The Diary of An Anxious Teacher: How I survived my anxiety in the classroom and started to thrive.

The Diary of An Anxious Teacher: How I survived my anxiety in the classroom and started to thrive.

This blog post discusses my journey in recognizing and managing anxiety, particularly focusing on situations that triggered anxiety in the classroom and how I learned to cope with them. It also covers my strategies for identifying triggers and managing the anxiety response in each situation.

 

How I Got Here-

It was the students talking for me. If the kids were talking it was only inevitable somebody was going to say the wrong thing to somebody else and then they were going to start fighting. 

I remember when I started teaching at my current school, which is a behavioral program. I was three years into teaching and I had never taught at a behavioral program before. I thought that if I had complete control then I could keep the kids safe and give them the remarkable education I knew they deserved. I had a mix of savior complex, mixed with authoritarianism, mixed with Ron Clark ambition… 

I taped arrows to the floor and directed the kids to walk around the room following the arrow direction. Initially, I justified it as a way to prevent them from carrying messy artwork around and bumping into each other. However, looking back, I realize my underlying fear was that they might start fighting if they bumped into each other. I was so concerned about potential conflicts, as if their label of "emotionally impaired" meant they were incapable of empathy or reasoning.

This sense of fear didn’t go away until about my 30th or 40th student fight, just kidding... thats an exaggeration.

So, there was a reason for me to worry, BUT... AND THIS IS A HUGE "BUT"... I noticed that once my fear of them fighting disappeared, so did the fights.

Yeah they still yell at each other time to time, BUT actual fighting… it doesn’t happen when I am in the room.

So, I am no longer afraid of them fighting, I am no longer afraid of them yelling at each other and I am no longer afraid of them yelling at me. Experience has taught me that no matter what happens I will deal with it and everything winds up ok. It is that experience that led my anxiety to dwindle down to something manageable. The funny thing is that when my anxiety went away, so did my students.

 

But what about when I AM anxious?

Certain situations can trigger me, such as receiving an email titled “See Me” from my principal or having a confrontation with staff or a parent. But I've learned to recognize these situations as triggering and am confident in my ability to manage them. It's a self-perpetuating cycle, for better or worse. The more adept I become at handling my anxiety, the better I get at managing it, and vice versa. I'll explain how I do this in a moment.


Let me just say that fears and anxieties are COMPLETELY normal** and they might not be caused by kids fighting. They could be caused by the fear of other teachers seeing your classroom out of control and judging you, or compromising your relationships with students, or losing control of your classroom and then you will have a complete hellscape in which you have to work in everyday for the rest of your life and you will never escape… I’ve had that fear too. 

The thing about our fears is that 97% of them never come to fruition, no matter if we have anxiety or not. They just either don’t happen or we end up handling them better than expected and learning something valuable.* Either way holding our worries in our head just makes us act weird. 

You might be thinking, "Well, Brittany, 97% of the time they don’t happen because I over prepare, or because I am hypervigilant about student behavior." To that, I say, try not over preparing for a week or try not micromanaging student behavior. I'm confident that half of the things you're stressing over are unnecessary. When you let go of that half, you free yourself up to focus on the things that truly require your attention and become really good at them.

I'm confident that half of the things you're stressing over are unnecessary. When you let go of that half, you free yourself up to focus on the things that truly require your attention and become really good at them.

So what do I do when I am triggered?

I notice it and that soothes my amygdala enough that I can start using my inner voice or my coping strategies. I know how it sounds… “Noticing It? Are you freaking kidding me?” 

But there is a reason I and every single mindfulness coach and cognitive behavioral strategist suggest that the first step to dealing with strong emotions is to notice it… because it  works. I’m so serious.

Let me illustrate with this really vulnerable but totally relevant example: The last time I was super anxious in the classroom and what I did. 

I had gotten an email from my principal that said that they needed to see me in their office at the end of the day, it was about breaking board policy so I could opt to have union representation.** My anxiety kicked into high gear, I couldn’t think, I was emotionally aroused, I realized I was actually jumpy, and I still had two 50 minute blocks I had to teach through. My thoughts started spiraling, I can literally feel the anxiety writing this. BUT I noticed that I was jumpy, that my thoughts were spiraling, and that I couldn’t think. When I noticed those things it gave me enough pause to put myself on autopilot teacher mode and focus on my students instead of my spiraling thoughts. 

Once I got a moment to breathe and I was no longer teaching I defaulted to my unhelpful coping strategy of reaching for control. I started telling myself “I could find another job, I am making good money off the toolkit (which is HERE by the way, shameless plug) and that I wasn’t going to keep working for a district that didn’t appreciate me (which is completely untrue).”

But none of those thoughts helped because I love my job. I realized I was catastrophizing, which is never good.

I did what any teacher would do: I went to my building union rep, who also happens to be one of my closest teacher friends, and shared the situation with him. He listened and reassured me that I wasn't going to be fired. He offered to be there with me if I wanted. However, discussing the possible reasons for the meeting only made me more anxious. Now, I had 300 different scenarios in my head, and in each one, I ended up being fired, tearfully packing up all my things and saying goodbye to my classroom forever. I do not recommend running to your teacher bestie and talking it out, at least wait until you are completely rational again.

So what helped? 

While I was sitting in the office waiting for the principal, which is absolute hell, I knew that if I didn’t get control of my anxiety soon I would not be able to defend myself or even talk for that matter. In desperation I started a technique called thought dumping. I started typing out exactly what I was feeling, where I was feeling it, and the intensity of the feeling. 

In desperation I started a technique called thought dumping. I started typing out exactly what I was feeling, where I was feeling it, and the intensity of the feeling. 

