The ‘shock’ factor: Triaging wellbeing during a pandemic

For my first article of 2021 I had thought about writing a cheery ‘new year, new you’ style piece about wellbeing, but I quickly realised that with all of the current world ‘going-ons’, I felt it might be inauthentic and to be honest, a bit of a lie. 

I’ll admit that I have had a personal ‘slump’ over the Christmas break. I spent a lot of time on the sofa either asleep, or thinking about how tired I was. I felt completely adverse to working, as though starting anything might open up the ‘burnout’ wound that had grown increasingly raw over the last few weeks of term. Any knocks to this, even opening my laptop for anything other than to watch Netflix, would damage the new, fragile skin that was slowly starting to form. Best to keep watching Netflix then, doctors orders!

This period made me think about wellbeing once again, but not necessarily from the (over-simplified) perspective that ‘wellbeing is good’ or ‘we should all be focusing on our wellbeing’. The closest analogy of my thoughts about wellbeing, in a time when the world seemed to be conspiring against everyone in it, was that I felt in a chronic state of ‘shock’ – the kind you hear about on first aid courses, rather than the moment when someone tells you something you weren’t quite anticipating. The kind of shock where something bad happens; a serious injury or traumatic experience, that causes your blood flow to shift away from the periphery of your body and shuts down non-essential bodily functions, in an attempt to redirect the blood to your vital organs. Your body reacts this way to try to ensure its survival, and yet it can be a critical and life-threatening condition if left untreated.

At a time when we are living in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety, it can feel as though all of the lifeblood is rushing away from the centre of who we are. The energy we use to be us – everything that we stand for, the vital functions that we need to get through everyday life, and the things that allow us to flourish – seems to be depleted. To wake up, get dressed, try our best to work or study, eat, sleep, repeat, can feel at best, draining, at worst, near impossible. Even our basic, vital functions may not be operating as well as they normally would under different circumstances. 

For me at the moment, wellbeing seems to be eluding my definition of a vital bodily function. This is not to say that I don’t think it is vital (I really do) but at the moment when I feel like my stunted blood flow is only serving the most core parts of me, I often don’t feel that there is the capacity for much else other than simply getting through the day.

I think about it from a teaching standpoint as well. When second and third waves are well underway, and in some ways a lot scarier than first waves due to their size and the rapid pace at which they are spreading. When schools are left in limbo about new year reopenings and leaving students, teachers and families in the same limbo, with everyone unsure about how the new year is going to start amidst increasingly fearful conditions. With GCSE and A Level exams potentially cancelled and the uncertainty that goes along with this, both in terms of how teachers will plan and assess students as well as keep them engaged, and how students will find ways to stay motivated despite being robbed yet again of their opportunity to validate their learning to themselves and others. When political mistrust is just as dangerous and pervasive as a virus, and seems to be mutating at light-speed and causing a myriad of symptoms which include (but are not limited to) chest pains, anxiety, stress, difficulty sleeping, and an impending sense of doom. The external environment that we are experiencing at the moment definitely isn’t an optimal environment for ‘being well’.

What we need is for wellbeing, as a process, to take on the emotional equivalent of positioning your legs above your heart. We need it to help us to stem the effects of this chronic, unrelenting shock. It doesn’t have to require much effort, and other people can help you if you are unable to do this for yourself, but it can give you the time for things to start flowing the way that they are meant to. But how? Well, one way in which wellbeing could be the equivalent of a first aid maneuver at the moment is to literally put your feet up and allow yourself to feel everything you’re feeling. Angry, frustrated, robbed, relieved, scared, grateful – the list goes on. You can experience all the seasons of emotions in one day (and more than once over). Now isn’t necessarily the right time to try to bring in a new initiative or programme (although it may be in some cases) but to instead simply get through the day in whatever way you (and your students) can. Try to be understanding, and give others the space to do the same. Create an environment of genuine empathy and kindness. Speak to people. Allow time and space for processing. Allow the lifeblood to gradually flow back to where it was meant to be, and continue to monitor for change and call for help if you need it. Let the body do the healing that it needs to, in order to access better wellbeing in the future. 

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