On the 20th January 2021, Zen Educate hosted a Towards Positive Mental Health and Wellbeing webinar. With special guest speakers Helen Woodward (Former Head of School Improvement at the Department for Education) and Peter Vaughan-Fowler (Operations Executive and Teach First Ambassador), we looked to explore what steps can be taken to better manage our mental health and wellbeing.

The focus of the webinar was specifically mental health and wellbeing for teaching staff, with detail around living and working in times of profound change, recognising stress in others, and what to do when it feels like the world is too much. We hope you find this summary, the resources linked, and the webinar itself as helpful as we did!

Living and working well in times of profound change

"Can we experience our emotions as a potential area for learning?"

Helen Woodward

Summary: Helen kicked off the webinar with an appropriate statistic: 1 in 4 adults will experience mental health difficulties every year. With our lives now more restricted than we ever previously imagined and the emotional support of 1-to-1 conversation diminished, it’s important for us to reassess how to prioritise our own – and other people’s – mental health and wellbeing.

Key insights: Something often overlooked in addressing mental health is the practice of noticing; taking a step back and considering the fundamentals of your experience: thoughts, emotions and physiology. Helen detailed the importance of noticing these elements of experience by referencing psychologist R.D. Lang, who wrote

“the range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”

Opportunities: It’s absolutely crucial to be attentive and honest about our emotional states and journeys. When we view our emotions as predispositions for action, we can “view emotions as potential areas for learning”, Helen said. And of course, emotions (especially strong ones) are extremely hard to pinpoint and even harder to control. The model below helps to illustrate how acceptance of facticity (what we assess as unchangeable), possibility (what we assess as changeable), and uncertainty (what we cannot predict with confidence), can lead to us taking more productive and positive actions.

Some Basic Moods of Life, Alan Sieler (2007)

Recognising stress in others

"Some stress can be good and beneficial for us (...) but too much stress in others is something that we need to be aware of"

Peter Vaughan-Fowler

Summary: Peter detailed the importance of acknowledging how stress can sometimes be an ally. Stress produces adrenaline, which can help prepare us to excel in the classroom and beyond. However, that isn’t to say that stress is inherently a good thing. It can manifest itself as a whole host of mental and physical health problems - some of them life-threatening. It’s important to be able to see the warning signs of too much stress in others and ourselves.

Key insights: What are the warning signs of too much stress? In terms of physical problems, NHS guidance lists headaches, dizziness, muscle tension and stomach problems among others. Excessive stress can also cause constant worrying, overwhelm and forgetfulness. School closures have meant that warning signs have been more difficult to identify in colleagues. As Peter put it, “it’s easy to put on a brave face for a video call”.

Opportunities: In the absence of face-to-face conversations, encouraging healthy and honest conversation can be as simple as subtle changes in language. Peter gave the fantastic example of slightly changing a stock greeting to make it more personal: saying ‘how are you today?’ instead of simply ‘how are you?’. This may seem trivial, but while ‘how are you’ is a pleasantry to which many of us would reply ‘I’m fine thanks’, adding in ‘today’ encourages the person you’re asking to give a more nuanced and honest response. This can help to create productive and supportive chat without asking personal questions.

Additionally, to help others with their mental health it’s important to consider your own. Peter recommended maintaining self-care in order to cultivate a healthy mindset to be able to help others. This can be as simple as eating a varied diet, maintaining friendships, exercising, practicing thankfulness, or spending some time outdoors. “Self-care and self-compassion are not things that are selfish”, said Peter, “but rather selfless, because they put us in a position where we can be most resourceful and really help other people to be resourceful too”.

What about when the world is just too much?

“None of us have immunity against this. It starts with emotional stability"

Helen Woodward

Summary: Feelings of overwhelm and helplessness do not discriminate. “Frankly, it happens to all of us”, Helen explained, and went on to describe how when we have feelings of overwhelm, returning to a place of emotional stability is our best first step. Although achieving emotional stability is a lot easier said than done, there are manageable habits of focussing on breathing, noticing and naming our thoughts and emotions that make a great starting point.

Key insights: Helen frequently made reference to the work of American professor and lecturer Dr. Brené Brown, in particular her writing discussing ‘risers’. Risers are people who recognise when they are emotionally overwhelmed and engage their curiosity. Brown argues their learning to rise begins, again, with noticing; noticing your thoughts, emotions and physiology. Connecting with your body and being curious is key: Helen suggested asking yourself questions like “What’s going on with me? Why has this got me riled up?”, and recommended grounding to help achieve a more relaxed state. The most common form of grounding is to focus on breathing, but whatever helps you ease into a state of calm is helpful. You can read more about Brené Brown’s writing on risers here.

Opportunities: Clarify and ground your story by writing down your thoughts, emotions and physiology: ‘my emotions are…’, ‘in my body I’m experiencing…’, ‘my thinking on this matter is…’, ‘my beliefs are…’, ‘my actions are going to be…’. This may seem like quite a small, flippant gesture, but putting these fundamental parts of your existence into words will help to create better self-understanding. Being factual about your experience can be a step in the direction of an outlook open to possibility, and can help gain a better understanding of yourself. For acting in your best interests when feeling overwhelmed, Helen also recommended (where possible) waiting before acting. For example, if you’re feeling very anxious and upset, acting too quickly can lead to doing something you might regret, or doing something not as well as you might be able to later on. “Is this something I need to act on quickly? If there’s a fire, then obviously yes! But is this something I can do tomorrow, can I leave it for a day? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been so glad I waited a day before I did something. It’s really important to have that bit of space to yourself to think things through.”

You can watch the webinar in its entirety below:

We’d like to thank Peter and Helen again for their time and insight. Follow Zen Educate on Twitter to make sure you don’t miss out on future webinars or follow us on Instagram to see more posts on wellbeing!