This might not be an observation that can be generalised, but I have noticed numerous friends and colleagues appearing in a state of unrest or irritability in recent weeks.
While the global landscape is in major flux in response to Russia's present invasion of Ukraine; the ramifications this has had across the world have been broad-reaching and frankly, devastating. However, this agitation I'm referring to seems to pre-date that vastly impactful, global conflict.
Closer to home, the change that perhaps has altered our daily life most this March, has been the drastic dialling back of mandatory Covid-19 pandemic restrictions on 24th February 2022.
The pandemic took many to a deeply Pavlovian place, much like Ivan Pavlov's dogs who were conditioned to associate a bell with food and who would later salivate when the bell rang, even in absence of food, we were given powerful messages through the media, our phones, spray painted on roads and pavements throughout the pandemic. These multi-sensory stimuli told us how home represented a safe haven, urged us to see harm/threat in being with others, to fear proximity and view crowds as risk; so how do we revert to feeling a sense of safety in our surroundings and in ourselves now that these messages have largely melted away?
The process is one of re-training our brains or counter-conditioning, applying a fresh risk assessment relevant to where and who we are, here and now. When the out-of-date conditioning alerts us (e.g. with an increased heart-rate, tension or anxiety) to threats that are no longer so potent, we need ways to soothe our nervous system and bring calm and reassurance to self.
My top tips to activate the parasympathetic nervous system in the interests of reducing anxiety (or agitation) in our changed world include:
Mindfulness/meditation/yoga- great ways to let go of fears from the past or apprehensions about the future. Apps like CALM and HEADSPACE can have helpful, guided practices; or if you're looking for something more bespoke, check out https://www.reconnectyoga.co.uk/, a wonderful and recommended community Yoga partnership centred around the therapeutic benefits of yoga in its many forms.
There's also the opportunity to develop a new mantra* to counter those that are outdated; one that promotes safety, security and good health. Repeat it in your mind if you feel the outworn messages taking hold. We need to support our psyches in re-programme and re-familiarising with a feeling of solace and regulation.
*Statement or slogan repeated frequently
Expanding, enriching and embedding
I am so looking forward to delivering training later this month which focuses on expanding, enriching and embedding therapeutic services in schools (Friday February 18th 10-1pm, £45/person).
So what does being a 'wellbeing in education specialist' really mean, and how might I have made my way to these dizzy heights?
When I was 21, (more than double that now-ouch!) I started teaching and spent a good 7 years climbing the ranks, working mostly in secondary schools in both state and private sectors. I didn’t hate it, found myself heading up a dept in no time and working in an advisory capacity for local primary schools, gravitating most towards the pastoral aspects of the job. Between permanent, temporary and supply posts, I must have been plunged into tens of different mainstream educational settings and systems, soaking in their commonalities and differences along the way.
What followed was about the same time again straddling alternative provisions and mainstream schools, adopting increasingly therapeutically-driven roles. This included delivering education in houses wearing slippers, for young people who didn't fit the mainstream mould; working in PRU's and for inner-London boroughs offering tuition. I worked with an online school several years before the pandemic would unfold, where I would meet tutees based in their own homes, in a common virtual world as avatars. I never took my feet entirely out of one-size-fits-most comprehensive domain, until such time I managed a Therapeutic Inclusion Unit, which in some ways was a composite of these various, diverse influences; I also maintained an outreach role in primary schools local to our centre, providing emotional support for some of their most in-need children.
In the latter half of this second 7-year journey (perhaps in consequence of an itch!) I took up my second career in counselling and psychotherapy. I eventually moved on from the TIU to a service lead position in a large high school based on the East London/Essex borders, a role which has grown and multiplied almost exponentially since starting. It was four or five years into this position when the incarnation of my business began, organically unfolding as a result of school/wellbeing leaders/therapists reaching out to learn more about my brand of therapy in schools, cultivated from within the institutional organism rather than one which bolts-on and accessorises it.
That consultative stance has offered me insight into more systems and ways of working, I continue to work with children and adolescents as a therapist and clinical lead while also having a private practice centred around supervision, alongside my training provision.
When I began at my current post, I was part-time alongside a mentor also in for three days. We had a handful of volunteer mentors or staff who had a small mentoring quota; this was our jumping-off point in 2016. In 2022, we are a thriving, leading psychological health and wellbeing hub with a wellbeing team numbering 7-10, supporting our young people in a myriad of modalities and modes. In this month's training, I'll be sharing with participants how we got there, some of the challenges faced and how it's been possible to tackle two of the heftiest hurdles therapists in schools face: wait-lists and demand outweighing capacity, especially while we emerge from the '...grip of a mental health crisis, with children worst affected.' (Royal College of Psychiatrists, April 2021).
