Teachers have a tendency to worry a bit much, to work too hard, to plan too much, to want everything to be just right. Everyone gets a little worried sometimes. We all have things that stress us out, and this is a normal biological response. For some of us, though, that stress never goes away, because we are teaching with anxiety.
That feeling of not being ready, of not doing enough has chased me for years. I work like a machine, finishing high school early, taking 21 hour semesters, teaching full time and getting my Master’s in two years. It is impossible to relax. I can’t let go. It stresses me out that I can’t just let go, and even that becomes a source of stress.
I’m a perfectionist by nature, so I stress like crazy when things need to be fixed. Being a perfectionist doesn’t mean I’m anywhere close to perfect, but it does mean that I exhaust myself mentally and physically trying to make things just right. I’m a worrier, whether it is worrying about being late to an appointment, regretting the dumb thing I said, stressing about the work I haven’t finished, or thinking I’m not being the best mom to my son. I worry about everything, all day long.
People who know me might not know this, because I think I cover it up pretty well. I run. A lot. It’s like I think I’ll outrun the worries, but they are still there waiting for me. It does help, though. I’m so exhausted by nighttime that I crash and fall asleep just about anywhere. I’d love to tell you that I sleep through the night, but the worries follow me into my dreams, and if the slightest sound wakes me, I’m up for good. I’m there in bed, yawning, but it’s not because I’m tired. It’s because I don’t feel like I’m getting enough air.
The anxious teacher
Being a teacher was an especially hard job for me, and once I became a parent, the difficulty increased exponentially. Suddenly, I had to worry about getting it all done in less time, being “on” all day at work and then having to keep it up at home all while making sure I was taking good care of my sweet little one.
I always thought I was just a driven person. I thought I pushed myself hard so I’d get good results, never realizing all of this time that I was constantly anxious, or that maybe, something was causing me to be so anxious. I’ve now spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices with my son who has ADHD, and after a lot of discussions and family counseling, I’ve grown to accept that I’m not just an anxious person, but rather a person with anxiety. Teaching with anxiety is especially hard, because so many people are counting on the teacher and the pressures seem to grow each year.
Surely, the experience is different for everyone, but I know it’s had some big effects on me. Here are some things I thought were normal for so long, and I’ve come to accept that they are part of having anxiety.
1. I always feel like comments are directed at me.
If someone makes a negative comment about people in general, or if a principal or boss sends out an email about a policy, I assume it was directed at me. I worry about seeing that person, because I just know they were talking about me, so I avoid them any way I can. I take things way too personally, so I just have to walk away sometimes until I can remember that it probably wasn’t meant that way.
2. I can’t stop going.
The drive to get more done, to finish more things, to be more is always there. I can’t stop, and even when I finish, there is something else there. If I do manage to relax and watch tv, I’m going to be doing three other things while “relaxing.” I just cannot let go.
3. I can’t stop thinking.
The thoughts keep me up at night. I think about something I wish I’d said, or I obsess over the things I didn’t get done, or even the things I want to get done tomorrow. I think about what I need to get at the store, if I washed all the clothes, if I turned off the computer. Then I think about how I wish I could stop thinking and just go to sleep. When sleep still doesn’t come, I think about how much time I’ll sleep if I fall asleep right then. It goes on for hours.
4. I’m so tired, but so wired.
It’s like I’ve been up all night and then had a pot of coffee. Because probably … I have. There are times where I sleep okay, but most of the time, I toss and turn, then wake up feeling tired. I’ve got stuff to do, so I drink some coffee. I move at lightening speed all day, then I’m so exhausted at night that I can’t see straight.
5. I will redo something over and over until it is right.
I arrange things on my desk in just such a way, and I can’t do anything until it is just so. If there is a mistake in something I’ve done, I rush to fix it, unable to do anything else until I’ve made it right. If I send an email and later realize there was a typo, I obsess over it for days, even though I can do nothing at all to change it.
I don’t claim to have professional answers for what helps ease anxiety, but I have found a few things that help me cope with the stress that chases me.
I get so much more anxious when I can’t exercise. I’m a distance runner, and sometimes it takes me two hours to outrun the thoughts, but I get there. I’m less agitated, my stomach has less butterflies, and I can eat copious amounts of candy. Learn more about how exercise saves my sanity here.
2. Small, manageable lists
I make list of what I absolutely must get done, then I force a break when I’ve accomplished those tasks. I go outside for a walk, do some yoga stretching, or call a friend. Okay. Text a friend, because I don’t actually like to talk on the phone at all. Not even to order pizza. Thankfully, the internet means I don’t have to do that.
3. Stop looking at others
I minimize time on social media. Just looking at a feed with bad news makes me stressed. Looking at Instagram-perfect classrooms, homes, or people only makes me focus on what I want to improve, and I fail to see where I’m doing great. I can’t help but focus on it, so I try not to look at stressors.
I coffee detox a few times a year. I’m not gonna lie. I get nothing done at all. It could be the raging headache or the fact that I’m so tired I can’t see straight, but it’s not the best moment for me. I do feel less agitated after a while, though. I can’t say it lasts forever, but at least it keeps me from increasing that caffeine dependency.
5. Use sick days
Teachers work when they are sick, because it’s more work to not go to work. I worked without stop for years, and I ran my immune system down so much that I was always sick. I had one year where I lost my voice for over six months. There is no way to be a good teacher when that happens! I went to the doctor over and over again. They could not figure out what was wrong with me. Now I take to bed (and Netflix) when I have the slightest cold. I figure that I take care of others all the time, so I’m gonna be okay with someone taking care of me once in a while.
6. Practice self-care
A few of my favorites: Taking a bath, reading a book with my cat, or using essential oils. I love oils, because they really can help change your mood, and you smell good afterwards. I found a few that really help me relax, and I’ve made a mix that I rub on the back of my neck when I’m feeling overwhelmed.
I didn’t mention medication or counseling here, because I’ve just not gone that route at this point. I’m Mom to a little, anxious sweetie who is also a perfectionist with ADHD, and those have both been real game-changers for him. It’s okay to need a little extra help to be the best version of yourself you can be. If you’re teaching with anxiety, you don’t have to go through it alone.