Sadly, excessive worry is something that many educational professionals are all too familiar with. In fact, a 2017 study, conducted by the Educational Support Partnership found that a shocking 50 per cent of education professions had experienced depression, anxiety or panic attacks as a result of work.
Clearly, something is drastically wrong within the current education system, with the powers that be failing at even a basic "duty of care" towards their employees.
In the meantime, though, it looks like it’s down to us. And as an anxiety-sufferer myself, let me assure you that there are things that you can do to keep worries at bay, or at least keep them at a manageable level.
The following three strategies have helped me immensely over the years:
1. Practise Mindfulness
Set a timer for three minutes, sit yourself in a comfortable position, close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath. Notice it with curiosity – the length of the breath, the temperature as it goes into your nostrils, the parts of your body where the breath touches. Every time your mind wanders, gently squeeze your first, and then return to watching the breath.
Harnessing your attention in this way can be incredibly powerful, both in the moment when anxiety strikes and, moreover, as a preventative measure that can stop needless worry before it even gets going. Practising mindfulness consistently enables you to develop the habit of stepping back from your thoughts, noticing them with curiosity, accepting them without judgement.
Of course, we can’t get rid of anxiety entirely, but with this approach it will feel more like you’re watching passing storm clouds rather than being inside the storm itself.
2. Recognise unhelpful thinking patterns
Let’s say that your gut is churning at the prospect of seeing a colleague with whom you had a rather tense email exchange yesterday. You mentally revise every detail of that conversation, picturing their hostile reaction at the time and predicting uncomfortable scenes that follow on today.
Assuming that you’ve mindfully noticed the types of thoughts you’re having, ask yourself: are these thoughts even based in reality? Or are they simply the result of negative thinking patterns?
In the scenario above, you’re guilty of mind-reading and predicting the future, at a bare minimum. It’s very likely that you’re also jumping to conclusions, making mountains out of molehills and applying a mental filter whereby you only consider the evidence that validates your anxious thoughts.
If you wouldn’t listen to someone else’s baseless thoughts, why take your own so seriously?
3. Set rules for yourself
Once you’re a little more aware of the way your brain thinks, including the thinking habits that you’re prone to, you can develop and apply a rule-set to keep your mind in check.
Perhaps jumping to conclusions is a familiar problem for you. It might be that an unanswered email or text message regularly leads to a negative thoughts spiral, in which you pick apart every communication you’ve ever had with this person, wondering what you could have done to upset/anger them.
In situations like this, I find the following two rules helpful to apply:
Rule 1: I’m not allowed to worry about something for which I have no evidence
Do I actually know that this person is purposely ignoring me? What actual proof do I have? Does it fit with their usual pattern of behaviour? What other explanations could there be that don’t revolve around me? These are some of the questions I ask myself, jotting down evidence for and against if I feel it’s necessary, ultimately coming to an explanation more rooted in reality.
Rule 2: If the evidence shows that there is a problem, decide on an action plan but then draw a line under the worrying
If, once you’ve examined the impartial evidence, you think that this person really isn’t responding to you because of a thoughtless comment you made the day before… do you need to apologise? What action can you take now, or plan to take tomorrow, to put your mind at rest? By all means, allow yourself to wallow in a couple of minutes of worry, but once you’ve decided on a course of action (or inaction), tell yourself that’s that.
And if your brain doesn’t listen? If you keep coming back to the same thoughts, again and again, go back to step 1 and mindfully shift your attention elsewhere.
Jo Steer is a teacher and experienced leader of SEND interventions and wellbeing strategies