Imagine how we would be if we were less afraid

Image credit: Glen Cousquer, The University of Edinburgh

With the advent of Mental Health Awareness Week (15th to 21st May) that focusses on the theme anxiety this year, Glen draws interesting analogies to explain emotional literacy and anxiety in this extra post. Glen Cousquer, Lecturer and Programme Coordinator in One Health and Conservation Medicine, suggests practical ways we can easily integrate emotional literacy for wellbeing into the curriculum.

This year Mental Health Awareness Week falls on the 15th to 21st May and focuses on anxiety, a normal emotion that we are all familiar with and one that has significance for our teaching and learning in all sorts of ways.  Anxiety can easily build up to the point that it becomes debilitating and, given how common and ubiquitous it is as a mental health problem, we can guarantee that it will be present and making itself felt in our classrooms.  Indeed, it is probably fair to say that anxiety has come to characterise so much of the educational project we are all engaged in, that it has become baked in.

But… what if we could all leave our worries and anxieties at the door every time we walk into a classroom?  What if, to draw on the Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, there is a “School of Unlearning” where what we bake is not suffused with adrenaline and other anxiety spices?  As the Mole and the Boy find themselves wondering aloud:

“Imagine how we would be if we were less afraid”.

What sort of learning community might such emotional literacy give rise to?

In this blog, I want to re-imagine education and, in doing so, strike a hopeful note for Mental Health Awareness Week, one that highlights ways we can easily integrate emotional literacy for wellbeing into the curriculum.  I do so, first by sharing some wisdom from Thich Nhat Hanh, whose work on trauma and mindfulness has informed the development of compassionate approaches in all areas of life, including education.  I have chosen this starting point because, as Hanh has emphasised throughout his life’s work, “the way out is in” and because, borrowing again from the Boy and the Mole, “we can only see our outsides but nearly everything happens on the inside” (Mackey, 2019).

Hanh writes (2021, p.193):

“I believe that teachers and professors also need to devote some time to listening to the suffering of their students.  It’s not a waste of time because if students suffer too much, it’s difficult for them to learn.  And so, helping them suffer less is essential to the work of teaching and transmitting knowledge. Once a teacher has listened to their own suffering, they can listen to the suffering of their students and help them suffer less, within even an hour of listening.  And, in return, students can listen to the suffering of their teachers because educators also have their own suffering, and, when they can share that skilfully with their students, the communication will become much easier.  The atmosphere will be transformed and the work of teaching and learning will become much more enjoyable”.

This passage reminds us of the reciprocal nature of the learning project.  Staff and students are inter-dependent, they are inter-connected perhaps even intra-connected (Siegel, 2023).  When we deepen our listening and bring compassion into our ways of being, this informs our ways of doing and creates space for transformational learning.  Martin Buber emphasises the singular importance of turning to the other if we are to meet genuinely and engage in genuine dialogue (Buber, 2000).  This turning involves a willingness to hear and to be changed by what we hear.  It also involves a respect for the sacredness of the other and a celebration of vulnerability as we learn from the answer the Horse offers up when the Boy asks him, “When have you been at your strongest?”:

When I have dared to show my weakness.  Asking for help isn’t giving up … it’s refusing to give up.

This does not mean that we encourage mindless vulnerability for, as Brené Brown reminds us, we are easily shamed and this can be crushing.  Shame, however, derives its power from being unspeakable.  Brown (2012, p.67) therefore challenges us to “cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it”.  She argues that this allows us to cut shame off at the knees, continuing:

If we speak shame it begins to wither.  Just the way exposure to light was deadly for gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.

So what might this mean for ensuring our classrooms are less tainted by fear and anxiety?  Well, in short, I am proposing we create safe spaces for and normalise conversations about anxiety.  This can involve writing anonymously about our relationship with anxiety and then sharing this with others after first negotiating a common agreement about how we will listen to each other with kindness, dignity and compassion*.  It can involve simple mindfulness practices to create sufficient space to observe our anxiety and how a trigger lands in our nervous system and leaves its imprint.  This observing allows us to name and speak about something that previously might have left us feeling both afraid and ashamed.  Gradually, the fruit growing on the anxiety tree start to wither and we find that we can sit under that tree and invite others to sit there, without feeling fearful.  The learning community who gather under this tree may well find themselves tasting what arises when we bake emotional literacy (learning to relate to our emotions) into our teaching.

As the Mole likes to remind us – cake is often the answer … but we need the right blend of spices.


Brown, B. (2012).  Daring greatly:  How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead.  London: Penguin Life.

Buber, M. (2000).  I and thou.  New York: Scribner.

Hanh, T. N. (2021).  Zen and the art of saving the planet.  London:  Penguin.

Mackey, C. (2019).  The boy, the mole, the fox and the horse.  London:  Penguin Random House.

Siegel, D. (2023).  IntraConnected:  MWe (Me + We) as the integration of self, identity, and Belonging.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company

*These three values lie at the heart of Scotland’s National Performance Framework.

picture of editor/producerGlen Cousquer

Glen Cousquer is a recipient of the 2022 RCVS Compassion Award for his work on embedding compassion into teaching and learning and campus culture. He is a recipient of the 2021 EUSA Outstanding Commitment to Social Justice and Sustainability Award and the 2020 Social Responsibility and Sustainability Changemaker Awards in recognition of his work on sustainability across the University, including the embedding of deep listening and sustainability into postgraduate training courses for healthcare professionals.

Glen’s research into the health and welfare of pack animals on expedition and across the global mountain tourism industry led to the development of new industry standards and the development of multispecies awareness-based Action Research methodologies to help deliver emergent futures. This work has informed the development of dialogical approaches to establishing communities of practice and inquiry, change theory, and practice for sustainability, as well as more recent work on ecological pilgrimage that has led to the publication of a new guidebook on the Way of St Cuthbert. Since February 2018, he has been lecturing on and coordinating the MSc and MVetSci programmes in One Health and Conservation Medicine at The University of Edinburgh.

One comment

  1. Its truely an inspiring post quoting some of my fav authors. But more importantedly I do resonate with it personally someone who deals with ancxiety in daily basis. I think what its more pertinent here is creating safe space for one self. Or as Noddings theory of care but more of self care. To echo Maya Angelou here “you belong everywhere and nowhere until you belong to yourself…” which is only possible if we listen to our own suffering. Thank you for this inspiring post

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