Sometimes my yoga mat seems like a soft cushion of blissful cloud, and other times, like today, it felt as hard as cement. Every downward facing dog and table top pose made my wrists feel aflame and all I wanted to do was fall flat on my face, shut my eyes, and pretend to be asleep. But push on I did, because what else could I do; to give in was to relent to defeat, and if there was one thing yoga would never see me do was give in. Bringing my right leg forward I tried to gracefully extend into Warrior 1, but my hips complained, and my slightly sweaty left foot, gripping the mat like a vice, still insisted on slipping further backwards.
"Keep balance, keep balance, keep balance," this mantra played over and over as I felt my centre of gravity fight against my leg muscles. The snow falling outside the window briefly distracted me, so pretty, all this pure white snowflakes - what was I up too? What was I meant to be doing now? The yoga video on youtube had seemingly skipped ahead a few poses. I gracelessly fell out of Warrior 1 and quickly lowered to downward dog again. Why was I so distracted today, why did the mat feel like cement - immovable, rough, and kind of scary.
I tried to remember what a lot of yoga teachers have said - "what happens in life was reflected on the mat." So what has been immovable cement in my life? Think, think, Elizabeth. I don't know, so I lower to plank, then down onto my belly, the softness of my belly spread like a slime ball - the mat was unrelenting. Cobra pose, flip up back into downward dog, look forward and step into forward fold. The relief slipped along my spine like a waterfall. Each spinal disc seemed to knock the other forward, stretching the ligaments and muscles; blood running to my head, nourishing the brain, perhaps loosening the tightness of body and mind.
Sometimes I don't want to get on the mat, sometimes I don't like the mat, but whenever I get to certain poses, the need for the mat becomes apparent. Perhaps the mat isn't cement, and perhaps there is no immovable object/emotion/action in life that is stopping me moving forward, perhaps it is all about how we perceive what is happening to us and how we are responding. I don't know, to be honest, all I know is that by the end of my yoga session the mat was no longer the most hated object in my life, but had seemingly become that fluffy cloud of softness and support. Who knows.
Late last year I had a lot of traveling to do with work - I love my job, going into schools to inspire pupils and teaching staff character education and positive psychology interventions, but I have a secret. For awhile there every single time I got into my car I had horrific visions of me crashing on the motorway. The visions was so awful that my heart rate would increase, I would get sweaty palms, my mouth would go dry, and I felt like crying. This tide of extreme anxiousness would roll over me and all of my excitement for traveling, for working, for teaching character and wellbeing would wash away. With this intense anxiety and fear, I would force myself in the car, and I would drive to the other side of the country, and I would arrive absolutely fine.
This couldn't go on though.
Here I was, going into schools and telling pupils and staff how they could bolster their own mental health, build their resilience, and cultivate character strengths, and yet I was a quivering wreck hours before hand - this wouldn't and couldn't work. I had access to hundreds of interventions and their subsequent research, I had to delve deep into my bag of tricks, I had to self reflect and understand why I was having these anxious thoughts.... again.
Because yes, this wasn't the first time I have been overcome by the tide of anxiety and taken to the depths of panic. Six years ago I was undertaking a PhD in Fine Art. Everything seemed fine, at first, but then that little voice started telling me "you can't do this," "you will fail your viva voce", "your supervisor is leading you astray" (there was actually some truth in that!). I let these thoughts in and I let them settle. And then the physical manifestation of this doubt, fear, and anxiety happened. To get to my university I had to get a train, I have never been afraid of trains before, but in a gradual build up I started to feel sick whenever I got on that train. Then I would feel sick and start to get the shakes. Then I would feel sick, start to get the shakes, and then feel like I was going to faint. Finally, after a few months of this, I was due to head to uni to set up for an exhibition. My housemate found me, in tears, rocking on the couch. I felt paralysed. My bag was too heavy to carry (not really), the door was too far away for me to get too (2 metres away), I couldn't talk on the phone for a taxi (talking on the phone is a whole other social anxiety story for later), and there was no way that I was getting on that train to get to uni. After much coaxing, my lovely, understanding housemate, got me out of the house, onto the train, and into uni (yes, she came with me all the way to uni). And when we got home later that day she said "you are going to the doctors over this, this isn't normal." And she was right.
2 years on anti-depressants for anxiety.
There had to be another way - and I found drug-free ways to handle my anxiety. Meditation and yoga have helped me immensely and though I try to keep them both up, sometimes they slide, and I feel that tide ebbing in again... closer.... and closer.... and closer.
I consider myself a high functioning anxious person.
What is a high functioning anxious person?
