Introduction to ‘The Anxiety School Kit’

06 Apr 2020

“Remove anxiety from your life now!” “Rid yourself of toxic emotions like fear and anxiety!” “Free yourself from anxiety and find joy and inner peace!” A Scottish book store, circa early 2020

Forgive me, but I have stumbled into the self-help section of the book store again. Seductive titles and subtitles are competing for my attention, suggesting, in some cases guaranteeing, a compelling transformation.

I am tempted, my pupils dilating in the face of powerful verbs like “remove, rid and free.” Have I finally arrived at the anxiety solution?  Reaching for my wallet, I surreptitiously glance to see if my wife is still absorbed by the economics section (yes, such a thing is indeed possible).

Then overcome with a wave of, ironically, anxiety, I have a sudden realisation: I have read these books before. They are nestled at home, buried beside a number of other well-thumbed books on what for many years was an obsession: my anxiety. They have been broken down into to-do lists, memorable quotations transferred onto post-it notes, pages folded down at long forgotten advice that seemed life changing at the time.

I have already been left frustrated that their promises have not left me gliding through my day, unperturbed and serene in the face of any difficultly. I have been confused as to why anxiety still rears its persistent head in the early hours of the morning, leaving me wide awake and fretting about the day ahead long before dawn.

Checklist after checklist and endless techniques may have left me more informed, but they have failed to rid me of an intense anxiety that has been a life-long companion.

Forgive me, for I realise I have now broken Rule Number One of books about anxiety: I have failed to present myself as someone who has courageously and unanimously overcome all my anxiety symptoms.

This is not a book that makes such simple claims or promises. I am not on an obsessive mission to rid/remove or indeed free teachers and young people of anxiety. Let’s be frank: to make such promises would be both insincere and naïve. Nor will I demonise anxiety as the devil of all human emotions in these pages.

The truth is that anxiety is an emotion that we need, it is essential to not only our ability to work effectively and efficiently but to our human survival. Without it, we would accomplish very little. Just listen to the founder of The Centre for Anxiety Related Disorders, David Barlow, highlighting what would happen in a world in which anxiety did not exist:

“The performance of athletes, entertainers, executives, artisans, and students would suffer; creativity would diminish; crops would not be planted. And we would all achieve that idyllic state long sought after in our fast-paced society of whiling way our lives under a shade tree. This would be as deadly for the species as nuclear war.”

In many ways we should be celebrating the powerful, complex beast that is anxiety: revering its ability to inspire great human achievement, and protect us from harm.

But that celebration should only go so far.

Writing in 1926, Sigmund Freud concluded with helpful understatement that: ‘Anxiety is not a simple thing to grasp.’ Part of the challenge is in the contrasting ways it manifests itself, and how we all respond to it differently. The very simple and obvious fact is that we are all unique, and respond to lives challenges and tribulations in very different ways.

Some lucky individuals appear to glide through the day, visions of tranquility who smile and embrace all challenges. Others, (read: me) might give the veneer of coping, but encapsulate the graceful swan stereotype that we are all familiar with. Below so many serene surfaces, there is not only a furious cacophony of paddling, but a Metallica style heavy metal concert of fear, worry and concern.

This anxiety becomes an issue when it is pervasive – when proportionally it is doing us more harm than good. That delicate balance between challenge and support, and between calm and anxiety, will be an important exploration in these pages.

The reality is that anxiety disorders are on the rise in our panic fueled society, manifesting in all sorts of different and complex forms. Conditions that we are perhaps most familiar with (deep breath): Generalised Anxiety Disorder, panic disorders, social anxiety disorder, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder are but a select few. All have an intensity to them that makes functioning in our society much more challenging. David H Barlow, the author of ‘Anxiety and its Disorders’, is more explicit about the crippling effects it is capable of: “Anxiety kills relatively few people, but many more would welcome death as an alternative to the paralysis and suffering resulting from anxiety in its severe forms.”

One place in which we can be certain that anxiety in all its guises, including these “severe forms”, can be found is that pivotal place that is core to the development of all of us: our schools.

