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social anxiety

Anxiety: What Is It Really?

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Thursday, May 9, 2013

Submitted by: Jane B. Ross

Anxiety is a feeling of fear.  Anxiety is a common response to ambiguity; when we don’t know what’s happening or we don’t know how to respond.  Anxiety is nature’s way of helping us deal with difficult situations. This can be beneficial as it can invigorate us for an exam and it can prevent us from doing dangerous things.  Anxiety can assist us to maintain focus in a critical situation.  But when anxiety becomes excessive it can be debilitating. There is intense dread.

Some examples of anxiety in children and adolescents are separation anxiety, social anxiety and generalized anxiety. Students experiencing social anxiety become overwhelmed or extremely self conscious in social situations. This anxiety may be disabling. They have a chronic fear that others are judging them and they may struggle to make and keep friends.

Students with separation anxiety become easily distressed when separating from their parents. They may worry about being lost or kidnapped or that something might happen to their parents. These students may fear going to school or camp and may avoid play dates and sleepovers.

Students with generalized anxiety also experience excessive worry.  They cannot reduce or eliminate their anxiety even if they realize it is out of proportion or irrational. These students are riddled with self-doubt. They are often paralyzed by thoughts that they will be unable to meet others’ expectations. These students require constant approval and reassurance from teachers and parents.

Students with anxiety exhibit many symptoms including: stomach ailments, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, startling easily and sweating or trembling around others. Given this, these students avoid many situations, allowing the anxiety to interfere with friendships, family, and with school.

Students experiencing anxiety struggle with vulnerability. Their thoughts include, “since I had anxiety once, it will happen again.”  Typically an escalation in the irrationality of their thoughts occurs; “my anxiety is likely to increase and then I’ll be crazy and lose control”. Students may have ideas of helplessness; “I cannot cope because of this anxiety, so I’ll soon be completely helpless.” Inherent in these beliefs are; “I’m helpless, I’m flawed, and I’m incompetent.”

Most anxieties in youth are normal and temporary. As their emotions are developing, it can be challenging to differentiate between what is a normal fear verses what is atypical. There are opportunities for parents, teachers, and others to guide students in mild distress.  Helping students to identify their feelings is a first step. Introducing students to stress reducing techniques is beneficial as mind and body practices reduce stress while promoting health. Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing are used to increase calmness and relaxation as well as to enhance well-being and are all examples of interventions that can be initiated and practiced at home, at school, and even in the car.

However, if you continue to be concerned about a student, it is important to have the student evaluated by a professional. This evaluation will include an assessment to determine the kinds and severity of symptoms and the extent of interference with peer relationships, familial relationships, and with school functioning.

jane ross headshot

Jane B. Ross is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker. 

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Tags:  anxiety generalized anxiety separation anxiety social anxiety

Stress and Anxiety: An Overview and Strategies for Mitigation

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Thursday, October 18, 2018

middle school aged boy showing stress

This is the first post in a five-part series about students, stress, and anxiety. The second article looks at a relaxation program for elementary and middle school students, the third discusses how a student learned to manage her anxiety, the fourth explores how mindfulness can reduce anxiety, and the fifth covers the relationship between language-based learning disabilities and anxiety.

By Jerome Schultz, Ph.D.

Most children will experience some form of stress or anxiety during childhood. Temporary stress and anxiety are normal and typically harmless, but more severe forms can have a lasting toll.

I’d like to use this blog as an opportunity to talk about what stress is, how it’s related to anxiety, and what happens to the brain and body during stress. I also want to differentiate between good stress and bad (or toxic) stress, how to use the former, and how to prevent or reduce the latter. Finally, I’ll offer simple but effective strategies that cost nothing, take little time, and have a powerful impact on mental health and learning in kids of all ages.

Most of my writing, webinars, and keynote addresses over the past decade have focused on the impact stress has on learning, emotions, and behavior in students from preschool (yes, unfortunately!) through college. I’ve come to believe that stress is one of the most important factors underlying efficient learning and also one of the most under-recognized impediments to successful and joyful learning (and teaching!). Teachers and parents both express their concern about an apparent increase in stress in children and young adults. This troubling observation is confirmed by recent research. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 32% of adolescents have been diagnosed with anxiety, and a little more than 8% have what’s regarded as a severe impairment. It has been my experience that when adults have a better understanding of this complex human reaction, they can teach kids how to recognize, reduce, and use stress as the fuel for success.

