When I think about the peak of my anxiety, I remember things in snapshots, which is funny because I took very few pictures during that time–an unexpected measure of life enjoyment for me at least. I remember staring at photos of Baby Bodhi and running two 5ks. I remember the night Lochdawg came over for dinner, a rare time it was just the two of us. I know I went on a field trip when the leaves were at the height of their colors and that that day gave me hope that things were going to get better. I remember Thanksgiving, our last one with Gram, which we couldn’t possibly have known. She read her Thanksgiving prayer book the entire car ride up to Aunt Carol’s. I know that Chris and Sara’s wedding was gorgeous and that Lauren and Jesse got a kitten named Fiona. I remember driving to New Hampshire and arriving as a blizzard drove in too, a little bit of skiing, and a lot of board games. I could never ever forget the Women’s March with my friends and my Aubrey. And all of these are the things I remember joyfully. And we laughed and we hugged and we ate great food and we enjoyed better company. There was holiday cheer and precious time with people we didn’t know we wouldn’t have with us just a year later. And I think I savored some of it.
But I know, because I also remember, along with these snapshots that I was walking around with a gray cloud above my head and that it rained on me the entire time and that in any happy event, I was also watching the sands fall through the hourglass until it wouldn’t be happy again. Until the vice grip of my self-created pending doom would return and I wouldn’t be able to sleep or enjoy people or let things go or notice sweet details or write or relax or breathe deeply into my ribs, then belly, then chest.
Now, don’t get me wrong it wasn’t like Cymbalta, a Selective Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SSNRI), was the first thing I tried and sunshine and rainbows suddenly filled my thoughts. In other words, I didn’t go straight to a pill. I spent maybe five years handling with my anxiety through exercise, therapy, and acupuncture. That cocktail felt like enough for a long while. And I still use all three, gratefully. But when I think about my lowest point, the fall and winter of 2016-2017, I know that Cymbalta completely changed my life. My life changes included increased time and presence with Chas and my family and friends, time with my girls outside of the school day. I wrote my own job description, threw myself into yoga and enrolled in teacher training. I started this blog and got back to writing. I saw more needs in my school and in Baltimore that I felt like I could address and then I started thinking about ways I could address them. I literally became a better version of myself.
I’m hardly unique. Anxiety for teachers is incredibly prevalent. I never felt suicidal, had an actual panic attack (I think) or went on disability nor left a school setting completely but I have felt a lot of the feelings this writer describes here. The article, from The Guardian out of the UK, is written by “The Secret Teacher.” Her account is sort of a hyperbole of my own but I have felt many of these feelings. She says, “…teachers play a pivotal part in society, yet society fails to recognise their worth. And so many people I value are still working in a system that is fundamentally flawed, ruins people’s lives and refuses to acknowledge the wellbeing of those who are fundamental to its success.” Quite literally, teaching is the job that becomes all other jobs. It makes the world go ’round. Also, according to this article from USA Today, teacher anxiety is on the up.
Without getting into research that explains why and because I lived it, I will just tell you. Testing, phones and screens, the cycle of poverty and the parenting that results or pressure on children to reach for unreasonable levels of perfection, and increased but often misguided “accountability” for teachers.
Enough about other teachers, back to me. I do think that I have a predisposition to anxiety and I’ve always been high strung but I also accept that teaching can bring that out in the most stable of us. There’s something about absurd pace along with the fact that teachers are “always on,” plus the gaps between where the kids are and where we want them to be and so much more. You have to believe in things that seem nearly impossible and even if you know that conventional success may only reach a small percentage of your kids, it is your actual job that it’s made available to all of them, and your responsibility. So, anxiety? Duh.
Enough about teachers, let’s talk about the whole world. Teaching is hardly the only profession rife with anxiety and for many, it’s not a profession that creates anxiety in the first place. It could be a trauma or a living situation. Or maybe it is a collection of many things, such as the fact that Donald J. Trump is our actual president. (#notmypresident)
2018 is pretty freaking unbelievable. You know. You’re in it too. It’s no wonder so many of us are all freaking out. But let’s not list those things and let’s move onto solutions.
Here’s my anxiety survival kit. From me and from my Cymbalta, to you. I am the farthest thing from a doctor or licensed anything (aside from teacher-gone-mad) but I have lived a life of anxiety so that equips me with at least some ideas that work for me. I welcome grains of salt as you read. Also, I should say, I’ve shared some of these coping mechanisms before but this is something that cannot hurt to revisit.