1. A perfectionist: everything in your life has to be "perfect" for everything to be okay.
2. Busy Bee: you are constantly busy, or feel like you should be.
3. You have a Tick!: Or rather some bad habits that help you manage your feelings (I bite my cuticles when I am anxious, if you want to check out my current state of mind look at my finger nails).
4. You hide it well: A lot of the time people don't realise you are having a hard time unless you tell them. And tapping back into being a perfectionist, you never let others know when you're having a hard time.
5. You can't say no: You worry so much about letting others down (and as part of this you worry about what other people think of you), so you never say no to anything, even when it is detrimental to you. (This is a HUGE thing for me, and it takes a lot of self discipline to say no to people, a lot of practice, and a lot of stopping the overthink).
I have started up my yoga practice again and it is helping. But today I want to share with you a slightly different, slightly odd-ball way of approaching anxiety - especially when it comes to anxiety about travel (let's come full circle to my story above).
Engaging with character education and positive education had me thinking, last year, when I was feeling that tide of anxiety roll into me whenever I had to drive, was there a character strength that I could tap into to help me change my mindset. I needed a new narrative that didn't involve horrific crashes on the motorway, and I found a solution that worked for me.
Curiosity is a character trait recognised by pretty much all people that work in character education and positive psychology. The VIA Character Strengths explanation of curiosity is - interest in exploring new ideas, activities and experiences, and having a strong desire to increase personal knowledge.
I decided to change my response to my emotional riptide.
I decided, through the fog of anxiety, that I would look at the travel through the lens of curiosity.
Whenever a feeling of fear would arise and the visions of a horrific accident would play like a move in my mind, I would flick that switch, and like an imagination u-turn, I would change myself into an explorer of what was ahead. Don't be afraid, why worry about an accident that hadn't happened, or in all likelihood wouldn't happen, instead think of the exciting things that may happen on this journey. Imagine the people you may meet, the sights you may see, the things you might hear, smell, touch. Think of the opportunities that may come your way if you approach this journey with an open-mind and eyes wide open to all that is around you. No need to get pulled into the tide of anxiety and curl up into a tiny ball of quivering emotions. Be bright, be open, be curious.
I now remind myself on every journey I take, to look up and about, take it all in, be open to the experience, to not worry about something that hasn't happened, and have fun.
That doesn't mean I still don't feel anxious, but that tide is not a King Tide anymore, it is a small, gentle, lapping tide, that only tugs at my toes and slightly wets my ankles.
1 in 5 of us will experience potentially crippling anxiety in our lifetime. So if 5 people read this blog, one of you will suffer, but know that you do not suffer alone, and that with courage and bravery (two more character strengths), and a little imagination, try bringing some curiosity into those anxious moments, it may or may not work for you, but it is worth a try.
I remember, distinctly, the moment that I decided that I would never swim breaststroke again. I had just been disqualified from my first ever big competition race as a swimmer and I was devastated. It had been entirely my fault, swimming the wrong stroke in a race (other than a freestyle race, where you are actually allowed to swim any stroke), and the humiliation was all pervading. For a few minutes I had wanted to quit swimming, I had wanted to give up on my dream and hide, but that had quickly passed once I reminded myself of how badly I wanted to achieve my goal to swim at the Paralympics. So I wasn't giving up on my swimming dreams, but what was so aptly revealed to me in that moment was this, if I wanted to be the best swimmer I could ever be I had to focus on my strengths and where I was already excelling, and let go of weaknesses that, if I gave too much attention too, would inevitably hold me back. So breaststroke got the boot, and over the next weeks, months, and years, I started to fly. My first international medal came in 100m Backstroke (and whilst this race remained in my repertoire, and I maintained respectable world rankings, it became more of a warm-up race), but at Paralympics and World Championships, my best results and medals came from frontcrawl and butterfly.
I want to clarify that I am not saying we should give up anything where we have a weakness - if we gave up at any appearance of a weakness we would do nothing at all. Weakness is inevitable in all areas of our life. This is fact.
What I am talking about is making a sound judgement about what weakness is worth letting go of and what weakness is worth working on. With breaststroke there was no way the entire sum of weaknesses I had within performing that stroke were ever going to strengthen... this was my opinion and my coach's opinion. So it was not worth my or my coach's time working on this stroke that was seemingly impossible for me to perform effectively. Backstroke, frontcrawl, and butterfly, however, were a different story. I was fast and strong with these strokes, and weaknesses that I had within them (regarding style, technique, and speed) I could work on effectively and quickly, bringing about drastic improvements in my times and rankings. I had these strengths that I could make stronger by addressing the weaknesses within them. This was true resilience and persistence in the face of achieving a goal.
