That may not be what you wanted to hear if you’re a teacher back in school: the idea that your anxiety about being in a vulnerable context could mimic the symptoms of the thing you fear, causing more anxiety, is something that will undoubtedly make you… anxious.
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Anxiety is, of course, an understandable reaction to being in a vulnerable position.
However, it is not always useful.
“It is unhelpful if overwhelming, and can lead us to avoid things we should not or do not need to,” says Ford.
Anxiety can also have a damaging impact on your mental health, your physical health and, as a result, your ability to teach.
Coronavirus: How teachers returning to school can handle their anxiety
So, as more teachers flood back into schools, a highly anxiety-inducing environment, what do you need to know?
1. People react differently to stressful situations – and they are equally valid reactions
“We can think of the range of responses being normally distributed from overreacting to underreacting,” says Capek.
“The latter could be denial of the danger, but it is useful because the person can just ‘get on with it’ and do what is necessary.
“An over-anxious response may be the result of having pre-existing sub-clinical anxiety, the uncertainty created by the pandemic being the 'trigger'.”
Where you fall on that spectrum is likely to be down to multiple different factors, but genetics does play a role, says Richard Bentall, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Sheffield.
“It is true that some people are more prone to anxiety than others (they have 'neurotic' personality traits),” he says. “[But] it is individual circumstances that play the dominant role.”
He explains that because teachers are on the front line, they may have a higher level of anxiety than family members or friends who are not.
“Anxiety is greatest in those who perceive the risks of Covid as highest (often with good reason),” he says.
And he adds that anxiety is not the only risk for this group.
“It is also important to recognise that anxiety is not the only mental health outcome that is important,” he explains. “We should also expect the same people to show significant depression (depression and anxiety usually go together).”
2. When anxiety hits, it can have a range of damaging effects
“Common difficulties [of anxiety] are thoughts that may not stand up to reality-checking, physical reactions (heart racing, feeling short of breath, stomach upsets and pains, headaches, feeling dizzy) and disruption to sleep or appetite,” says Ford. “Irritability often increases when people feel anxious, particularly if pushed to confront the things that are provoking the anxiety.”
Capek says there are some pretty worrying long-term impacts of sustained anxiety, too.
“The long-term impact depends on the intensity and duration of exposure,” he explains. “Anxiety includes heightened mental alertness. Exhaustion is only one reaction. Clinical depression is another. Prolonged anxiety can result in anxiety being 'memorised' beyond the original exposure. Some form of cognitive behavioural therapy may subsequently be necessary.”
3. For those experiencing some of the more severe symptoms of anxiety, it is likely to impact on their teaching
“An anxious teacher is unlikely to be productive in the classroom and, if they’re not careful, may well transmit their own anxiety on to their pupils,” says Capek. “This would be a shame if the parents of any child have made large efforts to promote calmness and use lockdown in a positive manner.”
Ford stresses that this is not inevitable, however.
“Anxiety will not necessarily impact your teaching, but if you are preoccupied with anxious thoughts or feelings, you have less cognitive and psychosocial bandwith to devote to others – so it is not likely to help in the short term.”
Obviously, if you are experiencing some of the symptoms listed above, behaviour management, pastoral relationships and your ability to teach will be impacted – for example, irritability and sleep deprivation may mean managing behaviour is impossible to do well, and a preoccupation with anxiety will make focusing on what you are teaching incredibly challenging.
Also, you may find that your ability – or the ability of colleagues and pupils – to avoid being sucked in by conspiracy theories is weakened.
“Feelings of uncertainty are a significant factor in conspiracy theorising,” explains Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. “Conspiracy theories appeal to people when important psychological needs are unmet. The first of these needs can be classified as epistemic – related to the need people have to be knowledgeable and accurate – which is where this uncertainty is important.”
She explains that people are currently looking for answers at a very confusing time and conspiracy theories might be seen to offer some clarity.
“The other [unmet] needs are existential – related to the need to feel safe and secure in the world – and social – related to the need to maintain a positive view of the self and the groups we belong to,“ she says. “During times of crisis, these psychological needs are particularly threatened, and people are looking for ways to cope. Many turn to conspiracy theories for this purpose.”
Conspiracy theories can be unsettling even for those who do not believe in them, as these theories can polarise communities, but Douglas warns that a crisis such as this can also lead to some being drawn in that normally would not be.
“During periods of crisis and uncertainty, more people than usual might turn to conspiracy theories in an attempt to cope with the situation,” she says.
4. So how can teachers manage anxiety?
Ford says there are plenty of useful strategies for managing anxiety.
“Looking after yourself (so good diet, getting enough sleep, planning some pleasurable activity) and reality-checking anxious thoughts, focusing on what you can do (washing hands, wearing a mask, keeping to social distancing), relaxation techniques (particularly ones that focus on slowing your breathing) and positive self-talk (simple statements that you can repeat to yourself),” she explains.
Bentall has some further suggestions.
“Sub-clinical depression and anxiety can be handled in a number of ways: maintaining good relationships with friends and colleagues (plenty of staff support and opportunities to share experiences); setting regular routines and maintaining a good sleep/wake cycle (so no working around the clock for deadlines); having a purpose in life (which should come easily to teachers); and helping other people (which also should come easily to teachers).”
There are a huge number of free resources (listed here) available from charities such as Anxiety UK, and all the experts stress that if symptoms are concerning you or others, then you need to seek medical advice.
Bentall believes teachers will largely be robust in the face of the stressors they are facing, though.
“In general, I think teachers should be a resilient group,” he says.
Capek adds that it’s likely that teachers will be doing many of the right things already.
“The best way of reducing anxiety are the practical steps to reduce viral transmission. Many of them may already be undertaken,” he says.
And he adds something to bear in mind if you are feeling anxious: “A personal view, but I think not enough has been made of the fact that we all have an immune system that is designed to recognise first-time microbial invaders such as viruses and to protect us.
"This is a system that works very successfully. It is most developed in children, because children are always exposed to previously unmet pathogens. But as the centenarian survivors have demonstrated, it is not an ability that is altogether lost with age.”
Jon Severs is commissioning editor at Tes