Video discussion

Self-Care Awareness: Navigating Triggers in the Classroom

Danielle De La Mare

Danielle De La Mare

In this video, Danielle De La Mare, a Career Wellness Coach, shares valuable insights for educators on how to identify and manage triggers that can affect their work-life balance and well-being.

– Hi, OneHE Community, it’s Niya. I’m here talking with Danielle De La Mere, who is a career wellness coach. Danielle helps academics make sound and meaningful career decisions grounded in wellness and self-compassion. Such decisions produce careers of greater creativity, confidence, clarity and connection to self and others.

Many of you might know Danielle as the creator of the podcast, Self-Compassionate Professor, where she features guests who have paved creative and self-compassionate career paths after struggle. So, Danielle, I would love to chat with you today about cultivating wellness in all of the ways that you might share with our community.

– Hmm, yes! Thank you, Niya. That felt really good to hear you read that, because I’m like, yes, that is what I’m about, yes! I don’t know if other people have that sense that when they hear their bio, they’re like, “Yeah!” But it hasn’t always been that way, right? Like at this point I have really made a clear decision to help people with wellness because when I was on the tenure track and on my way to tenure, I got tenure. But what fueled me on that path was just always feeling anxious and triggered and like, I have to get stuff done. And like having all of these emotions that I wasn’t processing. I wasn’t digesting, I was just holding and taking with me from one place to the next, right, from faculty meeting to classroom. And there were things that were going on with me at that time. Like I was noticing, I was reading Parker Palmer’s, what is it, Courage to Teach? I think that’s the name of it. And he talks about the hat guy, right? And how he starts like this kid in the back of the classroom who’s just, looks totally disengaged and he’s trying to like perform for him and get him to be engaged like the rest of the class. And he says that he just kind of gets tunnel vision and just starts focusing on this one kid. And maybe that’s totally disrespectful to call him a kid, but this one young man. And as he’s focusing on him, he just finds himself grasping and trying to perform for him. And it becomes this like fight response, right?

And so when I talk about sort of triggers, I’m talking about this sort of fight, flight or freeze response that we get while we’re teaching or while we’re performing sort of teaching tasks. And so I didn’t know why that, I don’t think I totally knew why that resonated with me at the time, other than, oh yeah, I totally have had that experience when I read that in Parker Palmer’s book. Yeah, I know what that’s like. I’ve had that experience, but it was more this sort of general theme of being triggered all the time and not realising why I had been and what I was going through. And some things that people may recognise are things like teaching evaluations. How do you manage your teaching evaluations? For me, I would avoid them at all costs. I would never look at them until I absolutely had to, until I had to report on them for my annual reviews. And then I would look and then when I did look, I would get really, really shaky and I would like dissociate almost. So I would go from a flight response where I wouldn’t look at them. And then when I finally had to look at them, I would freeze up and I would just, and then I would fixate on those comments that were negative for weeks at a time. I would even say months in some cases. And so this energy I’m carrying with me everywhere I go, right? And it’s not just affecting my teaching. It’s not just affecting my ability to create a safe sort of learning environment for my students, but it’s also affecting like my ability to engage with my colleagues, my ability to engage with my children. It’s affecting everything. And so I’m really an advocate of turning in and noticing when you’re triggered and doing sort of the good work. And the good work is, you know, noticing your triggers, noticing what those are. And the way you can do that is go back to a moment when you’ve been really, really triggered and you could probably right now, very easily close your eyes and find that thing fairly quickly . And then once you’ve done that, I’m looking at my notes, you might remind yourself of a time that sort of reminds you of this moment, right? A time earlier in your life that reminds you of this moment. So for me, I remember in high school I had a psychology teacher who liked that I would turn red. He thought it was really funny. And so he would tell everybody to look at me, “Everyone look at Danielle! “Oh, she’s getting red, she’s getting redder! “Oh, she’s starting to turn purple now.” And I would just get so stressed and it was such, it was really traumatic in a lot of ways. And so that sort of academic socialisation that was traumatising. That might be something that comes to mind for you when you think of a moment that reminds you of your current trigger. So one, notice your trigger. Two, notice what that reminds you of when you were younger and that will probably bring up some traumatic event. And then third, try to self-soothe. See what you can do to make yourself feel better, right? Rather than beat yourself up, which is what I used to do. I used to be like, I can’t believe you froze in the middle of the class and you couldn’t figure out what to say I would just get mad at myself and I would try to find all these ways to fix it and make it better. Rather than doing that, you know, had I had these tools, these self-compassion tools, I would’ve turned in and you know, told myself, I know this is hard. I know this hurts. I might have placed my hands over my heart. I might’ve wrapped up in a blanket, like the things that you can do to self-soothe, those are going to be really important when you go through and start thinking about what your triggers are and how to calm yourself. So yeah, I didn’t mean to talk so in such a sort of lectury way, but let me know, do you have questions? What are your thoughts, Niya?

