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Anxiety in and of itself is common, but when that anxiety starts to interfere with your daily life, cause you to avoid certain activities, and keep you from doing the things that are important to you, it’s time to seek help.

Among the symptoms or signs of anxiety are some you might expect - feelings of nervousness, a sense of impending doom, changes in breathing and heart rate, and sweating. There are other things that may be occurring that you may not have associated with anxiety - feeling overly weak or tired, difficulty thinking, sleep changes, and stomach issues.

Many people with anxiety cope by using avoidance which can be a useful tool. Unfortunately, as teachers, avoidance can be tricky since much of what causes our anxiety may be unavoidable (germs, loud noises, being out of control of situations, etc…). Thankfully, avoidance isn’t the only way to cope with anxiety.

As we continue on this journey through what may be the most stressful time any of us have ever faced, we thought it might be helpful to share a few of those coping strategies we found most useful.

Identify the Source(s)

Anxiety and stress come from somewhere. Sometimes we aren’t aware of the specifics of our stress and anxiety, but we notice the effects.

Whenever possible, jot down details about moments when your anxiety is particularly high. Who is present? What are you doing? What were you thinking about before you started feeling your anxiety heighten?

If you can trace the source to particular triggers (even if those triggers end up being a coworker or student), you can form a strategy to cope with that trigger which builds your resilience.

If your answer to the questions above are, “Everything! Everything around me is causing me anxiety!”, you probably are still in the middle of heightened emotion and need a bit more time to reflect. Calm yourself first, then make a list of all the specific possible triggers and worries you are experiencing. From there you can create a plan of action. 

Sometimes the source of our anxiety or stress is vague, like a general sense of not knowing what is going to happen next or, the required line in every Star Wars movie, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” In those cases, the issue is a lack of control. One of the best ways to combat that is by making plans to control what is within your power - yourself.

You can’t control other people or circumstances, but you can control your reactions to them. 

Schedule Your Worry Time

Anxiety is a great way to usher in insomnia. If you find yourself filled with anxiety 24/7, try allocating a specific time each day for worrying. 

For example, if you can’t sleep because you are worrying, or you wake up in the middle of the night due to worry, tell yourself, “Okay. I can’t do anything about this right now, so I’ll worry about this in the morning over coffee.”

Then imagine yourself physically placing a rock or a piece of paper with those worries into a container to symbolize putting those worries away for later. Place the lid on the container, and imagine yourself putting the container next to the coffee pot.

It may sound silly, but it can work to get your brain to let go of the worry for a bit.

Postponing your worry isn’t ignoring it or stuffing your emotions down (which can be unhealthy), but giving you the opportunity to say to yourself, “I’m not in a position to deal with this problem rationally right now, so I need to wait until I can give it my full attention.”

Often, you’ll find that when you wake, the worry is gone, but don’t just move on with life. Take those concerns from the previous night seriously, and take steps to work on whatever underlying problem that exists. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in the same position the next night or in nights to come

For example, if your nocturnal worry centers around getting fired for something small and what seems in your waking hours to be absurd, you probably need to deal with the underlying fear and worry about losing your job. Without addressing that issue, you’re likely to fight the same battle every night with different details.

Make a Plan

There is little in life that can’t be helped by making a plan, and that includes anxiety.

Anxiety is fear of the unknown - of all the possible outcomes. Although you can’t control circumstances or other people, you can set yourself up so that your reaction to circumstances and other people is most beneficial to you.

Taking the fear from the last section about losing your job - which is a reasonable fear right now in the U.S. because of COVID-19 and economic woes - what can you do to create a backup plan for yourself in case that should occur? What steps can you take today to ensure that you aren’t caught off-guard and can handle whatever happens next?

And if you think that could be a possibility in the future, what could you do now - today - to give yourself a fighting chance at changing that outcome? The best answer may be that you can’t do anything to change it, but you can have your resume ready, define what other types of jobs could be a good fit for you, and start being more aware of what opportunities exist currently.

If you know something like that is coming, you might be inclined to take a class or two on writing, being a personal assistant, or setting up your own small business.

Having those options in mind can go a very long way to helping you let go of the stress that very real and difficult situations can present.

Give yourself options.

However, a word of caution: sometimes when we are anxious and start planning, we go overboard, and our planning can become obsessive. In extreme cases, our plans made to combat our worries become their own set of anxiety-inducing issues, and without proper care can blossom into disorders like O.C.D. It’s wise to monitor yourself and seek help if you find yourself unable to cope appropriately without help.

View Stress Differently

Visualization can be very helpful for mental illnesses, including those with excessive anxiety. In addition to visualizing the worry in a container near the coffee pot to postpone nighttime worry sessions, you can view yourself and stress in ways that can be more beneficial.

For example, you might view yourself with a sort of container in your chest. The container fills with all your stress and worries, and maybe it just keeps filling until it explodes, and you have a panic attack, or you spend the entire day crying, or whatever you physically do when you are too stressed.

Try switching that visualization. Make the container a tunnel or a tube. Stress comes in, you acknowledge it, you use the adrenaline it might provide, and then you flush it out and let it go. Maybe make a list of how stress might be momentarily beneficial. Perhaps you’re a procrastinator, but you perform well under pressure. Harness all the benefit you can from that stress.

And then make a list of how you can de-stress or flush that stress out of your system. Do you need to take a long drive every couple of weeks? Have a dance party with your students? Sing at the top of your lungs while cleaning your house? Whatever makes you feel joy and relaxes you goes on the list.

The most important part of any sort of visualization is the recognition of what is happening. You are constantly taking in information, using it, responding, and letting that information go. Stress is just information. So are deep negative emotions. When you learn to accept them as such then let them go, you will be able to deal with symptoms of deep anxiety (and other mental illnesses) so much better. 

Get a Checkup

Stress and anxiety can have a physical source, so it’s very important to get your checkups and make sure your physical health is where it should be. Even “simple” physical illnesses like colds can wear down your immunity to mental illness, so keeping your body in top shape will also help your mind. 

Avoid Unhealthy Coping Strategies

There are just as many unhealthy coping strategies as there are healthy ones. Substance and alcohol abuse are some of the most common forms of coping that can add to your stress or enhance it rather than minimizing it.

Limit yourself with legal substances, avoid illegal substances, and remember that avoidance of feeling is not as helpful as facing the feelings and dealing with them, then letting go.

Take Care of Yourself

On the other hand, resting, eating good foods, and exercise can actually be very helpful for combatting many mental and physical illnesses. Exercise is known to be a stress reducer.

Don’t underestimate the power of a good nap, a healthy meal, and a walk in nature to help you through tough times.

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