Today is Teacher Appreciation Day! In honor of the amazing teachers I currently work with, and have worked with in the past, I wanted to create a self-care guide for teachers in the last stretch of the school year. Although I’m not a teacher by profession, I feel a certain kinship with teachers because their work is very similar to social work. Their work is incredibly important, but it is often under appreciated and under valued. In my book teachers are heroes. They go into the profession because they recognize the importance of quality education and are aware of the role education plays in preventing poverty and challenging systemic inequalities. They build really important relationships with young people who may be facing immense challenges at home and in their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, in the day to day work of supporting their students who are coming in with family, community, and systemic trauma, dealing with bureaucracy and politics, and few support services (Did you know most Chicago Public Schools don’t even have one full time social worker on staff?), teachers become burned out.
When I was a fellow at Live Oak I attended a training that summed up the definition of burnout really well. “A state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations; when what is asked of us is beyond our reasonable abilities to accomplish, yet we continue to strive to reach these expectations.” “‘Burnout has to do with the stress and frustration caused by the workplace: having poor pay, unrealistic demands, heavy workload, heavy shifts, poor management, and inadequate supervision’” (Mathieu, 2012, p. 14) This definition sums up a lot of teacher’s experiences. People who become teachers care deeply about the work and are excited to make a difference; they are typically the type of people who won’t easily give up, even when the administration has unreasonable expectations of their work. The continual stress and lack of support lead to frustration and even apathy.
So how can teachers prevent or manage burnout so they can continue their important work? One of the recommendations of the training I attended was to create a plan that incorporates personal, professional, and organizational strategies. Personal strategies can include taking care of the most basic needs such as getting restful sleep, eating healthy meals, and exercising. What might need to change so you could more easily meet those basic needs? Other strategies include acknowledging and honoring your emotions and seeking support from a therapist to help you process them, making time for having fun, spending time with friends, loved ones, and pets, and developing a spiritual practice whether that’s meditation, attending church, or using tarot/oracle cards. Professional strategies may include setting boundaries like not taking on additional tasks or requests, leaving work by a certain time each day, turning off your email notifications, or seeking training and support outside your workplace. Organizational strategies may include creating support systems within your workplace, seeking support from a supervisor or the administration, or organizing with other teachers to create changes. I recommend starting with strategies that feel the most achievable and you can build from there.
Some books I’ve found helpful on these topics are Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself As Effectively As You Care for Everyone Else* by Alice D. Domar *Please note this book is written with an emphasis on caregivers who are women. On a final note, when a work environment is toxic the best self-care strategy may be taking yourself out of the environment. All the self-care coping strategies in the world cannot negate systems or supervisors who are abusive to you.
Please express gratitude to all of the teachers in your life. Believe me they don’t hear thank you often enough! And if you’re interested in advocating for teachers to have more support please contact your legislators about the SB1941/HB2084 bills in the Illinois state legislature, which would create a grant program for schools to hire more social workers, create restorative justice programs, and provide students with wrap around services. You can find out more info and find your legislators by visiting: http://www.naswil.org/advocacy/advocacy-alerts/
Mathieu, F. (2012). The Compassion Fatigue Workbook: Creative Tools for Transforming Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Traumatization. New York: Routledge.
Zakhem, J. (November 2017). Compassion Fatigue, Vicarious Trauma & Resilience: Identifying Vicarious Trauma, Reducing Compassion Fatigue and Strengthening Vicarious Resilience. Paper presented at Live Oak, Chicago, IL.
This is going to be a vulnerable post, but I think it’s important to share my story in case it may help others. I hope it’s obvious from my website that I’m really passionate about holistic mental healthcare. I believe anyone can benefit from talk therapy, but in my approach I incorporate holistic modalities that provide clients with tools and skills to use on their own so at some point they won’t need to keep seeing me. I’m also passionate about alternative approaches to Western Medicine and have found good results from acupuncture and integrative and functional medicine. So with my preference for holistic healthcare I was never really excited about the idea of anti-depressants. I also think I have the same fears and thoughts that a lot of people do about anti-depressants..will I have to be on them forever? Will I have to try 3 different medications before I find the right one? Will I have terrible side effects like weight gain, losing my sex drive, or feeling even worse than I started? I also had taken an anti-depressant in the past and it made me feel like I was on a stimulant so I stopped immediately. I also didn’t particularly like the doctor (who was a PCP by the way) who prescribed the medication so I had no desire to go back to him to talk about my experience and figure something else out.
That’s when I began using 5-HTP and L-theanine. I was working at a holistic practice which sold the supplements and the owner of the practice provided a mini training on the positive effects of these supplements. 5-HTP is a building block to serotonin. For more info see https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/integrative-mental-health-care/201709/l-tryptophan-and-5-hydroxytryptophan-in-mental-health.
L-theanine is an amino acid (also found in green tea) which increases GABA, producing a calming anti-anxiety effect. For more info see https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sleep-newzzz/201708/what-you-need-know-about-l-theanine. There isn’t a lot of research on the efficacy of these supplements (https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/hn-2793000#hn-2793000-uses), but I was willing to give them a try (and I always informed my doctors I was taking them). I don’t know if it was a placebo effect, but I did notice an improvement in my mood while taking these supplements. I once ran out of L-theanine and did notice myself having more anxiety than usual so it seemed like it was doing something for me.
