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To the Student With Anxiety, From a Teacher Who’s Been There

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As the school year approaches (faster than we want it to), some students are experiencing an ample amount of anxiety. Everything from figuring out who will be their teacher, to seeing who’s in their class and everything in between. Being a special education teacher and having my own conditions allows me to view things from a different perspective. It allows me to tap into my experiences and provide some insight to the child who may have no other outlet.

Last year, I encountered a student who was having an anxiety attack. The student was distraught, debilitated by his thoughts. So we sat at the table and talked it out. He professed his worries about his home life, daily struggles and overall anxiety of the world around him. He was so consumed by his thoughts, he couldn’t function.

As the hyperventilating and tears progressed, I expressed to him he was safe, cared for and the things he was concerned about were out of his control. I clearly remember this interaction because it was one of the first times I told a student I had an anxiety disorder. He seemed shocked and taken aback because, I assume, he didn’t think teachers had anxiety or that a teacher would be able to relate to him.

Time progressed and he relocated for a few minutes to regain composure. That day, I felt like I provided a positive example of coping with anxiety for him. That day, I truly felt like I helped someone in the way many people have helped me.

Now, here’s what I want to tell any student who struggles with anxiety.

Dear (insert your name here),

These golden nuggets below are for the student with anxiety, depression or any other condition from the perspective of an anxiety-riddled teacher.

Golden Nugget #1: You are not alone.

Your mind likes to play mean tricks on you. It makes you think you’re losing control, but you’re actually stable. It makes you feel like you’re not safe, but know you are protected. Anxiety will cause you to overanalyze people’s intentions and make you feel like it’s you against the world.  Please, know you’re not alone.

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Golden Nugget #2: It’s OK to ask for help.

Please, ask for help. I’m not a mind reader. My goal is to help you. If there’s something you need, then ask. I know you’ll be stewing over whether people will think less of you. Trust me, I was that kid. Know it’s OK to ask. I would rather you ask and have the tools you need to complete the task rather than sit, anxiously hoping I walk by your desk.

Golden Nugget #3: Be honest.

Simple as that. Admit you’re having an issue and we will try our best to come up with a plan to diffuse the situation. Teamwork makes the dream work.

Golden Nugget #4: Express your emotions, appropriately.

I understand it’s easier said than done. Teachers understand every kid isn’t going to be “on point” every day. It’s OK. Tell your teachers when you feel anxious, if you’re having a bad day or ask for ideas of how to better express yourself. I’ve learned throughout the years writing is my outlet, but everyone is different. Your outlet may be drawing, singing or dancing. Find something to make you happy!

Golden Nugget #5: Everything will be OK.

As I said beforehand, your mind will be mean to you. Know that everyone around you isn’t a monster, making fun of you or out for you. You’re not alone. Try to go out and make friendships. I know that’ll be difficult, but you have to start from somewhere. Everything will be OK! Yes, you may have an anxiety attack and feel no one may understand, but you are stronger than your condition.

You may take these nuggets with a grain of salt, but you should know you are stronger than your condition. It’s an uphill battle that requires daily conquering, but you are absolutely capable. You are brighter than your darkest thoughts. You are more powerful than your negative thoughts and you will be successful this school year!

Sincerely,
The Anxiety-Riddled Teacher

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7 Ways Teachers Can Help Students With Anxiety

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Dear teacher(s),

I am here to write a letter offering advice on how to help students who struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. I’ve been in the same position as they have. Trust me when I say it’s not easy to deal with. So many people are under the false assumption that anxiety is a cry for attention or a “fake” issue. Neither are usually the case. In fact, anxiety is a very scary condition and often times support is greatly needed and appreciated.

Please, take some time to read over these suggestions on how to help those who have anxiety and panic attacks. Thank you!

1. If you see someone who appears anxious, ask what’s wrong and what you can do to help.

Each individual struggles with anxiety in different ways and not every method has the same results. The best way to know how to help someone is to ask.

2. Don’t force someone to do something just because you think it will help.

Because everyone deals with anxiety in different ways, some methods may be helpful to some but not to others. Therefore, the best thing to do if someone says that something won’t help them is to find another way to help.

Here’s an example: I was once told over and over again to drink water to make myself feel better. I told the individual that it wouldn’t help, but they practically forced me to drink the water. This honestly just made me more anxious!

