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Anxiety part 1

Today's blog will be focused on identifying anxiety and how to support learners with anxiety in the classroom. My perspectives will be from my experiences as an anxious person and also from a teacher who has experience supporting learners in my own classroom settings with anxiety.


This means that you aren't feeding the anxiety, you are rather helping the learner accept and conquer what the anxiety is doing to them.


The resources I will be referring to are:


  • 'Living It Up: The Advanced Survivor's Guide to Anxiety-Free Living' written by Bev Aisbett. Angus & Robinson: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994

  • Anxiety.Org: 'What is Anxiety?' written by T Jovanovic (Emory University, 2022)


Identifying anxiety and how to support learners with anxiety


What is anxiety?


"Anxiety is the mind and body's reaction to stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations. It's the sense of uneasiness, distress, or dread you feel before a significant event. A certain level of Anxiety helps us stay alert and aware, but for those suffering from an anxiety disorder, it feels far from normal - it can be completely debilitating." (T. Jovanovic, 2022. Retrieved from Anxiety.org)


Straight away when I read this, I thought how wonderful it was to see the two sides of anxiety. It really isn't a negative disorder, having a protective and instinctual element to it is in fact a positive side to having anxiety. I find myself when I am in my heightened state of anxiety, my senses are sharp, and I am very aware of my surroundings. My mind also allows me to think about a variety of scenarios that could apply in the situation I am in that causes the anxiety.


But, as T Jovanovic says, it is also debilitating, and this is why I am writing this blog. I would like to support students with their learning and find ways to learn when in this state.


I like to think of anxiety like trying to walk through a room filled to the brim with sponges. The sponges won't hurt you, but it is not an easy feat trying to move them out of the way to allow yourself to get to the destination you desire.



I also want to point out that debilitating is defined as "weak", and I don't want to give off the impression that I think people with anxiety are weak. I think that this manner of using the word "debilitating" is more that when in an anxious state, one would feel vulnerable, weakened by their mindset, rather than actually being a weak person. I personally think people with anxiety are quite courageous - as not only do they tackle situations or at the very least consider it, but they also do it in their most vulnerable and heightened state.


having anxiety and battling it successfully is quite inspirational. It is most definitely, not a disorder for the weak.

What does anxiety look like?


There can be many ways to see anxiety and there can also be many ways to hide anxiety.

  • Thinking about the well-known Flight, Fight and Freeze responses is one way of identifying anxiety

  • Avoidance, nervous behaviour and making excuses

  • Being overly loud and overly expressive (in a way where they want to be heard, but not in the way that you would genuinely think)

(Just to name just a few)


There really are many ways of showing anxiety and many ways not to show it so I don't think you can pinpoint it. But commonly, I would look for nervous tendencies. The best way forward with this is asking students respectfully, compassionately and gently while on their own if they are feeling anxious. It is another way of considering their vulnerabilities and they don't feel pressured to be brave around their peers, when they are just talking to you.



Anxiety analogy


I like to think of anxiety like trying to walk through a room filled to the brim with sponges. The sponges won't hurt you, but it is not an easy feat trying to move them out of the way to allow yourself to get to the destination you desire. Each sponge represents the negative thoughts that an anxious person has to try and ignore. Each thought feels like a truth, as it comes with reason and possibly memories and examples from past experiences.

Not only that, but if you were in a room filled with sponges, I can only assume you would feel a sense of overstimulation, an uncomfortable ickiness as they would rub against your skin as you moved through the room, and your breathing would change too from the lack of oxygen and physical and emotional difficulty completing this task.

People with anxiety often feel these sorts of feelings, as well as, trying to keep their eye on accomplishing their desired goal. So really, with that in mind, having anxiety and battling it successfully is quite inspirational. It is most definitely, not a disorder for the weak.


When does it normally occur:

As Bev Aisbett says, anxiety occurs usually when "I faced a new challenge, or a conflict situation, or a major decision, or a potential loss. In other words when my self-worth was on the line" (page 6).


anxiety occurs usually when "I faced a new challenge, or a conflict situation, or a major decision, or a potential loss. In other words when my self-worth was on the line"



Common reasons to be anxious:

  • "...excessive fear of a specific object or situation...The fear is disproportionate to the actual danger posed by the object or situation. Commonly, adults with specific phobias will recognize that their fear is excessive or unreasonable" (Jovanovic, 2022)

  • "An excessive fear of becoming embarrassed or humiliated in social situations" (Jovanovic, 2022)

  • "...trauma- and stressor related disorder. These are disorders that are related to the experience of a trauma (e.g., unexpected death of a loved one, a car accident, combat, or a violent incident) or stressor (e.g., divorce, beginning college, moving). "

  • "...excessive, uncontrollable worry over events and activities and potential negative outcomes. The anxiety and worry must cause significant distress or interfere with the individual's daily life, occupational, academic, or social functioning to meet diagnosis" (Jovanovic, 2022)

  • "sudden panic symptoms (generally out of the blue, without specific triggers) in combination with persistent, lingering worry that panic symptoms will return and fear of those panic symptoms (Jovanovic, 2022)

  • Obsessive compulsive disorders, for example, "...fear that failing to do things in a particular way"

  • Separated anxiety, which I experienced when I first had my son. I couldn't leave him with others until he was around one years old, and it took me a while to adjust

  • Selective mutism. Staying silent is a safer way of being to protect oneself in a vulnerable situation

  • Agoraphobia is a fear of specific places and situations


Common thoughts Anxious people experience:


  • Threatened safety: "...excessive fear (i.e. emotional response to perceived or real threat) and/or anxiety (i.e. worrying about a future threat)" (Jovanovic, 2022)

  • Lack of Acceptance: Bev Aisbett's example of mind reading aspects of over thinking was: "she doesn't like me"

  • Rejection: Bev Aisbett's example of catastrophising was: "She's not coming, she sounded funny on the phone...she's met someone else. I'll never see her again..." (p 19)

  • Lack of Self Worth: Bev Aisbett's example of All or Nothing type thinking was: "I'll never be good enough. I always blow it" (p 20)




How do you support anxiety learners in the classroom?


