitive end in sight.
We don’t have to wait until the crisis is over to take care of ourselves and build our resilience, we can start now. Part II will address ways of coping and developing resilience during the extended duration of this epidemic.
If you are reading this and wondering if it would be helpful to reach out for support, I encourage you to answer the questions of the Trauma Screening Questionnaire. This can provide another perspective on how the circumstances of Covid-19 are affecting you individually. We would encourage you to consider the resources and support offered by your school, or the counselors who may be available in your community. You can also consult the International Therapists Directory for therapists familiar with the issues of expatriates and third culture kids and families.
I know that there are many other significant ways that we have been socially and emotionally affected and losses endured as a result of Covid-19. Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments section below.
While they will remain anonymous, I would like to recognize the educators in central and eastern China who contributed to this article and add a thank you to long-time friend Pam Schuur who expertly provided editorial support.
NOVA. (2009). The community crisis response team training manual: Edition 4.0. Washington, DC: National Organization for Victim Assistance.
Zimmer, B. (27 March 2007). Crisis = Danger + Opportunity: The Plot Thickens. Retrieved from The Language Log.
Dr. Suzanne M. Anderson is a mental health counsellor and crisis responder and trainer in Singapore.