Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.

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July 16, 2020

How are you? No, really, how are you? | Prioritizing Emotional Health

By Matthew Neylon 

Last week, I was working on a state-wide survey with a group of peers and I proposed this question:

Prioitize the following order from 1 (most urgent) to 5 (least urgent):

❏    Preparing/learning to teach in various formats this year (online, hybrid, in-person with social distancing/CDC restrictions).

❏    Understanding COVID-19 and learning how to teach in a way that is healthy for you and your students amidst an ongoing global pandemic.

❏    Learning about systemic racism and how to navigate/facilitate conversations around race in the classroom while building a more equitable curriculum and environment.

❏    Focusing on how to keep your role/position from being cut and understanding how your schedule, space/classroom, courseload, and curriculum will be affected.

❏    Considering how to navigate current events, social topics, and political issues that are important to students and will surface in conversations/discussions during a presidential election year.

For a number of reasons, we didn’t include the question in the survey, but that only magnifies that point. How upsetting and unfortunate is it that we have to prioritize which things receive our time and energy because are so many heavy and extraordinary things happening in our world?

Some people feel very strongly about what is most important and have already begun moving swiftly in one (or several) directions. Others are exhausted, overwhelmed, and have lost hope. Many want to be moving in a direction, but life circumstances and employers are sending mixed signals and prioritizing multiple things at once, making it difficult to make any progress in one direction.

Here’s what I propose: start with you.

Do a quick scan, an internal audit, and determine (on any scale of your choosing) the following things:

- How is my physical health in this moment?

(What hurts, what aches, what parts of my body are doing better or worse than they were before MarchHow is my mental health in this moment?

- How is my mental health in this moment?

(How is my anxiety, stress, depression compared to how I was before COVID)

- How is my emotional health in this moment?

(What has been triggering me lately? Which social media posts are triggering an emotional reaction? What currently brings me joy?)

- How is my spiritual health in this moment?

(If spirituality is important to you, how grounded/connected do you currently feel to that spiritual being/practice currently?)

 

*Disclaimer* Please know, I am not a doctor, therapist, counselor, or medical professional. I am not here to give any type of health advice, other than to share what has worked for me. We are all capable of checking in with ourselves to a certain extent, after which, there are professionals in all of these areas to help us dive deeper, seek answers, and pursue healing.

Here’s what we know. The patterns and routines that fueled us before COVID-19 have been disrupted. Some of us have found other ways to fuel and nourish ourselves in certain areas, but many of us have not. Furthermore, you might have experienced some type of trauma, whether it was an isolated acute trauma like losing a loved one and not being able to be with them in the hospital or have a funeral, or a complex trauma over time, such as being in isolation with someone who is abusive. All of us are navigating the collective trauma of a global pandemic as well as the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many more precious Black lives. I have so much to learn about trauma and how to engage in trauma-responsive teaching, but I have learned that trauma not only has immediate reactions such as confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, and dissociation (1), but can be defined as a harmful interruption of safety, agency, dignity, and belonging (2). I believe that the combination of art + neuroplasticity (3) provide a beautiful way to rebuild connections, trust, and safety, but we first need to understand that we have been through trauma, and that trauma has an effect on our limbic system, our emotions, our body, and our mind.

Many of us have realized at some point that we need help to process what we’ve been through and professional help can come in a myriad of ways. For some people, it looks like therapy or counseling, for others, it’s a life coach or mentor, many people look to a pastor, spiritual leader, partner, spouse, or friend. Regardless of whom you turn to for help, I think it is essential that we take stock of our personal health and figure out how to create an ecosystem that allows us to flourish as we take on all of the priorities we continue to be presented with.

While I am not a medical professional, I am an artist, teacher, and learner who has spent several years educating myself and others on how they can achieve mental/physical wellness through the arts. Over the past several months, I have had teachers, administrators, and friends ask me what I’m doing to navigate this difficult time and if I had to boil it down, I’m doing 3 things:

  1. Staying present by developing a daily practice of mindfulness/creativity.

  2. Regulating my emotions by identifying triggers and working through them in the moment.

  3. Building a support system of individuals that I can go to for specific needs.


Screen Shot 2020-07-15 at 12.52.23 PM

Develop a daily practice of mindfulness/creativity. Just like physical health, mental/emotional health is something you need to work on daily and real results reveal themselves when you make small deposits of time and effort consistently. I use the Headspace App each morning in addition to a devotional, time of meditation/prayer, and about 10 minutes to journal/doodle/write song lyrics/list things I’m grateful for/write down things that inspire me. I know what you’re thinking, “Matt, I don’t have time to journal!” Yea, neither did I, but I had time to be stressed, anxious, and frustrated. When you spend enough time being stressed, anxious, and frustrated, you reach a point where you’re fed up and somehow, you find the energy to pull yourself out of that paralyzed state to do something about it. Some people sign up for a race (the old adage “move a muscle, change your mood” has quite a bit of truth to it) and other people learn to bake bread or cross stitch but I would argue that artists need to create. For me, that is songwriting and drawing. For you, I have no idea what it is, but set a timer, do it for 7 minutes today, and 8 minutes the next time (could be tomorrow but I’m not holding you to it) and 9 minutes the next time, and pretty soon, you have found the time and you have a daily practice of mindfulness/creativity. I use mindfulness and creativity interchangeably here because to be creative you almost always have to be present.

Emotion wheel

Regulate your emotions. This year is (and will continue to be) a roller coaster of emotions. I know, it’s cliché, but it’s true. We can either be a victim of our emotions, and continue to be triggered by things people say, post, do, and don’t do, or we can take 25 seconds when we’re triggered and identify the emotion and what triggered that response. This is not new or groundbreaking information, in fact, if I had to reference where I learned this, it would be from watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in the 90s. For 912 episodes, Fred Rogers taught me about emotions and even to this day, when I feel myself getting upset, I have to look at the emotion wheel on my refrigerator, breathe, and consciously remember to ask myself:

“What is the emotion am I feeling?”

“What caused this emotional reaction?”

“Do I want to choose this emotion, or can/should I choose another emotion right now?”

“Do I need to respond right now?” (probably not)

“How do I want to respond?” (write it down but DON’T talk, text, or send a message)

“Will a piece of chocolate help me in this moment?”

Ok, so the last question isn’t necessary, in fact, all the questions might not be necessary for you, they’re just my way of walking down my emotional ladder, and giving myself the space/time to process before reacting. It’s putting me back in the driver’s seat of my emotions and putting words to feelings. As artists, we feel. In fact, we feel deeper than most, but as teachers and leaders, our words and actions hold weight, so we can’t react out of emotion. We must learn how to manage our emotions and model that for students so they can learn the same. Honor your emotions, create space for them, but don’t let them drive you somewhere you don’t want to go. With time to think/process, we can use our emotion as fuel to create and drive strategic, impactful, artful change.

Build a support system for specific needs. Maybe you have a great support system, maybe you don’t. Pre-COVID, I thought I had a good support system. There were lots of people in my life who cared about me, but I was often run to the wrong person for the wrong thing, or depending too deeply on one person to the point that it was burning him or her out. During COVID, I started to identify who I could turn to when I needed specific things. Who were the specific people that I could dialogue openly and honestly with about race? Who could I depend on to talk to about my fears/anxieties around my job in a safe/productive way? Who were the right people to talk with about my health? The list continued, and I realized that when I had a specific person for a specific need, I spent less time scared, angry, and frustrated, because I just needed to pick up the phone and call the right person; the person who was mental and emotionally healthy enough to help me work toward solutions.

Obviously, each relationship is a 2-way street, and we shouldn’t burn out any one individual in our life. Too many times, we rely on one person for all of our mental/emotional needs and it begins to strain the relationship or put unrealistic expectations on that person. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to think about those people you have in your phone contacts who are healthy and could be a great support to you, but you haven’t reached out to in a while. Instead of a fantasy football team this year, build your roster of support and give them roles in your mind, so you’re ready to process various issues as they arise. When you say something racially problematic, or have to deal with microaggressions, whom can you turn to who will help you productively process that situation? When a student or class doesn’t go as expected, who will encourage you and not let you slide down a path of self-hate? When you are scared about work, who can you talk to who will be safe space? People in our support system can be the the best medicine; in fact, they can often be the quick-release gel tablet to help us manage emotional triggers and stressors quickly and efficiently.

I don’t have all the answers, but about a year ago, I was in a dark place--frustrated, stressed, and at the end of my rope. These three things not only pulled me out of that place of exhausting and paralyzing fear, anger, and anxiety, but they helped me understand myself in a way that has made leading, managing crisis, and dealing with the stressors of 2020 much more manageable.

You are an artist. Feel. Feel deeply. But don’t forget to give those feelings a name, a place, and an expiration date. Hand them an eviction notice if they’re holding you hostage and give them a paintbrush or a pencil if they can drive you creatively. Let them reveal a true and authentic perspective through the art you create, but do not let them hijack your joy, your classroom, or your relationships this year.

Once we understand ourselves and our emotions, we can begin to do the work of understanding others. We can begin to widen our lens from self, to the context of our community, and eventually, to understanding our place in the world. We can start to balance the important work of learning to teach online/hybrid, navigate complex conversations with our students around race, identity, politics, and social topics, figure out how to navigate a new space, schedule, curriculum, or role, and still have the capacity to care for those around us.

In my next post, I sit down with 2 entrepreneurs of color who built one of the most impressive and vast libraries of online art content. Their story of creativity, passion, and the memories (good and bad) of their childhood art teachers.

Be well,

- MN

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
  2. https://www.crisisprevention.com/Blog/Neuroplasticity-and-Trauma
  3. https://healingtraumacenter.com/neuroplasticity-and-rewiring-the-brain/

 

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