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18 Dec 2019

Erasmus+ KA1: Handling Stress and Avoiding Burn Out –Budapest Hungary 2019

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‘Adult education is a means to personal and social change founded in the potential of people’. In this blog, Alice McDonnell AONTAS Board member shares her experience undertaking a course in Budapest as part of her Erasmus+ KA1 Mobility in November discussing the importance of education in both personal development and self-preservation.

Stress seems to be part of everyday life today as it was in the past, different situations, times and challenges. However, it is all part emotions being human and our lived experiences in how we manage or overcome stress successfully. As an early school leaver at 13yrs I could not wait to get out of the school environment, I found it oppressive and insensitive to how we learn and who we are as individuals. Returning as a mature student to Maynooth University as an adult learner changed all my preconceived beliefs to learning and its purpose.   Taking me on a learning journey to a B.Sc. Rural Development, Postgrad Higher Diploma Adult and Community Education and MA Community Education, Equality & Social Activism and the journey is not over yet.

Adult education is a means to personal and social change founded in the potential of people, who once they gain access to formal and non-formal education draw on meaningful and useful knowledge for personal empowerment and are active participants in life.  As a board member of AONTAS who support the continuous professional development of staff and Board members, it has afforded me the opportunity to attend a training week through AONTAS’ Erasmus+ KA1 project. The course was called ‘Handling Stress and Avoiding Burn Out’ and was held in Budapest Hungary during November 2019.

My reason for this taking part linked to my role as coordinator and peer recovery educator in mental health and well-being.  Burnout and stress are very much a part of peoples day to day living now more than ever, due to the on-going demands of work, finance, health, family, housing to name but a few of the major problems in Ireland today. In my work, I see stress as one of the major factors in most illnesses and that was one of the main reasons in undertaking this course as a means to finding and exploring solutions. I believe it would give me an opportunity to gain deeper understanding of the mind and body, expand my competencies and practices in managing stress for staff and volunteers working in the Recovery Education sector. In addition, to implement the learning and tools in everyday life and work practices, towards a healthier and stress-free life.

Alfonso our tutor for the week began the sessions with the traditional introduction, exploring our expectations as learners. The teaching method of non-formal adult education tools were used for example; icebreakers, energisers, case studies, problem posing, role-play, and we gave feedback as we progressed throughout the week.  Alfonso utilised reflection, discussions and practical applications in classroom settings to add deeper meaning and understanding. I should mention there were six participants from Crete, one from Lithuania and myself from Ireland, all of whom worked with children in kindergarten to primary school. We soon discovered we had all different needs and motivation for the course, and I had a very different lived experience on burnout and stress as the only adult educator working in mental health recovery.  This resulted in a very dynamic and at times challenging group who were all eager to learn and make sense of meaning in our own lives.

At the end, I learned that stress and burnout are two very different things. Stress, is when we feel overwhelmed, anxious, low energy and very sensitive, while burnout makes us feel empty, disengaged, hopeless, depressed and feel like life is not worth living. All of us are at high risk of burnout if we are overworked or undervalued within the workplace. Or as a stay at home carer of children, disability, illness of a family, we can have limited finances for a breakaway or as a treat to relax after a long week. Demands, demands, and more demands on our lives leaves us at risk and results in a negative impact on our emotional, mental, physical and behaviour, and not forgetting our happiness.

Why do we place so much demands on ourselves? We see others who look like they’re sailing through without drama or damage. I learned that our personality traits play a role in making us more predisposed to burnout [breakdown], for example, if we feel we are not good enough or are a perfectionist, if we’re high achievers, or have pessimistic views of ourselves and the world around us, or we have a need to control everything and everyone, we may also have a fear of delegating. It doesn’t happen overnight, it is a slow process and often goes unchecked, so personal awareness is key. Being mindful of the early warning signs can prevent a major breakdown and we need seriously pay attention to our needs.

Alfonso highlighted the warning signs are like red flags that something is wrong that needs attention and needs to be addressed. For example, feeling tired, drained, sickly, headaches, back pain, changes in appetite and/or sleep habits, sense of failure, self-doubt, helpless, defeated, detached, alone, low motivation, and negative outlook on the world, withdrawn from the world, isolated, procrastinating, uses food or drugs to cope, blaming others on your problems all the time, not turning up on time or leaving early at work or events and the list goes on.  The very design of humans leaves us with a built-in fight or flight response to challenges it has an effect on our brain and body as outlined. So how do we avoid burnout and stress?

This programme has afforded me the time to reflect on how as a society we measure our well-being and the well-being of others around us. Without the opportunity to visit other learning communities in the EU, I wonder would I have the same awareness of our shared struggles and shared connections as educators. We all know the value of education in increasing your income, employability and support for our economy. Our society and culture must recognise and appreciate that adult education has more than financial benefits, it has the ability to contribute to our physical, emotional, and mental well-being of people all ages, genders and race.

Our emotional and mental health refers to our overall psychological well-being. In this, I mean we must ask ourselves how we feel about ourselves, have we good connections in our relationships, are we able to express our feelings, bounce back from difficult times, and are happy and living meaningfully. I have learned through recovery education that good mental health isn’t just the absence of mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. Rather, it is the absence of resilience to bounce back and emotional literacy, therefore, making coping difficult, the ability to deal with stress is limited, lack of positive relationships to support emotional wellbeing and overcoming barriers to handling challenging times. Doctors are under pressure daily with people presenting with stress, anxiety and lack of sleep due to inner turmoil. Resulting in an increase in prescribed medication, substance misuse, absenteeism from work and relationship breakdowns.

We need to be creative in our solutions and look to adult education to support individual and community wellbeing. The fundamental knowledge begins with the person most directly affected, and as educators, we have an opportunity to expand understanding and assist in making meaning for life changes. Creating the safe space to connect the minds learning to heal the body and therefore bring better balance in health and wellbeing. Transforming negative beliefs, utilising strengths and bringing about emotional freedom for personal empowerment. Otherwise, the consequence of stress and burnout in our life and work is bleak. Adult education is more than learning subject matters; it is a powerful method and process for real changes in all areas of a person’s life: emotional, mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing. So, ask yourself the question how you measure wellbeing in today’s society? Why is there no provision in all government departments to invest in wellbeing of our society beyond job ready or sectorial needs? How long do we have to wait or how many people have to become ill or die due to mental or emotional breakdown? I don’t have the answer, however, I do know from experience that recovery education is supporting recovery from mental ill health and there is a space for more to be done in a wider context to prevent mental health crisis and stress management for day-to-day living.

For more information on this project please contact Dearbháil Lawless, EU Projects Officer at: dlawless@aontas.com