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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Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 4: Where Do We Go from Here?

I started this series of posts a long time ago. In fact, I posted parts 1, 2, and 3 (you can click on the numbers to read them) over a year ago. I had every intention of writing this fourth part back then, but a funny thing happened on the way to writing it…I went back to work as a teacher!

If you read it, then you may recall that in part 1 I wrote that anxiety had robbed me of a promising teaching career that was still in its infancy at the time. That was true–I did think that at the time. But, about two weeks after I wrote part 3, I got a call from a school district nearby asking me to come in for an interview. I went and interviewed first with the principal, another English teacher, and the counselor. Before I got home from that interview, the principal called me back and asked me to come and meet the superintendent the next day. I did so, and before I got out of the parking lot, the principal called again to offer me the job. I was amazed.

In the interest of total honesty and transparency, I will admit to you that, in that moment (and many moments yet to come) I had my doubts about whether or not I could really do it. After all, the last time I had stepped in a classroom had been a year and a half earlier, and the bout of anxiety I was enduring was better, but still pretty bad. I was worried.

I won’t belabor this story except to tell you that I did it. I made it through the whole school year. It was difficult, and there were days that were very bad. I did miss days because of my anxiety, and I wasn’t able to be as big a part of the school community as I would have liked. I told my mom late in the school year that every day had been a battle, and that was true. Every day of the school year had been a battle to one degree or another. But, just as there were days that were very bad, there were also days that were very good.

I was fortunate to have an amazing group of students to work with. From day 1, they were welcoming, friendly, respectful, and willing to learn. It is true that no school is perfect because no person or group of people is perfect, but while not perfect, my students were capable and willing to work–and I asked them to work hard. In the end, the most important lesson of the year was the one that they taught me during the last days of school–I wrote about that lesson here.

My kids and me! Well, mostly the top of my bald head, but I’m not the important one in the picture.

Now, I’m preparing to move on to another school district and meet another group of students. And, again, in the interest of total honesty and transparency, I will admit to you that I am scared.

The last few weeks since school was out have been difficult. For some reason or another (with anxiety one almost never knows for sure), my anxiety has peaked again. The best and only theory I can come up with is that I’ve broken the routine I was in for 10 months; and sometimes my mind and body don’t respond well to a broken routine.

And this brings us to the central question of this post: Where do we go from here?

I’m tired. I’m worn out. I’m physically and mentally exhausted from, literally half my life being caught in the ebb and flow of my anxiety disorder. I have to find a way out of it–or, at least find a way to deal with it so that individual panic attacks don’t become strings of panic attacks, and that strings of panic attacks don’t become months- or years-long episodes of debilitating anxiety. I just can’t do that anymore–not and have any hope of a meaningful life or career. So, I’m taking what for me will be a big step…

In two weeks I will enter the Intensive Outpatient Treatment Program for Anxiety Disorders at UT Health East Texas. This program provides people like me who suffer with anxiety and depression with skills and techniques designed to help us cope with this disorder. It is not typical group counseling. I won’t be sitting around in a circle with a bunch of other people talking about my problems–not that there is anything wrong with that; it’s just not the way this program is designed. Instead, I will be in an educational environment three days a week, learning.

Hey! I’m a pretty good student these days…this could be great!

I have high hopes. I’ve tried cognitive approaches before, but have never been able to maintain the discipline and focus necessary to make them effective. Since this program is guided, I will be accountable to someone other than myself. I think that will make the difference. Hopefully, by the time school starts, I will be in a better place–a place where I can, at the very least, not worry so much about all of the what if’s.

That’s a lot about where do I go from here…what about the we?

I’ve been thinking a lot about that, too. I’ve been thinking about it because WE in this country still focus more on the mental part of mental health than we do the health part.

We must get to a place where we recognize mental health as part, a BIG part, of our overall health as human beings. We must focus more of our attention and resources on the research and treatment of mental health issues, rather than continuing to sweep them under the rug or hide them out of the way in shame.

The statistics detailing the number of people suffering from some mental health issue are staggering. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

  • Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year.
  • Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—9.8 million, or 4.0%—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
  • Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.
  • 6.9% of adults in the U.S.—16 million—had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
  • 18.1% of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias.

