[Editor’s note: Don’t miss our companion piece, “5 things to avoid saying to students suffering from anxiety.”]
Understanding anxiety is something that educators, parents, doctors, therapists, students, sufferers, and non-sufferers are still working on. Just like anything else we attempt to understand, we will never get there if we don’t, first, ask questions.
Yesterday, I explored five things I’ve heard and/or experienced being said to students suffering from anxiety that miss the mark in being supportive. Although parents, guardians, counselors, classmates, staff, and friends have great intentions, their comments are rarely productive. The statements they make are often judgmental and ignorant. The negative impact of saying the wrong thing to a student with anxiety might seem minimal—it’s supposed to be the thought that counts—but the long-term effects can be severe.
I challenged educators to consider the same comments being said to someone with diabetes. The statements in that context reeked of absurdity. The challenge becomes for people to view a mental illness from the same lens as that of a physical illness. Diabetes is easy to understand; if you don’t have insulin, you will not survive. No one diagnosed with diabetes is going to deny themselves the opportunity to be treated. Why, then, are individuals with mental illnesses expected to will themselves to happiness, i.e., healthy levels of neurotransmitters?
Students with anxiety don’t understand the physiology of their own brains, and therapists tend to work to reduce symptoms instead of explaining the underlying causes. When students become symptomatic, they become fearful, panicky. What’s happening to me? Why do I feel this way? Not knowing the answers to these questions in the moment is a feeling of powerlessness unlike any other. And if those with anxiety don’t understand it, how can we expect those who don’t suffer to comprehend it?
Related: Student wellbeing & SEL are more important than you think
Fear from a lack of understanding mental illness has resulted in those with healthy physiology creating a stigma, and students with anxiety perpetuating it. It might not be well understood, or even make sense, but the students with the illness are the biggest culprits of the stigmatization of the disease. Trivializing the struggles associated with mental illness, even unintentionally, can reinforce the stigma. The pressure students put on themselves to “be okay,” “just relax,” and convince themselves that it’s not worth getting so upset about is all encompassing. No one wants the student to be “normal” more than the student him/herself. This intense desire to not have anxiety increases the intensity of the illness. We don’t need additional reasons to feel any more stigmatized than we already do.
How to speak to students suffering from anxiety
The responsibility of educators, parents, and guardians in scenarios where students are suffering from anxiety is to empower the students to learn the nuances of their disease and work with them to establish a comfortable, understandable, and fearless “normal.” We can do this by making use of the following five statements when dealing with students in crisis.
1. “Can you describe to me how you’re feeling?”
In most cases of anxiety or panic, it’s obvious how the student is feeling. But remember, she is trying everything possible to not stand out. When we tell her to just relax or breathe, it communicates to the student that her symptoms are visible to everyone and creates a snowball effect.
Asking her to describe how she’s feeling accomplishes two things: It helps her believe that her panic is not visible to everyone else and it empowers the student to speak for herself and have a sense of control over what she’s experiencing.
2. “What do you think might be going on for you right now?
Clinical anxiety isn’t a feeling that comes on because of one specific, identifiable reason. Anxiety is panic—discomfort that sets in out of nowhere. People with anxiety often have to think deeply about why they’re feeling anxious. Asking a question like this helps the student initiate this thought process. Additionally, it initiates an attempt at helping the student regain control over the situation.
3. “What do you need from me?
No one likes to be told what to do, but everyone appreciates and is eased by an offer of help or assistance. Expect that the student will answer with “I don’t know” or “Nothing,” but don’t read into it. He is not being unappreciative. Ultimately, what he really needs from you is exactly what you are doing.
4. “Let’s think about what we can do in the next 15 minutes to help get you through this.”
When a student is suffering from anxiety, she is overwhelmed and unable to create simple, clear, and manageable goals. The more overwhelmed she gets, the more avoidant she becomes. Empowering students to chunk up the day or the things they have to do will create clear, attainable goals and help them regain control of their disease. Again, you are not telling them what to do (relax, breathe, don’t worry)—you are asking them to give input and establish tangible goals.
5. “I’m here for you.”
It’s simple. It’s not dismissive. Students with anxiety feel all alone, like they are different and “not normal.” Simply being told that someone is there for them has the power of a thousand suns.
Three out of the five statements above are questions. If we really want to help our students and support their social and emotional health, we must learn about each one’s fears, struggles, and idiosyncrasies. A willingness to ask questions and be vulnerable, to admit you don’t know what the student is feeling or why, shows you are humble and human. Humility is a quality that makes you relatable to students and that’s what they need.
Related: 4 apps for students’ personal growth and mental health
Removing the stigma starts with educators learning about anxiety. Doing this will decrease the pressure the students are putting on themselves to be okay. I challenge all readers to use these strategies and ask the students the questions; let them lead the intervention. Inquire; don’t judge. You won’t just help your students, you’ll help yourself see mental health from the same lens as you do a physical disease.