What is stress?

Stress is the reaction of the body and brain to situations that put us in harm’s way. The stressor may be a physical threat (e.g., a baseball coming quickly toward you) or a psychological threat (e.g., a worry or fear that you will make a mistake delivering your lines in a play or write a passage that won’t make sense to the reader). Stress, or more specifically, the stress response, is our body’s attempt to keep us safe from harm. It’s a biological and psychological response. When we’re under stress, the chemistry of our body and our brain (and, therefore, our thinking) changes. A part of the brain called the amygdala does a great job learning and remembering what’s dangerous, and it tries to help us avoid those things as we move through life.

How can stress be good and bad?

All human and non-human animals have the built-in capacity to react to stress. You may have heard of a “fight or flight” response. This means that when faced with a threat, we have three basic ways of protecting ourselves. We can run away (flee), stand firm (freeze), or try to overcome or subdue the threat (fight). When we have a sense that we can control or influence the outcome of a stressful event, the stress reaction works to our advantage and gets our body and brain ready to take on the challenge. That’s good stress; at the most primitive level, it keeps us alive. It also allows us to return to a feeling of comfort and safety after we have been thrown off balance by some challenge and overcome it.

On the other hand, bad stress occurs in a situation in which we feel we have little or no control over the outcome. We have a sense that no matter what we do, we’ll be unable to make the stressor go away. Body and brain chemistry become over-reactive and get all out of balance. When that happens, it can give rise to another protective mechanism—to “freeze” (like a “deer in the headlights”). We can freeze physically (e.g., become immobilized) or we can freeze mentally (e.g., “shut down”). In these situations, the stressor wins and we lose because we’re incapacitated by the perceived threat. Think about it this way:

Navy SEALs face high-threat situations. They also have skills to deal with just about anything that comes along. As a result, these men and women don’t have a lot of anxiety. Their coping skills give them a sense that they can handle anything that comes along. This makes it easy to understand their motto: "The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday." Kids who do not have (or who don’t believe they have) sufficient coping skills are often highly anxious.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety comes in many forms. It can be situational (that is, specific to one kind or class of worry, like traveling or being in social situations). Kids who have not had a lot of success in school may experience marked anxiety in situations in which they feel they will make mistakes, be ridiculed, or made to feel foolish in front of others. Children and adults who have been exposed to early trauma, extreme neglect or abuse (sometimes referred to as Adverse Childhood Events, or ACEs) are more likely to experience anxiety.

When the anxiety is specific to or triggered by the demands of being with or interacting with people and is characterized by a strong fear of being judged by others and of being embarrassed, it is known as social anxiety disorder (or social phobia). This fear can be so intense that it gets in the way of going to work or school or doing everyday activities. Children and adults with social phobia may worry about social events for weeks before they happen. For some people, social phobia is specific to specific situations, while others may feel anxious in a variety of social situations.

Anxiety can also be generalized (that is, a kind of free-floating sense of worry or impending trouble that doesn’t seem to be specific to one trigger or event). In its more serious form, this is considered a psychiatric disorder known as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

What’s the relationship between anxiety and stress?

Simply put, anxiety is a state of worry about what might be—as compared to stress, which is a reaction to what is. If you take the stressor (i.e., the threat) and subtract from that your coping skills, you get anxiety. Both stress and anxiety trigger the same chemical reactions in the brain, which does a really good job remembering negative experiences. If you worry all the time about something bad happening to you, that puts you in a state of chronic stress.

What’s the connection to stress and learning disabilities?

Stress and anxiety increase when we’re in situations over which we have little or no control (a car going off the road, tripping on the stairs, reading in public). All people, young and old, can experience overwhelming stress and exhibit signs of anxiety.