In Dr Lea Waters book "Strengths Switch" she talks about the process by which a child's grey matter grows and recedes as they go through the cycle of experiencing the world and then focusing more and more on where our strengths and interest lie. The part of this process that I am interested in is in the adolescent years, when a teen's brain is actually shrinking as the brain discards the grey matter that it doesn't need, and keeps the grey stuff that is being used regularly. This receding, pruning, shrinking of the brain starts at age 12, and it is at this crucial moment that we have an opportunity to help our teens build the brain of their dreams!
"A type of survival-of-the-fittest endgame takes place where neural networks battle it out to secure their place in the remodelled adult brain." (Strengths Switch, p 102)
I read this and it instantly made me think.... as our neurons battle it out for supremacy, is it actually a neuron Olympics/Paralympics going on in our brains? Do all teens actually have a chance to create a "medal winning" brain?
As we grow into adulthood it seems that we have an opportunity to cultivate and build neural networks that can actually help us achieve our potential as adults, to be the best person that we can be. And in understanding that we can make choices regarding what neural networks we make stronger, does that not empower us to have more control over our lives and how we respond to the ups and downs of life?
Think of the fours strokes that I started off swimming in as an athlete: breaststroke, backstroke, frontcrawl, and butterfly. Imagine each of these strokes is a neural network/pathway, and at the age of 13 I had an opportunity to decide, do I strengthen the ones that are already quite strong, and prune away the weaker pathways? Or do I persist in trying to strengthen a weakness that actually won't help me be the best swimmer that I can be? I had an opportunity to prune my neural networks to give myself the best chance to be the best person that I could be, and even though my strengths (frontcrawl, backstroke, and butterfly) were not without their weaknesses, constant working on them strengthened those strengths and enabled me to walk away with medals.
When teens have an understanding of how their brain works and how they have a crucial window within which to strengthen certain networks and pathway, this can empower and build confidence in their choices for life. Let them learn and know that when they engage in certain behaviours, emotions, and skills that are not helpful to their futures these become patterns that can and will hold them back, that can make them less resilient and less likely to cope with life's stresses. Let them learn and know that when they engage with behaviours, emotions, and skills that are healthy, uplifting, and positive, they are creating pathways that will help them thrive and flourish in the present and the future, and that by building their strengths, through choice and knowledge, they can be resilient to the ups and downs in life, and ultimately create a "medal winning" brain.
They can win the neuron Olympics/Paralympics. Your role in this is to support, encourage, and role model these behaviours, be their "coach" and provide them with the opportunities to practice, practice, practice. Be their cheer squad, be their strengths supporter, be their lighter of the path, and watch them flourish.
(image from Pixabay)
Mental health and well-being are (as they should be) gaining more and more importance in the education system. We need to have an understanding of why and how to look after ourselves so that we can function to the best of our ability, riding the waves of day-to-day life, the ups-and-downs, the peaks and the valleys. One-in-ten children suffer from mental health issues, with a significant amount having to wait up to 18 months to be seen by CAMHS, and this indicates that we need to have well established mental health and well-being structures in schools to help cope with the demand. By this, I do not mean that teachers and schools should "fix" the children that are suffering the most and need professional help, but by implementing well-being skills programmes in schools we can give the children that are doing okay the chance to pull themselves back from the edge, therefore keeping places free for those that need extended and deeper help.
Many of the well-being programmes out there are doing the job they are supposed too - giving children (and including or by extension staff) the tools to build resilience, happiness, and purpose; schools take up resiliency programmes, such as happiness programmes, growth-mindset, mindfulness, etc, believing that implementing a single (or few) programmes will change the lives of their pupils. This is a first step, for sure, but one thing that aggravates me about this approach is the fact that the ends seem to be justifying the means. To believe that one or two programmes with a single focus will enable pupils to flourish is deluded. By all means, have growth-mindset in your school, but acknowledge that growth-mindset itself may assist with some aspects of your pupils lives, but not all. Hannah Wilson, HT at Aureus School, and Clare Erasmus, Director of Mental Health and Wellbeing at Magna Carta School, recognise this and these two schools have developing mental health and wellbeing programmes that draw on many aspects of a very broad arena. In doing this they ensure that, for their pupils, no-one is left behind. Pupils with and without mental health issues get the wellbeing support that they need.
BUT, I still have a small quibble about well-being in schools and it is this - where are the moral and ethical elements of the wellbeing programmes. Sure, some wellbeing programmes, such as mindfulness and meditation, help pupils to develop a natural sense of some moralistic elements, such as compassion, kindness, and gratitude, but it is done almost unconsciously, without any specific and purposeful directive to "aim" for moralistic thinking. In my mind, this lack of moralistic and ethically driven well-being means that well-being becomes individualistic and selfish. I have always struggled with the well-being industries individual focus - meditate so that you can be calm and stress-free, put boundaries in place so that you can protect yourself, exercise and eat well so that you feel amazing. What if we changed how we look at and talk about well-being so that our reason for and purpose of well-being is about the impact it will have on others as well as ourselves, how it will impact on the wider community. So what could this mean?