3. Be understanding, and don’t make us feel like we’re being a nuisance.

This also applies to school nurses. I can’t tell you how many times I was made to feel like I was a burden in high school because of my anxiety. The school nurse made it like I was faking it. Every time I went to see her, I felt her eyes rolling at me. Having anxiety is a legitimate issue. We don’t enjoy it. So please, don’t act like we do!

4. Talk to us!

Ask us how we’re doing. Check in. You don’t have to ask 24/7, but once in awhile, see how we’re doing. Sometimes getting our feelings of our chest makes us feel better and helps us know we are supported.

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5. Don’t talk down to us, patronize us or treat us like we’re silly.

It’s hard enough going through something that’s so misunderstood, let alone being treated like we’re insane or childish. In my opinion, it’s crucial that teachers try to understand what their students are going through. I had so many teachers who showed me a great deal of respect. It was these teacher who made a real difference in my life.

6. Share your own issues with us and help us feel less alone.

Be honest and if you have similar experiences with anxiety, share them with us. I had a teacher who told me about one of his fears and honestly, it helped. By sharing something he went through, he helped me realize I wasn’t alone and that it was possible to get through what I was going through. I also knew there were people who cared for me.

7. If a student has to leave school due to anxiety, then don’t make them feel guilty.

In high school, I left school several times due to my anxiety. I always felt awful. Additionally, there were times when school officials or the school nurse made me feel guilty about leaving because I wasn’t physically sick.

Anxiety is a very difficult issue to deal with. People who go to school and deal with anxiety have to try extremely hard to get through the day and sometimes, anxiety makes it seem like an impossible task. However, with the help and support from teachers and staff, students can feel supported and get through school with a sense of accomplishment.

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What My Anxiety Is

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Crippling.

If I’m being quite frank, it has the power to destroy my day. It has the power to send it reeling into the depths, with no hope for return and for no apparent reason at all. It will shut me down completely. The only option is to succumb to it, to get it over with and move on. I let my mind run rampant with fallacies, just long enough to mute it for a little while.

A nightmare.

I dread falling asleep because the night is dangerous. My day is done, and there’s time now to review what I’d done, who I interacted with and all I’ve said. There’s time now to consider all of the possible outcomes of my actions, primarily the negative ones. Perhaps, I upset my boss, and I’ll be fired tomorrow. Perhaps, I’ve disappointed my parents.

Burning Bridges.

I have always been close with my family. Now, I feel like I can no longer be. What if they don’t accept my anxiety? What if they call me weak or dramatic or tell me to suck it up? What if they cannot understand that I cannot control what goes on inside of my head? What if I upset them? What if it’s this way for the rest of my life?

Living.

Both in the past and the future, but never the present. I reminisce on days when I felt the utmost joy, no worries, no anxiety back when days like those existed. They are the most beautiful thing in my mind. They are also the most torturous. I can’t go back, no matter how hard I try. So, I try to look toward the future and imagine how wonderful things will be, and I can’t get there fast enough. That’s exactly the problem. I am not there. I am here, and I can’t be. I don’t want to be.

Illogical.

I am consistently fearing the worst in every situation, regardless of how nonsensical it may be. Even if I know the outcome will be positive, there is (at the very least) a sliver of me that worries the tables may turn. Some may call it protecting themselves, but not to this extent, not to this frequency.

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A gift.

My anxiety is a lesson. I am constantly learning things about myself and about others that amaze me. I’ve learned I am strong. I am more than strong. I am a warrior, and I am a survivor.

I’ve learned I can relentlessly fight every single day. I can wake up, fight again every morning and go to sleep knowing I survived another day. I’ve learned my relationships are stronger than my anxiety. I am hopeful to learn of my family’s support, despite the plaguing doubts. You cannot change your family, so you love them despite the differences.

I am able to decipher when I am being unreasonable, when my mind has carried me too far yet again. While I am still unable to stop it, I am able to recognize it. That is more than I could ask for from myself.

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Anxiety Is Like a Bad Roommate

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Anxiety is like a bad roommate. Sometimes it’s quiet, and we live together without a hitch. We live together but our lives don’t intertwine, it’s a good deal. Every once in a while it keeps me up late, banging pots and pans inside my brain making it difficult to co-exist. When my Anxiety has a bad day, it comes into the apartment raring to bring me down with it’s passive aggressiveness. It takes over the space, changing the atmosphere from calm to totally haywire.

