[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.
Related: 8 ways I practiced mindfulness this year
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.
5 things to avoid saying
Here are five things I’ve heard educators say to students with anxiety that are not only unhelpful, they are detrimental; removing these statements from our repertoire is a healthy starting point.
1. “It’s going to be okay.”
What’s going to be okay? The anxiety being felt? A comment like this is too general and comes off as dismissive. Anxiety doesn’t feel okay or fine. It feels overwhelming. Clinical anxiety isn’t a feeling that comes on because of one specific, identifiable reason. It’s not like being nervous for a test or a meeting. Anxiety is panic, worry, discomfort that sets in out of nowhere. Those with anxiety have to think deeply about why they’re feeling anxious. Nerves have a lifespan, but anxiety does not.
2. “Just relax.”
Anxiety is a silent nemesis. More often than not, a person’s affect doesn’t match his or her effect. A person with anxiety feels panic but is likely acting quiet and reserved. In fact, what they are trying to do when the anxiety sets in is exactly that … relax. You’re not telling them something they don’t already know or aren’t already doing.
3. “Don’t worry.”
If only the anxiety sufferer had thought of that! Anxiety strikes overthinkers. The internal conversations that occur happen ad nauseam and run the gamut. From thinking themselves into the anxiety in the first place to begging and pleading with themselves to breathe and not worry about it, they’re already working on it.
4. “Everyone gets anxious.”
Everyone does get anxious. Not everyone, however, has anxiety. Being anxious makes us more aware of our surroundings; it’s how our emotional brains are wired. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a miswiring of our brains. It’s a physiology that is not working properly, much like the physiology that doesn’t properly produce insulin in a diabetic. Being anxious is healthy physiology; anxiety is not.
5. “It’s not worth getting this upset about.”
To a healthy individual, anxiety is definitely not worth it, but to someone suffering, it becomes a vicious cycle of positive affirmation. If anxiety and panic set in and eventually go away without incident, you’ve just conditioned your brain to believe that anxiety is a means to a positive end. In short, anxiety sufferers believe that it is worth getting upset about because, as you’ve said, it’s going to be okay if we do.
The statements above come off as judgmental and ignorant when said to students suffering from anxiety. Would you tell a diabetic going into shock, “It’s going to be okay, just make insulin and don’t lose consciousness. Everyone gets a sugar high, it’s not worth passing out over?” Of course you wouldn’t. People understand that diabetes is the body’s inability to produce the correct amount of insulin and isn’t something a diabetic person can control.
Related: A classroom teacher’s guide to reducing test anxiety (and testing!)
We need to understand the same thing about anxiety. It, too, is a physiological deficiency; the body is unable to produce the correct amount of neurotransmitters in the brain and is not something of which the person is in control.
Refraining from using the above statements will assist students in not falling victim to stigma and will start helping them make progress towards better understanding themselves and learning how to manage their anxiety.