If you are thinking about the Education system and areas in our classroom experiences which could provide anxiety, you might come across quite a lot of situations. For example, examinations, assessments, sports, competitions, building friendships and other relationships, learning and answering questions, performances. The list goes on.

These areas provide the opportunity for anxious people to feel their safety is threatened, as well as feeling a lack of acceptance, rejection and self-worth, when in social settings or taking risks. Even as small as when selecting groups to work with/not being selected/being the person people don't want to work with, anxiety can occur.


So, I think it is safe to say we cannot remove any of the situations to stop anxiety from happening, as we'd end up with no learning or experiences happening in the school whatsoever - so it is better to find a way to deal with it instead.


Talking about it, leading by example, and making it a normal experience:


It isn't a matter of telling them your life story, it is more that you can be open about perhaps a moment you faced a challenge head on.

I find myself, as a teacher and role model to learners, sharing my own experiences with anxiety tends to help them. This is because they see someone else struggling so they don't feel alone, but they also can see anxiety can be managed.

It isn't a matter of telling them your life story, it is more that you can be open about a moment you faced a challenge head on. I often tell my students that I used to be shy (I still am really) and how just walking up to someone and introducing myself was hard for me to do. My mother used to put me in front of her legs and physically push me into a room first to stop me from running away and retreating from social situations. my students would often giggle at that, and I would then go on to explain that I use this method in my head nearly everyday. I walk into a room of new students or staff members and go, "Come on Tovah, go and say hi to those people. You've done it before, you can do it again. Smile and off you go." And with a deep breath in, I would do it, and keep on doing it every time - apprehensively, but I would still do it!

The funny thing about telling my students this, is that none of them ever realise I have anxiety because of how bubbly I am. I am like a duck on water and quite social and approachable. The thing about this is that usually my mind tells me that if I'm not happy or kind, that I won't be accepted, so my own self critic is making me appear differently on the outside. Inside I just hope I'm meeting their expectations, whatever that might be.

Not seeing anxiety immediately, is an important thing to teach students too. Not everyone shows their anxiety, and this is their way of coping and protecting themselves as well. It's like when a bird is injured. They never show it, otherwise a predator will attack them. People can be like this as well.


Praise courage and saying "Thank you":


...make sure you/they say "thank you" after hearing a compliment. It allows the brain to acknowledge and not ignore or disagree with the compliment that was said.

In line with my first example, if you bring up the fact that students are taking risks and how hard that can be (from past experiences). It shows them you understand how they feel and this, in turn, will make them feel heard and understood.

I think that if students receive enough praise, they will slowly start believing in what you're saying too. There's only so much deflecting and ignoring praise a person can do. Eventually it'll sink in.

The best way through, which I was told once by a psychologist, was to make sure you/they say "thank you" after hearing a compliment. It allows the brain to acknowledge and not ignore or disagree with the compliment that was said. New Zealanders in particular reject compliments. They like to give people compliments but feel uncomfortable receiving them. To some, but not me, accepting compliments suggests you are vain and have a big head about your own life - when realistically, the majority of New Zealanders are modest.

I find turning the forced "thank you" reply into a light-hearted joke helps. When I say a compliment to someone and when I don't hear, "thank you". I acknowledge that by saying "I am waiting for you to acknowledge how awesome you are, what were you meant to reply again?" then when they say, "thank you" I say something like "Good, I'm glad you agree that you are awesome because I certainly believe it and I want you too as well." This is another sneaky compliment added to the end of it to reinforce it. I do this so often that sometimes I only have to stare at them with a look of "well?" on my face and they will eye roll, blush and say, "thank you".




Compromise and accountability:


Sometimes the end result needs to happen, but the way in which they get there can be compromised.

Sometimes students are quite aware of how they get through their anxious moments, and they will usually know what's best for them. You could ask them what they do to combat the situation usually, what could we do together to support your anxious feelings, or how can we help you to feel more courageous in this situation?

Sometimes they just need a moment to themselves without anyone talking to them. I know when I get a blood test or other medical examinations, I find counting until it is finished really helps me.

Sometimes the end result needs to happen, but the way in which they get there can be compromised.

So, with compromise, it isn't a matter of saying "don't worry you don't have to do what everyone else is doing". It is more about encouraging them to find another way of doing it that eases the anxiety. This means that you aren't feeding the anxiety, you are rather helping the learner accept and conquer what the anxiety is doing to them.





Time, Experience, Manakitanga.


Look after yourself. You are definitely worth it.


Tovah O'Neill






Note:

It is important to seek professional help and advice if you are unsure about a situation or find yourself or others in need of support. This blog includes a variety of my opinions based on my own experiences which are not the same as other situations outside of my own. This blog also includes quotes from a professional and a guided text, however I encourage seeking professional advice first hand for an individual. Tovah's Tutoring Company Ltd ® and Tovah are not liable for what occurs after reading this blog.

Resources:

  • 'Living It Up: The Advanced Survivor's Guide to Anxiety-Free Living' written by Bev Aisbett. Angus & Robinson: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994

  • Anxiety.Org: 'What is Anxiety?' written by T Jovanovic (Emory University, 2022)

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