• Alison Burton

Back to School? How to survive the new normal

Coping with change

Most of us don't cope too well with change - especially the types of changes that are imposed on us without much choice. So even if we've come to love lockdown living, it's natural to find ourselves at least a little off-balance when wondering about what might be coming next. We humans tend to experience anxiety around life's unknowns because part of our design for survival includes built-in processes designed to stop us from doing too many stupid things. From an evolutionary perspective, it wouldn't be in the least bit surprising if these early warning signals had been repeatedly triggered during these strange Covid times.

Anxiety about the extended opening of schools and services

When our worlds are disrupted to the extent they have been, anxiety is even more likely to visit those of us who were previously living highly scheduled, predictable lives, bound by timetables and commitments. We may find ourselves confused and concerned about how those routines will manifest when we return to workplace settings that may have altered for the foreseeable, without our consent. On top of the massive social changes we've each had to adjust to over the last few months, and continued uncertainty about the behaviours of a new and deadly virus, parents and teaching staff are also living with additional weighty responsibilities for child welfare and development. And not just in 2020; it's clear that the decisions we make in response to this global pandemic could influence outcomes for generations to come.

Concern is a good thing

Shifts in our routines have given most of us an opportunity to pinpoint the aspects of our lives that weren't working so well pre-Covid and to review our options. Similarly educators and parents may be feeling some resistance towards quietly returning to the old ways and worrying about missing opportunities for positive change. Furthermore, just as we can only guess at what our Zoom buddies are wearing below the waist, none of us really knows how Covid-19 will have impacted on the people we regularly interact with, or on our complex family and workplace dynamics. But whilst perpetual worry is an uncomfortable experience - and one that we may respond to in various less than healthy ways - it is arguable that we should be feeling some anxiety given the extent of the unknowns we now face. As lockdown eases, there are endless uncertainties to consider regarding the ongoing risks posed by an unfamiliar virus and complex logistics involved in extending services, particularly where schools are concerned. Above all, we can only currently guess at the likely longer-term consequences of wholesale change for our children, and for our communities.

So given what we're going through - locally, nationally and globally - it seems only natural for us to be experiencing heightened feelings of powerlessness, confusion and worry about the future. Having found ourselves unceremoniously thrust outside of our comfort zones without even a basic map, we need to allow ourselves permission to feel unsteady, to not know all the answers, to get a little lost or to stumble. As we begin to navigate new routes, it'll be increasingly important to find extra kindness for ourselves and more patience for others. Life may currently seem unrecognisable, but things do change and people do adapt. Fortunately there are also plenty of ways we can support ourselves as we explore and adjust to new norms.

5 Tips to manage anxiety

  • Think of 3 things you're grateful for, as soon as you wake up. These can be the smallest of things - it doesn't matter how trivial. This process simply helps to shift our minds away from their natural bias towards the negative. Let's at least make sure we get out of the right side of our beds!

  • Prioritise nourishing experiences including good food in moderate quantities, adequate sleep and at least some exercise. Take a brief walk, spend time in nature, listen to music - do whatever it is that you personally find supportive. This is not selfish - if you are not caring for yourself, your 'stress container' will not have the capacity to cope with the additional demands that change brings, and you will also be less able to support others.

  • Take a 'breathing space', or 'stop and drop'. Whenever anxiety arises, patiently acknowledge that this is happening and follow these simple steps.The breathing space steps can be repeated at any time, without anyone else becoming aware of this practice.

1) Stop. Sense how your whole body is feeling.

Observe any strong physical sensations or emotions.

2) Consciously focus on your next 5-10 breaths.

3) Broaden your awareness out to the whole body.

  • Try a 'habit-releaser'. Choose something that you do every day, and try to shift this habit. Invite curiosity: for example, sit in a different seat, walk a different route. This will help your mind get used to the idea that there are other ways of doing things and that these unfamiliar approaches can also be satisfactory.

  • Share your concerns with others. They will almost certainly be experiencing similar feelings and there is much truth in the saying that 'a problem shared is a problem halved'.

If you feel that your mental health is currently challenged, please seek advice from your GP or connect with one of many supportive organisations, such as The Samaritans.

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