Working with worry. Teaching 2024.

Working with worry.

It is normal at certain points in our lives to encounter worry. There will be times of peak challenge. Proving ourselves early in our career, in a new school, in a new role. Or when we are approaching testing times where we may feel a risk of failure. It might be about preparing for an interview for a job – or worrying about the impact of not getting an internal promotion and what the meaning of that might be.

Sometimes, something will happen in our lives that gets under our skin, that reveals our inherent frailty and vulnerability. Like having a sore spot in our mouth, we can’t stop mentally probing, checking, testing, inflaming the tenderness.

Teaching is stressful in many ways – hopefully the stress is matched and ideally exceeded by its many joys. However, inherent to the work, is trying to get other people to do certain things, to change, to grow, to learn. And that is ultimately not really in our control.

As I write, exam season is already getting started in the UK-  which brings with it more pressure, more anxiety. Are they ready? Have I covered everything sufficiently? Do they need more testing? It is easy to wake in the dead of night with racing thoughts about the rubric of the updated syllabus…

There is also the creeping mandate of teaching as a caring profession. It’s hard to keep that separation between what’s our stuff and what’s not our stuff – the responsibility of our students themselves, recognising their agency and accountability, and their parents.

A child behaves badly in our class, and we blame ourselves. A teenager isn’t doing the business with their work, and we wonder what more we could or should be doing. Our class makes the cover teacher’s life hell, and we feel shame.

In my experience – as a former school leader, as well as having been a Teacher Union representative and now as a professional coach and trainer, worry is quite common in the teaching profession.

Teaching is a high stakes enterprise – we often feel responsible for the futures of the children we work with. Our vocation is rich in purpose, but it means we identify very strongly with our work and that enmeshment can be entrapping as much as it is also uplifting.

It is not at all rare for people to fear and feel quite profound collapses of self esteem from relatively minor mishaps, or from situations not fully in their control. This leads to often misplaced guilt, shame, ongoing suffering from worry. Also, crucially, real difficulty in connecting with others and getting perspective or giving themselves permission to move on.

I remember in one of the first schools I worked in, back in the days before email…the Head had a mantra – that we must ‘Love the girls’. They used to write letters of praise on beautiful embossed paper, with her elegantly crafted handwriting. Oh, how we treasured them and chased these letters. Trophies of our success. Affirmations of our treasured status as ‘good teachers’.

This Head also used the same paper and pen to send terse missives of disappointment. I remember being seriously concerned for the wellbeing of an older colleague who received a note after a trip she organised ended – not in disaster – but sub-optimally because of the weather. I make no exaggeration when I say that she never seemed quite the same again.

It’s when we get stuck and live with pervasive worry loops, or even intrusive thoughts, that we put ourselves into overdrive.

Ironically we can’t think our way to safety. Neither can we think ourselves out of anxiety when thinking is our only tool…the brain speeds up, we think some more, we give another push to our already overactive term-time activation state.  

We need to be able to feel our way into safety. In order to slow or stop the revolving door of worry, we need to be able to engage curiosity, patience, acceptance.

Facing ourselves in our worries with self-compassion, rather than defending against and distracting ourselves from them can be really helpful. One of the problems is, life in school is full-on and so immersive when we are in front of a class that the thinking time is very limited.

This is why often worry only comes out in the evenings when we can find ourselves preoccupied in our down-time with friends or family. Or facing a flood of worries as soon as our heads hit the pillow.

The following is written with teachers and professionals who work with children in mind primarily – although the ideas and the science have a more universal application. If you  – or a colleague – are beset by worry, the following toolkit could be a helpful starting point.

Equally as a teacher, we will come across children and teenagers who are also caught in the grip of worry. Some of the practical ideas below might be so helpful to you in listening to them, and giving them a steer so that they – and we – can feel better equipped and empowered when faced with worries.

Working with worry action plan:

What we can do:

  • Meeting your worry head on may feel counterintuitive as worry is NOT pleasant and it’s something we try not to do. I once heard the trauma therapist Peter Levine say memorably that what we turn and face transforms us, but what we run away from pursues us.
  • Try exploring and expressing your worries outside of the dark, internal, private space of your cranium! Speaking to a trusted friend or family member. Talking to a colleague, a mentor, your line manager or union representative. Finding a non-judgmental space to talk can be crucial to you being able to see what’s going on more clearly and be more purposeful and discerning about it. In 2017 a study revealed that most of what we worry about never materialises. In fact 85% of what the subjects in the study worried about never came true. And with the remainder that did, 79% discovered that they handled the difficulty better than expected or the difficulty taught them something worthwhile. That’s a LOT of suffering for nothing…
  • Expressive writing exercises may help. Getting your fears on paper and looking through them to get perspective can be so helpful. Time it. Don’t hold back with imagery and expression. You can shred it or even burn it later – a liberating symbolic act! Fold the page and return to it later in a more restful state – maybe even the following day. Look at the tone, the energy of what you wrote. Where were you real…where did you reveal some excesses of catastrophisation…Which are useful worries – ones you can do something about…which are not helpful because they are outside of your control…Were there any fears that were just a bit silly when you read about them in a cooler frame of mind? Now you have pulled down what the clutter of worry was in your attic and brought up the fears that were in your basement…then you can have a real clear out.
  • Separate from your worries – they are just thoughts and they will pass. Try a short ‘interrupter’ ritual. You could simply actively observe ‘Ah. I’m starting my worry loop.’ And then go through a sequence of slowing your breath, or mindfully looking for 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste. Or imagine a button in the palm of your hand. Breathe in, breathe out, visualise a red button and press it once. Breathe in, breathe out, visualise an amber button and press it once again. Repeat, but visualising a green button. The thing is it takes about 90 seconds for us to biologically experience a flush of anxiety. The part of the brain that causes the stress reaction is primitive. It’s designed to ding the alarm…it’s the higher order functions of the brain that keep us up in high stress activation. It’s akin to distracting a toddler just as they are about to have a tantrum.
  • When you think about anxiety, avoid identifying with it eg ‘my anxiety’ ‘I’m just a worrier’. How we speak to ourselves matters, it affects our self-conception. Telling ourselves slightly different stories about who we are and what we are going through can be helpful in making a shift.
  • Filter your worries. What’s in your control, what is not. Separate what’s really your ‘stuff’, and what is other people’s ‘stuff’. It’s hard when professionally people are constantly asking us to step in, go the extra mile to promote progress, intervene and prevent students from falling by the wayside. Equally we might be worrying about a student we are supporting pastorally. In this case also, it’s about making it less about us, more about ensuring we are part of a bigger whole. Who else knows, who else is supporting, who else is involved? Who is supporting you in supporting that child?
  • Do an inventory on the impact of your worry. Focus on the impact on your mind, on your energy, on your body. Really look at getting disenchanted with it and feeling it in your core…not only logically in your brain. Get curious, stay with it to let the impact sink in – accept that it’s going on. Our brains worry because there is a reward to it. It feels busy and productive…but actually it’s not. And we know it’s not. But it’s so very hard to free ourselves from it. We need to re-educate our brains – and invoking and internalising disenchantment with worry gives you a chance to be more successful in your behaviour change. Then you can let other things into your life that will be – and feel – much better for you! Like rest! And balance! Connection!
  • Externalising the worry – recognise the script of your inner worry worm. Give it a character, go into dialogue. ‘I see…here’s fear-talk again. I’m not jumping on that thought train…It doesn’t help when I do…’
  • Using self-compassion exercises. Look up Dr Kristen Neff and her books – Self Compassion – the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, and Fierce Self-Compassion. She promotes a practice of recognising your struggle. Linking your struggle with a bigger, wider picture of common humanity…who else is going through similar right now? And tending to yourself with the same kindness and warmth that you would to a dear friend. One problem we have as educators is that we are often caring a great deal more about nurturing and helping other people than we are in exercising much needed self-care. And it can drive us to be very harsh and critical to ourselves when we struggle, and push ourselves even harder.
  • Learn to let go – and don’t fall into Dr Jud Brewer’s ‘take-it-home’ burnout habit loop. There’s a lovely extract from a letter from the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1854 when his daughter, Ellen, was living away from home and had made a mistake she was worried about:

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders, losses, and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can.

Tomorrow is a new day; let today go so you can begin tomorrow well and serenely, with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. Each new day is too dear, with its hopes and invitation, to waste a moment on yesterdays.”

Beautiful words. And I hope that in reading this article, you have some practical things to try out.  Clinical psychologist Rick Hanson says “Action binds anxiety; that’s a research finding. If you take appropriate action and you know what you’re doing, it’ll calm you down.” (See his books – ‘Resilient’, and ‘Neurodharma:New Science, ancient wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness.’)

I hope this helps. If you have any techniques that work particularly well for you – I’d love to hear from you.

Reading list / Related reading:

Rick Hanson – Resilient, Neurodharma

Kristen Neff – Self Compassion, Fierce Self Compassion

Dr Judson Brewer – Unwinding Anxiety – Train your brain to heal your mind.

Peter Levine – An Autobiography of Trauma – a healing journey, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma

Charles Duhigg – The Power of Habit

More to explore