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Anxiety, Stress, and Learning

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Tuesday, December 4, 2018

teenage boy showing stress

The number of students who experience anxiety has reached alarming rates. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 32% of adolescents have been diagnosed with anxiety. The National College Health Assessment reports that 64% of college students have experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months. We compiled a multi-part series about students, stress, and anxiety to help you better understand anxiety and stress and to suggest ways to manage them.

 

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Using Mindfulness to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Thursday, November 29, 2018

girl meditating serene location

By Erin Brewer

Take a deep breath in, and a long breath out. Take a moment to notice how you feel, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Feel your feet on the floor. Whether seated or standing, allow your shoulders to track over your hips and your ears to draw back in line with your shoulders, so that your chin lifts ever so slightly. Relax your belly and give your shoulders permission to settle. Press your tongue gently against the top of your mouth while your lips part ever so slightly and your gaze softens. Now bring your awareness to your nostrils. Notice the temperature of the air going in on your next inhale, and then feel the temperature, and the texture of the breath on the exhale. Take another deep breath in, and a long breath out.

Welcome to the present moment. You have arrived through meditation.

Many people think meditation means clearing the mind of all thoughts. That’s an enormous challenge because the brain is designed to think—and it doesn’t come with an “off” switch. I explain to students that mindfulness (meditation) is awareness. It is awareness of the present moment and of the habits of mind that may draw your mind away from the present. Mindfulness practices, such as repeating a mantra, counting your breaths, or doing a body scan, pull you from thinking of the past (what’s done is done) or the future (over which there is no control) and bring you back to the now.  

Research Finds Mindfulness Effective in Reducing Stress

Stress and anxiety often result from persistent thoughts about the past or future. Young people are not immune to stress or anxiety. In fact, the number of students who experience anxiety has reached alarming rates on school and college campuses. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 32% of adolescents have been diagnosed with anxiety. The National College Health Assessment reports that 64% of college students have experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months.

Many campuses have responded by offering students services to reduce stress and anxiety. Mindfulness training is one of them—and it works. In a 2017 study, a group of adults diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder participated in an eight-week program either in mindfulness-based stress reduction or stress management education. The group that took the mindfulness course had “sharply reduced stress-hormone and inflammatory responses to a stressful situation” than participants in the stress management class.

“Mindfulness meditation training is a relatively inexpensive and low-stigma treatment approach, and these findings strengthen the case that it can improve resilience to stress,” said Elizabeth A. Hoge, M.D., lead author of the study and associate professor at Georgetown University.

Training the Brain to Enter the Present

Mindfulness can often reboot our systems by making a person more aware of when their mind has wandered so that they can recognize that, be aware of it, and then take the necessary steps to redirect to the present moment. This allows a person to feel less like they are stuck on a runaway train and more like a conductor who is in charge of what they will dedicate mental bandwidth to—and where it will take them.  

The practice of yoga is an excellent way to enter the present moment and reduce stress—it asks the participant to move with the breath. Each pose flows on an inhale or an exhale, and while holding a pose, rather than thinking about what is going on outside of the room, focus can be directed to alignment cues in the body. The same can be done with other activities as well, such as walking, coloring, or even doing the dishes! If a person is aware of what they are doing and moving with intention, rather than functioning on autopilot while the mind is elsewhere, then mindfulness is being practiced.

With Practice You’ll Learn to Control Your Thoughts

It’s very easy to feel like a powerless victim of your own thoughts. However, as you start to recognize habits of your mind or even awareness as to whether you tend to dwell on the past or stress about the future, you can start to take power back. Rather than being swept away, you can pause and reflect, “Oh I’m doing that thing again when I think… ” and over time you may start to notice your thoughts settling down.  

So take a moment. Notice where your mind may have wandered just now. Start to bring your attention back to this moment. Feel your feet on the floor, and inhale to a silent count of four. Pause at the top of your inhale. Then slowly exhale to a count of four. Check in, and notice how you feel: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Welcome back to the present moment.

