Mindset & Motivation, Truth for Teachers Collective | May 18, 2022
6 strategies that help me manage anxiety as a teacher
By Erika Walther
5th Grade ELA
Teaching makes me…anxious.
I struggled with anxiety and depression on and off as a child. I grew up in a family that didn’t “believe” in therapy, so I struggled through many years without help. When I arrived at college to complete my undergraduate studies, it only took about a year of being away from home for me to realize I needed to talk to someone about how I was feeling.
I went to therapy for about a year during college. I saw a psychologist, psychiatrist, and engaged in group therapy. I did “homework” activities to manage my symptoms, and eventually took medication for a short time to address my more depressive episodes. That experience opened my eyes to all the ways that the medical community can help with mental health concerns.
Once I started graduate school and student teaching in 2013, I felt the anxiety and depression start to creep back in. I “didn’t have time” for therapy or finding a doctor to prescribe me medication, so I went without for a few years to see if I could manage on my own.
By my third year in the classroom, I was back in a therapist’s office with no idea of where to start untangling my thoughts and emotions. Thankfully, I was able to find a great therapist who has worked with me for the last six years on building the behavioral habits I need to manage my mental health.
Throughout the last nine years, I’ve had to learn how to manage my anxiety while making sure I’m meeting students’ needs. Managing my mental health is a journey, not a destination.
What follows are the strategies that I’ve had success with over the years. I look at these strategies as a “toolbox,” like the teaching tools I’ve “gathered” over the years. I use different strategies for different moments in my life, and sometimes I need to try a few before I figure out which one will work best for the current situation.
Strategy #1: Checking in
One great place to start if you don’t feel you are managing your mental health effectively is to start checking in with yourself. This can happen weekly, daily, or even multiple times daily depending on your situation. The first step is determining what areas of your life need to be monitored. To keep tabs on myself, I have a list app on my phone where I have a list called “How am I Doing?” I answer honestly since this list is just for me. Here is the list I use if you need some ideas:
How am I doing with….
- Chores (my executive functioning is one of the first signs that I’m struggling)
- Meal Prep/Eating (some weeks I overeat, some weeks I don’t eat enough)
- Finances (when I’m depressed, I am more likely to overspend/not adhere to my budget)
- Movement (I speak more on this later)
Next to each bullet point, I explain narratively how I’m doing with it and what I think the cause is if I’m struggling. I also note what I need or need to do to regain control over that area of my life. I do mine weekly, but you may need to do this multiple times a week or just once a month, depending on your needs.
Strategy #2: Therapy
Having a therapist who I trust was one of the most meaningful decisions I made. It took some time to find the type of therapist that would work best for me. My therapy sessions address not only the underlying trauma that triggers my anxiety, but also the situational issues that raise it both at home and at work.
Take your time when seeking a therapist. Compile a list of questions you have before your first appointment. If you have tried therapy before and didn’t like it, take some time to reflect on what it was about the experience that didn’t work for you. Bring that up with the next therapist, as each one is different and there are as many different approaches to therapy as there are teaching pedagogies.
Radical acceptance: How to deal with teaching frustrations you cannot change
Strategy #3: Meditation
Meditation or relaxation techniques offer many benefits to people with anxiety. In times of prolonged stress, I start to feel like I’m not even in my own body, that my body is moving but I’m just along for the ride and not an active participant in my own daily activities. When I identify this feeling early on, making sure I’m getting in quiet time for meditation, breathing exercises, and reflection help bring me “back to my body” and feel more present and in control.
I find it is easier to meditate early in the morning when my mind is fresh and more focused.
It can be more difficult for me to meditate as the days goes on, as I am now also processing the events of the day in addition to managing emotions. That doesn’t mean I never meditate at night; it just means I know going into meditating later in the day may require some additional time and patience with myself.
How long do I need?
If you don’t have 20-30 minutes to spare, 5-10 minutes is always better than zero minutes! That’s 5-10 fewer minutes spent worrying and chasing my thoughts around in my head and more time spent focusing on just being present in that moment.
If meditation is a struggle for you, there are several apps out there that can help you. The Calm app is popular with many teacher friends of mine (and a few students have recommended it as well!). Netflix even has a “show” called “Unwind your Mind,” which is a choose-your-own-adventure style application that guides you through various meditations based on your mood and time constraints.
