“Every night I lie in bed
The brightest colors fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake”
—The Greatest Showman, “A Million Dreams”
It’s 2:23 am, and I am still awake. I’ve been awake since 12:51 this morning, tossing and turning and trying desperately to find the sleep my body needs. In three hours, it will be time for me to start getting ready for school, and in five hours, it will be time to head out the door. My husband, my boys, and even my wild pup Cisco are all sleeping and quiet. And here I am, wide awake at the dining room table, basking in the glow of my computer screen and the almost-full moon outside the window.
Meet my worst enemy and constant companion, Anxiety.
DARK STORM CLOUDS
When looking for a photo to go with this blog post, I knew I wanted to use a photo of dark storm clouds. I found lots of storm photos, many of which included lightning and sheets of rain. But anxiety isn’t about the lightning and sheets of rain. It isn’t about the storm itself or even the damage that it causes. Anxiety is about what “might happen.” It’s the dark, threatening clouds of anticipation swirling over our heads. The storm itself may or may not actually occur, but that doesn’t matter to our anxious brains. Anxiety feeds on the threat, real or perceived, of something horrible that might occur. One perceived threat puts our brains into fight-or-flight mode, but lots of perceived threats keep us there.
Unfortunately, my threatening storm clouds ensure that middle-of-the-night wake-ups like tonight’s occur regularly. If this were just normal stress, it would be temporary, right? A few sleepless nights, and done. This is more than that. I wake up every night, usually sometime between 12-2 am. There is never a night where I do not wake up way too early. Some nights, I manage to go back to sleep relatively quickly, in under an hour. Other nights–most of them, really–I am wide awake with a brain that just will not turn off. It’s not “a million dreams keeping me awake,” it’s a million worries. A million ideas. A million things I wish I more time to do.
MY ANXIETY WAS BORN IN AN INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL
I’ve suffered from anxiety for at least four years. It may well have been much longer than that, but four years ago is when I first named my symptoms as “anxiety.” My symptoms began shortly after I first moved to China and started working at my first international school.
Before I moved here, I had been an elementary and middle school librarian in Texas. But my ten years as a school librarian in Texas mean precisely jack-squat here in China. I am now responsible for so much more than I ever was at my school in Texas. International school expectations on teachers and students are notoriously high, and I had to learn how to do so many new things that I had never been responsible for in my Texas school libraries.
PRESTIGIOUS & PRIVATE
Add to this that international school administrators, at least the ones I’ve had, are generally unsympathetic to a teacher’s lack of experience or knowledge of doing a certain thing. School procedures change often and are not always properly-communicated, an extra hurdle for the school’s newest teachers. We are nevertheless still expected to get it done, without a hitch, and right on time.
Making the school look bad is the cardinal sin of international schools in China, so you’d better get right, period. I am not a detail-oriented person, but I had to become one in order to survive as Head Librarian of a prestigious private international school.
While that has been incredibly hard for me, it has also made me a much better librarian in the long run. I’m proud of all I’ve accomplished and continue to accomplish every day. This post is not an indictment of having challenges or stress at work. I love what I do, even if it has been a tough road. But successfully meeting those high expectations has undoubtedly come at a price.
THE PRESSURE TO PERFORM
In international schools, the pressure to perform is intense for both students and teachers and school administrators. The end-goal is that all the school’s graduating students go to college, and no other alternative is offered or explored. The teachers are expected to produce students who can pass IB exams and produce testing and university-acceptance statistics that the school’s marketing department can show off. Maybe that’s an oversimplification that isn’t the case for every international school, but it is the case for many of them.
Four years ago, shortly after I moved to China and began working at my first international school, I started waking up in the middle of the night. At first, it was random, maybe once a week or so, but in the four years I’ve been here, my night-wakings now occur nearly every night. Some nights, I wake up soaked in sweat and unable to breathe easily, my mind reeling with the 8247 tasks I needed to do the next day. Once I wake up this way, falling back to sleep is really difficult. Believe me, I try. I try for hours. Sometimes, I can fall back to sleep relatively quickly. Other nights (like tonight), I am awake so long that I just give in and get up.
