How I navigate the coronavirus as an educator with anxiety

Over the past days, we’ve all had to face the effects of the coronavirus. All of our carefully thought out plans have suddenly been revised, postponed, or canceled. 

In troubling and unstable times, students often look to the adults around them to see how we’re coping. As a teacher, I have to remind myself that my reactions can affect the anxiety levels of those I work with and serve. And as someone who has anxiety, I know it can be hard to stay calm amid uncertainty.

Situations like the coronavirus change on an hour-by-hour and day-by-day basis. This is in direct tension with an anxious person’s tendency to want to plan and live in the future. It’s especially in direct conflict with an anxious teacher’s tendency to hyper-plan. Because of this, I’m trying to focus on a few things that I can control. Here is my advice for other educators who feel like me: 

1. Understand both your triggers and your security blankets.

Everyone has triggers. Everyone has security blankets or comfort mechanisms. Each of these things might look different for every person. 

Living with anxiety can often mean that you live inside your head a lot. I gain comfort if I can put everything on my mind down on paper, whether through journaling or making a checklist. Having a meditative practice like yoga or going on a walk can also help me clear up thoughts in my mind. 

On the flip side, I know spending a lot of time on social media or watching the news can make me feel panicked. So I try to think about the type and amount of information my mind might be consuming and how it’s making me feel.

2. Check in with yourself regularly.

As teachers, each day we make decisions to ensure that our students get the academic and social-emotional support they need. This can result in both decision fatigue and compassion fatigue. We might lose our capacity to remain calm and positive for students. 

I’ve found it helpful to find time during the day to stop, breathe, and reflect before moving on to the next thing. These small moments are not always as frequent as I would like, but I know they make a difference. They free up more of my headspace to make sure I’m checking in with students and asking them how they’re feeling. When we calm ourselves, we are better equipped to calm others.

3. Embrace “both/and” thinking while disrupting “either/or” thinking.

Our anxious minds can sometimes move toward categorical thinking — believing something can be either this or that. I have found dialectical thinking to be helpful in combating this. Dialectical thinking merges thoughts from both our emotional mind and our rational mind. The result is a wiser mind that recognizes both thoughts as holding truth. For example, I can think of our current situation with two different statements:

  • “This situation is not ideal and makes me feel anxious. We are going to accomplish nothing meaningful with students.” This statement is “either/or” thinking. It has a tone of despair. 
  • “This situation is not ideal and makes me feel anxious, AND I am going to keep trying to find ways to get things accomplished with students.” This second statement acknowledges the hard aspects of a situation while providing a sense of empowerment. 

Dialectical thinking is rooted in acceptance and change. Right now, it helps me realize that although I am anxious about the situation, I can also embrace it. I can use this as an opportunity to teach, learn, and remember how deeply interconnected our world is. It’s a chance to have conversations on issues of equity, access, privilege, and ableism in our society. And this is a chance for students, teachers, and community members to look at our world in a new way.

As I write this, there are still many unknowns about the coronavirus that make me feel uneasy. I can’t extinguish my anxieties, but I can manage them. I can do my part to be an agent of calm for my students as best as I can.

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