Strategy #4: Organization
When managing my anxiety, organization and systems are key. One of my own measures of how much my anxiety is affecting me is what my desk at work and my dining room table at home look like.
I view my disorganization as a symptom — a symptom that I’m feeling out of balance or not in control. Taking the time to address disorganized areas in my home or classroom are therapeutic in that I can see a mess as an encapsulated anxious moment; addressing the area is almost a metaphorical unraveling of the emotions and anxiety that I felt that day, week, or even month.
The systems you put in place need to be sustainable for YOU.
Organizing according to a theme in your classroom or an aesthetic in your home can backfire on you if that system is not something YOU can maintain. If you need multiple paper bins or laundry baskets to help contain chaos in your classroom or home, do what works for you, not what looks cute on Pinterest.
Strategy #5: Acupuncture
A relatively new treatment for me, I started seeing an acupuncturist in October of 2020. Originally, I started treatment for migraines. I was suffering from migraines 2-4 days per week. Ouch! As I saw the severity and frequency of my migraines decrease over the course of just a few months, I began to explore acupuncture for treatment of other issues as well.
Anxiety is another condition for which acupuncture has been helpful. Needles are placed in points that open energy flow that may become trapped by inflammation, stress, and even trauma. The treatment process encourages relaxation and focusing on your breath, so you can get that meditation practice in at the same time!
Strategy #6: Movement
For anyone who has dealt with mental health issues, hearing the words, “you should try exercise!” can be incredibly frustrating. But hear me out. It is more than just “exercise” in the traditional sense.
You don’t need to run a mile or lift your body weight! Gentle movement is just as effective at releasing the endorphins you need to feel calm and more focused. A 10–15-minute walk around the block helps me cool my head before I walk in the house after work.
My personal favorite movement activity this year is Restorative Yoga. In this type of yoga, you spend the entire class in deep stretches and breathing poses — none of which require a particular level of physical ability or flexibility. You are supported by blankets and yoga blocks — it is as relaxing as it sounds!
How often should you engage in movement for it to be effective for anxiety?
That is something you can figure out over the course of a week or two!
If you are relatively inactive outside of work, try engaging in gentle, low impact movement (stretching, walking, treading water, etc.) 15-30 minutes just once per week. If you find yourself wanting to move a second or even third time that week (you just might once you get started!) just slowly add one day/workout at a time until you find that sweet spot.
For me, I do ten minutes of gentle stretching and core stability exercises each evening, in addition to going to the rock-climbing gym 2-3 days per week (including weekends). I’ve found it is much easier to quiet down the racing thoughts and nightly panic when I am moving my body regularly.
Strategy #7: Setting boundaries
There is a strong relationship between healthy boundary setting and mental health.
It has taken me nine years as a classroom teacher to finally have the courage to respond to that email asking for a meeting at 3 PM on a Friday, “Unfortunately, I do not stay late on Fridays. Let me know what time your planning period is on Monday and I’m happy to meet with you then if I’m available.”
Five years ago, it would have taken me a therapy session and half a box of tissues to speak that truth. Why? Because that’s not what “team players” do.
Today’s education system is supported by the emotional labor of (mostly) women. This “labor of love” backfires quickly when the pressure to be a “team player” overtakes the need to take care of your own needs. Teachers (especially newer teachers) notoriously struggle with setting boundaries at work. This causes us harm over time unless we actively work to address it. Doing so requires some tough decisions and having even tougher conversations with colleagues and leadership about what we need.
I know that education is the field where I belong. I love my work, whether I’m teaching my fourth graders or coaching my team teachers in their classrooms. But I know that at this point in my career, I must prioritize my mental health if I want to stay in this work.
Just like physical health, this requires lifestyle changes and constant decision making focused on the goal of being mentally healthy. There will be days, weeks, and maybe even months when you struggle more than others. Trust the process of getting in tune with your mind and body. Take pride in your journey, wherever you are on the map.
8 ways to move out of overwhelm when everything feels exhausting
5th Grade ELA
More resources on this topicExplore all articles
If you are a teacher who is interested in contributing to the Truth for Teachers website, please click here for more information.