Anxiety - A Blessing in Disguise
Updated: Nov 25, 2021
This is my mental health journey in a nutshell, and how it taught me the importance of living mindfully in order to share wellness with my students during the global pandemic.
I've always struggled with anxiety, ever since I was a young child. From early on people labeled me as "shy," but I was actually just afraid to speak. It felt much safer to be quiet, and I use it as a defense to protect me from the world. But little did I know, it wasn't necessarily safer on the inside, with a critical voice lurking and positioning itself to nag me for years to come.
As I blossomed into a teenager, the world taught me that it was actually more rewarding to emotionally come out and play. It wasn't easy to emerge from my quietude, and definitely felt awkward, but I found my way little by little. Eventually, as an adult I was still shy. However, I discovered ways to stretch my social wings, and as a profession I became the last thing I ever thought I would be: a teacher. My job was to stand up in front of people for 6 hours a day, and talk. I definitely didn't see that coming.
Twenty years into my career, when the pandemic hit, I suddenly found myself teaching a class of 2nd grade students in a brand new way, through a computer screen, and my familiar friend, anxiety, came a-knocking with critical comments abounding. I was facing new frustrating technology as someone in her late forties, and my inner critic was having a field day. One of the most effective ways we started teaching lessons was through video instruction. So, there I was, fumbling with technology, but also filming myself teaching, and having to watch and experience every uncomfortable imperfection before sending it to a group of children, and their parents every day for months on end. As humbling as this was, it turned out to be a great opportunity for self-reflection, growth, and change.
One day after feeling the profundity of deep Zoom-call burnout, by some miracle I stumbled upon Yoga ed, an online training and professional development program for educators. I impulsively signed up to take two online classes that I can honesty say changed my life. One was a trauma-informed yoga class for youth, and the other was chair yoga and mindfulness practices, both designed to teach to children in the classroom. But as I studied them, I realized they were not only helpful for kids,but tremendously helpful to me! I was having an awakening.
For weeks while in lockdown, I studied my classes and took notes between Zoom calls with my students. I discovered the science and physiology behind anxiety, and what to do to help regulate your body through breathing and yoga. It was like a lightbulb was finally switching on, and I was able to see through the darkness. For the first time in my life, I had the validation and the tools to start managing what felt like a wild tornado of fear and criticism inside my own mind. And really it was so simple. Just link breathing to the sensations in your body, and move!
While in lockdown, our elementary school applied for a waiver during the 2020-21 school year, so we were able to start teaching in the classroom in October 2020. When my students first physically joined me in the fall, they were also noticeably nervous and out of sorts, while processing the pandemic, and I was thrilled because I had some tools to help! I was able to sporadically weave simple breathing exercises and some chair yoga into the academic day, and the benefits were noticeable. The children seemed more regulated and less edgy. Simply doing the exercises also validated the need for healing. Pretending everything was "normal" was not an option.
As the year progressed, and some parents reported that their children were still struggling with pandemic anxiety at home, I amped up the yoga and mindfulness work and added a15 minute yoga class to our schedule as a daily practice.
Here is what unfolded:
We often started class by practicing a Name It to Tame it exercise, noticing how we're feeling in the moment, and gave it a label. For example, right now I'm feeling worried. Then we'd say to ourselves. "All my feelings are okay." I would add that just by noticing the feeling, your body starts to heal itself. That's all you have to do! (More on Name it to Tame It, read Annette Brown's blog post.) By doing this, I've also found that practicing this exercise neutralizes that nagging critical voice that has tangled me up in the past.
Sometimes we would assign a number on a scale of 1-10 to how we're feeling. We would practice the number exercise before and after class and compare how we were feeling. By doing this we would often feel the transformation in our bodies and register and confirm it in our conscious minds. Many children would report their numbers had gone up by one or two in a class period. Recognizing that you started class at a 6 and ended at an 8 was rewarding and empowering.
Along with mindfulness, another important piece that I learned in trauma informed yoga class, was to invite the children to feel sensations in their bodies, and then match an exercise to that sensation. Some examples of sensations: having tense shoulders, holding your breath, having butterflies in your stomach, feeling physically stiff, or feeling like your heart is beating too fast. In class we might ask the children, "What sensations do you feel in your body?" If a child says, their shoulders are "stuck to their ears," we might choose an exercise like turning our heads from side to side. Or practicing a breathing exercise while relaxing our shoulders and washing away the stress with a few deep breaths.
After the mindfulness work, I would take the children through a simple yoga flow full of cat-cows, downward dogs, plank poses, cobra, rag doll, tree poses, and so on. Then I would take some time to check in and ask them to describe the difference between how they're feeling before and after yoga class. They would say things like, "My heart was beating fast before class, but now I feel calm and relaxed" or they might say they were in a bad mood at the start of class and then after felt happier.
My journey to mindfulness in the classroom was born from my personal work with anxiety, and it definitely turned out to be a pandemic silver lining. I can see from experience what powerful tools yoga and mindfulness can be. They can help children, and adults, regulate their bodies and minds to become the best versions of themselves. I think we will keep up this practice, as it's been a transformative journey for all of us, and a blessing, and for that I am grateful.