February 08, 2023
By Dr Kathy Weston
Last week, I made a brief return to my home town of Belfast in Northern Ireland to deliver a series of talks. The first was to a group of parent employees in a bank, the second was to over 200 eleven year olds and the third, a talk for teens. The latter session addressed the topic of performance anxiety, which people at all ages and stages can suffer from. However, for adolescents, typically sensitive to peer judgement, the prospect of putting their hand up in class or presenting in front of their peers can be particularly daunting.
As I prepared for the session with teens, I reflected on the fact that I get nervous too and consistently experience butterflies in my stomach at the beginning of a Zoom or physical talk. Those butterflies matter very much and the aim isn’t to eliminate them, but to make them manageable. A suitable metaphor might be related to a car engine; we want it running but too many revs and the engine might cut out!
I reflected on what I do to reduce my own nerves and it came back to one word: connection. Firstly, I connect to my body (normally place my hand on my stomach) and consider how my anxious thoughts are affecting me physically. If I get very nervous, I may experience a tightening in my tummy, sweaty hands and a dry mouth. I rate the anxiety out of ten and then consider what number it needs to drop to, so that I can do what I need to do and deliver the talk. I might also gently unpack what is at the heart of my nerves. Why so nervous? What is going on here? The ‘puzzling out’ of anxiety is fundamental to reducing it. I ask myself: what am I really worried about here? And then try and address that particular wobble or worry directly.
I consider the full range of tools in my psychological toolbox and select those that I can apply with immediate effect. In the moments before the talk, I normally look around the room and simply notice; detail in the ceiling tiles, an intricate pattern on a picture hanging on the wall or count the branches outside the window on a tree.
I hear those inner ‘Gremlins’ warning me that this event may not go well. At that point, I challenge the Gremlin to a psychological tussle. Where is the evidence that this might not go well?, I ask myself. Why am I ‘catastrophising’ as opposed to establishing the facts? At that point, self-affirmations slowly surface and confidence unfurls. I tell myself “I have done this before and it went well”, “What is the worst that can happen?”, “If the tech fails, people will understand, it happens all the time.”
By the time the Zoom talk starts or I am introduced on stage, I have managed to reduce my nerves down to a level that means I am excited to say what I need to say. That’s the thing; those nervous wobbles can be interpreted differently too. Who is to say I’m not just excited to deliver my talk? Why am I even using the word ‘nervous’? The simple reframing of the language around anxiety can be potentially important and impactful.
As someone who performs hundreds of talks every year, a top tip that I am happy to share with everyone (it might be one that you already use yourself) is to connect with those in the front row. People who arrive early at talks ‘on zoom or in a room’ are normally enthusiastic (they got there early because they want a good seat or fancy a chat) and there is always a waiting period before the talk starts. I use that time to ask them about themselves and what they want to get out of the session. Before you know it, we are smiling at one another and have ‘connected.’ A consequence of this is that I feel that I have an ally or allies in the room. I feel that if the ‘front row’ are on my side, there is a good chance the rest of the room will follow. Once the talk starts, smiling and kickstarting the talk with a funny anecdote works well. Laughter increases connection and reduces anxiety. It can also have a positive impact on our bodies. Once we feel connected to the audience, we feel human again and less alone.
Connecting with others at home, in our schools and in our communities is one way of staying mentally fit. This is why the Children’s Charity, Place2Be have chosen the theme of ‘Let’s Connect’ for Children’s Mental Health week, this week.
The more connected our children feel to their primary caregivers, to their friendship groups and school community, the more likely they are to step into the day feeling good about themselves. You likely already connect beautifully with your children; loving them, laughing with them, ‘charging them up’ at the end of the day through play, affection and family talk. This closeness can in turn enhance their ability to cope and boost their overall emotional resilience and wellbeing.
If we were to sit down and think about pockets of sadness in our lives, it is often where there is an experience of disconnect. Perhaps a friendship has expired, a love affair has ended or a distance has entered a once close relationship. Perhaps you have experienced disconnection through bereavement, loss or estrangement. Estrangement is far more common than you might think. Recently, I was talking to Dr Lucy Blake, a senior lecturer in psychology from the University of the West of England about her fascinating work in this area. Lucy explained that people commonly assume estrangement is rare when, in fact, around one in four adults will experience estrangement from a parent or a sibling in their lifetime. Although we might think that family relationships break-down in extreme circumstances, studies have found that the factors that contribute to estrangement are often linked to everyday life events. Tensions and conflict might escalate, for example, after the birth of a child into a family, or when there is a marriage or a divorce. Similarly, tensions can erupt when navigating the care of a parent in older age, or mount over topics like inheritance.