Children, adolescents, and adults with a learning disability, such as dyslexia, are particularly vulnerable to stress and anxiety. Often, it’s because they may not fully understand the nature of their learning disability. As a result, they may blame themselves for their own difficulties. Years of self-doubt and self-recrimination may erode a person’s self-esteem, making them less able to tolerate the challenges of school, work, or social interactions and more stressed and anxious.

For example, many individuals with learning disabilities have experienced years of frustration and limited success, despite countless hours spent in special programs or working with specialists. Their progress may have been agonizingly slow and frustrating, rendering them emotionally fragile and vulnerable. Some have been subjected to excessive pressure to succeed (or excel) without the proper support or training. Others have been continuously compared to siblings, classmates, or co-workers, making them embarrassed, cautious, and defensive. When students understand the nature of their learning disability, and how to use specialized strategies to experience success, stress and anxiety can take a back seat to competence.

How can students move from distress to DE-STRESS?

A little bit of stress is a good thing; it keeps us on our toes and gets us ready for the challenges that are a normal and helpful part of living in a complex world. Yoga, mindfulness activities, meditation, biofeedback, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), medication, and exercise are among the many ways that individuals (with and without dyslexia) can conquer excessive or debilitating stress. For the individual with a learning disability such as dyslexia, effectively managing and controlling stress must also involve learning more about the nature of the specific learning disability.

Competence instills confidence, and competence leads to success. When children, adolescents, and adults are able to develop a sense of mastery over their environments (school, work, and social interactions), they develop a feeling of being in control of their own destiny. Control through competence is the best way to minimize the negative effects of stress and anxiety.

What to DO?

Let me offer you a couple of simple, but effective strategies to minimize stress in school:

Hurdles and Helpers: Have students think of some task that they did well and examine the factors that got in the way (hurdles) and those that led to success (helpers).

Example: A student who successfully learned to scuba dive can be asked to think of the factors that got in the way, e.g., a fear of suffocation, and those that enhanced that learning, e.g. the thrill of seeing the wonders of undersea life. Have students apply that same analysis to the task at hand. What gets in the way and what will increase their chances for success?

stress meter

Difficulty and Competence Ratings: Have students rate (using a 1-5 scale) the perceived difficulty level of a task: 1= incredibly easy; 5 = “wicked hahd” (as they say up here in New England). Then have students rate their ability to do this task: 1 = “piece of cake”; 5 = “no way”. Enlightened teachers ask the student: “What can you or I do to make you think of this as a 'work zone' task?" (For example, level 3: a task on what I call “the cusp of their competence.”) This might mean putting pictures with the words, defining difficult words first, doing one math problem at a time, or having the information read to the student.

If a student says she has very little ability to do the task, but she has in fact done equally challenging tasks in the past, the teacher can pull out samples of similar, yet successfully completed work. By setting what I call “competence anchors” in this way, the student may approach the new task with an “I can” mindset. If so, this increases a sense of control, decreases anxiety and moves the student in the direction of success.

I hope that my comments here reflect both my concern about the impact of stress in the lives of kids, as well as my optimism that this “demon” can be tamed, its energy harnessed, and used to move kids from an “I can’t” frame of mind to “I can do this!”

 

About the Author

jerome schultz headshot

Jerome Schultz is a clinical neuropsychologist, author, and speaker who has provided clinical services to families, and consultation and staff development to hundreds of private and public schools in the U.S. and abroad during his 35 year career. He is the author of Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids with ADHD and LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It. Follow him on Twitter@docschultz.

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Tags:  anxiety dyslexia general anxiety disorder language-based learning disabilities learning disabilities social anxiety stress

The Special Relationship Between Language-Based Learning Disabilities and Anxiety

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Monday, March 25, 2019

student struggling with homework at table with mother

By Helene Dionne, Ph.D., and Laura Polvinen, LICSW

"I tried very hard to be normal…I tried to hide as much as I could…You think you go day by day…but…it’s like every day is a full lifetime. And it’s like, 'Oh my god! I have to get through this...the amount of anxiety, stress, and fear is enough to fill a lifetime...it is just so stressful…once I go to bed, it is like the end of my life…' "(Cole, 181)

