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The Power of Positive Emotions in Times of Crisis



Most schools, and by extension their faculty, students, and families, are functioning in crisis mode right now. We are all exhausted. The good news? Throwing some positive emotions into the mix stands to do everyone a lot of good--both in the short and long terms.


In the midst of this pandemic, on the heels of a contentious election in a politically divided nation, it would be easy to dwell in all of the negative emotions swirling for teachers, kids, and their parents right now: worry, guilt, anger, sadness, anxiety, fatigue. In our new virtual or hybrid learning environments, there seems to be a never ending onslaught of additional tasks to master, and it’s not just the halting, tech-dependent teaching and learning that must take center stage. We must also keep in the foreground environmental cleanliness, daily health checks, adherence to mask-wearing protocols, and social distancing regulations. It’s enough to make a person want to throw in the towel.


Further, the human brain tunes into negative thinking and events more heavily than it does neutral or positive experiences. In fact, when it comes to the impact on the body and brain, negative emotions are 3-5 times “heavier” than positive emotions. Negative feelings can trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response in our brains, which can help us battle, run from, or hide from a potential threat. Though distressing, this tendency is beneficial evolutionarily speaking, as it keeps us alive and safe. After all, if our prehistoric ancestors failed to learn tactics to survive life-threatening encounters, they would not have lived long enough to pass their genes along to future generations. Though we are far less likely than our early ancestors to encounter life threatening circumstances, we humans nevertheless retain this same neural wiring, a few million years later. Not only are our current global, political and schooling environments a likely source of discomfort, our brains are primed to react quickly and loudly to that discomfort: a perfect storm for stress to thrive.


But there IS hope!


Though we may not be able to prevent the storm from raging, there are some steps we can take to weather it more effectively. It turns out that experiencing positive emotions, particularly in the midst of a crisis, has a number of beneficial outcomes, some of them quite long-lasting. This is because positive emotions are the building blocks for resilience. They also prime us for learning and make us more open to taking the kind of healthy risks that lead to growth and enhanced coping skills down the line.


And positive emotions do not have to be grandiose in scale to get the job done. Here are a few small examples of positive emotions within most people’s grasp, even under current circumstances: the satisfaction and elevated mood that stems from a workout or vigorous movement; the contentment that comes from connecting with others in our lives; genuine delight during a humorous moment; feelings of gratitude for unexpected moments and towards important people; a sense of wonder at nature’s beauty or a moving song; and interest in a compelling story. Each of these experiences is likely to produce positive feelings that increase dopamine production in our brains, a neurotransmitter known to turn on all of our minds’ learning centers. Just as negative emotions narrow our thought-action response patterns (think one of three options: fight, flight, or freeze), positive emotions do the exact opposite. They help us become more creative learners, divergent thinkers, and, by extension, healthy risk takers. Our readiness to learn and think creatively can help us better navigate challenges and even crises, such as the collective crisis we are all in at the moment. Even better, successfully navigating difficulties permanently increases our coping tool skills repertoires. Thus, positive emotions serve us both in the moment, and in the long run by increasing our resilience.


What are some ways to infuse positive emotions into the present teaching and learning experience?


● Start classes by playing music as students are entering the physical or virtual classroom.

● Greet each student by name on screen and in person. I have a colleague who takes this one step further and starts each class with a 60 second, one-on-one conversation with a different student each day. His high school students look forward to hearing from each other and to perhaps being their teacher’s invited guest in any given class period.

● Make gratitude a habit--and use it as a relationship builder. Start your class with a gratitude minute in which each participant states (or types in the chat) something for which they are grateful. Not only does it feel good to be thankful, but group members will get to know each other better by listening to one another’s contributions. To lift the spirits of other school employees, consider writing a colleague a random thank you letter or email.

● Infuse classes with storytelling. Stories help us latch onto content in a positive way. Teachers can share the story of how they came to appreciate their subject matter or a time in their life that their content held relevance. Invite students to do the same.

● Bring novelty and movement into the classroom. One example for infusing movement into the virtual classroom is through a scavenger hunt. Give students a list of items to procure in their households and set a time limit for when they need to be back on screen. Leave prompts somewhat open-ended. Ex. “Find something that meant a lot to you when you were younger.” “Find something that reminds you of an important time in your life.”

● Pepper slide shows with humorous cartoons and images.

● Use breakout rooms to encourage students to connect with one another in smaller groups.

● Make random phone calls home to families to report something positive their child has done.

● Basically anything that makes you or others feel good!


In closing, I’m reminded of a terrific Ted Talk by leading positive psychology mind, Shawn Achor, called The Happy Secret to Better Work. In it, Achor cautions his audience against linking achievement with success and linking success with happiness. Too often, he notes, people tell themselves “When my current challenge is over, then I’ll be okay,” or worse, “then I’ll be happy.” This type of thinking continually pushes success, and, by extension, happiness, over the “cognitive horizon line”. Instead, when it comes to feeling good, Achor urges his viewers to focus more on process and less on outcome. In our current national and global circumstances, Achor’s advice holds especially true. Given the many uncertainties in front of us--a pandemic without a solid plan for a cure, a nation divided by politics and racial injustices, a school year taking place on screens without an end in sight, we cannot wait until our stressors are over to count on relaxing, feeling okay, or even happy. Let’s try instead to infuse the process of navigating the crisis with positive emotions that will help us in the moment and, long term, make us more likely to experience post-traumatic growth once the crisis has passed.




Sources

Fredrickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. R. (2003). What good are positive emotions in crisis? A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 365-376. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.365

Russo-Netzer, P., & Ben-Shahar, T. (2011). 'Learning from success': A close look at a popular positive psychology course. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(6), 468–476.


TED Talks. (2011). Shawn Achor: The happy secret to better work. Available from http://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work.html


Tews, M. J., Jackson, K., Ramsay, C., & Michel, J. W. (2015). Fun in the college classroom: Examining its nature and relationship with student engagement. College Teaching, 63(1), 16-26. doi:10.1080/87567555.2014.972318






Samantha Straub has been an educator for 24 years. Since 2012, she has served as an Upper School Counselor at Severn School in Severna Park, MD. She is also an adolescent therapist and owner of Samantha Straub Consulting, LLC, dedicated to helping families raise strong and healthy teens. A mom of two teens herself, Sam believes in the power of laughter and that parenting--and lately teaching, by necessity, is often a matter of “good enough”.


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