Is Everybody Anxious? Some Tips for Managing Anxiety in Our Students

Anxiety is a loose term that encompasses worry, stress, fear and also more clinical diagnoses such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Agoraphobia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, etc. Perhaps you have noticed an overall increase in the number of your students suffering from some form of anxiety.  According to one study by the Child Mind Institute almost 1 in 3 adolescents will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder by the time they turn 18. This makes anxiety a prevalent diagnosis in our schools. 

But everybody gets anxious….

That’s right, everybody does. Anxiety is a human reaction to fear. It is ingrained in us since we were hunters and gatherers running from wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers. Everyone can experience the rush of emotions that come from forgetting to study for a test, realizing they’ve  forgotten something important, or the dread of a task they are not looking forward to. We can all relate to the “pit in our stomach”, the tightness in our chest or the shortness of breath. Anxiety is a fear-based disorder grounded primarily in fear of the future: Will I fail? What if they don’t like me? How I am going to get into college?  Now, just because we can all relate to these feelings does not mean we all have a formal diagnosis of anxiety. Where it crosses the line clinically is when it starts to impair someone’s level of functioning on a regular basis. It can be very debilitating and exhausting for an individual. While there are many different types of anxiety, for the purposes of this blog I will discuss two different types that generalize to what you are likely seeing on your campuses: social anxiety and school anxiety.    

Social Anxiety

Remember, anxiety is a fear-based disorder and adolescents are a peer-driven animal.  It is far more important for most adolescents to be accepted by their peers than it is to be loved and adored by their parents. Adolescence is a time where we primarily define ourselves by the way we are perceived by our peer group. Many adolescents place more value in the opinions or thoughts of a “friend” they met two weeks ago than they do their parents.There is a strong adolescent drive to be perceived as normal or “cool” by peers. The power of this drive cannot be underestimated. On some levels, all adolescents have anxiety about social interactions. If you don’t believe me, just chaperone a middle school dance and watch students running into the bathroom in tears or glued to the wall, petrified that they might have to dance with someone. It has been my experience that most anxiety in school that results in high stress, school refusal or poor attendance is often rooted in the social arena.  While social anxiety is more common in students that are considered less “cool”, it can also be an issue for the student that seems most loved and most popular. Defined simply, social anxiety is the fear or dread of future social interactions and perceptions of others to such a degree that it impairs one’s ability to complete daily functions. Essentially, someone’s thoughts become so dominated by the negative possibilities of future peer interactions that they start to be unable to fully live in the present. This could be a result of bullying (both in person or on-line), rejection by a romantic interest, shame in one’s appearance, or it can be a genetic predisposition to anxiety that is playing itself out in the social arena.      

School Anxiety

School anxiety is a pervasive fear of completing assignments and/or getting good grades.  Put more simply, it’s a fear of not being able to measure up academically. Culturally, we promote this type of anxiety in our students. Everyone, from teachers to relatives to college admissions boards place a high premium on grades and academic success as a measure of self-worth. All students feel this pressure, but sometimes anxiety can reach a point where it begins to inhibit a student’s level of functioning and well-being on a daily basis. This may be the student that is always asking you about homework, or perhaps studies really hard, but then fails the test because they were so stressed about it. This could also be a student who does not apply themselves and chooses to fail on their own terms, searching for identity and meaning outside of the classroom, de-valuing the importance of academics.  We have to remember that in general, school focuses on very specific learning styles, and oftentimes particular students don’t quite fit into that mold. Many of these students may have a diagnosed or undiagnosed learning difference that makes school more challenging for them in some way. At Summit Achievement we often meet students with previously unidentified processing speed or executive functioning challenges that were able to get through a significant portion of their academic career on intelligence alone, but eventually reached a point where their deficits in processing and organization finally caught up to them as assignments and tasks became more generalized and longer-term. This student could have a history of not doing as well as they would like, or they could have a history of straight A’s, and they are simply scared that this will not continue.    However, there are many ways we can help these students.      

WHAT WE CAN DO:

Power of relationship

When a student feels alone and isolated from their peer group, a friendly conversation, a brief smile or hello, or a shared joke can go a long way. Connection with a charismatic, non-judgmental adult can make all the difference. Evidence from the therapeutic world tells us that the quality of the relationship we form with students is the platform that all other therapeutic interventions and work can be done.  Lambert and Barley (2001), from Brigham Young University found that 30% of the variance in therapeutic outcome had to do with the relationship between provider and client, whereas only 15% of the variance in outcome had to do with the actual clinical modality.  In other words, the relationship is potentially twice as important to the outcome of therapy than the therapeutic intervention used. This may be even more important when working with anxious clients. While working with students on your campus is not necessarily a therapeutic intervention, my hope is that this study can help you understand the power that can exist in a meaningful relationship to help a student.    