We’ve all felt anxious. That uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach when you enter an exam, your sweaty palms when you meet a new group of people, or the knot in your throat right before you tell someone you like them. These things are normal, but when does it cross a line?

Something I’m trying to figure out is: When does every day worrying become so uncontrollable and unrealistic it can hold you back and make you feel helpless? And what can I do to feel more in control when that happens?

I’m going to be totally honest. When I came up with the idea for a video on SoulPancake, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. What I didn’t know was that the creative process would cause panic attack after panic attack. I anticipated struggling, but I didn’t anticipate having to book a last minute flight home to be with my family because I wasn’t equipped to deal this caliber of anxiety.

I made this video after spending a month in the U.S., traveling with my fellow New Age Creators. I found myself alone for the first time in 30 days. Without the voices of my friends surrounding me, distracting me, an anxiety filled white noise flooded my bedroom.

I became acutely aware of all of my deadlines and responsibilities. Video due on Monday, rent due on the first, university starts in a month, what do I do after I graduate? Am I any good at this YouTube thing anyways? All of the things that would normally end up on a long term to-do list in my pocket became one of those billboards you hate, but can’t seem to get away from.

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When you look at me, you see someone who willingly talks about personal ideas and opinions on the internet. Online and off, I’m confident, sarcastic and I usually look like I have everything under control and planned out to a T. You might even say: “It comes easy to her” this whole, “life” thing. While all of those things are true to an extent, you don’t see my brain constantly go fuzzy with worry about something I’ve said, you don’t hear my second-guessing thoughts say “Why on earth did you do that?” or “Is anyone going to actually care that I uploaded this video?”

It’s easy to feel like the end of the world is impending — but as much as I feel like panic and anxiety can make me weak at times, I know my strength to keep going will outlast it. I know that it’ll pass and I have found ways that help me cope:

When I’m restless, I take the pacing outside and walk it off.

I listen to playlists of nature sounds or songs that calm me down

I exercise. Taking care of all the excess energy from my fight or flight reflex.

I call someone I trust and I don’t hang up the phone until I feel myself relax.

Anxiety and panic can make you feel alone and misunderstood — and I’m not OK with that. That’s why I made this video. If one person can share this with their friends to explain how it feels, or just look at it and find that “me too” feeling, then it has all been worth it. Together, we can create an environment where it is safe to talk about our worries, and open up about the bad days. You are not alone, I am right there with you, and so are so many other amazing people who sometimes panic, too.

You can find Marie on SoulPancake this summer, and all year long on The New Age Creators, and her personal YouTube Channel.

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When Your Internal Monologue Hates You

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I am living a life that, at first glance, is exactly the life I had dreamed of as a child. I live by myself, in a condo in a fantastic location. I have several good friends. I have exactly the job I want. I have an amazing boyfriend. I have a car I love. I have multiple hobbies I enjoy immensely, and I am incredibly happy and loving life.

At the same time, however, there is a secret side to my life, a side most people don’t know about — a dark side. My beautiful condo usually looks like a tornado ripped through it. I don’t see my friends often. My relationships at work are strained because I frequently have trouble focusing and doing what I need to. My relationship with my boyfriend terrifies me. My car takes me places I don’t want to go for fear of them. My hobbies require effort, focus and talent, which I tend to either lack or believe I lack.

You see, inside of me I have two things that desperately hate me: a voice and a dragon. The voice also hates the dragon. The dragon is a terrible scaly, black creature that sleeps on a shelf right above my stomach. I spend most of my time trying to ensure he does not wake up. When the dragon wakes, he brings with him full blown panic attacks. As long as he sleeps, the anxiety will, at worst, mean nausea and heart palpitations. I can still breathe through it and usually, I am fairly good at keeping him asleep.

However, that voice in my head exists. The voice hates me and hates the sleeping dragon. It fights constantly with me in the hopes of waking the dragon. The voice says horrible things, over and over.

You’re fat, and your skin is disgusting. Your eyes are different sizes, and you look atrocious. How can you possibly go out in public like that? You aren’t funny, and anyone who says you are is lying to you. Don’t bother trying to write, draw, embroider or create anything. You’re not any good at it and you’ll fail miserably. No one is ever going to want any of it. You know one day he’s going to wake up and realize what an awful human being you. Then, he’s gonna be gone in a flash, right? No one is ever actually going to want you because you are so repellent.

