Five Ways to Manage Anxiety
Updated: Oct 15, 2021
Our minds crave certainty. Over many generations, natural selection has favored those who pay close attention to threats. By doing so, our ancestors were better equipped to avoid mortal mistakes. Most of us have inherited this high level of vigilance. Psychologists Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman called this "negativity bias." We pay closer attention to what is wrong than what is right. Dr. Rick Hanson puts it this way, "Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones." This adaptation is great for survival. Unfortunately, it often leaves us feeling nervous, worried, and anxious. As we consider everything that could go wrong in our future, we can imagine those catastrophes vividly. These mental projections can activate our stress response sending stress hormones through our system. Our body's alarm system is designed to help us fight off or flee from threats. Unfortunately, when you are in the middle of second block, and you start worrying about the difficult student in your third block class, there's nothing to fight and nowhere to run. Our systems can kick off the stress response, and we are left with the physical and psychological damage that is done. As teachers, this process may repeat multiple times through our day. Maybe we become anxious about the amount of work left to do. Perhaps we are worried about a family member. This year many of us are anxious about the spread of COVID and the incredibly foolish response by several of our state leaders. Week after week we may experience many stress responses, and this toxic stress takes a huge toll on our health and sense of well-being. Experiencing this long enough can lead to burnout and high levels of teacher attrition. Well, there are essentially two ways to work on this problem. The first way, and often the only way chosen, is to work on our external conditions. We modify our classroom management approach, ask for help from administrators or colleagues, or call parents. We may also use our voices to ask for change within our school, district, or state to create better working conditions. For example, we may advocate for smaller class sizes, additional counselors, or changes in discipline policies. Working on external conditions is absolutely necessary, but if we are waiting on our external conditions to be ideal before we can find any peace, we may find ourselves miserable for a while.
So while we are waiting for external change, we can complement those efforts by doing some inner work. This inner work is often sacrificed by educators as they focus their lives on supporting others. To effectively help others, however, teachers must invest in taking care of themselves. I can hear some of you now, "Todd, if I HAD time to take care of myself, I would." I understand that sentiment. I've lived it. I was a teacher, father, coach, club organizer. I get it. When I facilitate sessions on self-care, I start with the meme below. It is really hard to make yourself a priority when you don't have the time, but if you don't make yourself a priority, your health and wellness will eventually force you to.
If you are struggling with stress and anxiety, here are five ways you can start that inner work to make more room for joy and peace. 1. See a therapist. If you thought you had strep, you would go see a doctor and get the meds you need to feel better. If stress and anxiety are chronic issues, therapy is a wonderful place to start learning how to better manage. Talking through your issues with an unbiased third party can be incredibly helpful. Your therapist will give you specific tools to help you understand the sources of your stress and anxiety. Techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy are effective and truly help improve the quality of your life. Search for a therapist near you here. 2. Practice meditation. Meditation has been shown to be very helpful in creating a sense of calm and well-being. Research shows that just a few minutes each day can help build new neural pathways conducive to better states of mind. Below is a free five minute meditation by Hanna Attafi. Download it and play it once each day. Consider expanding your practice. Try apps like Calm, Headspace, or Insight Timer. If you are dealing with a mental health issue, consult with a professional before diving into these practices.
3. Exercise. If your doctor has no objections, it is critical to get your body moving each day. Start with a short daily walk. Consider joining a gym. Find fitness classes that work for you. There are tons of free exercise classes online. Exercise has so many benefits:
Reductions in depression, anxiety and stress
Improved cardiovascular system
Exercise helps release "good" neurotransmitters such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Read more here.
4. Sleep well. So many teachers are sleep-deprived. Sleep deprivation can worsen anxiety. All of the suggestions above can help you sleep better. You can also try the following:
Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening.
No screen time at least one hour before bed.
Keep your bedroom cool and clean.
Try aromatherapy and taking a warm bath before bed.
Keep a consistent sleep schedule.
The apps mentioned above have several guided meditations for sleep. Try those.
5. Say no. To make time for all the four items above, you may have to start telling people no. Take a day to really examine your life. List everything you are saying "yes" to. Include the notifications on your phone and the time you spend on social media. Critically analyze how you are spending your evenings, weekends, and breaks. What can you let go of to make time for the inner work you need to do? It may feel selfish, but, as Dr. Hanson notes, "Nurturing your own development isn’t selfish. It’s actually a great gift to other people."
The SCEA is fighting to improve your external conditions. We hope you will join us in those efforts. The SCEA is also here to support you as you work on your internal conditions. If there is any way we can support you, please contact us. Join the movement for the schools that South Carolina students deserve!