By Rebecca K. Oliver, SSWAA Executive Director
There is a Swedish saying that goes, "“Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.”
Most of 2020 has been full of anxiety and worry for many due to the unknown and serious impact of COVID-19. Certainly, the current pandemic is no small thing. Yet, the focus on it and the natural anxiety and worry that result, can and have cast an enormous shadow on our daily lives. The mental health and emotional health of many individuals has been negatively impacted by this worry.
Some of those individuals will be returning to school with you in the coming days or weeks. Perhaps you are already back in school and are seeing the negative impact of the worry and stress of the current pandemic. The worry may be affecting the students with which you work. But, additionally, that enormous shadow of anxiety and worry, may also be engulfing the families, teachers, and/or staff in your school community. Just remember, we are human! That worry and anxiety may be taking its toll on us as well!
How do we counteract that anxiety? What active steps can we take to combat the ongoing concern? You may find some of the following ideas helpful for addressing anxiety regarding COVID-19, but they could be applied to various reasons a person may have increased anxiety.
Adopt an attitude of kindness and grace. It is important to know and accept that each person has their own unique response to this situation and to any stressful situation. In regards to COVID-19, some will feel too uncomfortable to return to school. That is OK. Others may be ready to get back to the school building and to interaction with others. That is OK. It will be helpful for us to recognize and respect each individual's unique response.
Be considerate. In relation to the above, it is also important to be considerate of another's feelings and response to the stress. If you are comfortable with returning to school and being in close proximity of others, be mindful that others may not be as comfortable. Check in with others and do not assume their feeling are the same as yours.
Set boundaries. In order to manage anxiety, it may be helpful to limit watching the news and signing in to social media. Focus on reputable sources for information and use social media to connect with family and friends. Often, less news = less worry.
Challenge negative thoughts. It can be easy to go down the trail of "what if" and become overwhelmed. Combat negative thoughts by focusing on facts and spend brain energy on considering potential solutions for difficult situations.
Focus on what you can control. Similar to the point above, a powerful way to combat negative thoughts is to focus on steps you can take to positively control the situation. So, in regards to COVID-19, one might focus on washing their hands for 20 seconds, wearing a mask, staying 6 feet away from others in public spaces, and avoiding large crowds. Taking these actions may give some level of safety and control.
Write down your worries. It can also be empowering to write down your worries and set a specified and limited time to think about the worry and come up with a plan. When you wake up at night worried about a situation, write it down and tell yourself you will worry about it tomorrow. Set a time to review your "worries," come up with a plan, and then choose to let them go when your specified time is over. Some even find it empowering to tear them up after giving a limited time to think on the situation. Additionally, some even may find that after writing it down, they have no need to go back and think on it. The simple process of acknowledging it by writing it down is enough.
Stay connected. Even though you may be physically distanced from others, that does not mean that you cannot stay connected! Plan a "date" with your spouse or child at home - be creative! Set a time to call a friend each week. Walk (physically distanced) with a friend in your neighborhood. Meet up with friends for a virtual "happy hour." Schedule times for connection in your day/week.
Be gracious with yourself! The same grace and kindness that you extend to others should be extended to yourself. You are in an important position in your school caring for others. Secondary trauma and compassion fatigue are real! You deserve the same kind of care that you provide to your students and families!
Rebecca K. Oliver is the Executive Director of the School Social Work Association of America. Prior to becoming the Executive Director, Mrs. Oliver served on the SSWAA Board of Directors and has over 20 years experience working as a school social worker. In her current role with SSWAA, Rebecca is able to support school social workers across the nation and advocate for the profession about which she is so passionate. When not working, Rebecca enjoys traveling with her husband Jon, singing, running, reading, doing home-improvements, and outdoor activities including walks with her two "fur-babies," Abby and Buddy.