– Yeah, I mean, I really appreciate you kind of scaffolding the steps in really what feels to me manageable ways. Because sometimes I think when we talk about being compassionate to the self or self-care, you know, it’s sometimes really big overarching ideas that aren’t immediately applicable or manageable, you know? So I really appreciate those three steps that you’ve outlined. I guess one question I have, you know, I resonated a lot with what you were saying about kind of the display aspect of academia and you know I’ve found myself in uncomfortable positions in teaching because of that display element. So once you know your trigger and once you know how to self-soothe, what’s the process for moving forward beyond that? Is it kind of just like, are you just going through that continuous process of those three steps until eventually you reach a point where I don’t know if you’re completely comfortable, but you know you can deal with it maybe, or move beyond it somehow?

– Yeah, I mean, yes, you’re doing it sort of like on a daily basis and you don’t have to think back to a time when you were triggered on a daily basis. Like you just–

– Got it.

– That’s sort of the foundational work. Think back to a time when you were triggered, think about how that reminds you of what happened to you when you were younger and then self-soothe. That’s sort of the first step. But then every day you’re just coming back and you’re noticing when you’re triggered. Oh, I’m being triggered right now, in this moment with my students. This one student said this thing and I can feel that I’m getting triggered. I can feel that, you know, maybe you’re a fighter and you don’t freeze like I do. Maybe you lash out and you say something that’s not maybe all that respectful to the student or whatever it is. But it’s just a process of noticing when your body is starting to feel really uncomfortable. Noticing when you feel like you’re in a place where you, I don’t know, you don’t have control almost. You’re just, right. It reminds me, there’s this story in this book called Off White. I remember reading a lot of it. It’s from the nineties. And it’s about power and oppression and whiteness. And there was this one part, or this one sort of chapter in the book where the author, and I’m sorry I don’t know her name at the moment, but she talks about her professor getting, they were talking about power and oppression and she remembers her professor getting visibly stressed out and sort of shaky and turning red. And maybe I’m adding the turning red into it. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe that’s just my own experience. And, but she’s doing this thing and she can just, and the woman who’s writing says that she was so excited to have this conversation but then her professor looked so scared and was getting so shaky that she didn’t feel safe anymore and felt like sort of backing out and she couldn’t process the things she was hoping to process in class. And so, noticing something like that happening to yourself. If you start to notice something like that, just notice it. Give yourself a little compassion. Maybe tell your students, “Oh, I have some emotions emerging right now. “I just need a second.” You know, you might even invite your students to turn in and pause themselves. Let’s take a few deep breaths ’cause I can feel some emotions emerging here, right? And then bring yourself back. But it’s just this process of taking care of yourself and it doesn’t have to be in a public way. Like you could just hold your own hands. Anything that that helps you to feel held and whatever that is for you need to figure sort of figure out what that is. And it could be just like physical gestures, right? Kristin Neff talks about the self-compassion break. So you could, you know, maybe it’s this. This feels really supportive and loving and so you do this when you feel triggered or you hug yourself or whatever. And you always try to accompany that with some kind words right? You know, something like, this is just a trigger, we all get triggered, this too will pass. You know, something like that. But just sort of exploring and finding what is soothing to you. But you’re just going to remind yourself of your triggers on a daily basis, self-soothe, and keep practicing until you experience a little shift. And when you feel that you’ve shifted, you don’t have to do it every day. You can then notice the benefits of getting past your trigger. And it’s a beautiful thing, right? ’cause you’re not expending all this energy all the time because you have all this pent-up energy that you don’t know how to process, because you’re processing it as it happens. And then that means you show up as a calmer teacher. You show up as a calmer human being. Your life is, there’s so much less pent-up energy in you and you don’t get burned out as easily.

– Yeah, I really like how that, you know, when you first started talking about your own experience and kind of like taking that anxiety or those feelings with you into kind of like every room or every area of your life, this is the opposite in that, right? In that like, you’re taking these soothing like success skills and strategies with you into every area of your life. So you’re walking into the room like with a completely different approach to yourself and to others.

– I love that! Yeah, exactly. And what is so important to me is that this is about self-care for you, the teacher. We talk so much about caring for our students. We talk so much about trauma-informed pedagogy but what about us? That is the important piece for me.

– Yeah, and I think, you know, that’s such an important conversation that you’re helping people to have in higher ed and beyond, right? So I’m really grateful for all of your work and the ways that you’re helping us to think about these ideas and concepts!

– Yeah, my pleasure! It’s been such a fun chat, Niya.

– Thank you.

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In this video, Niya Bond (Faculty Developer, OneHE) talks to Danielle De La Mare (Career Wellness Coach, USA) about the importance of promoting self-care in the academy (and beyond). Danielle shares some practical tips that can help educators recognise their triggers and develop effective self-soothing techniques so that they can enter and exit classrooms empowered and energised.

The three steps that Danielle shared were: 

  1. Notice and name the trigger: take a moment to connect with your current response. View the Identifying Your Teaching Triggers Guide (PDF, opens in a new tab) developed by Danielle which contains helpful questions to ask yourself. 
  2. Engage in self-reflection: try to think of a reason why you might be having this response.
  3. Implement a self-soothing strategy: take action by engaging in a ritual of comfort.

Books Danielle mentioned in the video:

How to get involved:

We invite you to share your thoughts about self-care in the academy. What are some self-care strengths in higher education? What might be improved in higher ed in relation to self-care?