I will level these as they showed up for me.
Level I: I bite my nails and unconventional perils cross my mind from time to time.
- Talk about it. Choose your own audience. Sometimes this is enough.
- Deep breathing.
- Exercise, generally. Just get your blood pumping, muscles working, breath rising and falling, and move. Dealer’s choice.
- Go outside.
- Yoga (warning: I will put this in all levels).
- Spend time with animals and babies
- Meditation apps such as Calm, Headspace (do you like Australian accents?), and so many more. Try quick meditations before or after work, or in the smack middle of the day.
- Shake things up. Move your furniture, clean, tweeze your eyebrows (not too much), bake brownies for your friend Amanda whose oven is broken.
- Put down your phone and forget about social media. It’s dumb and makes us feel bad about ourselves.
- For the nails, honestly, the only thing that helps me stop is getting a manicure. The problem is that the act of carving out 90 minutes and going to a salon is stressful in itself.
- Go to bed earlier. Maybe you’ll wake up too early but then you can use that time on tasks, reading, exercise, or other fun.
- Reconsider the way you speak to yourself and the words and messages you allow out into the universe, if only in your head–you’re still putting them out there.
Level II: I’m losing sleep over trivial and not-so-trivial things from the recent past or near or far future.
- All of the above.
- Try a meditation class. Many cities (can’t speak for ‘burbs and farmland) have Shambhala meditation centers. Here is Baltimore’s. They offer a variety of meditation classes for donation. I took one in January 2017. Five Tuesdays, two hours per session, a beautiful experience.
- Yoga (I told you it would be in every category).
- Therapy. Use this link from Psychology Today to find someone near you. Even the most mentally, emotionally, and psychologically healthy person could benefit from talking to someone. Maybe this should be in Level I.
- Question your diet. Are you taking in foods that help your body feel well?
- Acupuncture is incredibly restorative. Acupuncture Lauren (as I call her because I already had a Lauren) is an angel sent from heaven wrapped in a cute scarf. See her at Metta Wellness, try Mend which I have heard good things about, or any of the other two dozen spots in Baltimore. There are points that are directly tied in with stress and anxiety. You’ll walk out feeling like you dropped 20 mental pounds.
- Don’t let the “good enough” be the enemy of the perfect.
- Find a volunteer gig. May I recommend combining two of these bullets (volunteering AND exercise) and join Back on My Feet? Here’s the link for Baltimore but Baltimore is just the second of now twelve cities where BOMF has a presence. It’s quite possibly the best way to begin the day. I know that adding something else to your list may sound absurd if you’re here in Level II but research shows that focusing on someone else’s needs and helping others can improve your own mood, aura, and even relieve stress.
- Set small and reasonable completion goals for yourself for work, cleaning, laundry, whatever.
Level III: Uh oh.
- Try a full throttle combination of the above options. FULL COURT PRESS. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
- Yoga (see?)
- Ask yourself some seriously life-altering questions. Is my job fulfilling? Is my relationship healthy and balanced? You know, stuff like that…things I have no authority to tell you to ask.
- If it’s not against your religion, your dogma, your parakeet’s hopes and dreams for you, maybe you could commence to start to think about meds. I get the stigma. I was terrified of it. Sobbing, shaking terrified (well, I was kind of always sobbing, shaking at that time). But I feel like Cymbalta changed my life. And I am hardly one to fly the flag of the evil pharmaceutical industry. EVIL. I do think it help clear my rainclouds so that I could see the things I really wanted for myself, put aside the things that were not serving me anymore–including my anxiety–and launch into new ventures.
There’s one person in my world who seems unshaken by school settings, absurd working hours, and generally being the best employee Baltimore City Public Schools has ever seen–not an easy place to work. That person is my mother.
On October 3rd, she celebrated 41 years at the William S. Baer School in West Baltimore, an entirely special needs school serving children with a wide range of physical and mental differences. She has this new thing wherein she sends out an anniversary email every year on October 3. Here is this year’s. It is a fascinating look at what life was like in special education in the 1970s, and why my mom is one of the most unique people on this earth. And I have never heard her mention feeling anxious. So I guess my final bullet would be one that the entire world could benefit from, especially in these trying times.
- Be more “Nancy.”
- But when you can’t be Nancy, see what works for you and face anxiety head on. You will win.