Cat Lamb

 Pondering 960x450

In September of 2001, I was 18. I was almost done with my first year of University, had a couple of part-time jobs and was beginning to find my feet as an ‘emerging adult’. When the attacks on the World Trade Centre happened, I couldn’t believe that the world was just going to keep on going – it honestly felt like the ‘end of days’. That my Dad was getting up and still going to work seemed bizarre to me – surely now was the time we all were meant to find bunkers underground and shelter from the inevitable oncoming disaster, just like they did in old movies? What my Dad knew, that I hadn’t yet really experienced (not on this global scale, anyway) was that bad things happen and life goes on, even if differently.

The start of 2020 has been unprecedented for our young people. In Australia, we have endured devastating bushfires. At the very least, all of us smelt smoke. We were layered in it for days and days. Many communities lost property and people. The academic year for schools here started in late January in a haze of what felt like post-apocalyptic rebirth; shaking off the summer to get down to business. Yet for young people, in particular, the daily and weekly routine of school provides a foundational sense of normality of and provides a purpose and rhythm to their lives – and ours.

The current global pandemic of COVID-19 has shaken this foundation. Social media and the TV news are full of images of empty supermarket shelves, businesses being shut down and, of course, the toilet paper mayhem. To protect the community, some schools had elected to close and shift to online platforms even prior to the Victorian State Government’s decision to close schools early for the Easter break.. The resumption of ‘normal’ life remains unknown.

I think back to myself at 18, and the fear, nausea and uncertainty I felt at the awful, unprecedented event that happened on the other side of the world. I consider my current anxiety, concerns, and questions at this global catastrophe that is undoubtedly affecting us all. And my heart goes out to our young people. I have such empathy for them; the start of this decade has been unsettling, to say the least.

With that in mind, here are four research-supported strategies that may help support you and the people in your life, whether younger or older.

Notice what’s good.

It’s easy for us to join the outrage and panic, but our students and children swim in that same water. If we want them to be calm and optimistic, we need to role model this. We know humans are innately good, with a deep desire to help each other. We also understand the power of descriptive norms; if we describe our world as pro-social (helpful, kind, community-focussed) then we inspire that behaviour. If we describe our world as anti-social (hoarding, greedy, selfish) then of course we inspire that behaviour. Researchers have written about how stories of selflessness and altruism promote similar responses in our communities and supports a sense of personal agency.

Action: create pro-social ripples

  • Send a daily gratitude text, email or letter to someone.

  • Look for and celebrate the helpers in your world, such as the wonderful community groups which are springing up online.

  • Ask young people to identify a way in which they could help their family. This might be as simple as maintaining good personal hygiene.

Be present.

Practise mindfulness, and schedule mindful breaks for your students or children. Resisting the urge to mentally time travel (ruminating “if only we…” or worrying “I should…”) – we are here and now, and the more time our mind spends with us the calmer we will feel. Just ten minutes of quiet, present-centred reflection can be enough to significantly reduce stress levels. Our body is always anchored in the present, which is why our mindfulness practices often start by focusing on our body or breath.

Action: be mindful

  • Limit time spent scrolling through newsfeeds or consider a media-fast for 48 hours (don’t worry – you’ll hear about any significant events from others around you).

  • Create routines for anyone spending long periods at home. Structure and stability cannot be underestimated in their capacity to support mental health.

  • Investigate some of the great free practices which are available online, including a daily breathing practice from the Centre for Anxiety and Behavioural Change and a collection of Weathering the Storm mindfulness activities from Headspace.

Acknowledge negative emotions.

Feeling scared, uneasy, worried or anxious about the current state of the world is understandable. If we try to ignore these emotions, studies show we will only feel them more strongly.

Action: name the feeling or emotion

  • Understand that the emotion may pass quickly or slowly, but it will eventually pass.

  • Curiously examine the emotion. What is creating this?

  • Consider: is there a way to ‘reframe’ the experience? Is there anything positive which can be drawn from the current situation?

Get outside & be active.

It would be easy for us all to bunker down and lock ourselves away indoors. We know the importance of physical activity for both mental and physical health, and we also know how impactful being in nature is.

Action: create healthy habits

  • Spend some time outside each day; reading a book, drawing something in nature, walking a dog, planting vegetables, taking photos, decorating a balcony…

  • Move your body (there are many free YouTube classes and movement sessions already available online)

  • Look into online educational resources for nature-based play and learning. UK-based educators We Be Kids has both free and paid activities, and Australian educators Wild Cherry Nature Connection offer online nature connection classes.

Cat Lamb

Cat Lamb is a Consultant with the Institute of Positive Education. She has worked with adolescents in outdoor education in Australia and overseas for over 10 years. Most recently, she lived and worked as an Outdoor Educator and Teacher at Geelong Grammar School’s Timbertop Campus. Cat holds a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology.