As we prepare to ‘go back to school’, Breathworks Associate Teacher Karen Liebenguth shares her advice for learning how to ‘respond’ not ‘react’, as well as her 6 tips for staying mindful going into the new term for teachers and students alike.

The return to school after the summer holiday is never easy for students and teachers. But this year it’s even harder following another testing year of living with the uncertainty of Covid-19. Teachers and students have had to face a plethora of new challenges, from self-isolation to hybrid teaching and learning. 

Uncertainty and change can cause feelings of overwhelm, fear, panic and stress. These emotions can have the potential to define us – how we live, work, feel and manage our day to day. But there is another way. We can make choices about how we deal with adversity, challenge and changing situations, so that we can stay connected, grounded and resilient and maintain good mental health.

How to ‘respond’ not ‘react’ when faced with stress

The coronavirus has forced us to see that nothing is certain. We can’t control what’s happening, and in the face of real danger our hard-wired fight-flight survival response is triggered. This is normal and human but if we stay in this state of high alert, our sense of uncertainty, lack of control and isolation can have a detrimental effect on our mental health. Low mood, a foggy mind, lack of sleep, despair, hopelessness, disconnection and anger are the result.

Covid-19 had a severe and sudden impact on teachers and students resulting in high levels of fear, stress and anxiety. That’s the actual, direct experience. We can’t do very much about it. It’s called our primary experience (see diagram below). 

Catastrophic thinking

Unfortunately, we often cause ourselves extra unnecessary stress and pressure by following that experience up with various thoughts, emotions and judgements.

For example, you might think: What if I can’t cope going back to school? What if I can’t manage hybrid working? Why do I have to deal with it? It’s not fair.

These thoughts are mostly likely accompanied by feelings of panic and fear: It’s all too much. What will my colleagues and students think of me? What if my students won’t cope? “What if I can’t do my job? I am such a wimp. I am all alone in this.

These kinds of reactions can proliferate and escalate. We call this catastrophic thinking. One thought leads to another, which leads to more feelings of panic, more judgements and we feel overwhelmed and isolated. Before we know it, we are drowning in a sea of despair. This is our secondary experience.

Taking back control - how we respond  

When we become aware that our feelings of panic, fear and anxiety are caused by our own personal reaction to the situation (and not the situation itself), then choice becomes possible.

Ask yourself: Do I want to allow myself to feel panicked, scared and inadequate as I so often do, or shall I respond in a different way?

 The breakthrough comes when we recognise that we don’t have to cope with all the extra negative thoughts and feelings our minds then come up with. We may still feel anxious about the uncertain, new and challenging situation and we may experience it as unpleasant and uncomfortable, but it can stop there.

Our reactions are not usually conscious, but automatic and habitual. By contrast our responses are conscious, chosen and creative.

A mindfulness practice can help us come back to our primary experience, to what’s actually happening. And in doing so, it can help us maintain good mental health, to stay calm and resourceful in the face of external stressors.


Back to School Toolkit:

Mindfulness tips for more focus, productivity and calm going into the new term 

  1. Pause 5 times daily to take 3 deep breaths (it takes about 20 seconds): Set your alarm or remind yourself with a post-it note. Connecting with the body and breath in this way activates the parasympathetic nervous-system that lets the brain know that you are safe; it brings you back into your direct sensory experience (primary experience), into the here and now where we can feel safe, grounded and calm. It’s a direct antidote to spiralling off in our head (secondary experience) which activates the sympathetic nervous system, the alarm system (amygdala) of the brain.
  2. Take regular mindful breaks (before you need them): taking regular breaks keeps you resourceful, creative and productive throughout the day vs feeling completely exhausted and overwhelmed at the end of the day. Breaks do not have to be long. Just a 2-minute break and several during the day can make a big difference.

Here are some ideas for what you can do in your mindful break:

  • Step to the window or garden, take 3 conscious breaths and look at the sky, really look at the formation of the clouds or the different shades of blue.
  • Spend time in nature – walk around the block or go for a 10-15-minute stroll in your local park – movement and nature are good for us, it clears the mind, grounds us in the body and connects us to the wider world around us.
  • Throughout the day notice some good and enjoyable things such as bird song, warmth of the sun, the blossom or flowers in your garden or street, the taste of a nice cup of coffee or a healthy meal, stroking your pet, a moment of play with your kids, laughter, a call from a dear friend, the smell of cake… notice the good to foster wellbeing and resilience.
  • Mindful movements: When you spend the day mainly sitting at your desk, get up regularly and refresh your body: lift your hands above your head and point your fingertips to the ceiling, give your whole body a good stretch; do some shoulder rolls forward and backwards; some neck rolls paying attention to the sensations in your neck; do some hip rotations; shake your whole body at the end of the sequence - legs, arms, upper torso.
  • Eat a snack or main meal mindfully - without doing anything else while eating; focus the mind on what you eat and its taste. Enjoy.
  1. Practice self-care: do one thing daily to consciously care for yourself. Caring for oneself is not selfish or self-indulgent as is often thought. Self-care nourishes the mind and heart. When that happens we feel well inside and have more to give to others too: cycling, yoga, reading, time in the garden, a bath, combing your hair, making an effort dressing yourself (even at home), eating regularly and healthily, keeping your environment clean and tidy (keeps us grounded and secure), a short nap (clears and restores the mind from over-stimulation), regular conversations with close friends.
  2. Have a regular practice once a week: yoga, running, meditation, cycling, martial arts, painting, making music, baking bread, cooking, crafting, knitting etc. This is a practice not a habit. A habit slips into the background, we do it without thinking. A practice requires a re-commitment - in this it can remind you that you can take responsibility for your wellbeing so that you can enhance the lives of your family, friends, colleagues, and students too.
  3. Have a work buddy: Ask a colleague to be your work buddy and arrange to talk with each regularly. Share how your work has been, what you’ve managed to do, what you’ve found challenging. Avoid going into catastrophic thinking together. Help each other come back to primary experience, to what’s actually going on, in the here and now. Find out what you need and how you can best support each other.
  4. Self-kindness: One of the keys to increasing resilience and confidence (and reducing stress, panic and anxiety) is self-kindness. When we become more aware of our habitual reactions, we often don’t like what we notice and tend to judge ourselves harshly. This adds more unnecessary pain and difficulty. Bringing kindness, curiosity, acceptance and friendliness to your experience, saying to yourself: “This is how I’m feeling right now, this is human, others react and feel this way”, can help you to avoid getting caught up in negative emotions (secondary experience). Self-kindness can help you to become more emotionally robust and resilient.

And finally, I want to encourage you to take a moment to reflect on the truth of change – the fact that everything changes, all of the time! With this understanding, we can better appreciate the preciousness of life. We can relax into recognising how things are right now versus wishing them to be different, which takes energy and headspace. It can also broaden your perspective on things and remind you that you are not alone with the return to school and the challenges that come with it.