It’s no surprise that mental health has become the discussion across all cultures and backgrounds lately, and the first question many of us ask ourselves is, “Am I mentally and physically well?” As an educator and researcher in the neuroscience and biology field, it's apparent that the mind follows every single signal sent from the gut, and those signals create neuropathways to promote or inhibit mental and emotional well-being. Teaching is one of the hardest professions in today’s society. If you’ve ever sat through endless hours of professional learning, had a hard conversation with your administrator, or had a student continually disrespect your authority and question every move you make, then this mental health check is for you.
My Mental Health Journey
I’ve been an educator for five years and have transitioned from teaching kindergarten and third grade to high school biology and honors courses. Let me tell you, that jump was a huge one. I transformed and grew as a professional in the process. I struggled with my mental health before moving back to my hometown to teach biology. I was in a tough school and had no colleagues as friends or mentors, and the pandemic did not help. I sought help from therapy, found a new group of friends, focused on physical strength and good nutrition, and even went to the doctor to get external support. I checked all the boxes, but nothing was changing. I soon realized I had outgrown the spaces I was occupying and wasn’t growing. I started asking myself the hard questions to get to the root of my deepest passions and dreams. It was in those quiet journaling moments that doors and transitions became real, and my life changed for the better.
You, too, can achieve wellness through the integration of honoring your mind. I have learned a few key habits that have helped me overcome anxiety that may also help you.
Focus on the Good of Each Day
Make a vision board, and write down one big goal and one small mindful goal you hope to achieve for the day. I write, “I want to be stronger in the gym today,” even if that’s just a walk on the treadmill (consistency creates long-term habits you’ll stick to). A mindful goal for each day for me is to laugh and love others deeply (my students love when I goofy laugh, especially at their jokes)! Remember, as teachers, we are first humans, and humans are imperfect, so try setting one mindful goal, and you’ll look back and see tremendous growth and progress.
I started leaving work as soon as my time was done. I told myself, “I matter too,” and my time is valuable, so I’m going home. I leave my work at work. I will no longer be a slave to the toxic teacher bag riding shotgun all the way home only to shame me from the kitchen table at night. I have a life and want to enjoy it. If it doesn’t get done, that’s okay. Release the need to always say YES! Saying no is a loving boundary to yourself. It sends a signal to the brain, indicating the body is in a parasympathetic or low state of inflammation and stress. Let go of the shame and honor a little “you time.”
Do What Makes You Feel More at Home in Your Body
To improve our mental health as educators, we must stop doing so much of the things we dislike. The brain operates on three principles that produce neurotransmitters in the brain: Yum. Yuck. Meh.
Where’s the “yum”? What fills your cup, lights your fire, and gets your heart pumping? How do you protect that? How do you get more of it?
What’s the “yuck”? Is there a way of shrinking it down or removing it altogether? Alternatively, how might you increase your level of comfort with the discomfort? If I asked you what it would take to transform yuck to yum, what would need to occur?
What’s left is just “meh”—the stuff you’re mostly indifferent to that can be mindless fillers of time. But, just as with the “yuck,” there’s the possibility to eliminate it or transform it into a little more “yum.”
Yum, yuck, meh. Can you take a mindful audit of how you’re living and see what you can do to get more yum in your life? Your neurons will thank you.
As a clinical neuroscience graduate and Ph.D. student in health science, it is my joy and honor to share my heart with you.
Want more from Kimberly? Check out this episode of the Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast. This blog is intended to share best practices for your classroom. If you or someone you know is feeling overwhelmed and needs support, text “empathy” to 741741, or visit CrisisTextLine.org, the National Institute of Mental Health, or the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.