Sometimes admitting you have a weakness and accepting you are not always perfect feels like you have succumbed to failure, but verbalizing your feelings and sharing your story can turn that failure into a success.
One Monday morning while I was greeting students at the front door of my school, I noticed a young girl who is usually the first to tell me good morning looking a little glassy-eyed and distant. I said good morning and she looked up with a sheepish smile. Later, I received a phone call from her mom, who sounded distraught. She explained her daughter seemed out of character all weekend, acting clingy where normally she is independent. She asked if I would call her down to see if anything was going on at school. I did and what I saw was a timid girl who looked lost and was having trouble making eye contact. One leg was moving uncontrollably and she struggled to make conversation.
Seeing her like that reminded me of the first day of my senior year.
When I woke up that morning, the smile that was normally on my face was hidden behind a lingering, hopeless feeling, a feeling that would not go away. The more I concentrated on alleviating the symptoms, the more intense those symptoms became. I did not wake up that day as myself; I woke up as a scared teenager who wanted to curl up in the fetal position and guard myself from the outside world. I wanted to close my eyes and open them again and be the carefree, bright-eyed girl who found excitement in getting ready for each new day.
On the first day of school a few years back, I noticed a young boy exiting the bus dressed in his first-day-of-school best, but with swollen, red eyes. At the middle school level, I rarely see a student start the day upset. I knew it was the first day of school and all the students would have normal jitters, but for some reason, this boy caught my attention, so I watched him over the next two weeks. I asked the bus driver if she had noticed a change in this little boy, and she said he’d had a hard time almost every morning in elementary school. She said he was overly cautious and tried to be perfect in his studies. He had friends, but they were always questioning why he was so upset so they distanced themselves from him. On one particular day, he asked me on his way to homeroom if he could go see the nurse because he was not feeling well. Later that afternoon, I called his mom and she explained her son sometimes breaks her heart because she doesn’t know how to fix what is going on in his head.
That little boy’s disposition brought me back to the time I felt lost and retreated to my bathroom where I sat on the floor. I can still feel my fingers entwined in the green carpet fibers like I was holding on tightly so as not to succumb to panic. My anxiety was coming in waves I was not controlling. Waves of emotions seemed to be crashing down and wearing away my ability to cope. At its peak, I was immobilized. At its lowest, I worried the feeling was going to come back any minute. What caused this transformation in me? What triggered this emotional roller coaster? When will this feeling go away? All of these questions kept playing in my mind as if they were recorded on tape.
First impressions tell a lot about a person and if you met me, you would immediately detect I am a strong-willed, confident woman who takes control of any situation while remaining calm, cool, and collected in an emergency. At first glance, you would see I do not let the grass grow under my feet and I jump from one project to the next seamlessly. I would even go so far as to challenge anyone to keep up. I am sure I can exhaust any onlooker as I balance work, three kids, a business, working on my dissertation, and making sure my kids’ scrapbooks are up to date.
That said, I have a general anxiety condition that is not triggered by a specific event or trying times.
My anxiety is caused by a chemical imbalance that I had to learn to control and deal with it, just like people deal with diabetes or heart disease. The condition is real, and it is important to make changes to control it. There is no shame in having anxiety, just as there is no shame in having a migraine, high cholesterol, cancer, etc.
I now look at my anxiety as an unwanted gift I gratefully accept and tuck away for specific situations. I guess that sounds silly, but I have the ability to relate to people who have anxiety issues. I am able to easily notice the change in someone’s mood and guide them in the direction for support.
I share my personal experiences with anxiety to help individuals navigating this uncharted territory so they can understand these feelings and how to deal with them. My anxiety makes me compassionate so I can relate to my students on a daily basis. My anxiety makes me an educator who knows all behaviors stem from other issues and finding the root cause of those issues will modify behavior faster than disciplining it.
If I could teach my students mini-lessons on how to cope with anxiety, they would be as follows:
1. Never make any life-altering decisions when you are feeling anxious.
I learned this lesson the hard way and believe even when I was younger, I would shy away from situations I was unsure of and most likely missed out on a great time. At the onset of what I consider my initial bout of anxiety, I was absolutely sure I would not be able to start my first day as a senior in high school and all my dreams had vanished, but I did it and was able to pursue my goals. Do not change your goals in life until you are in what I call back to normal.
2. It takes a whole lot of strength to get through a day of anxiety.
The feeling of anxiety is exhausting. Your mind is constantly racing and your subconscious is relentlessly reminding you to calm down, that there is nothing to worry about. How your body reacts to the feeling of anxiety differs from person to person, but it is not uncommon to have a rapid heartbeat, jitters, heavy breathing, loss of appetite, and a numbing, cold feeling all over. Take a deep breath and just move forward.
3. Talk yourself down by reminding yourself you have been through this before and it does go away.
The first time for everything is always scary, but as you get used to a problem and the outcome, future experiences become more of a “here we go again,” and believe it or not, you will laugh about it.
4. Surround yourself with positive people and have patience with others who do not understand.
I am sure, as a person who has anxiety, you have crossed the path of others who do not relate to what you are feeling. I have had people make comments such as, “Just stop worrying,” “Knock it off,” Snap out of it,” or, “Are you crazy?” My response is always, “Really, you think I want to be like this?” There is a lot to be said about not judging someone until you walk a mile in his or her shoes. It is so easy to condemn when experience is absent. It is so easy to turn a blind eye on the unknown. Surrounding yourself with supportive people will help you be patient with those who do not understand.
5. Never give in to your anxiety.
This one is huge! I wanted so badly to give in to those horrible feelings and hide in a dark room avoiding life, but I went to school and reminded myself throughout the day of my small victories. I started with putting one foot in front of the other, then I celebrated every class period I completed, and then I celebrated getting through the whole day.
6. Anxiety is very humbling.
I did not realize this one until my extreme bouts with anxiety were almost non-existent. I felt I was on top of the world until the day my anxiety hit again. The few times it has come back with that intensity, it took a long time to feel comfortable again. I never took a good day for granted and was humbled by each bout of anxiety. I became who I am through my experiences and do not live my life based on my anxiety. I need to fail in order to succeed. I need to fall in order to be lifted up. I need to stop before I go. I need to have humbling experiences in order to be successful.
7. It is not taboo to talk about your anxiety.
One of my favorite people told me one time when I was questioning my sanity that “crazy people do not know they are crazy.” I still laugh at that one, but if you think about it, that was my anxiety talking (refer back to #1). The more people are aware of how common anxiety is, the more people will feel comfortable if they are having symptoms themselves.
8. Having anxiety is not a bad thing.
Yes, the feelings related to anxiety are horrible and the thoughts are sometimes uncontrollable, but all of that makes me—and will make you—a more conscientious individual and an ideal person to support others who have these symptoms.
Now, back to those particular students I mentioned earlier, as well as numerous other students I have worked with over the years: I had the knowledge base to get those kids through what they were feeling because of my personal experience. Without that, I might have missed some cues that a student was struggling. Because of my anxiety, those students have someone to relate to and someone to lift them up when they feel defeated. They have a model of someone who is very successful despite, at one time, having horrible anxiety.
Anxiety has made me a better educator.
Anxiety helped me understand the actions of others.
Anxiety allowed me to be compassionate to the uniqueness of my students.
Anxiety helped me guide students down a path of success.
Anxiety helped me look at each day as a blessing.
Life’s lessons are plenty. How we react and deal with them is what separates the strong from the weak, the successful from the unsuccessful, the respected from the disrespected, and the leaders from the followers. Someone once said 10% of our success is based on events that are thrown our way, but 90% of our success is devoted to how well we react to those events. I believe that!
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