Monday, February 11, 2013

# 41 Don't Worry, Be Happy!

    All successful physical structures are designed to cope with these five stresses: tension, compression, torsion, bending and shear. If a structure is subjected to one or all of these stresses for an extended period, it will become a victim of strain. If the strain is prolonged, the structure will more than likely fail, and part or the whole building will need reconstruction.

     For example, take a can of soup from your cupboard, clutch it in your hand, extend and then raise your arm so it's parallel to the floor.  Now, hold it in position for a as long as you can. At first, your muscles and joints are under manageable stress, but as you prolong the position, you will feel it develop into a strain. If you continue in spite of the fact that your muscles and joints are telling you to stop, eventually, they will fail as a result of strain, caused by prolonged stress.

   Now, transfer these ideas of stress leading to strain, to your mind. Prolonged mental stress with little or no relief, becomes strain and you are at risk of becoming mentally ill (structural failure).  Most people don't seem to think of it this way, but succumbing to strain as the result of prolonged stress is a type of mental illness.

    The problem with mental illness is that most of the time you can't see the actual wound, only the symptom, and that's only if you have some awareness.  I suspect that's why so many people don't want to talk about mental illness, it doesn't have a recognizable visual presence like a physical illness. If there were as many people walking around with untreated broken legs, as there are with some type of mental illness, there would indeed be more public awareness of the problem.

   Can you image talking to someone at work who tells you that they are in a great deal of pain because they have a broken leg. You would probably tell them to get it treated quickly. But, what if they expressed a fear of being shunned for admitting to the problem? This is what happens with way too many people suffering with some form of mental illness. They mask it, deny it, and do their best to live with it. I have experienced this reality with several people, both my personal and professional life. While, public perception of mental illness is improving, it still carries a stigma for too many people. Over the years, I have taken part in many courses on First Aid, and CPR, but never any workshops on mental illness's. This in spite of the fact there are more people walking around with mental illnesses than there are with broken legs.

    Classroom teaching usually doesn't come with much physical stress, a sore back, feet, and voice,  that's about it. However, the job does come with its share of mental stress. (we aren't paid for what we do, as much as, what we know.) I think there are two fundamental stress sources for teachers: one is the regular pushing and pulling on emotions by students, parents, administration, unions, politicians and the media, and two is excessive multitasking. Then, as a potential third source, add your own personal stresses in the form of family, mortgages, health etc.. Teachers tend to like to please everyone and there is never a shortage of people with big appetites for their attention. In retrospect, I realize the Herculean mental strength most teachers possess.(Big chest thump!)

   So, how do teachers deal with stress and strain?  The key to survival is using sufficient coping skills to provide yourself with relief from the strain. Like everyone else in the workforce, we choose our own coping strategies, some healthy and some not.  Some common methods are: exercise, entertainment, family life, laughter etc. and then there are the more destructive methods like prescribed medications, alcohol, drugs and a host of other activities. Be aware, sometimes too much healthy stress release can be unhealthy.  I have a neighbour who burned off his daily stress by jogging to and from work for thirty years. He used up his joints and needed hip replacements in his sixties. There is a case for moderation.

    Our current society promotes multitasking, we make it into a sport of sorts. We are told either implicitly or overtly to suck it up, get on with the job, don't be a downer which translates into deny, deny and deny. Most teachers are pretty good at the learned skill of multitasking, but too much of it is not good for your mind. I have seen colleagues who are suffering with mental strain and have been told to "suck it up, buttercup" as a response to their complaint. The last few years, the board response seems to be a pamphlet about the Employee Assistance Program, which is a good start, but too little. In spite of progress being made, there is still a climate of tacitly being told to deny your feelings of strain. I sense there is still a fear of being shunned when admitting that they are succumbing to it. After all, teaching is a job where mental strength is expected and admired - very macho!

   During my second year of teaching I worked very hard to make a positive impression on everyone at my school. At the end of the year, I received a typed letter in my mailbox telling me I had been deemed "redundant" by the board. (They don't use this word anymore) I don't remember anything else about that letter other than the word redundant. I was so despondent, bothered by the fact that in spite of all my industrious efforts, I had been declared "redundant". I was standing in the staff room as I read the letter, and in disbelief I told someone that I had been declared "redundant". Many people around me expressed sympathy and empathy toward my situation, and then this older teacher, I think she taught business, smiled and said, "Don't worry Dave, be happy!" and she walked away. I realize now that this was her main approach to dealing with stress, denial. Just pretend it isn't happening, be happy!  Develop a manufactured attitude, kinda like a Disneyland for your mind.

    Many of the coping skills I have learned over the duration of my career have taken a lot time to activate. For example, I have accepted that the more external control you demand, the less internal control you command. Even the most skilled among us are misleading themselves if they think everything is in their control. That lesson and the fact that everything is temporary, the good, the bad and the ugly.

    As a structure, a teacher's mind must to be resilient, able to flex in response to constant stress and periodic strain in the form of mental demands, without this ability, it is vulnerable to failure. Fortunately, teacher's entering into the profession, who do not have this ability, usually leave within a short period of time. I believe the remaining teachers usually do find healthy mechanisms to cope with the stress and impending strain. I hope they are wise enough to realize that just the denial of Don't Worry, Be Happy! is not a solution, it's just part of the problem.