As a student with a language-based learning disability (LBLD), Cole knows better than most what it means to live with anxiety.  Indeed, the literature reports that rates of anxiety are significantly higher for students with learning disabilities (Alesi, Rappo & Pepi, 2014). While the reasons for this remain unclear, students with LBLD connect their increased stress level to a number of factors. The difficulty of performing daily school tasks, as Cole describes, may certainly trigger a constant state of hypervigilance. Emily, 18, shares the same worry. Teachers “would go around the room and have us read. I remember chewing on my sleeves because I was so nervous about being picked,” she said. The acute sense of being different, described by many of our students as beginning in kindergarten or first grade, often tightens the grip of that anxiety. “I was so self-conscious about my learning and comparing myself to other kids…I would put myself down because I felt I was not as smart as the other kids,” recalled Emily. That anxiety may lead to school refusal (Kearney & Albano, 2004, 2008).  Many students with LBLD also describe an intense preoccupation with friendships. “Once I started having problems in the classroom, I became more shy, and I focused so much on having friends…even as a 6 year old, I was worried about socializing...,” added Emily. That worry may spread to social anxiety: “As I got older...I would get anxiety about getting anxiety. I would not want to go to social events...in my freshman or sophomore year, I could not even eat at the cafeteria,” she said.

Academic Support and Anxiety

School interventions to address the LBLD may have a negative impact on students’ sense of self and their peer interactions, thus increasing their anxiety. Whether from teachers’ inappropriate comments, as Jessica, 15, recalled: “[I had] constantly been told…that I was either not trying hard enough and I was not going to do anything with my life,” or the effect of instructional approaches, even if well intentioned and effective.“Getting taken out of class, taking tests in separate rooms, and having an aid walk up my way more often than she would to other people…things like that single you out…I guess seeing that made [other students] think that there was something wrong with me, and they wouldn’t think that I could play sports with them, or do the same kinds of arts and crafts…just because they thought I was different,” Mike, 18, shared.

What Can Parents Do to Help?

Parents reading this might be getting anxious just thinking about their child’s potential for developing anxiety! The truth is that parents are invaluable advocates and resources for their children with anxiety. Here are some helpful “dos” when it comes to helping your anxious child:

  • Parents should educate themselves on their child’s disability and its impact on learning. At times, students with LBLD can look as though they lack motivation, are lazy, apathetic about school, avoidant, defiant, or even just angry. Knowing more about their disability will help you understand what you see in terms of behaviors with regard to school. Then, explain the learning disability to your child. It is the first step in countering the thought that they are not smart enough to succeed, a conclusion that students with LBLD often draw from their repeated failures in school.
  • Parents can be their child’s advocate with the school system to develop an educational program that will lead to more successful learning and emotional well-being. This is an essential issue that will require significant commitment and resiliency as a parent.
  • Parents will need to nurture a relationship beyond and despite the tension caused by school demands. Many children with LBLD will require daily help with homework. You will likely help them stay organized, plan, and break down the work into more manageable units. This level of organization can help keep anxiety under control as well.
  • Amid all of this tough work, it is important that you maintain an ability to play with your child, appreciate the many sides of their personality and abilities in life, and enjoy one another. To this end, encourage your child to engage in interests to develop a sense of competency in other areas of their life: physical, artistic, dramatic, musical, scientific, or technological.
  • Examine the thoughts and emotions leading to your own reactions as you are helping your child with school-related tasks: anxiety about deadlines or test performance for your child, visualizing your own fears about the future, embarrassment about repeated failures, etc. Your ability to remain calm and model calm under pressure is more likely to foster a similar attitude in your child.  

Parents can be their child’s advocate with the school system to develop an educational program that will lead to more successful learning and emotional well-being. This is an essential issue that will require significant commitment and resiliency as a parent.

When you encounter challenge with regard to school tasks or anxiety, remember that threats and angry demands are counterproductive and typically lead to the opposite result because your child becomes more anxious, feels misunderstood, and is resentful. Of course an LBLD diagnosis paired with anxiety is tough on parents; no parent ever wants to see their child struggle. Still, parents and their modeling of managing the disability and anxiety will be key to the child’s success and development of resilience.

