By Robert Barbier

The HPAE-AFT “Moving Forward. Getting Stronger.” workshop series, designed to meet the mental health needs of our members and conducted by the presentation faculty of the Mental Health Association in New Jersey, began this month.

One of its coping-resiliency sessions was held March 16, and the opening question posed by workshop host Dana Rahmel was, “Is this the new normal?” The answers from the attendees varied a great deal based on how the mix of health care professionals and educators interpreted the question. Were we talking about workplace conditions? Or rather work/home balance within our own lives, or those factors in conjunction with a whole lot more?

The one common thread that evolved through our all of the answers members gave was that the answer wasn’t simple. No matter how we answered the question, the answer always brought us back to living through a pandemic for the past two years and the inherent stress and anxiety that have been an ever-present byproduct.

Throughout the 90-minute session, we discussed as a group how the past two years have impacted us all. We discussed the effects of chronic anxiety, defined as a continued state of anxiety caused by outside factors that can prevent the brain from functioning properly. The result of continual stimulation to the brain can be a dullness in our regular emotional responses and a possible distancing from the people around us. Chronic anxiety might also undermine our intrinsic motivations and create a sense of hopelessness. 

We also discussed how the above factors could result in a detachment of formerly present feelings of sympathy and empathy for others. This can occur when the immensity of the trauma around us overloads our ability to see and feel how others are suffering. When we overload our personal capacity to feel and react with irritability, we may be exhibiting the signs of compassion fatigue. 

If this is a small snapshot of the “new normal,” what can we do to alleviate the impact on ourselves and our professions? Rahmel compared the immensity of the past two years with something all of us could relate to here in the Garden State. She compared us to the Jersey Shore that we all love so much, after a hurricane stripped away the sand from the beaches. We can see the beach has been damaged, but it can be rebuilt or, more accurately, replenished. To be the best that we can be for the people we collectively serve (students and patients, in this case), we must begin to take conscious control of our own mental health needs. We can do this by engaging in activities that promote our own wellness: breathing, being present in the moment, journaling, practicing praise, initiative-taking examination, practicing empathy and general self-care.

A 90-minute online seminar will never capture the immensity of the trauma two years in a pandemic has created, but it can begin the development of a different mindset regarding how we react to it in our own lives. By understanding how the past two years may have changed us, we can begin the process of rebuilding ourselves. There is no real reason to stop where we think we were two years ago; instead, while we replenish ourselves, let us agree to try to go a little further and add a little bit more to make ourselves a better version of ourselves. This better version of ourselves can become a “new normal” we are all proud of.

Robert Barbier, who teaches English at Garfield High School, writes The Wellness Check-In for AFTNJ’s Educator Express newsletter.

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