Anxiety is rife among teachers – here’s how it feels

It can be hard to tell if a colleague is suffering from anxiety. Jo Steer shares her first-hand experience of managing the condition

Jo Steer

teacher anxiety

In 2018, the Educational Support Partnership found that a huge number of teaching professionals had experienced symptoms that could be signs of a mental health issue.

Some 43 per cent of these symptoms, according to the study, could be attributed to a word we hear a lot these days: anxiety.

Anxiety and teaching are becoming as inseparable as fish and chips, salt and pepper, staff parties and raging hangovers.

Quick read: Here's how it feels to return to school after being signed off with depression

Quick listen: The truth about mental health in schools

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Yet as awareness grows, misconceptions and misunderstandings remain.

For the more old-school teachers, brought up in a world of stiff upper lips, or those among us who don’t have personal experience of relentless, all-consuming anxiety, it can be hard to picture what it feels like.

As someone who has struggled with general and specific anxiety disorders since my teens – disorders that erupted even more when I went into teaching – let me offer some useful pointers.

Worse than worry

We all have occasional worries or anxieties about certain situations or challenges.

This is part of being a human and it can even be beneficial; worrying about a school trip you haven’t prepared for is a sign that you need to take some action, for example.

teacher anxiety

But this shouldn’t be confused with an anxiety disorder, in which the worries and fears reach far wider, cut much deeper and can feel like they are going to last forever.

Simply put, worrying is to anxiety like a fall-out between friends to prolonged, systematic bullying.

Physical symptoms

We’ve all been in situations that make us experience the physical symptoms of uncomfortable feelings like anxiety, guilt, disappointment, embarrassment and the rest.

Whether it’s a tightening of the chest, sweaty palms, or the gut's sudden need to do the can-can, we know it doesn’t feel good.   

For someone battling an anxiety disorder, those sensations often become a part of daily life.

For the 43 per cent of teaching professionals surveyed, symptoms included irritability and mood swings, tearfulness, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, headaches and panic attacks.

And there’s more. I’ve experienced moments of feeling so detached it was like an out-of-body experience; times when my head was trembling so much, I thought it would fall clean off my shoulders; a prevailing and gut-churning sense of impending doom.

Anxiety can quickly wear a person down, leading to symptoms of depression, too: changes in appetite, loss of energy, low mood and feelings of worthlessness.

Deep distress

Anxiety disorders are based on deeply embedded thoughts, feelings and behaviours, so telling a sufferer: “Don’t worry, that will never happen!” or “You’ll be fine!” just doesn’t cut it. If you want to support them effectively, just be there for them. Listen without judgement; ask questions rather than offering advice.

If you believe that you’re suffering with anxiety, it may be time to reach out for help.

For me, a course of cognitive behaviourial therapy (prescribed by my GP) really helped me to unpick those hard-wired habits and get to a place where I manage my anxiety, rather than allowing it to manage me.

Invisible issues

Remember, you can’t spot an anxiety disorder just by looking, especially since high-functioning sufferers have become so common in schools. They’re just as likely to be the deputy head as the lunchtime supervisor.

Treat everyone with as much kindness, patience and empathy as you can muster – that way it’s hard to go wrong.

Jo Steer is a teacher and experienced leader of SEND interventions

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Jo Steer

Jo Steer is a former leader now working with schools as a wellbeing consultant

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