Some feelings of anxiety are a normal part of childhood. In today’s world, there are certainly a number of potential worries out there for our student’s; tests, college acceptance/rejections, social acceptance/rejection etc. It is when anxiety levels become so high and all-consuming that if causes difficulties in a child’s life that intervention is necessary. Anxiety disorders are a category of mental health concerns that are definitely close to my little anxious heart. Anxiety is something I struggle with daily, and looking back symptoms were definitely present during my K-12 school years. According to the DSM-V, there are several different diagnoses that fall under Anxiety Disorders. For our purposes, we will review 2 of the most prevalent issues in these category.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (“GAD”) is characterized by persistent worry(ies) that last for more than 6 months. These worries are often generalized to multiple issues. These feelings cause significant distress, impairment and dysfunction in a student’s social, academic and intrapersonal development. Manifestations of GAD will be different for every kiddo, but the following are often present:
Ø Complaining of physical illness, headache, stomach ache (psychosomatic symptoms)
Ø Frequent trips to the nurse
Ø Tense muscles
Ø Drowsiness, fatigue
Ø Inability to relax
Ø Presence of nervous habits; hair pulling, biting nails, cracking knuckles
Ø Constant verbalization of worry/ preoccupation
Ø Conduct issues
The trouble with the first bullet point is, anyone who has experienced chronic worry knows that the headaches, stomach aches and other physical manifestations of anxiety are all too real. So those frequent trips to the nurse really should be redirected to the school counselor/social worker.
Conduct issues? Kiddo’s with anxiety? Really? Yes! Anxiety is a psychological response to a perceived threat. Think cave man hearing a tiger roar close to the cave. His heart starts to race, muscles become tense, pupils dilate... that cave man’s body is preparing for flight or flight. He either needs to be prepared to fight off this tiger, or run like hell. Generally today, none of us have to worry about the possibility of being mauled by a tiger, but our bodies react to a perceived threat in the same way. Notice I keep saying perceived. What we view as a threat is very individualized. For a student with persistent fears/worries regarding academic performance, an upcoming spelling test may put them into stimulation overload, resulting in a tantrum or yelling match.
Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia) typically appears right around the beginning of high school (along with everything else) and is characterized by a fear of being judged by others. Similarly to GAD, these symptoms lead to severe impairment in a student’s life, and an intense fear of social situations. There is a huge difference between a student with Social Anxiety and a student who is shy. On a K-12 campus, Social Anxiety can look like:
Ø Avoidant behavior pertaining to social situations
Ø Physical symptoms like sweating, nausea, trembling and/or panic when in social situations
Ø Refusal/avoidance of situations where talking to new students/teachers is required
Ø Refusal to go to school
Ø Refusal to participate in school activities/assignments that require public speaking/social interaction
For young students, high levels of anxiety can interfere with normal academic and social development. A kiddo with social anxiety, for example, may steer himself away from situations where he would be faced with talking to new students or joining in conversations at the lunch table. A student who aggressively reacts to anxious feelings by yelling at another student or a teacher may spend a significant amount of time with administration, thus isolating them from appropriate social interaction and potential development opportunities. Social development during primary schooling years builds upon itself just like academic development. Beginning to strengthen interpersonal skills early on, increases the likelihood of continued social immersion.
Whew, so let’s talk supportive solutions. Work some movement into the classroom. Yoga and relaxation techniques are great and super easy to insert right into a lesson plan. Working on spelling with elementary school students? Have them stand and use their body to form each letter. Pair them up together to spell out their spelling words. Generally tension is held in the neck and shoulders, have your students shake it out to a fun song several times throughout the day.
Deep breathing exercises work wonders (even for adults). Turn down the lights, speak softly and guide them through a pattern of slow rhythmic deep breaths that will help encourage their little muscles to relax and fresh oxygen to fill their bodies.