I was 11 years old when I had my first panic attack. I didn’t know what it was at the time, of course. All I knew was that it was the most terrifying thing I had ever experienced.
That was 1986, and since then I’ve received a variety of treatments and therapy for an anxiety disorder. For much of my adolescence, attending school was a struggle. I was plagued by separation anxiety, low self-esteem, and a variety of phobias that made it difficult for me to get through the day. Many mornings (and afternoons) were filled with tears, bargaining, and sometimes outright hysteria. 6th, 7th, and 8th grades were particularly hard, and I spent a great deal of time in the nurse’s office on the phone with my mother begging to come home. I truly did not believe that I would survive what was happening and was terrified of the feelings I was having. As I grew older, my anxiety and depression ebbed and flowed, with good weeks followed by horrible days. In high school, I still participated in sports and clubs, earning my varsity letter and serving as editor of the newspaper. But most days, this “normal” life was difficult work that required more effort than anyone seemed to understand. Through therapy and medication, I learned to manage my feelings and work to create a lifestyle that helped me limit the attacks.
I was lucky. I benefited from a very supportive (and patient) family and a small group of friends who never shamed me when I insisted on leaving places early or disappearing to call my parents. I also had a group of compassionate teachers and school personnel who went out of their way to make me feel safe and understood during my worst moments. My 6th grade teacher, my high school vice principal, and my 10th grade English teacher, in particular, allowed me to manage my illness while still holding me accountable for my school work and challenging me to face my fears. It often took a village to get me through a school day – a wide and very patient one. Through their persistence and support, I graduated high school and college and eventually became a teacher myself. I had their actions in mind as I worked with my students, keeping a watchful eye for those struggling as I had, and sharing my diagnosis with all of my students so that they knew it was okay to ask for help.
Regardless of a student’s emotional health, the classroom setting can be a difficult one. It’s rife with stressors, both academic and social. Anxiety is different for everyone, and for those who suffer it is often difficult to explain what they’re feeling. For me, what helped the most was when people listened. My feelings didn’t make sense to me, but sharing them without judgment allowed me to work through them. I benefited greatly from being able to leave the classroom quickly to work through my anxiety, but I benefited more from being required to return. Having limits and expectations worked well for me, but it worked largely because people had worked with me to develop a plan and listened to me when I explained what I was feeling.
Navigating the emotions of a school day is challenge for both students and teachers alike, and it’s critical to have support networks in place for those who need them.
Article written by Lisa Lark, Community Care Services Board Member and Communication Specialist at Varroc Lighting Systems.