For more information or to book your place on this training, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Royal College of Psychiatrists. (2021, April 8) Country in the grip of a mental health crisis with children worst affected, new analysis finds [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/news-and-features/latest-news/detail/2021/04/08/country-in-the-grip-of-a-mental-health-crisis-with-children-worst-affected-new-analysis-finds
Accepting the blues
At January time, I think a lot about loss and endings, despite in principal this being a platform for new beginnings. January, to me, has this indescribable heaviness and I say this as someone January-born.
Societally, there has been a growing trend of January being a month for self-restraint. Whether refraining from meat, alcohol or expense, how synonymous this month is with moderacy and frugality means the consumption and sometimes opulence of December is securely in the rear-view mirror.
In years gone by, I would associate relentless cancellation for dinners, parties and the like associated with my birthday as reflecting a lack of worth; it was hard to factor in the the facts of the matter around debt and an indulgence hangover, low motivational levels and the statistical likelihood of January colds and flu. There’s also this concept of Blue Monday (which falls within a week of said birthday) which was introduced in 2005, supposedly as a result of an algorithm or formula that cited this as the most depressing day of the year.
What I can say, as a practitioner, is that often in my clinical role with adolescents, I observe a spike in low mood and suicidal ideation around this time of year, conducting risk-assessments and writing safety plans almost ten to the dozen. Dark evenings, mock exams and cold weather conditions aren’t conducive to social connection amongst adolescents. So how to combat the blue?
Is it about making lemonade out of lemons, or (a more appropriate winter-time analogy), snow angels out of snow? In my mind, it’s about acceptance. Accepting the potential dip in mood amongst clients, accepting that connection might be less obtainable. Accepting that January may not be the time for jubilant celebration and that an absence of this need not reflect a lack of worth or care. Accepting Newton’s law of gravity; that what goes up (in Dec) must come down (in Jan). Or even in those circumstances where December may not have been a buoyant and uplifting experience, that the disappointment or deflation in this might have sustained. Either way, to cope with January blues, maybe consider jumping on the acceptance train.
Like a Frog...
What if not writing this blog
was an act of self-care,
Too many demands and mounting brain fog
of which I’m aware,
Let’s spring over it like a buoyant frog
that takes miraculously to the air,
Perhaps a disservice to December, but of attention, it has its plentiful share.
I wasn’t always a therapist - my first career was in teaching. My experience is that this duality helps me view school-based therapy through a mental health lens but also that of educationalists and school leaders . It helps close that potential gap that can form between the realms of academic pressures vs wellbeing, and the importance of the emotional availability to learn.
Several schools have bought in the services of @mstherapeutic_ to consult on ways that these pivotal elements of school life can optimally coexist in harmony.
Emotionally sound young people make great learners, secure attachment can help us be curious and explorative. Equally, stresses and adversity, anxiety or fluctuations in mood can be vastly preoccupying and melt away the capacity to cope with the rigidity and high demands of a mainstream school environment.
The pursuit of flexibility is what took me into the sphere of alternative provision, some 13 years ago. Since then, I have worked in, co-founded and run various non-mainstream education models meeting the needs of young people who might be outliers when it comes to one-size-fits-all schooling. Recent years brought me back full circle, to a large, comprehensive, conventional settings- where those most struggling can be obscured by the sheer volume of peers and the prevailing culture of conformism.
It’s my belief that emotional wellbeing for students is the plinth on which schools should rest. It’s only with the bandwidth to think, and the cognitive capacity to be present, that young people can truly absorb the learning material presented to them, regardless of how inventively or imaginatively it’s offered.
Check out my 'Expanding, enriching and embedding therapeutic services in schools' training opportunity coming up early in 2022; the details of which can be found in the consultancy & training page.
I once knew a young person whose playful primary school would stage a weekly ‘Opportunity Knocks’ talent show for their class. Each week, this child would perform their ‘one-man-show’ called ‘Fire fire!’: a light-hearted, witty take on someone whose environment was constantly ablaze. This seemingly confident character would climb on tables and under chairs to the amusement of their peers, as they ran from perpetual fires igniting all around them; it was one of the most popular skits amongst the class, equally well-received by the teacher and children.
It later emerged that this effervescent performer had been living in a climate of trauma at the time; at no point had this presentation alerted adults to this unknown, systematic abuse. In fact, this young person kept their terror concealed for many more years before spontaneously disclosing their adverse experiences in their mid-teens. In hindsight, the metaphor is screaming out, but it wasn’t witnessed through the interpretive, attuned, empathic eyes that may have uncloaked this more sinister undercurrent.
If nothing more, this emphasises the power of metaphor and the potency of play. I’m currently working on a children’s-book project with a colleague that is centred around Winnicottian themes associated with play; this often being such an effective window to a young person’s internal world, although messages can be subtle and veiled.
Crucial is the listening, witnessing, available other whose intention is to meet the child on their frequency. This can be a parent, teacher, social-worker, family friend or therapist, anyone who might play a valuable part in the safeguarding of young people. Fire, fire is a prime example of how our psyche has the capacity to share one’s agony and adversity even inadvertently, often through creative means. I’m thankful to be a practitioner and to supervise practitioners whose privilege it is to receive these often coded messages and to support amazing young people who might be surviving trauma such as this or any other form of suffering at any time.
