The Myth of “Safety”

It’s taken me a long time to write this post. I actually started it almost two weeks ago; but, for various reasons, not the least of which has been my own up-and-down battle with anxiety and stress, it’s taken until today to finish.

Better late than never, I suppose…

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written  here on the blog, which is odd when you think about it. There’s so much anxiety and stress wrapped up in our current situation with the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic–you’d think I would have a lot to say about it. And, I do, but until now I haven’t been able to come up with the words I need to say it. Who knows if this post will even accomplish that. But, I’m going to try.

So, on that note, let’s talk about…

When I teach my students about myths, I’m very careful to make sure they understand that, in the context of literature, the word myth does not carry with it the negative connotation that we endow it with in modern speech. While myths as stories are fictional, they are, for the most part, based in genuinely held beliefs and are used to explain the inexplicable in nature. That’s why I’ve purposely chosen the term to describe the phenomenon I’m writing about today.

In the late spring of 2009, I began having severe panic attacks again. As I’ve written about previously, although my anxiety is persistent at some level on a daily basis, from time to time, I go through what I refer to as malignant periods–periods where my anxiety is severe and acute. That spring was one of those times. As usual, I had (and still have) no idea what precipitated their onset. Quite literally, I had a panic attack when I got off the elevator at work one morning, went home a few minutes later, and never went back. That marked the beginning of what was an almost year long battle.

The Olympians

As with all of my previous malignant periods, I sought what I believed to be the safety of my home and my family. They were my safe place and safe people. But, as time went on, and as this period of severe panic and anxiety lingered, those safety nets got smaller and smaller until, by the end of that summer, I was essentially confined to my bedroom. I only left its confines to get food or use the restroom, and I certainly didn’t leave the house. Even then, I didn’t feel safe.

That’s why I refer to the myth of “safety.” I truly believed that I could and would be safe from my anxiety and panic in my own house and with my own family. In the beginning I felt safe; but as the panic attacks continued on, my world became smaller and smaller, until there was nothing left of it but my bed, my desk, and my television.  The myth had been shattered. I realized that there was nowhere I could run and no one I could run to that would afford me real safety.

Fast forward…Spring 2020

Here’s the hard truth about Coronavirus (and almost all other viruses & bacteria): hiding from them won’t stop them. We can lock ourselves away from now until eternity and that virus will still be out there.

There are people who truly believe that if we all shut ourselves inside long enough that we can kill the virus–that we can starve it of enough places to land that it will become a non-entity. They believe that hiding away offers safety. That is a myth–a genuinely held belief that explains the inexplicable in nature.

Now, let me be careful to say that I am not suggesting that we simply go on about our lives as if nothing is wrong. That is foolishness. This virus is very real, it’s very deadly, and we need to take it seriously. We need to mitigate as much as possible to protect the most vulnerable members of our population. But, we also need to be realistic. Staying locked away forever won’t kill this virus. It doesn’t offer us the sort of “safety” we so desperately need right now.

OK, if I’m not really “safe”, what do I do with the fear?

This is a good time to remind you that I am not a psychiatrist, nor a psychologist, nor a trained counselor. I’m just a guy who has suffered from panic and anxiety since he was a little kid. But, over the years, I’ve learned some things that help me when my anxiety and panic are peaked out, and I’ll share them with you.