 Anxious Schools

Throwing at times over a thousand young people into an enclosed building, to be managed by a proportionately much small group of adults has, of course, the potential to generate an explosion of emotions.

For the minority who lead the education mission in schools, teachers and leaders, we know too well just how present the emotion of anxiety is among ourselves and our colleagues. Statistics on teacher retention and burn out make it very clear that schools are struggling to retain teachers. The reasons for this are complex and varied, but the frequency of words like anxiety and stress when teachers discuss the profession, can leave us in no doubt that anxiety is a significant contributing factor. The conversation about what we can do at an individual level and a systematic one is vital to help make teaching a more sustainable and optimistic profession.

Anxiety management for teachers becomes all the more vital when we consider how important we are as role models for young people. Like it or not, our emotional regulation is under intense scrutiny in the classroom. The language we use, the way we present ourselves, and the way we cope with challenges we are faced, are all important in influencing the temperament of those in our classrooms.

We are not mental health experts; our core mission is to help our students to learn and prepare them academically. Every good teacher knows, however, that this is only part of the complex outcome of what happens in our classrooms. Teachers and schools also prepare young people for life: they nurture, motivate and grow children to gain more of an understanding of themselves and the world that surrounds them.

Importantly, it is also impossible to learn anything if anxiety is overwhelming the mind: we cease to function properly and our minds become locked down.  That tunnel vision of thinking can manifest in so many different ways in our students: physical symptoms, excessive self-consciousness, avoidance, inattentiveness, retention issues, perfectionism and a range of other complex behavioural issues.

Emotional regulation and an understanding of how to use our emotions positivity is a significant part of what education explores. There is a moral responsibility on schools to support young people to be mentally healthy, robust and ready to face the challenges that will inevitably come their way.

Well-being in schools has become an almost hackneyed term, and in many ways it has lost its power of intention. You can see the skepticism and groans that omit from any staff when there is the ‘wellbeing training’ – that gives them an hour of imposed freedom from their spreadsheet filling and endless marking. Young people too, have often been faced with “wellbeing” activities or days that are a distraction and of little use at best, and at worst superficial over simplifications.

“Well-being”, of course, needs to be broken down and examined in many different levels in order to move beyond being a tick box exercise. It is this microscopic level of treatment I will aim to give anxiety in these pages.

To be clear here: this book is not intended to provide patronising quick fix solutions to this exploration of anxiety for teachers and students. Rather, to adapt the school kit analogy – it is intended to deepen both teachers and students’ knowledge of what anxiety really is, and to provide readers with a range of tools that can be used to help. The better the understanding of anxiety is in our schools, and the impact it has, the more we will be able to do to support those around us.

Like any “kit,” some might be more relevant and useful for others: the principle here is to provide practical choice and research-based guidance that can help to provide some degree of calm in the frantic world of our schools.  What works (some of the time) for me in managing anxiety – running, meditation and writing – will not be the ‘kit’ that will provide solace for others. Such is the rich tapestry of human emotion.

Rather than arriving at “well-being”, this book has the aim to help both teachers and students find eudaimonia – that delightful Greek term which is about the capacity for human flourishing.  To “flourish” is a far more optimistic aim: to be in a position to teach and indeed learn as well as possible has to be at the core of what will make successful schools and societies. If the balance between anxiety and calm is not right in our educational settings, then they will not be places in which anyone can thrive.

I write this introduction as the world is in a heightened state of anxiety, with billions living in isolation and the coronavirus spreading rapidly throughout the world. It strikes me as an important time to examine this emotion carefully, and consider if the establishments that are rendered temporarily obsolete are doing everything they can to ensure our teachers and young people are coping well.

No, I am not on a mission to create some kind of utopia of anxiety free schools, but I will confess that my aim in this book is to help schools become calmer, healthier, more optimistic places.  Let that challenge begin… (albeit with some degree of anxiety!)

Thank you for reading. I am hoping this book will be another very collaborative process. If you are a teacher who is living with anxiety symptoms or the parent of a young person with anxiety, I would be hugely grateful if you could get in touch and share your experience.

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Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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