Especially on boarding school campuses, having a strong connections with multiple adult touchstones is paramount. However, as mentioned earlier, adolescents are more driven by peer relationships, and sometimes your best strategy is to work to pair this student with another student.  As teachers and administrators, we get to know our individual students well. We know that often times there are certain students that are simply more mature, or more socially adept than others their own chronological age. It is possible to utilize these students as a means of helping their socially anxious peers gain some social traction with the class as a whole. This is a slightly riskier proposition, and it has the possibility of back-firing if the wrong student is chosen.  It might involve taking a student aside and asking them to try and help a particular peer.

Strong consequences for bullying behavior

While a whole blog could be just about this topic (and there are many out there), it is extremely important to establish a safe-space for students to take risks, both socially and academically, and publicly having a firm stance against bullying behaviors is paramount.

Strategy in placement

As teachers we can be very crafty in utilizing assigned seating, or seating charts.  As administrators we can be thoughtful in dorm and roommate assignments or advising groups.  When we have a class where we suspect that students may be using where they sit as a way to form cliques or to socially snub other students, assigned seating is a great way to put an end to this dynamic. Often when doing seating charts, we think about who students should be sitting next to based upon academic reasons only—mix in some smart kids with some less smart kids, separate the more behavioral kids from each other etc.  However, we encourage that sometimes it is worthwhile to seat students next to each other as a way to help with social anxiety. Students that sit next to each other are more likely to talk, get to know each other, and generally speaking, view each other as more human. This allows students to begin to branch out from their particular group of friends and begin to know other people. This can help alleviate the tendency to bully or be mean, and can facilitate a greater sense of community. These benefits can be further enhanced when thinking about lab partners or who works together for group projects. Forcing students to collaborate with each other teaches them that they can interact, socialize and maybe even get along with people that they view as “different” from themselves. If they are forced to do it, it eliminates their need to be brave enough to take that social leap on their own-a skill that many adolescents simply don’t have. 

Make the future available, measurable and chewable

As mentioned earlier, anxiety is about fear of the future.  If we can make the future less scary, less unknown, we can help mitigate some anxiety.  This pertains to what is going to happen this class period, what activities will be available this weekend, and what assignments will you be graded on this semester. 

Offer extra help

Many anxious students are afraid to ask for help in class but may be very willing to come to a teacher one-on-one, especially if there is a culture of this being a normative behavior. Also, some students may need some prompting and a personal invitation to attend office hours or come for help outside of class, as this proposition can also provoke anxiety.

Praise successes publicly

Many anxious students tend to filter out the positive contributions and successes they are making, instead focusing on what they are struggling with or the ways they feel they are not measuring up. Making sure to genuinely praise success, no matter how small, can go a long way. 

Communicate with your team

It is extremely important that all the adults on campus communicate effectively about students that are struggling.  Anxious students often are not the ones acting out behaviorally, and if there is not a culture of diligence, watching for anxiety symptoms, it is possible these students can slip through the cracks of a well-intentioned institution. It is important to have a way for teachers, dorm staff, and guidance staff to communicate with each other and discuss any red flags they might be experiencing or witnessing, such as changes in social patterns, for example, if a student begins to isolate themselves or spend more time in their dorm room.

Role model healthy practices

As teachers and administrators, it is important that we help to create a culture that promotes healthy strategies for managing difficult emotions, like anxiety.  As anxiety is about the future, one of the best solutions for managing anxiety is to find ways to stay present in the current moment. Whether this is through mindfulness, exercise, sports, enjoying a walk across campus instead of being on a device, or being fully present in a conversation or check-in rather than harried and with half your brain somewhere else, a culture amongst faculty that promotes emotional well-being and being fully present in the moment at hand is more likely to have a culture of students that do the same.

About The Author

Nichol Ernst, LCSW, Executive Director, Therapist, Owner

Nichol received his Bachelor’s degree in U.S. History from Brown University and his Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of New England. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in the State of Maine and has worked with adolescents and families at Summit Achievement for 15 years. Nichol’s areas of expertise include cognitive-behavioral therapy, family systems theory, social coaching, and he is certified in EMDR and Mindfulness. Nichol and his certified therapy dog, Baxter, are often found walking through the woods with students or joining them on their wilderness expeditions. When not working with students and families Nichol can be found working on his small farm in Western Maine with his wife and young son while Baxter chases after the pigs, chickens and goats.