Message from our College school psychologist
A few things to think of as we start the year
2021 has started in a less than ideal way. We’re facing this wild paradox of there being so much going on in the world and the news and yet it’s all really the same. We have staff and learners returning to school after a far from normal December holiday. We have staff and learners returning in the wake of grief and loss. For a lot of people this supposed to be restful time was clouded with anticipatory anxiety. A lot of boys are returning to school disappointed after having high hope that their matric year wouldn’t be like that, or that they would get their U16A rugby season, or they would be able to be in school production. Things were supposed to be different. We have individuals returning with varying levels of fear – some who have been completely sheltered suddenly exposed to the outside again with the reopening of school, others dealing with continual exposure that they feel they just cannot escape, and those wondering if they’ve tested fate one too many times. With uncertainty and the unknown still very much on our minds, it’s no wonder there is this looming fear.
There is a very cool documentary called Free Solo which depicts rock climber Alex Honnold’s preparation and experience of becoming the first person to free solo (rock climb without ropes) El Capitan, a flat rock face in Yosemite National Park in the States. (Check out his TED talk which is shorter than a feature length documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6iM6M_7wBMc). If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that Alex Honnold maintains exceptional composure and an almost unimaginable calm state. One part of the documentary takes a psychological look at how he was able to overcome his fear in order to conquer this climb and takes a look at his brain – specifically his amygdala. The amygdala is the part of our brain that takes in multiple stimuli and pushes out an emotion. It’s the part of our brain that sends out a fear response when we are faced with threat – real or imagined. After some investigating, some scientists found that Honnold’s amygdala was nearly impossible to stimulate – that no matter how shocking or surprising an image he was shown, there was no powerful response from that area of his brain. Of course, we cannot simplify a person down to one brain structure, however it is reasonable to assume that this at least played a part in Honnold managing his fear.
Unlike Honnold, most of our amygdalae do respond to stimuli. Also unlike Honnold, who had seven years to prepare for one of his biggest challenges, we have been thrown into a pandemic, our security ropes removed, and we’re expected to free solo with no preparation.
Our brains responded to stimuli in 2020 and we were thrown into survival mode – as much as possible clinging onto the rock face in places we knew we wouldn’t slip (although still not being 100% sure) to avert crises. 2021 is less about handling disruption and surviving, it’s about using our most effective learning from 2020 to actually make some moves up the rock face. There is a shift that needs to happen – from a chaotic, crisis aversion mind set to a state of balance that recognises ‘I’ve got this, I’m just doing the things I know how to do in a way that I am not used to – without ropes.’ Unlike last year we are starting the year with all this uncertainty and stress already us. If we respond like we did last year we’re on a one-track, fast lane to burnout.
This is scary. It is uncomfortable. And just like last year, it is yet another new terrain of the pandemic we are needing to face. This is why we need to attend to our emotional well-being and our mental health. One of the things that Alex Honnold talks about in his TED talk is visualisation and the movie dives into his mindfulness approach a bit more. Removing all doubt as doubt is the precursor of fear as he so profoundly puts it. Mindfulness has been practiced for centuries. Mindfulness helps us tune into our emotional cues and responses and become more aware of our internal state. Given the pandemic, we aren’t able to remove every shred of doubt; however, we are able to take certain steps and implement a structure and routine that at least eliminates some doubt. Take the time to look inwards and examine what you’re actually feeling and as importantly why you’re feeling that way. Activities that can promote this include deep breathing, taking time to be in nature, actively moving your body. It is also helpful to manage your external inputs – limit your coronavirus talk if you need to, minimise how much you refresh your feed, choose carefully where you source information, choose wisely who you allow to influence you. With everything going on around us, we may also need to re-evaluate our expectations for productivity. James Clear puts it “Start now. Optimise later. Imperfect can be improved but obsessing over a perfect plan will never take you anywhere on its own.” Attending to your mental health also means attending to the basics including your eating and your sleeping. Take some time to develop your ‘basics routine’ to encourage a strong foundation for your mental health.
Something that I would like to touch on and I think is important for us to be reminded of is stigma. This was something that was a big focus in the early days of the pandemic. These days coronavirus is something we talk about almost every day. Since the arrival of Covid-19 there have been so many unanswered questions and we have been faced with an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation and rumours that have spread as quickly as the virus itself. With the new strain and the rollout of the vaccine, there is a whole new batch of conspiracy theories and fear mongering that we are dealing with. It is so important to be careful about the way in which you communicate about Covid-19. At the start of the pandemic, this virus was very ‘out there’. Now, this is very much a virus that is here, that has and is effecting us all on a much deeper personal level. Both staff and learners have parents, grandparents, family, and friends of whom their last memories involve Covid-19. This is just a reminder to mindful that words matter. I implore you to do your best to adopt a people first language and very importantly speak accurately about Covid-19. Do not share information that you are not sure of or that you have accessed from a questionable source. Again, I want to emphasise the very real person element that we are experiencing in relation to Covid-19.
This year is going to be what it is. Yet another reminder that I have an open door and open communication policy and I am available to help out when you need. This year is both about an important individual journey as well as an important collective journey. Lean on your friends, lean on your family, lean on your school.
Wishing you all the best for 2021!