Anxiety and education: “This moment does not define you”

College chaplain Maggie Alsup reflects on how her anxiety followed her throughout her education and the kindness of certain teachers that granted her perspective.

Photo by Jason Coudriet on Unsplash

I was a child who worried. As a young student, I overthought each assignment in my mind, working myself into a sickness. I am not sure what caused it, but it was something that followed me all my educational journey. It is also something that creeps into my life today.

I will never forget the kindness of my past teachers and the grace they extended to this little bundle of worry. The first vivid memory I have of this kindness came when I was in third grade. It was the big year for standard testing. Days and days of testing are never a fun thing, but when someone suffers from anxiety it creates big problems and fear. As I braced for the first round of exams, I remember my first-grade teacher wandering the hallways of my elementary school to find me. She knelt to look me in my worried eyes and told me, “Maggie, this is just a test. You are smart. You are prepared. You will do great.”

These words brought comfort to my worried mind. And it became something that she would do again and again throughout these tests in elementary school. It was something that as I transitioned to middle school and then high school, would bring me comfort as I continued to take exams. I could always remember back to that day and see my teacher’s face, hear her words of affirmation, and it would calm me.

The worry changed shape as I studied in college and as a bundle of anxiety around testing, I would panic before exams. I would get sweaty palms, my heart would race, and my blood pressure would skyrocket. There was a new level of worry that set in during my college years. But there was also one professor who could sense this worry and worked with me to calm this worry. Before each exam, he would look out to us and state, “This is just an exam. It is not a judgment of your real merit or worth.” He would also type those on the first page of each of his exams. Hearing him speak these words, seeing them written down before me, would cause some of my worry to melt.

As I look at my ministry and think about my first-grade teacher and that college professor, I am reminded of what grace and compassion can look like. I hope I carry their sense of grace with me into my ministry. I hope that when I encounter students in moments of worry, they can gain a sense of calm from hearing the words that “This moment doesn’t define you. It isn’t a judgment of your real merit or worth. You are smart. You will do great.”

I do catch myself before each exam or assignment, reminding my students that they are smart and worthy and that these assignments or exams are not a real judge of their merit or worth in the world. I do speak words of affirmation and grace to them. I see the pain and panic ease. The worry most likely still exists, but the affirmation that this one moment in my class does not define them causes a sense of relief.

I hope this is something that I never lose. I hope that my office and my interactions with students remind them that they are more than their worries, that even in a system of higher education when things are all about tracking data and numbers, they are so much more than an exam or assignment. They are valued for who they are, worry and all.