By Dusha Cecil
Being a high school social worker has always brought some level of ambiguity at the start of each workday in terms of how the day might go. Some days are filled with children laughing and others are full of tears. But 2020 was an altogether different sort of year.
In the whirlwind of a worldwide pandemic, racial unrest, and elections, the "unpredictability meter" we all live with more than doubled, and, for our schools, I sense that the meter more than tripled.
Teachers and students are feeling the stress and strain that come with the unknown, balancing quarantines and the loss of housing for both students and staff, all while educating students simultaneously, both in-home and in-person.
Twenty-twenty forced us to zig and zag without notice, and at the same time, offered us the opportunity to strengthen our grit. I found myself seeking a sense of "normalcy" to help me navigate my overwhelm in an attempt to keep my head above water and help students do the same. To do this, I leaned into the principles of "resiliency". Resiliency is generally thought of as our ability to adapt to and overcome adversity, trauma, and challenges.
If I learned anything in 2020, it's that I am not effective in serving others when I am in crisis myself. The ability for us to offer support for others when our own well is dry is a near-impossible and certainly draining task.
By late April of 2020, I realized that it was time for me to practice what I preach, not only for the benefit of the children I work with but for the sake of my mental and emotional health as well.
If you are interested in building resilience in 2021, here are five simple ways I built my own:
1. Maintain caring relationships
I noticed that when I am running low on fumes, I am generally not spending enough time with the ones I love. We are social beings, and whether it's texting funny memes or spending quality time with friends and family, little moments of connection help me feel recharged.
2. Remember you
Self-care is the elephant in the room. When my stress is high and my to-do list feels long, personal care is the first thing to go. Yet, the more I neglect myself, the more worn out and dismantled I feel.
To manage this overwhelm, I re-defined self-care to be whatever works for me in any given moment and, in doing so, it became less stressful and more manageable. Maybe self-care is sipping coffee before a shift, taking a hot bath, having a good long cry, or taking a walk outside. Whatever you do, keep it simple, and make self-care a mindset rather than another thing on your already too long to-do list.
3. Move your body
Research has shown that exercise not only improves our physical health but our mental health, too. Yet, given the nature of 2020, I found it hard to work out. Stress was high and energy was low - physically and mentally - so instead of going to the gym, I practiced inserting little moments of activity throughout my day. Things like dancing, walking the dog or taking the steps instead of the elevator. One time, I even walked in place for 10 minutes while folding the laundry. (Don't laugh, it was cold outside!) The key here is to think small and to sprinkle activity into your every day.
4. Maintain a sense of normalcy
My job as a social worker and life itself has taught me that too much change can easily throw me off balance. When I lack normalcy, I am more likely to react (rather than respond) to the people and stressful things that happen around me. So, to boost my resiliency all 2020 long, I made sticking to my normal routine a priority. When my days ran fairly predictable, I felt safer, more in control, and more adaptable. I also noticed that others, including the kids I worked with, were better able to experience those feelings themselves, too.
5. Practice stress management
I have often found that when I don't manage my stress, it manages me. Practicing stress management comes in many forms. For me, this includes deep breathing, creative outbursts such as art, and listening to calming music. When I'm at work, I like to take mini "brain breaks" every couple of hours where I simply pause for 30 seconds to stretch my body or walk down the hall to get a drink of water.
Resilience does not always travel with the smoothest of rides (ahem, 2020) but nurturing our capacity for it can help us not only survive, but thrive among life's many challenges with confidence. After the year we all had in 2020, and as we head into a new year, we can each pause to recognize ourselves for the resiliency we have already shown.