  1. Educate yourself. If your anxiety/panic are caused by something which you don’t know a lot about, but which presents at least some level of threat to you, educate yourself about that thing as much as you can. This is the case for many of us in our current situation. We don’t know enough about this virus yet, and we always fear what we don’t know. Find reputable resources for accurate information (I’ll provide some below). I don’t include media in this category, not because I think they’re purveyors of false information, but because I understand that they have paying advertisers to satisfy with maximum viewers and maximum clicks on stories.
  2. Avoid information overload. This one is tough for me because I’m an information junkie. I want as much information as I can get my hands on as quickly as I can get my hands on it. Unfortunately, that often leads to information overload which leads to increased anxiety and becomes a vicious cycle. Turn off the television. Back away from social media. Find something to do that offers you a break from reality. I’m not saying turn everything off and pretend nothing is happening, but give yourself a break from the onslaught of numbers and theories and arguments.
  3. Mind your physical health. One of the things I have learned about over the years of my struggle is the mind/body connection. It’s very real and it works both ways. Just as much as an unhealthy mind can lead to physical illness, an unhealthy body can contribute negatively to our overall mental health. It’s important to eat healthy foodsdrink plenty of water (stay hydrated), exercise our bodies, and for heaven’s sake GET ENOUGH SLEEP! 
  4. Isolate without being isolated. I know what you’re thinking — “Huh?” Just trust me here. We’re all being told how important it is to avoid being too close to crowds of people for long periods of time. We’ve learned this new term, “social distancing,” and it’s ubiquitous in our culture now. But, it’s important to remember that, as you isolate yourself in an effort to avoid exposure to Coronavirus (as much as that’s possible to do), it’s equally important not to isolate yourself from the rest of the world. Stay in contact with family and friends. Visit with them in person if possible, maintaining recommended protocols. Talk to them on the phone, via Skype or Zoom or FaceTime, etc. Most importantly, BE HONEST with yourself and with them. If you’re struggling, let someone know. Don’t struggle alone.
  5. Be realistic and don’t ask too much of yourself. We’re all glad (well, many of us anyway) that the restrictions are easing up–that we’re beginning to be able to get out and about more, and that there is some good news out there about the virus and progress being made toward vaccines, treatments, and just general knowledge about it. But, not everyone feels comfortable enough yet to get out and about. That is OK!! It’s important not to put a time table on your own ability to manage anxiety. Not everyone feels better at the same speed. If you’re still not comfortable getting out, then don’t push yourself. Set realistic goals that you can achieve. Don’t compare yourself to others.
  6. Seek professional help if you need it. This is an incredibly stressful time we’re living in. Truth be told, it’s probably the most stressful time most of us have ever lived in. For me, the only time I can compare it to is the days and weeks immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The sort of fear and stress we’re experiencing now can cause long-term mental health issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Panic Disorder; not to mention depression. These are all very real and very serious. If you think you might be suffering from any of these, it’s important to get professional help as quickly as possible. There are resources available to help. Don’t wait.

The reality of the situation…

The point I’m trying to make with this post (see, I told you I was still struggling for words) is that it’s important not to get caught up in a myth. While myths can help us process the brutality of reality, they can also generate a false sense of safety that ultimately works against us.

Isolated

Oh, it’s very true that we can continue to make our world smaller and smaller, and we can continually limit contact with the outside more and more; but in the end, if we do that, we’re just damaging ourselves in a different way. I know this from personal experience, and that’s how I’ll end–where I began…

By the end of summer 2009, I was essentially confined to my bedroom. I didn’t leave the house for any reason, and people didn’t come to see me very often. My only contact with the outside world was my immediate family and Facebook. That isolation caused a lot of damage that took years to repair. I didn’t trust anyone. I felt paranoid of people’s motives. I worried constantly that I had some serious physical illness, and regardless how small I let my world become, I still didn’t feel safe. 

I hope that something I’ve written here has made some sense to you or offered some encouragement or at least made you think a little. Be well. Be safe. And try to find some light!

My Story

If you’d like to read more about my history with anxiety and panic disorder, click the link below:

Anxiety — Destroyer of Lives, Part I: My Long & Complicated History With Panic

Mental Health Resources

If you, or someone you know or love, is suffering from a mental health problem, I urge you to reach out and seek treatment, or offer your support and help for your loved one who is suffering. Below are a few numbers to call for help in finding resources near you.

Please like and share this post…you never know who you could help!

If you are considering harming yourself or someone else, CALL 911!!