ANXIETY AND HER 13 HORRID COUSINS
My work-related anxiety manifested itself in other ways, too. I started over-preparing for everything in an attempt to mitigate my excessive worry. I love teaching and presenting, but the business-side of running an international school library was a new world for me. I worried constantly about missing small details. I felt irritated when someone broke my concentration at work (which happens in the library about every 30 seconds). Every loud noise–a horn honking, a dog barking, a dramatic student screaming over a cricket in the library–made me jump out of my skin. While shopping in a crowded sporting goods store in October 2014, I had my first-ever panic attack, a scary experience that has repeated itself twice since. Because of these incidents, I now carry earbuds with me everywhere I go to help drown out noise.
13 ways my anxiety affects me, every day or most every day:
- insomnia–fall asleep easily but wake up way too soon
- constant worry
- extreme over-preparation
- night sweats
- Impostor Syndrome
- shortness of breath when anxiety is high
- intentional, planned avoidance of anxiety-inducing situations and people
- easily startled by loud, sudden, or sharp noises
- neck and shoulder pain
- biting lips and inside of cheek
- pulling at the ends of my hair
- infrequent panic attacks–I always carry earbuds now
So that’s been my anxiety journey. Maybe I’ve always had it to a degree–I have always been a lip-biter and hair-twister–but working as a librarian in an international school brought my anxiety to a whole new level. Never before would I have described myself as an insomniac. I most definitely do now.
THAT HANG-DOG LOOK OF AN ANXIOUS STUDENT
So how does all this fit in with my students? Make no mistake–anxiety is no fun. I hate it and the helpless feelings it brings. But I can say that it has made me much more attuned to anxiety in my students. I understand their struggles in a way I never could before. Like many of my students, my anxiety is 100% school-related. Unrealistically-high expectations on our students stresses them out, and in the long-term, this constant stress can turn into anxiety.
That hang-dog look of stress-related anxiety is easy to recognize in some students. Above all, they look tired. They may be pale or have bags under their eyes. They don’t stand straight and tall. They lay their heads down or maybe even fall asleep in the library. They may skip class to avoid a presentation or exam. They don’t look happy.
THE ANXIETY HIDERS
Other students are adept at hiding their anxiety from the world. These are often overachievers who seem to be on top of it all. They smile, they have friends, and they perform well. They hide their anxiety from the world, and they do it well. They are used to pushing down the anxiety and smiling despite it all.
If you are a teacher experiencing anxiety at school, I’m betting you are also a Hider. Teachers who have talked to me about anxiety are experts at hiding their anxiety. I know because I am also a Hider. No one ever knows what’s going on in my head. I smile and laugh and have a great time. The smiles and laughs are genuine, but they come at a cost. The anxiety doesn’t go away; it just waits for me to close my eyes at night.
WHY INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS ARE HOT-BEDS FOR ANXIETY
International schools are crazy-serious about academic achievement. The students’ parents are paying a pretty penny for the privilege of their child’s attendance at the school, so their expectations are also high. Too many students have been conditioned to define their worth by their academic success (or perceived failure). Every last one of them is bright and capable, but their potential isn’t always academic in nature. Others are academic, but they just cannot keep up with their many assignments. It’s the perfect storm for anxiety to take root and grow unabated.
EDIT TWO YEARS LATER: I need to note that I ultimately pulled my own children out of international schools for this very reason. Homeschooling was something I’d wanted to do for many years, and I left my job to do just that. It’s a post for another day.
TALKING ABOUT ANXIETY
Once I recognized my own anxiety and started also seeing it in my students, I did what I do best–I starting talking about it.
I ordered more books about anxiety and mindfulness, and I started booktalking them.
I partnered with our school counselor to start my anxiety booktalks with a discussion about anxiety and mindfulness.