The costs associated with lack of treatment are equally incredible:

  • Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.
  • Mood disorders, including major depression, dysthymic disorder and bipolar disorder, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both youth and adults aged 18–44.
  • Individuals living with serious mental illness face an increased risk of having chronic medical conditions.17 Adults in the U.S. living with serious mental illness die on average 25 years earlier than others, largely due to treatable medical conditions.
  • Over one-third (37%) of students with a mental health condition age 14­–21 and older who are served by special education drop out—the highest dropout rate of any disability group.
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.,20 the 3rd leading cause of death for people aged 10–14 and the 2nd leading cause of death for people aged 15–24.
  • More than 90% of children who die by suicide have a mental health condition.
  • Each day an estimated 18-22 veterans die by suicide.

(You can read the full report by clicking here.)

Just think about that for a minute. Mood disorders are the 3rd most common cause of hospitalization in adults aged 18-44; suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for people aged 10-14 and the 2nd leading cause of death for people aged 15-24. Why should we even have statistics for suicide in people who are that young?!

We’re better than this. We have to be better than this. We are the wealthiest country in the world–the wealthiest country in the history of the world, and yet, we cannot seem to find a way to allocate enough resources to adequately research and treat mental health issues.

The budget proposed by President Trump earlier this year dramatically cut federal spending on mental health services. Likewise, the House Republican plan left the lion’s share of responsibility for those services to the states, which according to a report in U.S. News:

…would mean a cut of about $1.4 trillion over 10 years from projected spending. States would face hard choices over competing priorities like mental health or addiction treatment, nursing home costs or prenatal care for low-income women.

Fair-minded and caring people can make the argument that federal spending and debt is so out-of-control that it must be curbed before it is too late to do anything about. I don’t disagree. However, when a health issue becomes a burden to the economy–and mental health certainly has–a smarter, long-term strategy would be to allocate a level of funding that can do some good.

Regrettably, this, like so many other issues which should not be mired in partisan politics, has become mired in partisan politics. What that means is that most people who suffer from some mental health issue will, most likely, not get the treatment they need because it is either not available in their area (rural areas are hit especially hard by this crisis), or they simply cannot afford the services. Even people with health insurance are often left untreated because their plans do not cover treatment adequately or at all.

I am, by nature, not a very politically active person. I certainly have my beliefs and opinions, and from time to time I will offer them, but in general, I try to stay away from politic activism. But, I’m not sure I can stay away from this issue much longer. It is one that, for obvious reasons, I’m very passionate about. While I don’t have a lot of time to spend on it, I can certainly make my voice heard, and try to bring attention to it. I would hope you would consider doing the same.

Mental health issues touch almost every one of us on some level. Either we suffer ourselves, or we have friends or family members who do. That is what makes it imperative that we become more vocal and advocate for adequate mental health services. That is what makes it imperative that we stop sweeping the issue under the rug out of shame and fear.

We can do better.

We must do better!


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!

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

Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 1: My Long & Complicated Relationship With Panic

I don’t remember how old I was when I had an anxiety attack for the first time. Looking back, knowing what I know now, it was probably around age 10 or 11. It’s hard to say, though, because back in those days, nobody used the terms anxiety attack or panic attack–at least not anyone I knew. Back then, the closest thing I’d ever heard of resembling an anxiety attack is what people called “nervous breakdowns,” and they were only spoken of in hushed tones when kids were out of the room. Back then, only women of a certain age had nervous breakdowns; and it was only after their husbands had cheated on them. After having nervous breakdowns, women started taking Valium and keeping to themselves more. Men didn’t have nervous breakdowns. Men had “midlife crises.” They didn’t take Valium and keep to themselves. They bought Corvettes and had affairs with younger women. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s why so many women took Valium. I’m not being sexist–that’s just the way things were back then.

