[Editor’s note: Don’t miss our companion piece, “5 things to say to students suffering from anxiety.”]
Currently, schools are being inundated with cases of anxiety in young adults. Although the dramatic increase in attention being paid to the illness has been beneficial to those suffering, the difficulty lies in the fact that everyone thinks they understand anxiety and how to overcome it.
As a public high school administrator, I lead interventions for students in poor academic standing. Although many students have logistical circumstances keeping them from being successful—homelessness, employment, learning disabilities, etc.—many of them are school avoidant because of anxiety that is, quite frankly, debilitating.
A quick look at anxiety
Anxiety is essential to human survival. It’s the basis of the fight-or-flight response that dates back to the days of our ancestors’ most primitive survival. Anxiety alerted our ancestors of danger. The emotional brain was, and still is, wired to be on high alert in case a predator was hunting our ancestors. Anxiety would tell them to flee. As a matter of fact, anxiety still tells us to flee if we perceive danger. For our ancestors, however, anxiety literally saved their lives.
As our world has changed, we’ve removed ourselves from nature in such a way that we no longer follow the rules of evolution and ecology. We are no longer in danger of being hunted down by predators in the bush, so we’ve lost the primitive need for our anxiety. But, physiologically, we are still wired to be on high alert for survival.
As stress hormones bathe our emotional brains in times of high anxiety, our physiology becomes validated. This is how anxiety evolves in students who suffer from it. For those with “quieter” emotional brains, understanding anxiety can be difficult. These people attempt to help those suffering by providing advice in times of panic. It’s an honest attempt at providing support and insight for individuals who are lost in their illness. I see these support attempts daily: Parents, guardians, counselors, classmates, staff, and friends all make a concerted effort to help, but rarely is it ever productive.
Responding to anxiety
The attention that a student’s anxiety brings can itself be anxiety inducing. Students often feel shameful that they’re struggling; they understand very little about their body’s physiology and its impact on their emotions. Teachers and staff try to help with words of encouragement and advice, but unless they too are suffering from anxiety, the chances of them understanding what the student is experiencing is very slim. Students need advocate and mentors. They need more than sympathy; they need empathy.