We need to underpin well-being with morals and values, so that young people have a purpose to their well-being, a purpose that doesn't just concern them, but ensures they look wider, bigger. In Michael Hands article "How to Teach Children Morals" he talks about three aspects of teaching morals: 1. Individuals subscribe to a standard, 2. Individuals want others to comply to the standard, 3. Individuals want those that violate standards to be punished in some way. As a community we aim to teach children - in families and in schools - that to be kind, generous, sharing and caring, are all important to enable the community to thrive. Families and schools create their standards and expect children to comply, with children facing consequences if they fail to do what is right. This is a very simplistic way to look at morals, but if we could underpin well-being with this approach, as a first step, pupils can start to self-regulate, creating well-being in their own lives that is up to a community standard (perhaps even peer driven) and policed by themselves, i.e., looking beyond just their own well-being they start to actively look out for others and encourage their peers to participate - it creates an inclusive purpose to well-being that is generally missing. Michael Hands also raises the point about moral enquiry - the encouragement of children to discuss and think about moral elements and scenarios. What if we had pupils engage in this type of discussion regarding well-being and mental health issues they may face? Giving them the ability to understand and justify reasons for and against some and other well-being interventions. This gives them the moral capacity to want to look after their own and others well-being and mental health. The ability to self-reflect as well as judge the wider-communities approach too and implementation of well-being and mental health strategies is empowering and creates a more universal purpose to strategy.
So, perhaps, when considering your well-being strategy for your school, look at moralistic and ethical values that could well underpin and influence your well-being structure, engage your pupils with the processes and have an ongoing evaluation from all parties to ensure that there is real purpose and meaning to well-being and mental health.
(Image from lavnatalia on Pixabay)
Tis the season to spend tonnes of money on things that people will forget about by the time the New Year clocks in. Cynical much? Not really. I am a present giver, to a certain extent, and whilst I love the idea of giving, I think that we have to think more about what we give and how. Growing up in my family we go to ask Santa for one big present and we would get a stocking chock full of little presents. And that was it. The one big present would have to be something that we really really wanted and the little presents were normally things that meant something. Nothing beat the excitement of going to sleep on Christmas eve and waking up the next morning to spy a fat stocking hanging on my bedroom door.
Also, nothing beat the family coming round for Christmas lunch, kids running around, cold ham and salads, trifle and Christmas pudding, jumping in the pool, playing Christmas carols at top volume, and the laughter, of the laughter around the Christmas table. Do I remember all of the presents that I received?.... nope. Do I remember special moments with family members? Yes. And these special moments are even more precious now that some of those people are no longer with us.
Relationships and experiences matter more than the material, the object, the disposable. I did a gratitude survey on Twitter this week asking what people were grateful for this year, the choices were: experiences, material, relationships, and career. 43 people voted, 73% said they were most grateful for relationships, 20% said experiences, 5% said careers, and 2% said material. I was only slightly surprised. I thought it would be closer between relationships and experiences, but the people have spoken (no I am not chucking a Theresa May), or rather the very small sample size have spoken.
So, I want you to think of celebrating Christmas from a less material perspective, and approach it from how can I cultivate good, positive relationships this season. How can I act and behave that will nurture the relationships I have? But also think, instead of buying a gift for someone can I perhaps provide them with an experience instead.
That new jacket, dvd, or phone won't help you thrive and flourish (though of course, it is nice to get new things, but the point is....), but relationships and experiences will have a larger impact on your mental health and wellbeing.
Think outside the box this season - especially if you have left your Christmas shopping to the last minute and you don't want to have to face the crowds of last-minute shoppers this weekend. Here are a few ideas:
1. Write a Thank You letter (or Christmas Card) to someone you love as a present. Make sure you write about something that they have done or said that you are grateful for. Be effusive, be descriptive, and be open hearted.
2. Think of a person you love and what their character strengths are, i.e., brave, creative, hopeful, and then buy or create an experience that fits with that character strength. If they are creative people perhaps they would love some vouchers to life drawing classes, if they are curious perhaps they would love a visit to a museum, if they are humorous perhaps they would love a homemade book of jokes (google for jokes on the internet, type them up, and present them to the person you love).
3. If you have a bit more money to spend, look at going to a company like This Pampered Life where they can create a package, that suits many budgets, of experiences for the recipient.
Merry Christmas everyone!