 

About the Author

erin brewer headshot

Erin Brewer has been teaching at Landmark since 2010.  She started a yoga program at the High School in 2013, and now serves as an academic advisor and in-house yoga instructor within the Physical Education Department. Check out her mindfulness video.

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Students Embrace the Sounds of Silence

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Monday, September 14, 2020

elementary students meditating

This is the second post in a five-part series about students, stress, and anxiety. The first article is an overview of anxiety, 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 Laura Polvinen, LICSW

A moment of silence. A few minutes to relax and think, or maybe not think, but just breathe.  Each morning our students start with several minutes of meditation and mindfulness during what we call the Relaxation Response. This is a time for students to focus, clear their minds, and prepare for the day.  All 167 students close their eyes or soften their gaze and quiet their bodies as they hear the first chime. They spend two minutes in silence, waiting for the second chime, which signals the end of this moment in time.

The Relaxation Response program started at Landmark Elementary•Middle School more than seven years ago. Counselors were seeing more and more anxious students who had trouble managing their worried thoughts, couldn’t focus, or just didn’t know how to be quiet within themselves. Counselors attended mindfulness training at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital to learn the methodology that would bring about the Relaxation Response.  

The Science Behind Relaxation Response

The idea of the Relaxation Response was introduced by Dr. Herbert Benson. It is a body response that is the opposite of the fight/flight/flee response; it’s a state of total rest for the body and mind. Blood pressure, heart rate, and hormone levels in the body all subdue during the Relaxation Response, and tension is released from the muscles.  

Dr. Benson noted how much anxiety conjured up this fight/flight/flee response in the body and increased both amygdala and nervous system activity. When our bodies are thinking they need to fight or flee, there is no space—or time—for frontal lobe activity in the brain, which involves higher thinking and, therefore, learning. Inevitably, when we feel anxious, school performance and focus suffer.

The Calming Sounds of Silence

The Relaxation Response program has had many iterations since it was introduced to the EMS; tutors have worked one-on-one practicing relaxation with their students, teachers have led classes of eight students in mindfulness, and small groups aimed at helping anxious students have focused on developing this skill.

Students are clear about their feelings regarding the Relaxation Response saying,  “I like the quiet,” “It’s just nice to have space,” “It helps calm my nerves and focus.” Teachers note less calling out, more calm bodies, and better focus from some students in their classes. Student and teacher feedback led to this school-wide shift in the delivery model for the Relaxation Response.

Research echoes the observations of teachers. A review of research on the effectiveness of mindfulness in elementary classrooms found that "students with meditation and mindfulness training were better able to relax, focus, reduce anxiety, make decisions and be friends, all while improving cognitive function" (Routhier-MartinKillingsworth Roberts and Blanch, 2017).

This year, for the first time, the whole student body is taking part in this skill-building moment of mindfulness, and it is amazing to see. If you’ve ever walked around campus during the day you can see the bustle and hear the buzz of students.  But at 8 a.m., there is silence and palpable calm permeating the student body.  In just a few shorts weeks, students became more participatory in the mindfulness experience, looking forward to this time to prepare for the day ahead.  

Students ask in classes if they can have relaxation “again,” wanting a moment to gather themselves before diving into class material. In a world that moves quickly and our students face many expectations, they can count on this time each day where they just need to be quiet, observe their bodies, and breathe.

Kayli Routhier-Martin, Sherron Killingsworth Roberts & Norine Blanch (2017). "Exploring Mindfulness and Meditation for the Elementary Classroom: Intersections Across Current Multidisciplinary Research," Childhood Education, 93:2, 168-175, DOI: 10.1080/00094056.2017.1300496

Related: Mindfulness Transforms Culture At High-Needs Elementary School. NPR Visits an elementary school in Nashville, Tenn., that is incorporating mindfulness into its behavior management program.

 

About the Author

laura polvinen headshot

Laura Polvinen, LICSW, is the counseling team leader at Landmark Elementary•Middle School.