National Suicide Prevention Hotline – 800.273.8255 (TALK)

Veterans Crisis Line – 800.273.8255 (Press option 1)

Treatment Referral Hotline – 877.726.4727

For more resources: www.mentalhealth.gov

5 (+1) Tips To Reduce Anxiety on the First Day of School (with COVID-era upate)

It’s that time again…

Back to School!

The first day of school is just around the corner (already here in some places), and for students, parents, and teachers alike, knowing that first day of school is coming can produce a lot anxiety and sometimes enough stress to make you sick!

But it doesn’t have to be that way…

jason walker wearing shirt and tie standing in front of projector screen

Mr. Walker on his very first first day of school as a teacher!

When I was still in the classroom teaching, I dreaded the first day of school. I never felt prepared and I always felt like I was going to crash and burn as soon as the first bell rang!

No matter what I did, the first day of school always seemed to be the most daunting day of the entire school year.

I remember my first day teaching in my first year teaching. I didn’t sleep at all the night before, and when I finally got out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to get ready to go, I thought the world was going to end. I had major anxiety: dizziness, upset stomach, cold sweats, headache, racing heart, shortness of breath…

You name the symptom and I had it!!

But, somehow I got through that first day, and the other 175 days that came after it. Somehow, I always got through the first day of school every year, and I was always glad I did.

And, believe me when I tell you that if I did it, YOU CAN, TOO!

Here are 5 Tips to Reduce Anxiety on the 1st Day of School:

1. Don’t stress about being prepared — you won’t be!

It didn’t matter how much time I spent on lesson plans, setting up my classroom, gathering materials, cleaning, making copies….I never had everything done on the morning of the first day of school. And, guess what? You won’t either!

But, the great part about that is that, it’s OK! Your students will probably be too worn out from summer and overwhelmed themselves to notice. Not being 100% prepared on the first day will not permanently damage any of your students. So, give yourself a break. You will get it done…another day!

2. Make sure that you are well-rested.

Notice I didn’t say, “get plenty of sleep the night before”…right?

If you’re anything like me, you just can’t sleep when you’re nervous. And, if you’re like me, you’re going to be nervous the night before the first day of school. If you don’t sleep 8 hours, DON’T PANIC! There are ways to mitigate the damage.

Take a good nap during the afternoon before. Hey, who doesn’t love a nap? At least your body will get some rest that day.

Don’t do anything major on the day before the first day of school. I once had a colleague who ran a charity 5K every year right before school started. Several of them happened on the day before. I really don’t recommend this.

Use the day before the first day to let your body rest. Don’t do anything stressful–especially anything like preparing for the next day. Take it easy. Watch a good movie. Have a good meal. Spend time with your family.

RELAX!

3. Give yourself plenty of time.

One of the biggest mistakes that a lot of people make, not just teachers, is not giving themselves enough time in the morning. Being in a rush, even if you’re not running late, creates more even more anxiety.

If it normally takes you an hour to get ready in the mornings, give yourself an hour and a half on the first day.

If your commute is 30 minutes, give yourself 45.

If you know there will be a line at the copy machine–do your copying several days ahead, or better yet, do an activity on the first day that doesn’t require making a bunch of copies.

Whatever you need to do, be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to get there and get down to work. No one ever made a difference by being in a rush!

4. Eat something–ANYTHING, even if you don’t feel like it.

You remember what grandma used to say: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

Well, guess what? She was right!

There have been numerous studies that have shown students who don’t eat a good breakfast in the morning before school don’t perform as well. The same thing is true for teachers.

If you go to school hungry, even if you don’t realize you’re hungry because your nerves are on edge, you simply won’t perform well. You know what I’m talking about. You’ll end up with a headache, upset stomach, lethargy, and you’ll be a bear to your students in the class period before lunch!

