I Had a Panic Attack at School. It Impacts My Life and My Career as a Teacher

This is a Really Hard Topic for me to Write About

Trigger warning: in this blog post I write about school shootings, anxiety, and PTSD. I wrote this blog post in May 2022, after the Uvalde school shooting. I wasn’t ready to share it until now.

This is a really hard topic for me to write about. School shootings are a deeply painful and terrifying topic for everyone, myself included. Now that I’m a mom it is even more impactful. My experience with a school shooting in 2007 left me broken, and living in constant fear. It’s something that I still can’t talk about. However in light of recent tragic events, I want to share my experience because maybe it can help someone. Afterall, my mission with my blog is to help other teachers.

In the Spring of 2007 I was a sophomore at Virginia Tech. I loved my major, Biology, and I especially loved my Chemistry and Biology labs. I excelled in Organic Chemistry, and I enjoyed helping my lab group members with their lab reports. Hmmmm, was this an early sign that I was destined to be a teacher? In April 2007, I learned that I was honored with the “Star of Excellence,” an award for the top 1% of Organic Chemistry Lab students. I was so proud of my achievement, and I was excited to accept my award at a special ceremony at graduation in May. This was the last time that life was normal for me. Because on April 16, 2007, the worst thing that could ever happen, happened.

April 16, 2007 was the worst day of my life. You can look up the details of the Virginia Tech shooting for yourself, I just can’t get into it. The shooter lived in my dorm, on my floor, and I saw him from time to time. He watched tennis with a friend on the TV in the common room. When I think about that day I feel a gaping, bottomless hole in my chest and in my stomach. It aches and I feel afraid and sad. I experience flashbacks of being in lockdown that day. It was chaotic and we didn’t know what was happening. Our parents were panicked trying to reach us on our phones.

For Years Only my Husband Knew the Depths of my Fear and Anxiety

For years only my husband knew the depths of my fear and anxiety from the shooting. At the mention of the Virginia Tech shooting, I broke down in tears. I couldn’t catch my breath. When there were new mass shootings in the news, my thoughts would be overcome with my memories from that day, and it would be weeks before I could “forget” about what happened and move on. Now I see that back then, I was constantly trying to tell myself not to think about what happened. Because if I did even for a second, I became scared and a crying mess. My trauma was a tender wound, and it didn’t take much at all for me to break down and succumb to fear and emotion.

I lived like this for years. Then in September 2019, I had a panic attack at school. I was teaching 9th grade Biology. It was a normal school day. I like to arrive early so I can prep, make copies, and get some work done. Often I am the first teacher to arrive at school. I get there as early as is permitted, when security alarms are disabled. The day of my panic attack, I was alone in the science wing and working in my quiet classroom, when I was startled by the abrupt and agitated shaking of my door handle. Someone in the hallway grabbed the handle and repeatedly tried to open it, with great force. My deep fear from the Virginia Tech shooting surfaced. I didn’t know it at the time, but the action of someone violently trying to gain entry into my classroom triggered my extreme anxiety and PTSD.

I Tried to Ignore my Feelings and Carry on

Like I did so many times before, I tried to ignore my feelings and carry on. I tried to avoid thinking about Virginia Tech while I continued to prep for the day. I told myself, “Don’t think about it. Don’t cry. Just keep going.” Then when students arrived, I carried out my lesson plan. Thank goodness for my practice of writing a teacher script for my lessons, because I was completely distracted by my own fear. I remember holding back tears and my heart pounding. I felt like my life was under threat. I don’t remember exactly how it all happened after that. I think I started to crack and breakdown in front of my students. So I went back into the connected science teacher hallway and private storage area to catch my breath. My mind was blank and I was hyperventilating. My heart was beating so fast that I thought I was having a heart attack. One of my colleagues who had 1st period prep found me and asked if I was OK. I explained how I became frightened by the door handle, and I needed a moment. I must not have looked OK because before long, my science teacher colleagues, the principal, the assistant principal, and school security were by my side. I remember one of my colleagues telling me, “It’s OK, I get panic attacks too. I have PTSD from domestic violence.” This was the first time I heard about panic attacks, and also PTSD outside of the context of soldiers returned from war.

