Growing up with anxiety I had an incredible support system in place at home. My parents may not have understood what was going on with me, but they never questioned the validity of my emotions. They never once said ‘stop faking’ or ‘get over it’. This makes me one of the lucky ones – not everyone has this kind of support at home. School, however, was an entirely different ball game.
When I just started experiencing the symptoms of anxiety I was in the 6th grade. It was debilitating. I was scared, confused, and mentally frozen in a body that I could not control. There were many days I couldn’t go to school, and many more when I would have to leave in the middle of the day because I just couldn’t handle being surrounded by the people, the noise, and my own swirling thoughts.
There were a few teachers who were particularly supportive – they had my back, they seemed to understand what was going on before I was even properly diagnosed. These teachers supported me in any way they could, whether it was to let me sit in a quiet room on my own until I calmed down, or just help me through a panic with calming words and breathing techniques. Now keep in mind, this was before diagnosis, this was before therapy, this was before I knew how to calm myself down – and even once I learned all the techniques to do this on my own, I was only 11… not exactly an age at which I could be rational about the turmoil I was going through. This trying time was exactly the point at which my homeroom teacher was the bane of my existence.
No matter what I did or said, she always had an eye roll at the ready and a sarcastic remark. If I asked to be excused she would make a big show of huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf, flinging her hands up in the air like she was sick of dealing with me, before sending me down to the office. Needless to say – she definitely thought I was faking the stomach ache that had be doubled over. It was teachers like this throughout my tenure as a student with anxiety that not only made me question my own sanity (I mean something must be wrong with me if the person responsible for teaching me and taking care of me during the day thinks I’m such a nuisance), but made me really and truly scared to ask for help.
What if one day my mom couldn’t handle my crap and started rolling her eyes? What if one day I wouldn’t have any friends left because they all thought I was a liar and a faker? Not cool grade 6 teacher, not cool. I get that now, that I wasn’t the one in the wrong, but I didn’t get it then. As an adult, one who actually got a degree in Education, I know that teaching compassion and the importance of mental health are forefront in the program, but that’s not something I understood as a child.
Incidences like this were not exclusive to elementary school. I remember distinctly how the Guidance Counselor at my high school told my mother, in the middle of a panic attack that I was having, that I was acting out because at 15 years old I was jealous that my baby sister got to stay home and I had to go to school. Really? Here I am hyperventilating, barely keeping my shit together in the middle of a crowded high school hallway, and you’re telling my mom I’m FAKING it? Yeah, I’m lying – that’s why every Sunday night the anxiety sets in at the prospect of Monday morning, and every summer of high school I spend hauled up in my grandparent’s apartment, instead of out with my friends, because I’m faking it.
Now that’s not to say every teacher I had was awful. Some of them were the only reason I actually managed to stay in school, excel at my lessons, and graduate with almost straight A’s. My 7th grade teacher and the counselor at my elementary school spent an entire semester letting me stay in their respective classrooms every period, taking the time to teach me the subjects I was missing, because I was more comfortable with either of them and in their classrooms than I was leaving and going to my other classes. My 10th grade business teacher never once questioned my need to run out of the classroom to be alone, and when I graduated from grade 12 he shook my hand and told me how incredibly proud he was that I fought through the tough time I was having, every single day.
So yeah, there were amazing people too – but the not so great people were the ones that really stuck, because when you’re anxious it’s hard to think straight, and all the people who put you down instead of lifting you up and supporting you, well their negativity tends to stick. It makes it that much more difficult to succeed when being your own cheerleader gets harder and harder with every negative word you hear about yourself. It all makes you doubt your own capabilities that much more.
For those of you with children struggling with anxiety – or if you’re a student yourself struggling with anxiety, keep in mind you will not be able to control how other people react, but what you can do is prepare them for how YOU react. Here are the 5 keys I found really helped make a difference for my personal experience getting through school with an anxiety disorder.
Tell Your Teachers About Your Diagnosis
Have it written up by the office, or a doctor, or even a parent – that way they won’t question the validity of the statement. If they know you have an anxiety disorder, then they’re less likely to question certain behaviours, like a lack of participation on a certain day, or a need to leave the room suddenly.
Tell Your Teachers EXACTLY What You Need
Not everyone understands what an anxiety disorder is, so they may not understand what you need, or how to help you. Let them know. For instance – my letter to my teachers every semester of high school consisted of a request that I be allowed to leave the classroom in the event that I am anxious or panicking. This way I wouldn’t have to raise my hand or ask for the bathroom pass, or really have to do anything to draw unnecessary attention to myself from my classmates before I left the room. This was crucial for me – many days it gave me the confidence to even enter the classroom, knowing that I could exit it without preamble in the event of an emergency.
Find a Quiet Space
Find a quiet space in your school where you know you can go to calm down. For me this was one particular stairwell where there was a nicely lit space under the staircase, and a door that lead outside. It was close to fresh air if I needed it, and it was secluded enough that during class hours no one would see me having a breakdown.
Access to Communication
Have access to communication. I had a way to contact my mother at all times – whether it was to come and pick me up or just to talk me off the ledge. I was fortunate enough that I had a beat-up old cellphone that I could use to call her. If that’s not the case for you that’s fine, just have a similar letter submitted to the office explaining your situation so that they know if you come in to make a phone call, they’re not questioning you about your reasons. You might even be lucky and have a payphone at school (I don’t know if that’s still I thing… I’m getting old, we had a payphone) so have a pouch full of quarters available so you can make a call.
If you’re the parent reading this – reassuring your child that you are there for them and accessible in the event of crisis is a HUGE help, they may already know it but hearing it is a fantastic reminder and very calming when those nerves are acting up as they head into school.
Aside from the regular schedule of my classes, I liked to keep to a typical routine – it helped normalize my days. I still tend to live by a schedule, but I now have the proper coping mechanisms to survive a day that may veer way off what I had planned. These coping mechanisms are not necessarily something that many children or even teenagers possess, I know I definitely didn’t, so sticking to a routine could mean the difference between a disaster day and a successful one.
Don’t Give Up
Keep trying. Everyday that is a hard day that you beat is another step to learning how to handle this thing that has a grip on you. Keep fighting that good fight. Equally important is not to be so hard on yourself the days that the anxiety overpowers you – these days will happen… the important thing is not to let them stop you from waking up and trying again the next day. You got this, you really do.
Aside from having techniques to cope with your anxiety, these six things were vital for me making it through school. I graduated high school, went on to university, and graduated with two university degrees and honours – anxiety didn’t stop or end my life or development. For me, it was just a matter of finding what worked and sticking to it. Most importantly, remember – there is light at the end of the tunnel, sometimes you just have to go digging for it, and that involves finding the tools that work.