My teacher boards were full of art teachers talking about their school anxiety this summer. Those back-to-school stress dreams were an all-summer phenomenon. Some teachers coped by preparing- rooms being rearranged for required distancing. masks and scrub suits being purchased and, IF budgets allowed, kits being assembled of art materials. While you are busy preparing for a school year like none before, I am here to put one more thing on your list. A little mental health self-care.

I had a stressful school year quite some time ago. A family situation led to sleepless nights and high stress all the time. While we made life-altering decisions for the health and well-being of a family member I showed up to work and kept plugging at it. On occasions, I cried in my supply room or in my car but for the rest of my time as art teacher and department chair, I pretended everything was fine. From that time in my life, I have some wisdom to share with how to work and manage while under stress.

Meditation and all   In the beginning of my crisis my school had an assembly with a mental health worker on how to handle stress. She did an exercise where we closed our eyes and imagined our worries took the form of rocks and we then placed those rocks in a bag where they would stay safely until we were ready to pick them up again. She proceeded with the calming visualization technique. In the end, as she brought us back to the present, she mentioned it was not unusual to find a person or two so relaxed they fell asleep. I don’t know how many of the students benefited from that visualization, but it was exactly what I needed in my life. If you would like to try a similar visualization exercise, try this one.

As I did the working mom lifestyle while in the middle of a crisis in addition to visualization,  I discovered two-minute meditations. I would arrive to pick up my youngest from an after-school program and if I had five minutes, you could find me doing a two-minute meditation in my car. I also learned there were mediations I could do to help me deal with stressful people. That could translate to a difficult coworker, administrator, or even a challenging student. Meditation not only helped me manage life when it was in turmoil, but it became a resource that helped me cope in general, a new tool in the toolbox so to speak. I will also add that mindfulness and meditation can be useful strategies as classroom management tools, check out a company that promotes its use in schools

Progressive muscular relaxation  While we think of stress as a mental state, we hold a lot of stress in our bodies. I have a chronic pain condition and learned about progressive muscular relaxation as a technique to help reduce the physical effects of stress. We tend to tense our bodies while under stress. which often amplifies pain. For example, when stressed I tend to clench my jaw, which will lead to TMJ and headaches. Progressive muscle relaxation focuses sequentially on the major muscle groups. Tighten each muscle and maintain the contraction for 20 seconds before slowly releasing it. As the muscle relaxes, concentrate on the release of tension and the sensation of relaxation. Start with your facial muscles, then work down the body. When you get home, maybe instead of hitting the fridge, try the progressive muscular relaxations instead. You may want to try a guided activity like this one on YouTube.

Art as therapy  We can’t forget who we are! We are artists and may find deep relaxation in turning to art as a therapeutic tool. I was in the middle of coursework to become a graphic designer when my family crisis hit. Sometimes it was stressful to have classwork on top of it all, but it was also delightful to dive into a project and feel the familiar pleasure of creating as well. It was so important to engage my mind in something intellectually challenging. Another family member dove into sketchbooks. Another one turned to baking and cooking. All these have in common being creatively gratifying pursuits.

I read one time that when stressed you should pick one thing to nourish your mind, one thing to nourish your body, and one thing to nourish your soul. There is no shortage of ideas out there, the challenge is recognizing the need and making a conscious effort to care for yourself. Also, know that seeking mental health help is also a healthy option that many people benefit from.

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