Looking back, the sequence of events that followed our initial meeting in Aoife’s kitchen in Meath illustrated that we had set something in motion. We were unaware at the time exactly what it was, but we were committed to finding solutions to the mental health crisis we were witnessing in our students. We were hungry for any research or education in the area of social and emotional learning. As we said before, the teaching of literacy and numeracy was covered in teacher training college but there was no mention whatsoever about emotional literacy or any acknowledgment of how our mental health impacts our ability to learn.
Three days after we had our first meeting in Aoife’s kitchen we attended a conference on Mindfulness in Education. We sat in a packed hall with hundreds of others and listened to Enda Murphy speak for the first time. If we had decided we were ready to begin a journey of learning for both our students and ourselves, Enda was our first sign post of where to go next.
To say we were blown away by him is an understatement. For anyone who knows Enda, has heard him on radio or read his books, he is very down to earth with a great sense of humour. He trained as a psychiatric nurse many years ago before becoming a Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist. Enda is the Assistant Director of the North East General Practitioner Training programme and a much sought-after speaker at international medical conferences around the world.
For the first time in our 30 something years we heard the key elements of CBT. For those of you who have never heard of it we highly recommend reading Enda’s book ‘Five Steps to Happiness” (link). Essentially we were introduced to the concepts such as:
* We are not our thoughts because we can observe our thoughts
* Thoughts are not facts
If you have never heard those statements before, we advise reading them a few times! We explored the concept of how our thoughts, emotions and behaviours are connected and how they affect one another. We listened to how this can help people to intervene at different points in this cycle and change thought patterns and behaviours which have been problematic for them.
For the first time we heard about the neuroscience related to anxiety; the amygdala and that our brains cannot tell the difference between if a threat is real and imaginary.
We heard about a man in his 70s who had suffered from panic attacks his whole life. His granddaughter was beginning her teaching career and was starting to experience similar attacks. He contacted Enda as he couldn’t bear the idea that his granddaughter would have to suffer the way he had for decades. Grandfather and granddaughter attended three sessions with Enda. The man reported back that his panic attacks had become less frequent and he was confident that he would eventually be able to manage them now “that he understood where they came from.”
Aoife and I looked at each other. The students we taught who were described as “anxious children” came to mind. The pains in the tummies. The headaches. The “I don’t feel well” in general. We now understood that anxiety was physical symptoms caused by a feeling of being unsafe. At first we felt angry. Why the hell wasn’t this being taught in schools?
We had both experienced anxiety in our own lives. I recalled having a panic attack in a coffee shop in Grafton Street in my early 20s. I thought I was having a heart attack. I was alone and my main concern was that nobody noticed what was happening to me. I thought about one of my students at the time, an 11 year old boy who told me he spent his day “trying not to be anxious”. What could this new knowledge do to help alleviate pain and manage an emotion that was debilitating so many?
We drove out of the conference feeling like a fuse had been lit.