Just as estrangement happens for many different reasons, its impact on people’s lives can vary. For some, estrangement can be an unwanted and unchosen loss that has a significant impact on daily life and mental and physical health. For others, estrangement might be chosen and a preferable outcome over maintaining an unhealthy, unhappy or abusive relationship.
Estrangement from a family member can be particularly hard for young people; school leavers or those heading off to university for the first time. Did you know that every year in the UK, there are approximately 8000 students who apply to Student Finance England as an ‘estranged’ student?. If you know a young person who is thinking of studying at university without the support of their parents, point them in the direction of the resources created by the Estranged & Care Experienced Student UK group (EaCES UK). This EaCES team supports estranged, refugee, orphaned and care experienced students or graduates in the UK and Ireland. Other charities like Stand Alone support people of all ages that become estranged or disowned from their family.
Unfortunately, family estrangement has often been surrounded by stigma and shame. Thankfully, this seems to be changing. Research on estrangement is growing, support is clearly available for those who are experiencing it and slowly but surely, the silence around this topic is dissolving.
Few of us can relate to being the “spare” prince in terms of royal succession, but we probably know what it is like to have a different perspective or recollection of past events compared to our other family members. Whilst there are ways in which we have different experiences of family, there are also ways in which we are alike. No family is perfect, free from change, pain or challenge.
White snowdrops have popped up in my garden this week and that is a timely, early reminder of the importance of connecting to nature to support family mental health.
Can you recall during lockdowns that we had to rely on our connection to nature to get us through the experience? Chances are you already know how important a connection to nature can be for our general health and wellbeing, but did you also realise that our connection to nature also predicts the connection felt by our children? In a conversation that I had with Samantha Friedman, lecturer in social work, education and community wellbeing last year, I learned that, as well as having increased empathy for the natural world and more pro-environmental behaviours, children who actively connect with nature have been found to have fewer mental health difficulties and greater emotional wellbeing.
A significant body of research shows that spending time in nature at school (at break time, gardening or for outdoor learning) seems to provide an escape from stress, an opportunity for social development and increases children’s capacity for focusing on tasks. If you don’t have access to an outside space, it’s interesting to know that viewing natural stimuli indoors in the form of houseplants or even looking at nature in images has still been found to have a positive impact. I was interested to read one Taiwanese study that found the presence of plants inside the classroom might actually reduce misbehaviour and increase friendliness in 13-14 year old children!
We don’t really know why a connection to nature might affect our behaviour in this way. One theory suggests that humans have an innate affinity to nature, and therefore feel happier when in that environment. Other theories are that time spent in nature is restorative and replenishes our cognitive capacities, that nature improves our gut microbiome and that the outside world protects against other negative environmental factors.
Regardless of the mechanism, what we do know is that it’s not just the green spaces and access to sunlight that can give us a boost. Being outside in nature also means we are likely to bump into people that we might enjoy a chat with. That sense of connection to others can set us up for the day too. Despite all of these amazing benefits, it’s likely that some children and young people know their way around digital environments better than their own outdoor surroundings. Thankfully, it’s not difficult to fuse the two pursuits. There are numerous Plant, bird, bug and seashore identification apps that will combine their tech-savvy skills with the exploration of nature and help to forge a connection.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
To coincide with Children’s Mental Health Week, we’ve just published a brand new resource for our Tooled Up Schools. Let’s Connect is an activity resource that nudges children and adults to think about how we connect with others as what we can do to proactively take care of our mental health and wellbeing.
Problematic anxiety can inhibit children’s ability to enjoy and participate fully in everyday activities. I have referenced ‘performance anxiety’ above. For those interested in this particular type of anxiety, I recommend re-watching our webinar with Dr Anna Colton and availing of our resources on breathing techniques and calming apps and drawing ideas.
For those interested in giving their children even more access to nature, we’ve gathered together a list of apps that might encourage them to notice what’s going on in the environment around them. If you are interested in learning more about the impact of nature and nature-based learning, you can watch our webinar with Samantha Friedman now.
In other news, we’re very proud to announce our first ever Tooled Up conference. Tooled Up and Riverston School are joining together to host: “Support for Children with Autism: An Exploration of Practical and Evidence-Based Ideas for Parents and Educators” on Friday 21st April 2023.
This free, online event is aimed at parents and educators across our Tooled Up School community. Attendees can look forward to a range of talks and short presentations from brilliant speakers like Dr Mary Hanley and Professor Debbie Riby from Durham University who will be demonstrating their free “Triple A Training” for schools, which focuses on the impact of sensory classroom features on engagement, andDr Felicity Sedgewick from the University of Bristol who will be presenting her research on masking. Louis Camilleri from the University of Bath will showcase his free app that can help parents/educators write social stories and we will also hear from other speakers who will be telling their stories. Attendees can expect to learn more about research evidence and get lots of practical tips that they can ‘try and apply’ in their everyday parenting or educational practice. Click here to register your free place.