Living with a voice like this is so incredibly difficult. To have part of your brain constantly telling you how worthless you are, how little value you have and how no one in their right mind would ever care about you is horrible. Fighting against that voice is one of the hardest things to do. To come out and say, “You are wrong, and I am magnificent,” is easier said than done. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I have spent years trying to master it.

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I have worked so hard on ignoring the voice. I have worked on asserting my own belief that I am amazing, I have loads of talent and humor. I am a kind and loving human being and I deserve to be loved and respected by others. On the one hand, I have succeeded. I truly believe those things, and I do not tolerate other people treating me as if those things are not true. I do not tolerate others giving me less than I deserve. I refuse to accept others limiting me.

After all, the voice exists, just as loud as ever. Believing I am amazing, worthy and valuable does not make the voice go away. It does not shut it up. It does not make ignoring it any easier. It does not mean that sometimes I don’t believe the voice nor doubt how amazing, worthy and valuable I am. I do.

The voice still limits me. It prevents me from keeping my beautiful home neat and clean. It prevents me from seeing the people I love. It prevents me from doing things I love. It damages my relationship with my boyfriend. It limits me every day. I still try to ignore it, to assert what I know about myself over it, but it is an ongoing struggle. It will continue to be. The voice tells me I will never get rid of it entirely. To me, that’s just a challenge, and I am more than happy to take it on.

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A Response to 'Stop Whoring Out Your Undiagnosed Mental Illness'

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Last week, I read my worst nightmare in headline form: “Stop Whoring Out Your Undiagnosed ‘Mental Illness.‘”

Gut-punch. Straight where it hurts.

The piece is essentially a message to people who claim they have “anxiety or depression online and IRL (in real life) based on their own self-diagnosis.” The author’s thesis is people who haven’t been diagnosed by a doctor with a mental illness share “relatable” anxiety and depression videos just to get attention.

She then suggests those people should see a professional to find out one of three scenarios: 1) You’re having normal thoughts and everything is fine with your mental health; 2) You have an anxiety disorder or depressive disorder; or 3) You you have a completely different mental illness you have been wrongfully labeling as anxiety and depression.

It’s never a bad thing to encourage someone to seek professional help.

But if only it were that simple.

As someone who lives with and writes about living with anxiety, I question the validity of my mental health issues every day. Every time I open up, I pay for it later in the form of mean, bullying thoughts: Your problems aren’t that bad. Who are you to be writing about this? You’re being dramatic, exaggerating. There are so many people who have it worse.

When a piece I wrote about living with high-functioning anxiety went somewhat viral, I (ironically) had a really bad few weeks. I couldn’t shake the thoughts that told me I was a fraud, an attention-seeker. When I expressed this concern to my boyfriend, he laughed, kissed my forehead and said, “Trust me, Sarah. You’re that anxious.”

I don’t have a certificate that says I have an anxiety disorder. I’ve only had one therapist, who I decided wasn’t for me after a few months. I haven’t found another one yet. I’m 23, and many people develop mental illnesses in their early 20s. I’m new to this and so are a lot of people who are maybe just experiencing mental health issues for the first time.

But I write about my anxiety. I share about my anxiety. I relate to articles about anxiety.

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When I see, “stop whoring out your undiagnosed mental illness…” I’m brought back to a time before I was open about living with anxiety. Before I was calling anxiety by its name. It wasn’t because I wasn’t familiar with mental illness — my brother has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and I watched him go through what I thought was the “classic” (and therefore only) trajectory for having a real, valid mental illness: have a mental health crisis, get hospitalized, get a diagnosis, get some medication, figure out “recovery.” Of course, it was was little more complicated, with more hospitalizations, treatment centers and medication changes in between.

Even though looking back I can see I was struggling, I never reached out to my peers because I thought I knew what a “real” mental illness looked like. I didn’t reach out for support because I thought it would seem like I was complaining, attention-seeking. I was afraid of people, like the author of this piece, scoffing at me and my “undiagnosed” mental illness.

The author writes: “The average person wouldn’t say they have cancer and then ask for support from friends and family without being diagnosed. So why is it socially acceptable to do this with a mental illness?”