I was feeling fear in my throat and it was an 8 out of 10. I was feeling guilt in my gut and it was a 7 out of 10. I then typed out all of my thoughts as they came. I did no filtering and had no judgment. Even the thoughts that almost brought me to tears, like having to tell my husband that I lost my job, or having to sacrifice things that made my daughter happy didn’t make my anxiety worse, writing it all out actually helped. It made the thoughts tangible, things I could observe, instead of overwhelming feelings.

It made the time sitting in the office manageable and even those guilty and fear based thoughts didn’t make me spiral, they just came and went and then a new thought popped up and I typed out that one too. 

Soon without thinking about it I was typing out a reasonable plan for if I did lose my job, and what I would do, and how it could lead to something new. That shift in perspective changed everything. I wasn’t just calm, I was empowered and confident.

I am not saying that you have to type out your thoughts, I am saying you have to get yourself to the point where you can use A strategy, ANY strategy, and that comes with pausing and noticing your fears or anxieties.

What does this look like in the classroom with students?

Firstly, you have to be able to identify what your anxiety feels like. My anxiety feels like a balloon just inflated in my lower abdomen and my throat gets tight. Those are the best ways I can describe it. 

When I feel those things I automatically think “I am feeling anxiety.” Notice I don’t use “I am anxious.” This is a buddhist technique that stems from the idea that we are not our feelings, we are the consciousness experiencing our feelings. This shift in perspective makes dealing with heavy or extreme feelings way more manageable. 

Secondly, you have to realize that your anxiety response is your body’s smoke alarm. It might go off when there isn’t a fire, but just because there isn’t a fire doesn’t mean there isn’t something wrong. Your anxiety response is worth getting curious about.

When I feel that anxiety response I look around my environment to figure out what triggered it. Because I have done this work for years I can easily identify my triggers now.

They are, in order of triggering-ness:

  • Thinking I am in trouble with an authority figure,
  • Staff undermining my authority
  • Students’ talking
  • Students’ undermining my authority 
  • Staff I care about being mad at me or thinking I’m incompetent 

Thirdly, it's important to have an anticipatory plan. This plan should be developed when you're not in a triggered state. While you might refine this plan based on what works when you are triggered (such as typing out your thoughts), the actual strategy for handling triggers should be created when you are calm.

Thirdly, it's important to have an anticipatory plan. This plan should be developed when you're not in a triggered state.

I recommend having multiple plans because not every plan will work every time. Additionally, it's important to recognize that your default plans may not be helpful, as demonstrated above when I planned for worse case scenarios and ran to talk to my teacher bestie.

My Anticipatory Strategies

My anticipatory plans change with the level of anxiety and how well they work in the moment. 

They are as follows: 

Trouble with authority:

  • Identify the feeling, identify it’s location and intensity and thought dump for 5-10 minutes (or however long I need to calm down).
  • Meditate with the mantra “Circles” visualizing myself on a skateboard skating downhill and coming back up the hill to form a circle then noticing my thoughts without judgment for 5 minutes
  • Listening to my favorite panic attack meditation on youtube located HERE

Staff undermining my authority:

  • Telling myself I have no idea if they intentionally meant to do that
  • Imagining what they are feeling and going through, literally putting myself in their shoes and trying to feel what they are feeling
  • Using the Loving Kindness Meditation****

Students talking:

  • Putting on noise canceling headphones
  • Repeating my mantra “learning doesn’t happen in isolation”
  • Shutting off all of the lights
  • Putting on lofi music

Students undermining my authority:

  • Reminding myself what it felt like when I acted out in that way
  • Identifying which motivational need is being met with the behavior: autonomy, belonging or competency, see the Behavior and Needs Detective Ebook and Workshop- HERE
  • Focusing my attention on a student who I have a really good relationship with 
  • Shifting my mindset from “this student is annoying the heck out of me to this student is trying to advocate for themselves without the proper skills”
  • Telling the student warmly “I love you but you’re triggering me because…” Even if I have to fake it in the moment, by the end of me finishing the sentence I mean the warmth. There’s something about using the phrase I love you that just snaps you out of fight or flight.

Do you want more? Scroll down to subscribe to the email list where you can stay in the know about all upcoming blog posts, freebies, workshops and more. 


Want to learn more about your stress response? Check out the blog series Understanding your Stressors HERE.

 

 

 

Notes:

* A Cornell study on worry found that 85 percent of the things subjects worried about never actually happened. Of the 15 percent that did happen, 79 percent of subjects discovered that they were able to handle the difficulties better than expected, or that the difficulties taught them valuable lessons. This indicates that 97 percent of what you worry about is essentially just your fearful mind exaggerating and distorting reality.


** Uncomfortable feelings are not inherently bad. Fear, for example, can keep kids safe. Guilt can motivate people to make amends when they've caused harm, and anger can drive change when something isn't working. Labeling feelings as "good" or "bad" can be harmful. Instead, focus on whether the behaviors that these feelings elicit are "helpful" or "unhelpful" in achieving your goals.

***This situation is concerning because it means the teacher is likely to be stressed for the entire duration until that meeting. Admin, please consider scheduling meetings with teachers in the morning. If necessary, allow them to take the day off to prepare. 

**** Loving kindness meditation is as follows: 

Visualize yourself and repeat in your mind or out loud this mantra: “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease.” Do this until you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Then visualize someone you care about and repeat the mantra. Repeat the mantra but replace I with you. Repeat the mantra as you visualize the person in your mind.

Then visualize someone you have conflict with. Repeat the above variation.

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