Even if you don’t feel like it, be sure to eat something. Some crackers and cheese, or peanut butter; a piece of toast and cheese…eat something with some protein and carbs so that you’re full and have plenty of energy.

5. Remember, there is only ONE first day of school!

This is maybe my favorite one of all!

Whatever happens; however terrible (or terrific) the first day of school is, remember: there is, and will ever be, ONLY ONE first day of school. You will get through it. The last bell will ring. The students will go home, and you will, too.

Yes, the first day is stressful. Yes, you will be nervous and anxious and excited and worried and thrilled and all of the other emotions at the same time. And, yes, at the end of it you will be exhausted…but, it will be over, and it will be the only one of the year.

Remember that while you read the note little Johnny’s mom wrote to you complaining that she has to spend her money on “school supplies for other kids.” She’ll only write it once!

And, just for you, my readers….

BONUS TIP…..BREATHE!!!

That’s right. Whatever you do, don’t forget to breath.

In through the nose for four seconds. Hold two seconds. Out through the mouth four seconds.

Purposely slowing your breathing accomplishes three things:
1. It lowers the heart rate.
2. It lowers the blood pressure.
3. It ensures that your brain and body are getting enough oxygen.

All of those things reduce anxiety.

2020 Update: The First Day in the COVID-19 Era

If you had told me last year at this time that in one year’s time I’d not only be teaching fully online, but also taking classes fully online; and if you would have told me that almost six months would have passed since I would’ve eaten inside a restaurant; and if you would have told me that millions of people around the world would be dead from a virus that, until February, I (like most other Americans) had never hear of — I would have probably laughed in your face and told you that you were crazy.

But, I am, it has been, there are, and that’s the way we begin school in the COVID-19 era…

I wish I had a magic wand to fix this. Or, at the very least, I wish I had a crystal ball to tell you when it would all end. But, I don’t have either of those things. In fact, since transparency is the name of the game here on the Anxiety Diaries, I’m going to be complete transparent and tell you that I’m not handling this well at all. I’ve taken some major steps back in my battle with depression and anxiety. Thankfully, I’m attending school and teaching at a university that has seen fit to allow students and professors to decide what works best for them and I can do everything online for now. But, if that weren’t the case, I don’t know if I’d still be teaching or going to school at all.

For millions of teachers and students around the country, the first day of school is just around the corner, or has already started, and they’re back, in the buildings, in some Twilight Zone existence featuring masks, keeping six feet apart, not touching, constantly washing or sanatizing hands, and in some cases separated by plexiglass bariers attached to their desks. Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t have written it better for a movie. If that’s you, and if you’re anxious and nervous and not sure about any of it, here’s what I suggest:

  1. Educate yourself. Make sure that you are up to date on the latest information about and recommendations for staying healthy in the midst of a pandemic.
  2. Enforce boundaries. You know what you’re comfortable with. Don’t let people guilt you into doing something you don’t feel safe doing: if you don’t want to hug, don’t; if you don’t want to shake hands, don’t; if you don’t want to eat lunch at a full table, don’t. Do what you need to do to be calm.
  3. Take time for yourself. Don’t allow yourself to get inundated like you normally do during the school year. Leave some free time in your schedule to decompress–you’ll need it.
  4. BREATHE! This is always most important. Don’t forget to breathe!!!

As cliched and trite as it sounds right now, we will get through this. It’s going to take time, but we will. And, I firmly believe that when we do we will be better for it.

So, those are my tips for getting through the anxiety and stress of the first day of school, even in this COVID-19 era. Be well. Be safe. Be happy.


Tell me what you think. In the comments below leave your thoughts, share your experiences, offer other tips that have helped you. Or, just offer a word of encouragement for all the teachers and students heading back to school in the next few days! Click on “Leave a reply,” enter your name and email (don’t worry, I’m not going to spam you or sell your email address), and then write away.

And, as always, if you’ve found this post helpful, please be sure to like and share!!

Have a great year, everyone!

Much love!
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