Choose to Feel Safe

A blog on our response to trauma from Helen Shakespeare.

Is anyone feeling tired even though your daily activity load has decreased? It’s most likely a response to trauma. It’s not possible to combat the virus actively (fight), it’s not possible to run away from it (flight), so the body goes into ‘play dead’ (freeze) mode. It’s an avoidance coping strategy. Isolation, together with the nature of the virus, has robbed us of our coping mechanisms. Added to and embedded in this traumatic situation we are facing is the fact that enforced lockdown has robbed us of choice. It’s one thing to choose to stay at home and tend to the house or garden, but quite another to feel it’s obligatory. Systems in the workplace sometimes cheat us of choices, but home is where we are meant to feel autonomy. It is well documented that an increase in freedom boosts morale. It is therefore safe to say that the removal of choice will lower morale. According to self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci), needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness must be met in order to enhance levels of self-motivation. Could this be adding to our feelings of fatigue?

So, faced with this new predicament my brain raced to find any history of coping mechanisms I had previously known. It led me back to a time when my daughter was seriously unwell and it was this connection that led to me creating the ‘SAFE’ resource  in the hope of helping; helping not just teenagers, but staff and parents, grandparents and children.

A few years ago, my daughter was self-isolated. I mean this in the strictest sense; she isolated herself due to mental health issues that were drowning her. She chose to self-isolate; she separated herself from friends; she saw no point in getting up; no point in dressing; in washing or in attending to the most basic self-care needs. I know from some friends that these symptoms are included in the list of things people are battling with at this time of lockdown. The part of recovery that has relevance here, was an activity which required her to plan for just four things in her day. One had to be purposeful; one relating to achievement; one to closeness with someone and one for enjoyment. It was based on neuroscience research and the brain being triggered into the production of chemicals that enhance our well-being; achievement triggers dopamine; purpose, serotonin; connection, oxytocin and exercise or enjoyment, endorphins. Choosing her own daily goals enabled her to feel autonomy and a boost to her morale. Not only did she feel as though she was achieving things of purpose, but her day began to have structure and by recording her chosen activities she could also measure an element of progress. I have adapted this to form a daily planning activity under the apt acronym of SAFE. Exercise is included on account of its raised importance at a time when none of us can go to the gym or park  - our usual places.

The SAFE activity ends with choosing three blessings. Research has shown that being thankful is beneficial to our well-being. At Aspire AP we practice this at our daily de-brief, even after the toughest of days. It takes some discipline to begin with, before a habit is formed. After a while, your brain becomes trained to look for the positives during the day itself.

Tired we may be - out of sorts – but we must be kind to ourselves. Read more about how the brain deals with trauma and use the knowledge to be understanding of how you are feeling. Find a way that suits you to plan in the positive ingredients to nurture yourself, give you purpose and help you to connect with others. Give yourself permission to rest. Despite our locked down situation, we have in fact got a lot of choice.

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Dress to Suppress (the Monotony)

To relish the decadence of spending the days in pyjamas or to get yourself brushed and dressed? Senior Education Psychologist, Jenny Feeney, of Bucks County Council, argues that what we choose to wear is more significant than we might realise.

I hate running. But I consider it a necessary evil as it is free and can fit around my schedule. My first attempts at running came when I was living in Camden. I found running around streets that were populated 24-7 entirely embarrassing… and I gave up quickly. Finally, I decided to buy myself some actual running gear. It seemed strange but the mere act of putting on my running clothes gave me the anonymity I needed. I suddenly felt that people probably didn’t assume I was crazy or wonder why I was running around the streets but assumed that I was in fact a ‘runner’. And I felt, for those 30 minutes twice a week, that just maybe, I was a ‘runner’.

Like it or not, clothes play an important role in our social interactions. Clothes provide our brain with cues to people’s behaviours – think, ‘Oh that man is walking up to the house because he is a postal worker’ versus ‘Why is that man walking up to the house?’ And research shows clothes may even influence our own behaviour. Those who know me at work may have spotted my adherence to this view. They may recognise the range of outfits I wear for different roles; the suited and booted leader outfits for big events; the gender neutral shirt and jacket for working with secondary schools; the softer, brighter jumpers and dresses for primary schools; and the dangly earrings and long skirts for when I just plain need to channel the airy fairy psychologist :). My clothes allow me to project myself into who or what I need to be each day.

And so, even in lockdown I continue to use clothing to help me navigate that ‘groundhog day’ feeling. My full running gear comes out to help me match Joe Wicks’ energy during his daily torture sessions. My work clothes go on to remind my brain that even though I am sitting on my bed, I am in fact at work. And on Saturday nights, myself and my two little girls get our glad rags on… because lockdown or not the Feeney girls enjoy a party at the weekend.