Fast forward to a year later and several life stressors later, I was really struggling to maintain my anxiety and depression with my usual coping strategies. I was still taking 5-HTP and L-theanine, using meditations and guided imagery, practicing a gratitude journal with a friend every day, and getting my own therapy, but it just wasn’t cutting it. My relationship was being impacted, I was having trouble focusing on my work, and I was feeling irritable most of the time. My therapist encouraged me to see a psychiatrist so I finally scheduled an appointment. The psychiatrist I met with actually took more than the 10 minutes I had with the PCP, to learn more about what was going on, and he prescribed an antihistamine to help with sleep. He also gave me a sample packet of an anti-depressant, which I was still feeling apprehensive about taking.
I was continuing to have those fears about what this all meant, how the medication would impact me, and what it would mean for the future so I waited a few days until I had another episode where I felt overwhelmed by my emotions and decided to start. I had been told there could be gastrointestinal side effects to the medication and my doctor advised starting with a smaller dose than what was provided in the sample packet. I did experience some nausea, but it was only for a few hours and did not happen again until I increased the dose (and again it was pretty tolerable). Now that I’ve been on the medication for awhile I can’t believe I waited this long to start. There’s been a huge shift in my mood and huge improvement in my ability to manage my emotions. I finally feel like I can take care of everything I need to. I’m also aware this isn’t going to solve all of my problems and I need to continue taking care of myself and doing my work in therapy. I also know I am lucky it worked out this way because this isn’t everyone’s experience with anti-depressants. But for those who are afraid, I think it’s important to know there’s a possibility those fears won’t come true and you don’t have to keep suffering.
If you feel like you are running out of coping strategies, feel like you can no longer keep managing your symptoms of anxiety or depression, or feel like your mental health is negatively impacting your family, relationships, or work, it may be time to talk to a therapist and/or a psychiatrist. It is especially important to seek help if you are feeling hopeless or suicidal. If you are currently experiencing hopelessness or suicidal thoughts please go to your nearest emergency room, call 911, or call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Also, FYI, a therapist’s role includes helping you find referrals for psychiatrists and they will likely have referrals to people they trust.
While a majority of the City of Chicago is shut down today due to the frigid Arctic temperatures I’m thinking about ways to manage the winter blues. If you have Seasonal Affective Disorder (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml), or are just human, you are likely impacted by the continual gray skies, fewer daylight hours, and chilly temperatures. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.” You may find yourself more tired, irritable, sleeping more, not spending time with friends and family, or not enjoying activities you used to. You may even feel hopeless or suicidal. If you are currently having thoughts of suicide or harming yourself please call 911 immediately or go to your nearest emergency room.
Although there are no definitive causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder, one reason for it may be how the shorter daylight hours increase the production of melatonin, which impacts sleep and energy. Humans don’t hibernate; we continue similar schedules through the winter even though our bodies are being told to go to sleep earlier. Vitamin D levels may be another possible cause of SAD since we get less sunlight in the winter and there are links between Vitamin D and serotonin, which plays a role in depression. If you live in Chicago, you likely have low levels of Vitamin D. I recommend having a blood test with your primary care doctor and continuing to have the levels tested after supplementing to make sure you are getting the right amount for your body. Light therapy, or a happy lamp, may also be helpful in reducing symptoms of depression in the winter. The light box imitates the sun and can help your brain to produce chemicals that improve your mood. I recommend talking with your primary care doctor or a psychiatrist about which light box would be best for you. They are available for purchase on Amazon, but there are several brands out there at different price points.
For me, in addition to missing the sunlight, winter is difficult because my body is impacted more greatly than in other seasons. When it’s cold I hunch my shoulders and armor myself against the cold, which means I’m tightening up and breathing more through my chest, and all of that contributes to stiffness and pain in my neck and shoulders. I highly recommend seeing a massage therapist on a regular basis during the winter to release tension that is built up from the cold. Massage therapy is also a great stress reducer. You could also benefit from practicing breath work. One simple technique is breathing in to the count of 4, 5, or 6 (whatever feels most comfortable), and then breathing out to the same count you breathed in and doing several rounds of that. Breath work is something I often teach clients I work with because there are many stress-reducing benefits.
Something else to consider is reducing your intake of alcohol. With fewer activities available and not wanting to deal with the cold it can be easy to end up drinking at your neighborhood bar more for something to do. I highly recommend taking a month off from drinking and noticing how that impacts your mood and body. I know it can be difficult socially, but think of it as a temporary experiment (because it is). One way to manage social situations is to have a plan of the alternative drink you will have if you will be hanging out with friends at a bar. If completing a sober month doesn’t interest you there are other ways to reduce the intake of alcohol like reducing the amount you have available in your house.
Finally, seeking support from a professional therapist and/or being evaluated by a psychiatrist for an anti-depressant may be what’s needed to reduce, manage, and overcome symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Additionally, if you are struggling with quitting drinking please seek assistance from a therapist or alcohol treatment program. You don’t have to do it alone. Chicago winters are rough and long, but with a few changes you may be able to get through the winter feeling less irritable and tired, and more back to yourself enjoying the things you used to.