What Can Kids Do to Help Manage Their Anxiety?

Procrastination and avoidance are the “go to” responses for students with anxiety, and they are typically automatic and unconscious.  Unfortunately, it leads to the child’s increasing fear since the fear is never “faced.” There are different ways of countering this tendency. Here are some strategies to use with your children.  

  • Help them learn how to manage their homework load. This may involve decisions about the order in which to tackle the assignments (from easy to difficult, or the opposite, or according to class order). Also break down the task into manageable units and have the student praise themself for completion.
  • Change the perception of their LBLD so that they see it as a manageable issue.  Kids with LBLD develop self-defeating thought processes that prevent them from even attempting work. With help, your child can learn to identify those thoughts and counter them. Whenever she made a mistake, Rose’s mind would spin out of control: “ I am so dumb, I will never be able to learn this, I will not go to college, and I will end up working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life.” She would rip up her work, and walk away.  When the self talk changes, then the behaviors can change, too. Encourage children to talk to their anxiety and help them form positive responses like, “I can do this, I’ve been able to before” or “I can try this and then ask for help if I’m unsure.” As Emily says, “When you are thinking and putting yourself down, like that I am dumb…you notice…” Instead, students can remind themselves that they are smart, that they succeeded before and can again.
  • Encourage their use of distraction to shift the thought process.  Students with anxiety often get stuck in a “hamster wheel” of worried thoughts. At times there is no using logic to get out, and distraction can be a useful technique to calm the anxiety.  Nicole, 17, said she likes “to go outside so I can feel not trapped or [I] listen to music and tune out to the beat of the song.” Jessie, 10, an elementary student prefers to “... watch funny Youtube videos or look at a picture of my dog to help distract my brain...that puts it back on track.” 
  • Support their practice of breathing exercises, mindfulness, and muscle relaxation to counter the anxious mindset and calm the fear response (Harvard Medical School, 2018). Jessie shares, “When I worry, I use my calm app to listen to rain sounds and practice breathing.” A high schooler notices “muscle relaxation…[for] when you feel you have the body symptoms…helped a lot with anticipatory anxiety I had before public speaking or if I had a race…it helps your body relax...it helps your head.” Students who take part in mindfulness at the start of each day at school notice that they are able to reset or take a quick “nap” to quiet their mind before class and that they can tap into this feeling before a test, or when their worries flare up.  
  • Remind students to reach out for support. Sometimes anxious feelings are so strong that students need to talk to a trusted adult or peer to practice one of the strategies above, or have validation that their worry makes sense, but it still does not need to be taking over.  Students who are really feeling stuck and might need adult support could find it helpful to take a walk or get a drink, as an additional way to reset the body so that the mind will reset, too.
  • Lastly, it is worth mentioning that anxiety may be so overwhelming that students cannot access their internal resources and help themselves. A medication evaluation may be indicated and make a significant difference in making them more able to take advantage of other therapeutic strategies.  

In a world where we are being told that anxiety is at pandemic levels for youth, we know that our students with LBLD are well versed in what it is like to live with both a learning disability and anxiety. Despite these challenges, they can go on to be resilient, creative adults with fulfilling lives.

  1. Denotes student’s name (changed for anonymity) and current age.

References

Resources

About LBLD

Franklin, D. (2018).  Helping your Child with Language-Based Learning Disabilities: Strategies to Succeed in School and Life with Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, ADHD and Processing Disorders. New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, California 94609.

About Anxiety

Recommended Website

Apps for Breathing/Mindfulness/Relaxation

About the Authors

Dr. Helene Dionne

Dr. Helene Dionne has been the director of counseling services at Landmark School since 2003, after working for 25 years in the mental health world, in hospitals, outpatient clinics, and private practice.

Laura Polvinen

Laura Polvinen is the counseling team leader at Landmark’s Elementary Middle School. A Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, she has spent the past 10 years working with children and families with needs ranging from trauma, chronic illness, traumatic brain injury, anxiety, depression, ADHD, and learning disabilities.

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