Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Teaching with Anxiety: A (Complicated) Love Story

Anyone who knows me knows I love a good Netflix binge. Last year during a glorious string of hours with as little voluntary muscle movement as possible, I watched the first 2 seasons of the show You're the Worst. It seemed to be at first to be an irreverent look at the transition from the freedom of your 20's to the "settling" of your 30's, centered around 2 self-destructive people who fall in love against their better judgement. As the series went on, it started to take a more serious turn. It's revealed that the main character battles clinical depression and begins to chronicle the impact her battle with her own mind has on her relationships, career, and life. I found it poignant, hilarious, and an interesting break from my usual Bravo nonsense (#loveyouvanderpumprules). 

So what does this all have to do with me and more importantly with teaching?

I have always considered myself a "worrier." Not kidding- I remember being 3 or 4 years old listening to a cassette of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" before bed, scared to death that someone was coming to take my bed if I fell asleep. (Why would they put those lyrics in a song that could possibly be deemed appropriate for my bed time??) It was an endearing personality quirk my family and friends had learned to accept. I had also accepted it about myself and had, as a result, made deliberate choices to challenge my anxieties in hopes of conquering them. I seized opportunities to try new things, study abroad, move across the country, and challenge myself professionally, knowing the whole time that I'd hate the experience until I got comfortable. 

Fast forward to last winter: A series of incredibly unfortunate personal events led to me starting treatment for panic attacks and post-traumatic anxiety. Activities that had been commonplace in my day to day life were now terrifying. I'd spend all my energy to get up and put a smile on for my students and colleagues, only to come home and have no energy left for my family or myself. I started to understand the very real struggle people with anxiety and depression face everyday and I hated it. And I also started to realize that I wasn't alone in this- it was all around me.....especially in my students. With the help of doctors, friends, family, and my amazing husband and pup, I've adjusted to a new normal, one that always will have a little more anxiety. 

It's easy to look longingly at those people who seem to breeze around the school with a huge smile, charisma oozing from their pores. To long for a life where you didn't battle with your own irrational stressors. But the more I've reflected on my experiences with anxiety, the more I see how it has shaped the teacher I've become. And although I could have done without the panic attack before my first observation at a brand new district a few weeks ago (thanks a lot, brain), there are things that I'm learning to love about the way my brain works. Are there cons? Duh. But there are pros, too. 

Silver Lining
 New situations and interactions can be stressful
I've spent the better part of my life making deliberate choices for this exact reason. I started living by the manta "Do one thing every day that scares you" (which isn't hard when you have anxiety) during my freshman year of college and it's taken me on some incredible journeys. You get used to the fact that you're going to feel scared and you're going to hate it, but hopefully it will be fine.  It's the reason I became a TA in college, the reason I studied abroad, the reason I moved across the country to an apartment I'd never seen (twice), and the reason I push myself constantly to do new things in the classroom. 
This is how one looks after fear of volcano boarding on one of the most active volcanos 
in Nicaragua is conquered. I would say I volcano-tumbled more than I "boarded," but I still did it. 
Silver Lining
Living out every possible way a situation can go wrong in your mind
No one can say I'm unprepared. 

I had a professor in graduate school who advised us to always overplan; this has never been as issue for me. When we first started teaching, I remember my husband saying he had 10 minutes left at the end of a block....unimaginable. Since I've always got so much planned, I have a plethora of resources and "other options" to use if needed. It's like a choose your own adventure some days- find out what the struggles are, choose the appropriate course of action.  

I also tend to tweak and tweak and tweak my lessons, continually thinking how to make it less likely to go wrong. Can it be obnoxious? Sure. But 9 times out of 10 it does help. 

Silver Lining
A constant feeling that things "could've gone better"
I'm my own worst enemy when it comes to criticism. I have had to teach myself when to say "this is as good as it's going to get right now" and be okay with that.  But I know that this sense of perfectionism is what made me a great student in school and what drives me as an educator. I am passionate about improving things around me and passionate about making sure my kids are achieving. I tweak, I read, I talk, I share, I get feedback. It's all in the pursuit of making things just the littlest bit better. 

Silver Lining
You have to experience how crippling anxiety feels. 
I have a much more profound sense of empathy for those around me than I ever did before my anxiety peaked. I can recognize the day to day struggles and identify small triggers that I never saw before. Working with teenagers? This gives you a whole new perspective. It gave me a bigger heart and bigger ability to teach kids, not just math. 

When I'm feeling really annoyed by my own anxiety, I like this article too. 

I'm not 100% sure why I felt the need to write this, but it's been sitting unpublished for weeks in my drafts. I feel like there's more of us out there in teaching than we'd often like to admit. I've had to learn to give myself a higher level of self-care as I become more aware of my own anxiety and I hope others who need it can do the same. We are lucky to be in a profession where our weakness can often make us stronger, helping us connect with our kiddos in a new and more profound way. 

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