What I remember most from that day is how my coworkers and the administration sprung into action and offered me so much support. I went home early that day and my science coworkers took turns covering my classes on their prep periods. I am so grateful for the tremendous support I received. The next day, I just couldn’t go to school. I was paralyzed. Each day for a week, I called out sick. At first, I felt embarrassed about what happened, like I overreacted. But what really kept me from going in to school was my profound fear.

Looking back, my PTSD affected me regularly at school and as a teacher. I remember one morning before my panic attack, I almost didn’t exit the highway to drive to my school. I was tempted to keep driving. I didn’t want to face going to school. After getting help, I recognize that I was trying to avoid my problems in order to cope with my anxiety. There was another incident that comes to mind, which took place several years before my panic attack. I had a bored and lonely student who would regularly visit my classroom after school. I graded papers, or set-up a lab for the next day, and he would stay until I kicked him out, lol. It was late in the day, about 90 minutes after school. My classroom door was locked, and I was getting ready to leave. Long story short, this student banged and kicked the door to try to gain entry. He was so forceful that he broke the door handle. I thought he was going to break the glass. I was so frightened. I took cover under my desk, and held onto my chair in front of me. I prayed he would stop and leave. In the aftermath, administration asked why I didn’t confront the student in the moment. Now I know that my reaction to triggering experiences like this is to freeze. Fight-or-flight response might sound familiar to you, and freeze is another response to a perceived threat.

If You are Struggling, Talk to Someone.

If you are struggling, talk to someone. A professional, a therapist. That’s my advice. You don’t need to push down your feelings and just power through. Like me, you might be living with something like anxiety or PTSD. I didn’t even know I had anxiety and PTSD. And you don’t need to live life that way. I got help, and it transformed my life. I did individual therapy, group therapy, an 8 week class on Generalized Anxiety, a 8 week class on PTSD, and lots of self help. Major shout out to Kaiser, the best healthcare I’ve ever received, which provided all of this for me. Today I am truly happy because I learned about my mental health and made changes in my life to get better.

Despite all my efforts, I am still triggered in my job. In particular, shelter in place or lockdowns (even practice drills) are difficult and stressful for me. It takes me at least the rest of the day to recover. I feel out of body and totally drained. I had to completely skip out on an “active shooter” training at one of my schools because I knew I couldn’t handle it. At the recommendation of my very supportive principal, I worked from home that day. I didn’t participate, but it was triggering just thinking about the possibility of what could happen at school, and the fact that we need to do those types of trainings in the first place. The next day, I was triggered again when I went into my classroom and realized they used it for the training. All of my desks were rearranged. Two of them still blocked the second door as a barricade. I cried and did my best to hold it together for the rest of the day. Even when the PA system comes on I get nervous. I guess I am always expecting the worst to happen. And I guess I still have work to do! Unless I get a brain transplant, I’ll probably have to deal with this for the rest of my life. There are times when I wonder if I can ever return to the classroom.

It was healing for me to write this blog post. I wrote through many tears, and large, suffocating lumps in my throat. I processed my feelings in a different way than before. In a way I feel better for releasing some of my private thoughts and feelings out into the open. I don’t expect that I will write about this topic again. But I am open to writing about my anxiety and how it impacts my life and teaching. Let me know if that’s something you would want to hear about by leaving a comment.

Thank you for reading this part of my story. I hope it can help someone out there who is going through something. The stress and challenges of teaching are big problems. A lot of teachers out there are having a hard time, and unfortunately many talented and caring educators leave the profession every year. I would love to be part of the conversation and help other teachers. Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment. If you want to read more about the challenges in teaching and mental health you can check out my blog posts below.

Live for 32. Rest in peace to the amazing and innocent lives that were cut short. Rest in peace to Maxine Turner, who was my sometimes violin stand partner in our high school orchestra. She was always nice to me and to everyone.

Published by How She Teaches

I teach Biology and Earth and Space Science in high school and middle school. I want to share my personal experiences and teaching milestones with anyone who wants to learn.

2 thoughts on “I Had a Panic Attack at School. It Impacts My Life and My Career as a Teacher

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