How Teachers Can Cope with Back-to-School Anxiety
Most years, teachers spend August setting up their classrooms, going through training, and learning the new names on their rosters while filled with excitement. But 2020 is not like most years. Instead of bulletin boards and posters, teachers are putting up virtual classrooms and sanitizing stations. Rather than looking to the new year with joyful anticipation, many educators feel anxious as they prepare for the 2020-2021 school year.
If you work in a school or child care center, you may struggle to find a way to cope with these emotions. After all, the uncertainty of COVID-19 is here to stay for a while. We talked to LifeStance Health providers to understand what teachers can do to support their mental health at this time.
1. Focus on What You Can Control
Many of the worries that are coming up right now stem from things that teachers cannot control. Dr. Emily Hotz, Psy.D., encourages anxious teachers to focus on what is in their immediate control.
“With all the uncertainties about this upcoming school year, it is important to shift our focus from things that are out of our control (e.g., the weather or other people’s social distancing) to things that are within our control (e.g., our routines, eating well, exercising, or connecting with friends),” Hotz said.
2. Reach Out to Colleagues
Education professionals across the country are experiencing many of the same worries. As Shannon Quinn, LICSW, explains, reaching out to others in the same positions can make you feel less isolated.
“I’ve noticed many teachers I work with have been utilizing their coworkers as huge supports” Quinn said. “They are going through this experience together, reminding each other to practice acceptance around uncertainty in order to do their job, be a part of their family, and take care of themselves as individuals.”
You can reach out to teachers in your school or utilize social media for support. Many platforms have support groups specifically for educators.
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3. Recognize and Curb Distorted Thinking
Although there’s no doubt that being an educator right now is uncertain and frightening, it’s important to avoid letting your fears run wild.
“We also need to recognize our own cognitive distortions and how they may be increasing our anxiety,” Hotz explained. “For example, threat scanning (i.e., frequently checking the news or our bodies for symptoms), catastrophizing, fortune-telling (i.e., predicting the future without facts), and even hypothetical worrying. In a way, these thoughts can help keep us safe, but they can also increase anxiety and fear to an unmanageable level.”
Finding the balance between planning ahead and distorting real worries can be difficult. When you can feel yourself starting to worry or feel panicked, try challenging those thoughts. You can ask questions like, “Do I know this is going to happen, or am I worried about it? Am I worrying about something that may never happen or is out of my control?” You can also avoid checking the news too often by setting aside just a few minutes each day for updates.
4. Focus On Supporting Your Students
If you’re a teacher, you probably began this career in order to help children grow. If you shift your focus toward that goal, you can improve your own mental health and that of your students.
In fact, helping others is one of the best ways to lift your mood.
“As we know and have seen, many children lack access to community resources and are stuck in difficult home situations where school was an escape,” Quinn said. “These teachers have become even more of a safe space for these kids to express their emotions, talk about their worries, and be a part of a supportive environment over remote learning.”
Leading mindfulness activities at the start of class can help both teachers and students manage anxiety.
“Mindfulness is a great way to reduce anxiety and can be done by instructing each child in the (in person or online) classroom to go through their senses,” Hotz explained. “They can name 5 objects they can see, 4 things that they hear, 3 things that they feel (e.g., their clothes or their chair), 2 things they might smell, and 1 thing they can taste (even if it’s water). Practicing deep breathing can also be very helpful and can help reduce an individual’s heart rate and blood pressure.”
5. Get Help If You Need It
Even with mindfulness and stress management techniques, you may struggle to cope with the anxiety of teaching school in a pandemic. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help from a therapist or psychiatrist if you need it.
“If teachers are noticing their own worry leading to increased anxiety or panic attacks, feelings of dread, sleeplessness, or a feeling of impending doom, then it is time to reach out for help,” Hotz said. “There are many professionals available to talk about these thinking patterns and how to improve teachers’ wellbeing.”