As the pandemic begins to show signs of weakening its grasp on the world, the stress and pressures of the past 15 months continue to wear on educators everywhere. This blog covers some aspects of self-care that may provide helpful reminders to us all for managing the ongoing situation, and a call for us to be honest with ourselves about how we’re doing, to give permission to ourselves to ask for support, and when we need it, to ensure that we get the help that we need.
I don’t actually know how long it feels like it has been since I first learned we went virtual last March. It simultaneously feels like it’s been forever and just a few weeks. I do know that by the time I got to 18 December, the last day of the fall semester, I had nothing left in reserve. I woke up on Saturday morning and I have no idea how long I sat there on the edge of the bed staring at the wall before I realized it. The fatigue and the burnout had been mounting for months and I knew that my self-care had been slipping. It took about 2 weeks of intense rest and recovery before I was able to resume any sort of work and I still find myself fatiguing mentally more quickly than ever before.
I’d outlined this article talking about self-care months ago, and in the spirit of this article, will admit that it was originally due on 18 September. Between asking how I was qualified to talk about this topic as I felt that I was barely holding things together myself, and challenge that there was always one more thing on my to-do list that needed doing, that date came and went on the calendar. So here we are, at the end of another semester, but the topic is as relevant as ever. I’ll focus on 3 key areas here, and share what I can about my successes and challenges in meeting my own self-care needs.
Meet your basic needs
The initial work-from-home situation meant that one of my first realizations of the new pandemic reality was that I needed to make myself go outside the house or else I would spend days in a row trudging between the bed, the refrigerator, and my at-home work area. I have added a daily, recurring to-do item on my task manager, “Get outside and move!” Most days this works. I have better success if I do it early in the day, as sometimes I find that I don’t have the energy or motivation after a long day on Zoom. Looking ahead to the fall and returning to campus, my challenge will be to preserve this time for walking, running, and other outdoor activities when my daily commute resumes.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that we get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 5 times per week, or vigorous activity for at least 20 minutes 3 times per week. Everyone should also engage in muscle-strengthening activities at least 2 times per week.1 That looks like different things to each of us, but the trick is to find something that you enjoy doing. Or at least, that you don’t hate doing.
The average adult needs between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. This amount slowly decreases as we age. This hasn’t ever been an area that I’ve struggled with. I actively use the sleep management features on my phone, with wind-down times, do not disturb hours, and reduced brightness and color hue settings. During the pandemic, however, sleep has been an important marker of my stress and fatigue. As the fall semester progressed, I found my nightly sleep creeping up, at one point getting 10-11 hours of sleep per night and still feeling tired. Make sure to get an appropriate amount of sleep to meet your rest needs, and use any changes in your sleep pattern to help identify changes in your stress and overall mental health.
And finally, I know that I am preaching to the choir telling you that a well-balanced diet is key to both maintaining energy levels throughout the day, supporting your immune system, and keeping up with other aspects of your general health. On this note, I would also bring up that occasionally indulging in a favorite meal or treat can often be mentally restorative, but that moderation is key here. I’m now on my second 50-lb bag of flour of the pandemic and while most of my baking has been breads, pastas, and other staple foods, the occasional cake or batch of cookies can be very powerful in keeping me feeling like my normal self.
Someone once explained priority management to me as juggling. Some of the balls in your hands are made of glass, some of them are made of plastic. A few of those balls may be the size of softballs or even a bowling ball, most of them are going to be smaller and more manageable. The trick is to know which of your priorities are the glass balls, the ones that have to be managed and kept up in the air until they are completed. The plastic balls can occasionally be set down, or when things get away from us, sometimes even dropped. I felt bad every time I looked at my task manager and postponed working on this piece for the PECOP blog, but I also knew that it wasn’t one of the balls that were mission-critical for me to keep in the air, so it got set down or shuffled around.
To keep track of which of my to-do items are made of glass and which are plastic, I set them to different priorities in my task manager. There are lots of to-do list and task manager apps. My personal favorite is Todoist, but there are some other fantastic ones out there, including Habitica, Things 3, and others. Find one that works for your organizational style and keeps you motivated to get things done. I’ll admit that I was hesitant to move away from using stickie notes for my to-do lists, but I find that I’m far more organized now then I was with my old system, and it allows me to stay on top of my responsibilities much more accurately. Even if I do postpone some of those tasks a few (or more) times when I know that they have flexibility to them.
Take a break
I think this one is the hardest, especially during the pandemic. Work-from-home has made it easier than ever to get a few more things done since we didn’t have to commute to the office anymore. Add in the pressure of social media posts telling us how others have had time to learn new musical instruments, pick up hobbies, and engage in elaborate projects, it’s easy to feel like we are underachieving in our own personal lives. For me personally, I’ve spent more time in office hours with students and the email flow has at least doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels when the semester is in session. That feeling of always having something to do and never being done makes it hard for me to disengage at the end of the day. Not only does this lead to prolonging our working hours, but it may have negative health consequences. A new report from the World Health Organization gives new evidence that work weeks longer than 55 hours may lead to increased risk of ischemic heart attacks, strokes, and other adverse events.2
I’ve talked about using a task manager with my list of things I need to be working on; I use that tool in concert with my calendar app to tell me where I need to be and when I need to be there. As much as possible, I will only add things to one or the other, but not both. The two exceptions that I make to this is scheduling my exercise on busy days when I’m likely to put it off or get side tracked into other tasks and blocking out periods of time where my explicit task is to walk away from work and relax for a little bit. Another useful tool is using the in-office hour settings on my calendar app and do-not-disturb features on my mobile devices to help enforce no-work hours when I am done for the day.
The difficult thing about our current situation is that I don’t think I’ve said anything that we don’t already know, that we haven’t been told numerous times by others, and that we probably often repeat to our colleagues when we provide words of comradery and support to one another. As educators, we often find ourselves in the role of care givers, so it’s far easier for us to tell others to take care of their basic needs, manage our priorities, and take breaks then it is for us to follow our own advice. On that note, the one thing that I will add to this article is this:
It’s okay to not be okay. The stress and pressure are real and we are each dealing with the current situation in ways that may or may not be keeping us together. Just because someone has their stuff together on the outside doesn’t show us what they need on the inside. I love that we’re asking each other how we’re doing more often, but I fear that we’re giving the easy answers and not taking full advantage of our wonderful community for the support that it can provide. Give yourself permission to take those breaks, to leave those emails unanswered for an extra day, and to make sure that you’re getting the self-care that you need. And for those times when everything is too much? Reach out and utilize your support networks and health care options to make sure that you are getting what you need. Finally, as a community of educators, we see you, we feel you, and together, we’ll get through this together.
1 ACSM. Physical Activity Guidelines. https://www.acsm.org/read-research/trending-topics-resource-pages/physical-activity-guidelines. Last accessed 15 May 2021.
2 Pega F, et al. (2021). Global, regional, and national burdens of ischemic heart disease and stroke attributable to exposure to long working hours for 194 countries, 2000–2016: A systematic analysis from the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-related Burden of Disease and Injury. Environmental International. In press, corrected proof. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2021.106595
|Ryan Downey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Physiology at Georgetown University. As part of those duties, he is the Co-Director for the Master of Science in Physiology and a Team Leader for the Special Master’s Program in Physiology. He received his Ph.D. in Integrative Biology from UT Southwestern Medical Center. His research interests are in improving science pedagogy and in the sympathetic control of cardiovascular function during exercise. When he’s not working, he spends time as a certified scuba instructor, baking bread, and playing board games.
Ryan Downey, Ph.D., M.A.
Department Pharmacology and Physiology