I was diagnosed with social and general anxiety disorder about eight years ago, five years into my teaching career. Prior to this I thought that I was a little shy and a worrier, but when this was coupled with depressive episodes and insomnia, “I will not let these issues prevent me from doing what I love.”my health took a dramatic down-turn. I felt that even the smallest mistake was the end of the world and that everyone was judging me as inadequate and incapable, not just as a teacher, but also as a human being. I couldn’t sleep because I was so worried at having to face and interact with people the next day. I would stay awake all night trying to get everything perfect, from the lessons I would be teaching to the way that I would dress. I would run through conversations in my head, planning what I would say in advance so that I wouldn’t make social mistakes. It was exhausting and, in the end, I required a short stay in hospital to help me regain my physical as well as mental health.
The one thing I was certain of throughout this whole episode was that I wouldn’t let these issues and diagnosis destroy my teaching career. I realised that I would need to make some changes, create some coping mechanisms and tell people what was going on. I love being a teacher, and I will not let these issues prevent me from doing what I love.
Social anxiety isn’t just about being shy, anti-social or avoiding being the centre of attention. It can manifest in different people in different ways. For me it has manifested as an abject fear of doing the wrong thing in social situations, and then over-analysing these interactions to find out where I may have said or done the wrong thing and whom I need to apologise to or just plain avoid. In any social situation, I will be hyper aware of what is going on around me and will not insinuate myself into a conversation. I am that person on the edge of everything looking a little lost and confused. I find places like my school staff room terrifying, whole staff meetings and CPD sessions make me feel physically sick at the thought of going to them. I know this sounds utterly ridiculous; I work in a very supportive and friendly school, I have a lot of friends on the staff, but I still feel out of place and an interloper even after six years.
It may sound strange for someone who is in front of a class most of the day to not want to be in the limelight, or feel uncomfortable around groups of people, but when you are in the classroom it is a very different situation because you have control of that situation. You know the expected ways of behaviour, you know what is going to happen (as much as you ever can in a classroom with 30 teenagers) and you know your place in the room.
Please don’t confuse anxiety disorders with stress, they are not the same thing. In general, school work is not the cause when I slip down the rabbit hole of an “episode”. The education system can have an impact, especially when there is a lot of change happening at the same time, which means that no one is sure what is expected, needed or required. But this feeling of lack of control can exacerbate an issue that is a constant part of my life, rather than not being able to cope with workload. In actual fact, trying to help by reducing my workload can have the opposite effect, as I then worry that I am a burden on my department and that someone else is picking up my slack when I capable of doing the work, just not dealing with people.
The main factor which heightens my anxiety levels are lack of communication, particularly when a question is asked and the answer is either unclear or non-existent. I need to know exactly where I stand in a situation as much as possible. The more uncertainty there is the worse my anxiety gets. I am not asking for definitive answers because I know that “I need to know exactly where I stand in a situation.”is not always possible, but an acknowledgement of the question or the situation and that it is being looked into is required. I am not someone who likes to ask the same thing multiple times, because this makes me feel like I am making a nuisance of myself and people will be annoyed with me.
Since my diagnosis, I have developed several coping mechanisms that help me get through the day to day:
- Music – I listen to music constantly. I am not trying to be anti-social when I walk around with earphones in; it helps to create a bubble where I feel safe. It is my little world where I am not being judged or getting things wrong.
- Time Out – For some this might be exercise. I don’t enjoy exercise as it increases rather than decreases my anxiety, but I do like to go for a drive, go to a coffee shop and read a book, or (my favourite) go to the cinema and watch a film.
- Organisation – I am an extremely organised person, as this ensures I know what I am doing, where I am meant to be and what deadlines I have to meet. I will have notebooks on me almost constantly and will use both my electronic calendar and hard copy diary. If I am organised it gives me the feeling of control.
- Support – I have a very supportive HOD, and I was very open with her when I started at the school about my issues. We talked about my triggers and what she can do to help me, especially when I am falling down the rabbit hole and don’t see it. My friends are also aware, and will leave me alone when I need it. They won’t push me to socialise if I don’t want to, and have learnt to ask me to do things closer to the time so I can’t talk myself out of it.
I take medication when I need to, when things get too much, and am not ashamed of this. I need the medication to live a functional life just as a diabetic needs their insulin.
This was a difficult article to write, and I didn’t write it to make people feel sorry for me. I wrote it to raise awareness that there are teachers out there who suffer with mental health issues that have not been caused by their jobs or workloads. It is just how we are and we are doing our best to not let it affect the job that we love. I will push myself to go to conferences and present at TeachMeets because I want to be the best teacher I can and to develop myself within the profession I love. I may go home and have a cry or need a duvet day afterwards to cope with the overload, but I will not let my illness define what I can and cannot do. I just ask for a little understanding and compassion.
Do you live with a health condition such as anxiety? Share your own tips for success below.