But, I digress…

I suppose that if those days had been these days, someone might have noticed that I was an extremely nervous little kid. But, those days weren’t these days, so nobody thought much about the fact that when I was 5, 6, and 7 years old I twisted my hair in knots so tight that my mom had to cut them out with scissors. I was just a goofy kid with a weird habit. Nobody thought much about the fact that, often, when it was time to go to school, or go to church, or go to my dad’s house for the weekend, I would get sick to my stomach and vomit several times. I was just a kid with a “nervous stomach.” Nobody thought much about it the morning that I was supposed to participate in Field Day in first grade and I woke up covered in hives–they were so bad that I cried until my mom let me wear jeans instead of shorts because I was embarrassed. I was just allergic to something–maybe a new soap, or freshly cut grass. Nobody thought much about it because kids didn’t have “nervous breakdowns” or “midlife crises,” and nobody knew anything about anxiety and panic attacks–at least not anyone I knew.

In truth, I think my mom probably did think more about it than just that. I think she knew that something wasn’t right, because otherwise ordinary little boys don’t twist their hair in knots while they’re sitting on the couch watching TV. Otherwise ordinary little boys don’t get sick and throw up every time they have to go somewhere. Otherwise ordinary little boys don’t get hives all over their bodies for no apparent reason. But, what would she have done? What could she have done? Whom would she have talked to about it? She was a single mom with few resources and an ex-husband who was all-too-willing to point the finger of blame every time anything went wrong. Besides, I wasn’t really hurting myself, and I certainly wasn’t hurting anyone else, so we treated the symptoms and hoped that someday I’d grow out of it.

But, I never did grow out of it; I only grew into new symptoms. As I said, I think I was probably 10 or 11 when I started having what I would later come to learn were (and still are) panic attacks. Back then they were infrequent–not something that I dealt with daily, weekly, or even monthly. In fact, for the most part, they didn’t intrude in my life at all. I went on field trips, band trips, family vacations; when I started driving I drove myself 30 miles away to take private trumpet lessons, and later 30 miles in the other direction to play in the Tyler Youth Orchestra. I still had problems with my “nervous stomach” and would, quite often, get sick before I went places and did things. I took enough doses of Donnagel, Pepto Bismol, and Maalox that I wish my family had purchased stock in the companies. It wasn’t until I was a freshman in college that things really started going downhill.

I was a big shot musician in high school. I played trumpet, and I wasn’t half bad. I won a lot of awards and I was selected to a lot of honor bands. I had more than one scholarship offer, and the Marine Corps was even after me to come play for them. To put it quite bluntly: I thought I was the shit. In August of 1990, however, at my very first day of band practice with the East Texas State University Marching Band, I quickly learned how easy it is to be a very big fish in a very small pond. My high school graduating class had less than 60 members, and I was sitting next to trumpet players from some of the biggest 5A schools in Texas, who had graduated with 1,000 or more students. I had two years of private lessons. Some of them had been studying privately since they first picked up their horns. I was used to being seated first chair–the lowest I’d ever sat was second, and always played the 1st Trumpet part. At ETSU, I was seated 11th and was playing 3rd Trumpet in all of our music. I was a Music Education major and my dream was to become a band director. I had never been unsuccessful at anything involving music, but I failed my very first assignment in Music Theory I–and I failed it miserably. I began doubting myself and my abilities. I questioned everything I’d ever thought about myself. And, I panicked.

The first of what I refer to as my “modern era” panic attacks–the ones with symptoms I now recognize–happened on the ETSU Marching Band practice field one afternoon. We were running through our opening drill, set to Sir William Walton’s “Crown Imperial March,” one of my all-time favorite marches. The practice “field” was a concrete slab with yard lines and hash marks painted on it. Under the full glare of an August Texas sun, it was blistering hot; and the drill was FAST! In college band drills, there is very little marking time–you hit a set and immediately begin moving to the next one. I had to march forward, backward, from side-to-side; I had to do 180’s in mid-step and head the opposite direction. Our drills sometimes required moving 15 or 20 yards in only a few short counts. In short, it was a workout; especially while holding and playing music on a polished horn that reflected that sunlight right back in my face. The director stopped us to make an adjustment to one of the sets. While I stood there waiting on the drum major to call us back to attention, I got very dizzy. Everything around me was spinning. My ears started ringing and I felt like I was going to pass out. I collapsed to the ground and was helped off the field by a couple of my band mates. I sat out the rest of practice and the symptoms didn’t last long, but the incident scared the hell out of me. There’s no doubt that I just got overheated and needed to rest and re-hydrate, but the next day it happened again, this time before we ever finished our warm-up. On the third day when it happened as we were walking from the band hall to the practice field, our band director, Mr. Bennett called me to his office after practice. He was worried and wanted me to see a doctor. I was worried, too, but I never took his advice. Not only that, I never went back to band practice. After not showing up to five straight practices, Mr. Bennett told me that my scholarship was in danger if I didn’t either get a doctor’s note or come back to practice. I told him I understood, and that afternoon I went back to my dorm room, packed all of my belongings in the trunk of my car, and drove home. That was early September of 1990–I never spoke to Mr. Bennett again and have not been back to the school since.