While I’m all on board the “we should treat mental illnesses like physical illnesses” train, we can’t pretend we can diagnose every mental illness like we can cancer. Many mental illnesses, especially anxiety and depression, exist on scale of severity. It isn’t as clear cut as getting diagnosed with cancer. It just isn’t. It often begins with you pretty much saying, “that’s so me” to a list of symptoms. Other people, including professionals, can verify your behavior, but you’re the only one who knows what’s going on in your head.

The people the author berates, the ones “whoring” out their undiagnosed mental illnesses online to garner attention — we don’t know where they are on their journeys.

I’m sure people do exaggerate their mental health issues online to get attention. People do things for attention all the time. Take selfies, make statuses about their accomplishments, write articles… and sometimes it’s annoying. But to make such a strong statement, to assume everyone who has not yet pursued an “official” mental illness is only talking about mental health for, as the author says, a “like, a share, a comment, or a reblog,” makes people like my past self — who want to share an anxiety article because they relate to it but aren’t ready to make the big leap to ask for help — want to crawl back into our holes where our problems aren’t “big enough,” “important enough” or “official enough” to talk about. 

Sound familiar? It’s classic mental health stigma being thrown back into our faces.

Seeing a professional could be a prerequisite for sharing a “relatable” anxiety video in a world where mental health services were cheap and accessible. But that’s not the world we live in. Today you get put on a waiting list. All the professionals in your area are out of your network. Sometimes you see a professional and get the wrong diagnosis anyway. It’s a messy process, and it is not our job to judge how people approach or handle it. If someone is writing or talking about anxiety or depression before they get the chance to see a mental health professional, we shouldn’t discourage them. For all we know, that online support system might be all they have.

The author also claims those with “undiagnosed” mental illnesses make people with “real” mental illnesses seem like fakers. If anything, I think the opposite is true. Embracing my own mental health issues and being active in the community helps me empathize with others who have more severe anxiety than I do. Because I know I can’t control when I’m in a spiral, I know someone whose anxiety is more severe than mine can’t control it either. I get that depression can’t be cured by just going for a walk. I get that people with bipolar disorder aren’t just “moody.” I don’t know exactly what it’s like — but I understand the nature of the beast enough to know it isn’t their fault.

I don’t think we should be giving out mental illness diagnoses like free samples or that people should be using diagnoses incorrectly. For example, I hate when people misuse OCD (“I’m so OCD about my closet.”), but those statements usually come from a place of ignorance. Instead of berating people you think don’t actually have anxiety or depression, we need to educate people about what these conditions are really like. And although the author accuses these people of stealing “resources and support,” I say there isn’t enough resources and support to go around. Instead of demanding people who might have anxiety see a doctor so they can either get a diagnoses or “get over it” — we should be encouraging people to seek help because they need and deserve help. Maybe a few will learn their anxiety or depression is situational or not severe enough to be clinically diagnosed, but that still doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to use services and post about their mental health issues online. There is no suffering competition, and sharing an anxiety video doesn’t take away the severity of what you go through. It’s possible to care and advocate for people with serious mental illnesses while talking about your own mental health issues as a form of self-care. One does not cancel out the other.

It’s easy to hate something because it’s “popular.” I get it. I roll my eyes every time an article is written about a celebrity mentioning the word “anxiety,” thinking really? Do you really have anxiety? But at the end of the day, it isn’t my place to judge. I’d rather mental health be “trendy” or “basic” if it means people aren’t struggling alone. There’s so much mental health content being produced right now. We may even get saturated with it. But don’t demand people don’t share it — ask for a more accurate representation of mental illnesses. Don’t claim people are stealing your services — demand services should be available for anyone who needs them. Because if the end goal is that mental health is treated just like physical health, we want people getting mental health checkups like they go to the dentist. We want mental health support available for people who have a whole range of issues. We want people to have such a great understanding of what mental illnesses are that it becomes universally unacceptable how many people with severe mental illnesses aren’t getting the support they need.

It doesn’t end with writing a silly blog post or sharing a video about anxiety. I know that. But it can start there. And I know personally if I hadn’t been so afraid to identify with an article about anxiety, I might have reached out to my friends sooner. I might have gotten help sooner. And I don’t want to live in a world where that’s a bad thing.

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