I developed debilitating anxiety right after I graduated from college in 2014 and became a high school teacher, but along the way I cultivated a lot of tips and tricks to feel better and to manage my mental health. Keep reading to see what worked for me – it may work for you, too!
This post originally started as this post about mindfulness and meditation, where I briefly mention my struggles with anxiety and how that prompted me to begin looking into healthy coping mechanisms to manage it. But as I wrote the post, the part where I describe my journey with anxiety – originally just supposed to be a brief few sentences – began to stretch into many paragraphs and I realized I had a lot more to say than I originally thought.
I wanted the post about mindfulness to be mostly about mindfulness, so I picked a few key points and saved the rest for later. So here, I want to share more a more in-depth account of my experiences with anxiety in the hopes that someone else who may be struggling with this feels less alone. I will also share a few ways I manage my anxiety (admittedly knowing that everyone’s mental health journey is so different, and what works for each individual will also be very different).
Self-awareness is the first step
As I mentioned in my earlier post on mindfulness, I’ve always been a naturally worried person. I’m a perfectionist and am always over-prepared for things. I tend to see the worst possible outcome and plan for that. However, I would never have described myself as having “anxiety.” When people said they struggled with anxiety, I never really understood what that meant. I’m a strong believer in self-awareness, and while I see the limitations with labeling, I think labeling can be helpful in that for me, labeling myself as “someone who has anxiety” was the first step to self-acceptance and healing. And, it helped me get to know myself and my triggers much better so I could proactively work on training my mind to respond differently.
But before I began the journey towards understanding and self-acceptance, my anxiety of course had to get so debilitating that I finally had to acknowledge and notice it. It finally reached that point in 2014 – I had just graduated college a few months prior and was facing many major life changes, the most terrifying of all being starting my first year as a high school teacher.
Everyone warned me that teaching, and Teach for America, would be hard. But I’m a high performer, so I naturally thought, “But I can do it! I can do anything!” This “I can do it” mindset can definitely be helpful at times, but in this case it left me completely blindsided when I struggled so much with my first year teaching and felt like I was underperforming. My entire identity had been based around high performance, so who was I when I couldn’t perform?
When I first realized it was more than “stress”
When I started teaching, I didn’t know what was happening to me at first. Again, I think this was partly because everyone said the first year of teaching would be hard, and stressful, and one of the most difficult things I’d ever done. But I soon realized something else was going on besides normal “stress,” mostly because most of my other TFA colleagues didn’t seem to be having the same intensity of stress that I was.
I had never experienced anything close to what I experienced in those first few months teaching. There were days when I couldn’t get out of bed because I was so overwhelmed. I was up at all hours of the night and was constantly running on just a few hours of sleep, which wreaked havoc on my already fragile emotions. I left school on multiple days in just the first few weeks of teaching due to panic attacks, which I had never had before this point in my life. I would randomly burst out crying more days than not. I stopped doing all the things I loved, like listening to music or seeing friends. And forget exercise or eating healthy – I had no time to worry about that at all. I was a shell of myself.
There are many reasons why I think I became so anxious during this time, but mostly it prompted an intense period of self-reflection. Why was I feeling this way? What did I need to learn about myself? How could I take better care of myself so I could continue teaching?
How I learned to cope and to heal
Luckily I got through that initial rough patch with major help from the support system of those closest to me, with the help of my friends Meditation and Mindfulness, and with a lot of talking with others and inner reflection. I felt stronger on the other side. I thought I had made it through. I finished my first year of teaching and dutifully came back for my second year even though I wanted to quit. Then, in my second year, things got worse and I eventually quit in the middle of my second year. I was proud that I made it through an entire year and a half of almost daily misery. There were better days, yes, but it was a constant battle.
After I quit, I went to therapy (can’t recommend this highly enough – I should have gone sooner). I started exercising again. I took time to make healthy foods and reignited my passion for cooking. I made gratitude journaling and meditation a daily practice. I learned what I needed to do for myself so that I could give to others. And today, I am vigilant about staying in tune with myself and practicing self-care, because I know what happens when I don’t. I consider my relationship with anxiety a journey – it’s got a lot of twists and turns, but ultimately I’ve come a long way. And I’m proud of that.