I promoted our school’s Mindfulness Club with students and started attending the teacher version of the club on Wednesdays.
I did a podcast on anxiety and books that might help teens deal with their own anxiety at school.
Any lessons I did about research and MLA (big projects exacerbate student anxiety) now always include a few minutes at the beginning about seeking help if you are feeling overwhelmed or don’t know what to do next.
I tell students that I also struggle with anxiety so they know that I understand what they are feeling and that they can always come talk to me about it.
DEVELOPING COPING SKILLS
My decision to talk openly about my anxiety has led several students and even a couple of teachers to come talk to me about it. I’m told others have gone to our school counselor. I’m hoping all this discussion of anxiety helps to chip-away at the stigma surrounding anxiety and mental health issues. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t pretend to. I still wake up every night for my own private worry party. But I’ve also learned some coping skills over the past four years, and they really do help:
- Labeling this as Anxiety. A label means enough people experience it that it has a name.
- Daily walking. When I miss my walk, my anxiety knows.
- Breathing exercises. In. Out. In. Out. When I’m feeling anxious, I must remember to breathe.
- Petting and playing with my pup Cisco.
- Talking about it. This is a HUGE help for me.
- Helping others recognize and deal with their anxiety at school.
- Journaling. I use Penzu, a free online journaling site and app.
- Meditation. I sit on my bed, close my eyes, and breathe in and out slowly for a few minutes.
- Eating vegan. I’ve been vegan for just over a year, and I can’t tell you how much better I feel physically.
- Minimizing everything–my stuff, my obligations, my stress.
- Avoiding places and situations I know will cause me anxiety. This means I avoid riding in taxis and visiting very crowded, loud places.
- Carrying headphones and my white noise app everywhere. Because I can’t avoid every anxiety-inducing situation. I do live in Shanghai, after all.
- Reading about anxiety. Fiction, nonfiction, it doesn’t matter.
- Listening to podcasts about anxiety.
SHINING THE LIGHT
Of all the things on this list, the most therapeutic thing I’ve done about my anxiety is to talk about it. To reach out to students and teachers and my own child so that they, too, can talk about it. In our anxiety/booktalk sessions, our fabulous school counselor tells our students that the best way to deal with anxiety is to “shine a light on it.” This means we should recognize anxiety for what it is and talk about it. Don’t let it hide inside your brain. Research it. Read books and blogs by and about people who struggle with anxiety. Listen to podcasts about anxiety and stress. It’s not easy, but we are not alone. Anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of, and the more we talk about it, the more likely people will be to seek solutions.
AN INSOMNIA MIND-SHIFT
While my anxiety never really leaves me alone entirely, I am learning to live with it. The insomnia is frustrating, but I do not believe medication is the right path for me at this time. I’ve recently been exploring the idea that maybe my brain is active because sleeping is when I feel most relaxed. While worry about work is still my primary thought topic in the middle of the night, it can also be new ideas and creativity keeping my mind so active.
Tonight, for the first time in four years, I decided that instead of tossing and turning and being frustrated for a few more hours, I would just get up and use this mental energy for something productive. So I came downstairs at 2:23 and wrote this mess, in the hopes that it may help some of you, too. I may read this later this morning after I’ve had some coffee and think, “there is no way I’m posting that.” But I hope (pleading with my hours-in-the-future-self here) that I do publish it. Clean it up, of course. Add some images. Tighten the writing. But you’d better publish it, Hours-in-the-Future-Self.
ARE YOU EXPERIENCING ANXIETY AT SCHOOL, TOO?
If you also experience anxiety, I encourage you to “shine a light” on your anxiety also. Start researching it. Talk about it. Look for it in your family members, friends, students, and colleagues. Use your anxiety to help people who may struggle even more than you do. And if your anxiety is too much for you to handle on your own, please, please seek professional help. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and you deserve peace and balance in this crazy, unpredictable, loud, chaotic, colorful, bright, scary, and beautiful life.
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