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A year to focus on mental health

By Jenn Ryan

2020 was an unrelenting year for everyone as we had the proverbial wrench that is COVID-19 thrown into the spokes of our lives. Like many others, it was a challenging year for me, but the good certainly outweighed the bad on so many levels.

I struggled to learn how to teach online and maintain a relationship with my students. I also found it challenging to juggle parenting/educating my own children with my duties as a classroom teacher. The general stress of living in uncertain times added an extra layer of stress that I believe we are all still experiencing to date as we discover new coping mechanisms to deal with it. While I am extremely lucky to live in Newfoundland and Labrador, a province that has had considerably low numbers of COVID-19 in comparison to the rest of the country and world, it is still mentally draining to live anywhere during a global pandemic. 

I have learned an incredible amount about myself during this time at home with my family. It turns out that moving my body is a huge stress reliever for me. Since my thyroid cancer diagnosis four years ago, I had lost faith in what my body could do. I was a very active person before my diagnosis and the fatigue that followed made it more difficult to do the things I loved.

Over the past four years I’ve attended a group exercise class twice a week. it was nowhere near the activity level I was used to prior to my diagnosis. When I started to go for long walks around my neighbourhood, I gradually started to feel more like myself. 

I discovered Brene Brown’s amazing podcast series Unlocking Us while on these long walks. She discusses so many topics that resonate with me on both a personal and professional level. She talks about shame, vulnerability, stress, motherhood, storytelling and empathy, to name a few.

I was so taken with this podcast that I started to question my career path. Maybe I am ready to move onto something else. I admit, I’m not feeling the same passion I once did about my chosen profession, but could it be the pandemic stress altering my thought processes? The thought of starting something new at this point in my life is terrifying but exciting at the same time. I’m looking forward to exploring this further in the future.

I had an amazing time with my husband and children. I was able to spend quality time with each of them and reconnect on a deeper level than I had before. My youngest son was 15 months old when we were given the lockdown order. I was shocked to see how much he had developed his language and motor skills. I was sad that it had taken a global pandemic to slow me down enough to see this development in him, but so grateful for the experience. As a family, we created a daily schedule to help everyone adjust to being home together which included: outside time, learning time and creative time, among others. I have such fond memories of those months. 

Life is busy, but I learned how to take control of the busyness. I was fortunate enough to reconnect with one of my closest friends during the COVID lockdown. Once we were allowed to expand our bubble to one other family, we joined forces. We gave each other breaks by taking each other’s children and we spent many days together allowing the children to play while we tended to work duties. It was wonderful.

When the fall hit and we headed back to our workplaces full-time, my friend suggested we make a plan to get together one night a week and stick to it as much as possible. I look forward to this outing every week. Sometimes we go for a  walk and chat, other times, coffee. Last week we went snowshoeing. We call it, “Night of the week.” I highly recommend everyone build this into your busy lives, if at all possible. 

Now that the children are back to school and my husband and I are both back to teaching, I make a daily effort to carry the mental health tools I discovered during quarantine. I am fortunate enough to practice mindfulness with my students, although they aren’t aware that it is just as much for me as it is for them. I make my family a priority over work. I choose to cuddle my kids for five more minutes each night, even though I have planning and prep work to do for the following day. I feel less guilt for going for my walk, workout or a “Night of the Week” meet-up with my friend because it makes me a healthier, happier mom and wife.

I am still actively learning how to take care of myself because it is so extremely important. 

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