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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

Tips for Coping with Anxiety

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Tuesday, May 8, 2018 Byline:  By Kaleigh Mangiarelli

 

Whether diagnosed or not, anxiety is something many people deal with on a daily basis.

The word "anxiety" gets tossed around a lot in millennial culture, but those of us who have or feel anxiety know the great weight of the word, of the disorder.

Anxiety is an elephant sitting on your chest, shortening your breath, egging your sternum to break.
Anxiety is the sweat before seeing someone you’re nervous around or have feelings for or just need to talk to.
Anxiety bites your nails, picks at your cuticles or eyebrow hairs, grinds your teeth.
Anxiety never responds to text messages, or tells people “I don’t feel well.”
Anxiety is procrastinating all afternoon until suddenly it’s 11 p.m. and there's an entire assignment to complete.

I’ve had anxiety for my entire life, but I wasn’t diagnosed until three years ago. Through therapy I learned coping strategies for dealing with my anxiety as both a graduate student and as a teacher. I also came to realize that the cause of my anxiety was the constant feeling of “stuff.” There’s always so much “stuff” to do and never enough time to do it all. I felt like I was never in control of what was happening in my life.

Here are five tips I’ve learned to cope with anxiety that have helped me turn my life around and feel like I am in control.

1. Keep an agenda/planner that keeps track of everything.

Keeping an old-school agenda where you write down everything that needs to get done helps you see it all in one place. As students, we focus all day on writing down our homework, which often leads us to forget about other things we need to get done, making it harder to manage our time. It’s important to write down homework (or to-do lists for work), but also note when you’ll do each task. It will be easier to plan your day if you keep track of your tasks in one place; you can see when you'll be free to spend time with friends or relax, for example.

2. Make yourself to-do lists when you’re stressed.

You can maintain a to-do list on most phones, but having a physical list you can cross out or check off as you complete tasks can help you find a sense of accomplishment, even for the most menial tasks.  I make a to-do list each and every day my in agenda, and when I’m really stressed, I make a separate one for each different area of my life. For me, that means I usually have three to-do lists: work, school, and play. For a student, this might look like school, extracurricular, and friends.

3. Wake up early to practice self-care.

This is probably one tip that a lot of people will scroll right past or roll their eyes at. When I say wake up early, this doesn’t mean you need to get up at the crack of dawn. However, if you’re someone who barely has enough time to get up, shower, get dressed, and run out the door to school or work, you’re starting your day in a frenzy. The morning is the time when we could be our calmest if we let ourselves.

Try waking up 30 minutes earlier than usual—and don't hit snooze—and give yourself some time to drink a cup of coffee or tea, eat a healthy breakfast, and enjoy the silence before the day begins.

4. Eat healthy.

Eating healthy doesn’t always necessarily mean avoiding ice cream and candy. While this is a huge part of it, eating healthy also means eating regularly.  A lot of times, anxiety can cause us to have a loss of appetite or nausea. If you’ve followed steps 1–3, you’ll allow yourself time to have a healthy, revitalizing breakfast in the morning.  Make sure you eat lunch when given lunch break, rather than cramming in more work.  When you eat good, you feel good.

5. Put the phone down.

Phones have become a huge part of our lives.  Most people wake up to the alarm on their phone, and immediately start scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., without even thinking about it.  Similarly, many of us fall asleep scrolling through social media as well.  Instead, save your scrolling until your morning cup of coffee and breakfast. This way, you can get into the routine of getting up and out of bed and taking care of you, before you even think about your connections to everyone else.

Remember, anxiety isn’t something you can just make go away.  It takes hard work to develop a routine and coping strategies that work for you. It's even harder work to stick with these routines and strategies. But you are important. Your mental health is something that you need to be mindful of, and take care of yourself.

About the Author

kaleigh

Kaleigh Mangiarelli is a Language Arts and Tutorial Teacher and the girls varsity soccer coach at Landmark School.

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Tags:  anxiety coping strategies health stress time management
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