Teaching With Anxiety is Hard – 8 Tips to Help You Cope


My first real panic attack happened in the middle of the school day. All of a sudden, on my way to 5th period, my heart rate and blood pressure shot up. I felt dizzy. I couldn’t speak coherently. I felt like I was about to die. But, not wanting to draw attention to my situation, I told my class to work on their assignment and I sat at my desk waiting desperately for the bell to ring.

A similar thing happened to me about two weeks later, except this one lasted several hours and landed me in urgent care. The doctor ran a bunch of tests, all of which came back normal, and eventually diagnosed me with general anxiety and panic disorders. This was all about ten years ago. I have since gotten my anxiety under control through medication, therapy, and other self-care practices.

Living with anxiety is difficult. And teaching with anxiety can be especially difficult. Teachers can’t just close their office (classroom) door and take a moment to compose themselves. They can’t just go for a short walk around the building to get their breathing and heart rate back to normal. They can’t because they’ve got thirty-five sets of eyes staring at them all day long. They’ve got thirty-five students who cannot be left unsupervised.

And for another thing, it’s not always easy to be completely open with colleagues about mental health issues. Unfortunately, there is still some stigma around mental illness and anxiety disorder, and there shouldn’t be. People around you don’t always “get” what you are struggling with if they can’t “see” it. 

It’s really, really hard.

Over the past decade of teaching with anxiety, I’ve learned a few good coping mechanisms. Hopefully, you find some of them helpful.

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1. Find a friend at school.

Perhaps the most helpful thing you can do is make a friend at your school site. Someone who “gets it” and understands that this is not just normal stress you are dealing with here. Someone you can text at any time to help you through a difficult moment or an oncoming panic attack. You want someone who will not only listen to you when you’re having a bad day but someone who can also step in your room to watch your students if you need to take five.

2. Explore available resources.

Check with your union leadership about resources that might be available through your city or county health services. For example, Los Angeles County offers free mental health services to educators. It is likely that similar services are available in your area.

3. Get professional help.

Start with an honest conversation with your primary care physician. They can refer you to a therapist or, if necessary, prescribe medication. Your PCP can be your greatest help in managing your anxiety.

4. Read some good books.

There are some great books out there that can help you manage your anxiety. A few that I would recommend are The Relaxation Response and Mind over Mood. Both offer very practical strategies.

5. Be ready for a bad day.

Depending on the severity of your anxiety, chances are you may find yourself in the middle of an anxiety attack during the school day. Or if not a full-blown attack, you are likely to have a bad day every now and then. Have a set of emergency lesson plans for those days when you’re having a bad day, lesson plans for group work or individual seatwork that students can do without you. Essentially, be your own sub for the day. This keeps your students engaged and learning, but gives you a break from being “on” all day without having to take a sick day.

6. Take care of yourself.

Your body can be a delicate ecosystem and the slightest disruptions to eating, sleeping, or exercise patterns can spell trouble. There is a ton of research that shows the importance of good sleep hygieneproper diet, and exercise when it comes to your mental health. I know it’s difficult to do these things as a teacher; teaching is a stressful job that can keep us up late at night. But do your best to maintain healthy habits.

7. Use your sick days when you need to.

Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. You would call in sick or leave early if you had a bad cold or the flu, so don’t be hesitant to take a “mental health” day (or two) if you need to. And there is no need to feel bad or feel the need to apologize for doing so. You cannot give your best to your students if you are not in good health, physically or mentally.

8. How to handle an anxiety/panic attack at school.

An anxiety attack or panic attack can happen at any time. The first, and most important thing is to recognize what is happening to you. You are having a panic or anxiety attack. Next, practice your mindfulness techniques. Take slow, deep breaths (there are a number of apps to help with this). Sit down and close your eyes for a moment, or focus your gaze on an object in the room (give students a seatwork assignment or a topic to discuss in groups while you do this). If necessary, text or call your buddy to cover your class for a few minutes so you can take a short walk or go to the restroom to splash cold water on your face.

Teaching with anxiety can be difficult, but with the right supports in place, it is definitely manageable. 

Also, keep in mind that many of our students struggle with stress and anxiety. Whether it is due to external stressors in their lives or an actual diagnosable disorder, our students are dealing with a lot of mental health issues. Our own struggles can be a source of empathy and understanding. 

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ryan m blanck

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Ryan is a high school English teacher. He is also a husband, father, writer, and LEGO artist. He loves movies (especially old Hollywood musicals) and is a huge baseball fan.

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