By Laura Bickle
September brings with it excitement — and sometimes anxiety — for teachers. But this year, the anxiety side of the equation may have tipped the scale for some. "If you are feeling anxious about returning you are definitely not alone. Other teaching staff, students and parents are anxious too," says Daniel Chorney, PhD, a registered psychologist and member of Anxiety Canada's Scientific Advisory Committee. He contributed to the organization's COVID-19 website section, which offers resources on return-to-school concerns and how to manage COVID-19-related anxiety in general.
We asked Chorney to share how to help yourself, colleagues and students cope.
Staff should readjust expectations of themselves and others. The idea of "doing what you can, given the circumstances" should be understood by all.
Think of exactly what you are anxious about. A common experience for individuals with anxiety is having automatic thoughts. We simply believe these thoughts without challenging them. Writing down your thoughts and looking at them more clearly is a helpful way to see what just what it is you're anxious about and then you can decide if it's worth worrying about or a helpful worry.
Work on mindfulness: focus your attention on what you are doing in the present moment. This could mean remembering why you are an educator (helping others, education itself or being part of a community) and then holding that in your awareness while you are teaching. Just by being there you are engaging in and living your values. That's making a good choice based on your values, and not based on anxiety.
Physical symptoms include upset stomach or nausea, headaches, racing heart and feeling sweaty, and sometimes feeling dizzy or shaky. Thoughts tend to race and focus on harm or threat ("What if I get COVID and then spread it to my family?"). When individuals start avoiding the people, places or things that make them anxious, they often become what we call "functionally impaired." Some people can push through the event but experience extreme feelings of distress. Avoidance and extreme distress are typically when we recommend speaking with a professional.
Our "7 Tips for Educators Returning to School During COVID-19" (oct-oeeo.ca/anxietytips) includes strategies to model good coping behaviours while acknowledging that sometimes you feel anxious too — and that's OK. We want children to know anxiety is normal. It's how we deal with it that matters.
The website can also guide you to the free MindShift CBT app, a portable tool that children, teens and adults can use to help manage anxiety.