One of the things about Generalized Anxiety Disorder and panic attacks, which I was officially diagnosed with in 2002, that is hardest to understand is that the debilitating attacks are not constant. In fact, over the last 27 years since that day in 1990, there have been periods of time–years at a time–when I was in what might be considered a “remission” of sorts. I’ve had jobs that required long drives to and from work. I’ve gone out with friends. I’ve gone on trips and haven’t experienced any problems. Then, suddenly and most of the time without warning, they come back and I find myself unable to do the things I want to do. Jobs suffer. Relationships suffer. Family and friends suffer under the unrelenting uncertainty that comes with the malignant periods. If there were some way I could see them coming–some warning sign or symptom which might alert me to the cliff I was about to go flying over–maybe I could do something to avoid it. But, one of the most insidious things about this disorder is that those signs and symptoms simply don’t exist.

Looking back over the last 27 years, there have been four major periods when my anxiety attacks were manifest in such a way that my life was dramatically altered because of them. The most recent and current bout began last spring and continues to this day. This time it robbed me of a teaching career which was only two years old, and has sidelined me, allowing me only to work from home doing technical support for a major cable internet provider. It’s unbearably painful to look on the wall behind my desk and see a framed diploma from Texas Tech University, and to know that, any day now, I will receive my master’s diploma from the University of Texas at Tyler. It’s unbearably painful to look at my resume and see the 3.8 and 3.9 GPA’s listed; and to see my two teacher certifications listed; and to see my students’ terrific test scores listed as part of my accomplishments as a teacher. It’s unbearably painful to know that last year I went home from school sick on the Thursday before Spring Break and never came back, leaving my students confused and worried. It’s unbearably painful to look back at the many valuable friendships which have simply withered on the vine because this disorder makes me unreliable in those relationships. But, the most unbearable pain is knowing that my own family cannot count on me to always be present and available for important events. Generalized Anxiety Disorder and panic attacks are, simply put, unbearable pain.

My purpose in writing these posts is not to garner sympathy, or to gain more readers, or to earn praise for my “transparency.” My purpose in writing these posts is three-fold. First, it is an effort to give voice to people who are voiceless. Generalized Anxiety Disorder and panic attacks are too embarrassing for many, if not most, people who suffer from them to speak about. We tend to hide ourselves away, avoid contact, and make excuses for our absence and inability to interact. I want to give those people words that maybe they can’t say, or that they’re afraid to say. Second, it is an effort to bring understanding to people who don’t suffer from GAD/panic attacks about just how confusing and scary and debilitating this disorder really is. And, finally, I want to join my voice to the chorus of other voices who are demanding that resources be directed to the study and treatment of, not only GAD/panic attacks, but toward mental health in general.

This series will be at least four parts–maybe more. I want to encourage you to become a part of this discussion. Please comment, and please…if you’ve never shared anything I’ve posted before…please share these posts!! You might know someone who suffers from GAD/panic attacks, or there might be someone in your life who suffers silently. Please share these posts with and for them. I can’t tell you how passionate I am about this issue, and I want to help whomever I can, however I can.

Coming up:

Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 2: The Things You Need to Know about GAD/Panic Attacks
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 3: The Things People Say That I wish People Didn’t Say
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 4: Let’s Get Serious About This