My musings around metal brought me to the phrase ‘made of mettle’ which refers to strength of character. I’ve thought a lot over the past year about young people in their late teens, what has been lost and what barriers they’ve faced, living through a pandemic at this stage in their lives; might this generation, by no determination of their own, be inherently made of mettle?
There are the obvious difficulties…altered exams, fractured school experiences, absence of depended-upon, ending rituals and relational connections alongside more obscure limitations such as extensive waiting lists for driving tests and setting sights on universities and towns they have never visited, due to travel restrictions.
In 2017 I conducted a study amongst adolescents on resilience, my findings reinforced that the inter-relationship between resilience and adversity is a complex one, but overall there was a significant correlation between high adversity and lowered resilience. I know from practice and from personal experience that while this can be true in cases where attachment, consistency or safety lend themselves to confidence, actualisation, individuation or maturation…this is not always the case. Sometimes, negative experiences fertilise resourcefulness and a tenacious quality, much like the mouse who fell in a bucket of cream and who struggled so hard that he churned the cream into butter and successfully crawled out (Frank Abagnale).
I wonder how the pandemic will factor in to this question around resilience, from personal experience as lead clinician in a large high school I know that the demand for mental health and wellbeing services has been stratospheric in recent months; is this indicative of diminished resilience? Perhaps more-so of prolonged uncertainty, a disconnect that has for some, lent itself to isolation, or the myriad of other potential challenges faced when living in strange circumstances, many of which can be encompassed by the term ‘loss’.
Mettle or metal has such strong connotations, a sense of being unbreakable, of other elements simply bouncing off, is it this robustness that young people today will have in spades as they grow? There’s also something about previously hard edges being sanded down or softened by the flexibility we’ve needed while navigating lives over which we’ve had lesser control.
Either way, my admiration for adolescents who have navigated these extreme obstacles is boundless, I am so very fortunate to work directly with them and hopefully, play a part in helping to make sense (if we can!) of all that has happened and how this affects what lies ahead.
Reflecting on my first blog post, I found myself looking to the elements for my next inspiration. Having centred my last piece around water, this next entry is all about air.
My concept of air for the purpose of this blog is very much one of spaciousness. One of my favourite discoveries in mindful breathwork is the potential pause at the top of the inhale or exhale where there can be a temporary state of idling. This is when neither breathing in nor out occurs; blissfully inactive. Without mindfulness, I would never have discovered this tipping point where true, momentary stillness resides.
Our individual relationships to stillness will likely differ, in the past I’ve sometimes entangled it with dullness and a lack of productivity, imbued with strong negative connotations of stagnation or stall. Taming that self-judgement and allowing for space has been an on-going journey.
For many clients, stillness can represent a daunting prospect for repressed difficulties to surface or for fears and insecurities to be given life and to breed. Allowing for pause is something to ease in to with a gentle approach, this ‘air-like’ state is best exercised with a light touch. Creating mental space not a process that can be rushed or forced; so many of the young people I work with in therapy recoil at the prospect. However, I find that integrating the opportunity for mindfulness in my own practice and often with supervisees by means of grounding in our sessions together, there might be something of this spaciousness which cascades through to the client even before they themselves might be ready to submit to being still.
I experience the ocean as more spiritual than any place of worship. It has that capacity to embody the forces of nature and to contextualise lived experience in a way that reminds me that there is much more that exists in this world beyond my day-to-day musings and interactions.
It also has that iceberg effect, a notion of so much more existing below the surface than what can be seen, including phenomenal, eclectic marine environments with wonderfully diverse inhabitants.
I’ve been fortunate to do some diving in my past, extraordinary since I am by no means an aquaphile. For me, there’s something about hearing nothing but your own breath and the ebb and flow of water at your ears that’s inescapably mindful. Plus, ocean creatures and ecosystems often exude both vibrance and tranquillity at the sea-bed, it really is a different world down there.
Strangely, I found myself calmer diving at deeper depths; for me, submitting to the ocean in its entirety offers greater release compared to when the surface is in touching distance. I wonder about this as a metaphor for therapy, how releasing into a trusted relationship gives scope for richness of experience and true, relational depth.
I’ve also thought a lot about decompression during the recent pandemic, decompression stops are something divers do as part of their ascent to the surface in order to essentially process the changes in pressure which occur during a dive. We shouldn’t expect ourselves to resurface too quickly from this altered state of being we’ve been immersed in all this time, without gradual, paced decompression, and the opportunity to continue to periodically decompress.
I suppose what decompression looks like for each of us differs, but it's likely to be in the same vein as the self-care therapists so often peddle. There’s been a real change in our habitat and habits this past year and we must give our bodies and minds chance to re-acclimatise, by whatever mode fits best. We can learn so very much from the ocean, and from taking care of ourselves.