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by Michelle George on Jan 11, 2018
While scanning headlines lately, the only news battling with contentious political strife, catastrophic weather events, and impending nuclear war are stories identifying the dramatic increase in anxiety diagnoses for our nation’s youth. Not that this is surprising. “Feelings of anxiety are closely connected to an inability to handle uncertainty,” according to Canadian psychologist, Michel Dugas (Abebe).
I see it every day in my own high school students. To better understand, I recently decided to go right to the source. I asked my students, “What’s up with this anxiety crisis?” Now, this group is an impressive collection of well-adjusted, firmly supported, high-achieving teens. At first, they scoffed and mocked the prevalence of “PC” news cycles and the feeling that their generation is “soft” and “lazy.” But I know from personal observation these young people are neither soft nor lazy. All of my students are taking three to seven college classes as part of their junior year curriculum. All of them are involved in some type of extracurricular activity: sports, drama, music, student government. Many also work part-time jobs. These students are not slackers. After the first wave of dismissing the issue, they became a bit more thoughtful. Many said they didn’t sleep much, they worried about getting into college, affording tuition and other life costs. Overriding all of their concerns was an overpowering fear of failure. They are terrified to disappoint their families and themselves. They are afraid that no matter how hard they work, they might wind up being not good enough.
Next, I asked them what strategies they use to defuse stress. Some mentioned running, several said hard work outside of school calmed them. Many claimed hiking or just being outside in our local woods was the answer for them. One talented and successful young woman said, “I get angry. I’m so angry most of the time. Is that therapeutic?” After assuring her that a constant state of rage is not healthy, we spent much of the class period identifying strategies to help destress without hurting ourselves and others.
This conversation pushed me to realize the rise in anxiety isn’t another teen trend. It also spurred me to do some research and identify how significant the problem is, and identify some reliable strategies that we as teachers can share with our students. The data is more plentiful at the college level. The American College Health Association conducts an annual survey including mental health. In 2015, a whopping 84.6 percent of students felt “overwhelmed by all they had to do (Brown). Thirty percent felt stress affected their academic performance, an increase of 18.2 percent from 2008. In fact, 15.8 percent were diagnosed with, or treated for, anxiety problems (Brown). Anxiety is an increasingly worrisome health issue for our students.
Like many aspects of mental health, the definitive cause of this increase in anxiety isn’t clear. Experts claim a multitude of factors including rapidly changing technology, a constant barrage of information, social media and its constant comparisons, helicopter parents, economic uncertainty, changing expectations, and changing moral codes as some of the suggested culprits. The reality is it is impossible to eliminate all of the possible stressors. Lisa Smith, director of Boston University’s Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders suggests, “Often it is more important to manage your emotional reaction to stress than to try to change the stressful situation, which may not be fully under your control” (Brown). Now, I am fully aware we as educators are not psychologists. We don’t have the training or the tools to provide psychiatric care. We should not attempt to prescribe or provide therapy sessions, and we need to recognize when it’s time to refer our students to a professional. The fact is, we interact daily with these young people who are struggling with anxiety, and we do have the opportunity to share with them some strategies and resources that might help them take Smith’s advice and learn to manage their own reactions to stress.
An essential strategy we can suggest to our students is they pay close attention to their physical wellbeing. This may seem obvious, but I’m always astounded at how many of my students eat only one meal a day or sleep only four or five hours a night. It sometimes seems as if they count these personal privations as badges of courage. We can take on the nagging/nurturing role and urge them to eat well and get some sleep, but I’m not sure they will listen. Perhaps we could design an inquiry unit where students did the research and then shared their findings with each other. They can nag themselves. Another classroom strategy might be to develop a service learning unit. Helping others allows our students to gain a wider perspective about their own situations while empowering them to help someone else. These types of projects can utilize higher-level thinking skills while changing lives. Those are pretty impressive learning objectives.
On a day-to-day basis, I tend to share some quick destressing techniques as part of my instruction. When I feel the anxiety level rising in my classroom, I have everyone stop and do some square breathing. I teach them the strategy early in the year and practice with them regularly. My students often roll their eyes a bit, but I have seen a marked difference in behavior and performance since we started. Even elementary students can learn deep breathing strategies.
I also regularly share research with my students, and stress-reducing, test-taking strategies are on my list. I try to tell a corny joke before the test to reduce tension. Laughter is good medicine. (If you can’t remember a joke yourself, the Internet is a treasure trove of puns.) Then, I remind them of all those good strategies we have learned throughout the year: read the entire question and answers, eliminate the obviously wrong items, trust yourself. When the exam is content-heavy, I have them jot down important information on scratch paper I provide before they begin the test. That way they don’t feel pressured to hold tight to the details and definitions, and can focus on the higher-level thinking we really want to develop. Finally, I assure them they are well prepared. Of course, it is my job to be sure they are.
Once out of the classroom, why not benefit from the fact that our students are so engaged with technology? I encourage my students to take advantage of all the apps available that might help them manage their health, mindfulness, and social connectedness. They can make healthy eating, meditation, and positive thinking part of their online time. Check out these free apps, or share your own personal favorites. If they are always on their phones, we can help find ways to use them positively.
All of these strategies are ways to give our students some control over their emotions in a complicated world where they frequently feel powerless. We can’t promise them lucrative careers and happily-ever-after endings. We can’t assure that for ourselves. What we can do is provide them with some tools to take control of themselves and their own responses.
As Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, “You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
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