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A blog post by Nick Fanshaw, Year 5 Teacher, St Paul’s Chipperfield

What would your legacy be?

Could this crisis offer a unique opportunity to consider how we truly wish to be remembered?

As these turbulent times play out, a shadow from within rears itself to question us; to question our purpose; to question our morality.  If today were your last day – if now was all that you held within your hand… would you be satisfied with who and what you were?  And who and what you’d become?  Would you feel you’d left enough on this blank canvas we all arrived on – so someone else could admire your metaphorical painting in fifty, a hundred or even five hundred years to come?

We are all ants in this labyrinth of life; we are all numbers and statistics.  By nature we like order and clarity – numbers are just that.  Yet I pose the question: are you a prime number, a number below ten or are you four hundred and seventy four thousand, eight hundred and twenty one?  A number you’ve just read but as this line reaches its climax - a number you will not be able to recount.  Herein lies my issue with the society we have become.  We should now feel embarrassed about two things.  Keeping up with the Joneses and taking for granted the pure simplicity in which life should be loved and appreciated.  Like Mary Schmich states in her commencement speech (made famous in Baz Luhrmann’s song), ‘The race is long, and in the end, only with yourself!’

The journey you take is about those moments on the way.  Those moments enable me to forge a legacy in prose and pictures.  I savour those times – the simplicity of what flows in writing and the inspiration that leaves its imprint on me.  A summer breeze or the notes through my headphones on a dark, quiet evening.  That makes me - me!  When you can saviour the freebies of life – then you’re well on the road to fulfilment – well on your way to understanding what your legacy is.

We’ve never had such a sustained period of time for self-reflection. Never have we had to deal with this much introspection because life has become too busy.  Who are you?  What are you about?  What would you say your legacy will be?  I am not immune to soul-searching but I haven’t had to search too far.  It’s given me this transparency – it’s almost cleansing. I feel refreshed and know that, no matter what the next year brings, what I leave behind in the end – whenever the end is – is something that I stood for and something I was proud of.  That’s not to say I’m not worried about my family, friends and children I teach – I really am - but don’t feel guilty at this moment to take stock of you.  I hope this time shapes people, makes people kinder, makes people appreciate life’s minimalism, makes people learn more about what they want from life and how they want to be remembered in years to come.  I hope it also makes everyone do those things they’ve always wanted to do but never tried.  As bleak as times are – there are positives to be gained from this isolation – the self-reflection and questioning could be exactly what you need to prosper in the future.

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When all the rules have changed: Is shouting the new norm?

Reflections on changing behaviour patterns and the ‘new normal’ from Educational Psychologist Jenny Feeney of Bucks County Council.

In my mid 30s I had the opportunity to move overseas. Emigrating was exhilarating but I totally underestimated the impact it would have on my sense of self in the world. From the moment we are born we are constantly creating ‘schemas’ that help us to predict what the world looks like and how others will behave. And suddenly, those years of internalising closely observed social rules throughout my childhood weren’t so useful in a sea of people who were socialised using different schemas… Our brains are marvellous things but the short-cuts that allow us to function also create errors in our thinking. We seek those who behave in familiar ways and are suspicious of those who behave differently to us. And so, we land on unhelpful prejudices such as, ‘New Yorkers are rude’, whereas those same New Yorkers considered me (someone to whom the adjectives ‘over confident’ and ‘bossy’, have been liberally applied) to be shy and incapable of getting myself heard. Wow, it was a learning curve just to get my order in at the local bagel store.

So, fast forward a few years, having returned to the UK and ‘normality’ I once again find myself in a whole new culture… one of physical distancing. Suddenly it is ‘normal’ to stand apart from people, give them a wide berth in the street or supermarket aisle, have no physical contact, not help them to reach things on the supermarket shelf even! When I go out to the supermarket I find myself worrying that people must find me rude, stand-offish, even strange. Somehow I don’t fit it all over again. And having never been someone you might consider ‘bubbly’ I find putting on a smile you can spot at 6 feet to be excruciating!  

I think it is important to recognise how important those subconscious schemas are for managing our anxiety and knowing how to behave. We are in a world where it feels as though there are no ‘social schema’… even the ‘going to the supermarket schema’ has to be re-written.  But one thing experience and research has told me is that people are resilient, our brains will adjust and we will incorporate these new ways of living into new schemas to be kept ‘on file’ for the future. And in the meantime? Well we can’t be getting it ‘wrong’ and we can influence what becomes the new ‘socially acceptable’. So I’m off to practise shouting ‘HOW YOU DOING?!’ from 6 feet away... it seemed to work in Brooklyn anyway.

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