Anxiety Awareness: A Mental Health Q&A with Education Professionals
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Recently, Learners Edge, the American College of Education, and Indieflix hosted hundreds of educators in a film screening of Angst, a powerful documentary about anxiety.
The film screening was followed by a panel discussion with Keely Keller, Director of Professional Programs at Learners Edge, Jaime McNatt, Mental Health Practitioner, and Scilla Andreen, Filmmaker. We wanted to share many of the great questions and comments we received from educators across the country during the conversation. We hope this discussion helps you feel better equipped to support students facing mental health challenges.
Q & A
General Information on Anxiety
Q: Some anxiety is good, so how can we know the difference between anxiety (that most people may experience) and an anxiety disorder or debilitating anxiety?
A manageable amount of anxiety from time to time can be helpful and is typical. However, anxiety is a problem when it becomes overwhelming or unmanageable and/or comes up unexpectedly. Anxiety disorders are mental illnesses that have a significant impact on an individual’s life.
Q: Can you explain anxiety and how that plays into executive functioning skills?
This Anxiety Disorders page from NAMI explains what anxiety is and the symptoms of anxiety.
Specific to how anxiety is related to executive functioning, a growing body of research suggests that people who have an anxiety disorder also struggle with executive functions. Difficulty concentrating is a primary symptom of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. More information on this relationship can be found in the article, “Executive Functioning and How It Relates to Anxiety” by Samuel Hunley, PhD. via anxiety.org.
Q: What resources would you recommend for educators, students, and families?
The resources provided on the website include: Common Questions, Find Therapists, Websites, Apps, Videos, Articles, Blogs, and Books!
Learners Edge has many blogs and videos around the topic of anxiety. We’ve listed a few of our favorites below. Subscribe to the Learners Edge Chalk Blog to find more!
Helpful Strategies and Words
Q: Is there any advice you have to help the team working so hard to help an individual who insists he/she’s “fine” but is not able to identify or deal with her feelings? Can you share some techniques for quietly and gently getting anxious people to talk about it?
Pushing an individual to talk about their anxiety if they do not see it or if they state they are “fine” is not likely to be an effective method. Instead, it is recommended that you talk about your own experiences and/or experiences of others to allow the individual to relate to the stories of others and understand that they are not the only ones who live with anxiety.
Q: What can we say to those with anxiety and/or panic attacks that is helpful?
This is highly dependent on the individual’s needs and preferences. You might consider asking the person, during a non-anxious time, what words, reminders, or strategies are most helpful to them when they feel anxious. Some may request limited verbal interaction and others may want assistance remembering to breathe through their anxiety. In the end, it’s important to be there to support and encourage while also asking, “What do you need?”
Q: How does an educator determine what is the best tool to have a student calm down?
Again, this is likely going to be student specific. You may have to try a number of different strategies to find the one that works best for the learner. For some students with anxiety that impacts their education, it may be important to work with a team of experts at the school (including parents/families) to find the reason for the anxiety, the function of the behaviors being exhibited, replacement behaviors, and/or coping strategies that are most effective.
Q: What can you do when someone’s anxiety keeps them from living life? (when it paralyzes them) What if they won’t get outside unless pushed?
You can start by discussing symptoms and how they are impacting the individual’s daily life. You might consider helping the individual with anxiety seek treatment and participate when you can as well. Remind each other that the goal is to manage the anxiety, not completely get rid of it. Encouragement is a great form of support, however, pushing or pressuring is not likely to be successful. It’s also important for you (as caregiver, partner, parent, etc.) to cultivate a life outside of the person’s anxiety.
Q: Can you share some practical activities to lower my anxiety?
Blue Mind/Blue Space: Being in or near water environments may lead to relaxation, improved social interactions, better brain health, enhanced physical activity, and relief from anxiety.
Grounding: By focusing on the present surroundings, a person can become more aware of their safe reality and start to feel calmer.
Earthing: This practice takes advantage of the earth’s subtle electrical charge using grounding methods specific to reconnecting yourself to the earth. This can be done through either direct or indirect contact with the earth like walking barefoot or lying on the ground.
Mindfulness: This method is about focusing your attention on where you’re at right now (being present) requiring you to pay attention (on purpose).
Meditation: As a type of mindfulness, meditation encourages deep breathing and focusing your attention to reduce and eliminate the number of thoughts that may be crowding your mind.
Q: What’s the best way to concentrate when you have anxiety?
One method that may be helpful is to write down any recurring thoughts you have. Also, consider preventing distractions as much as possible. For example, if you need to study, do not bring your cell phone to your desk. Try using a timer to monitor your “concentration” time and give yourself some “distraction” time. If you have a large task, you can create smaller checklists with sub-items. And don’t forget to breathe!
Q: What is the correlation, if any, between anxiety disorders and ADHD (Attention Deficit w/Hyperactivity Disorder)?
Those with ADHD are about 50% more likely to also have an anxiety disorder. This helpful article explains the correlation more in-depth: “ADHD and Anxiety: Symptoms, Connections & Coping Mechanisms” by J. Russell Ramsay, Ph.D. via ADDitude.
Q: What is the correlation, if any, between anxiety disorders and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder)?
Distressing thoughts are a big part of anxiety disorder and OCD. The main difference is that OCD is characterized by obsessive thoughts and resulting compulsive actions. Those with anxiety are not typically compelled to act upon their thoughts. Approximately 30% of individuals with OCD also have a lifetime history of an anxiety disorder.
Q: How strong is the link between anxiety and depression?
Approximately half of the individuals diagnosed with depression also have anxiety. This is also true the other way around, those with anxiety are more likely to also be diagnosed with depression. These mental health conditions are separate but similar and share some of the same causes, symptoms, etc.
Q: How much higher is the likelihood of having an anxiety disorder after trauma than someone who hasn’t experienced trauma?
Individuals who have experienced trauma may experience anxiety in a variety of forms from an increase in generalized worries to panic attacks. This can cause avoidance of social situations. Approximately, 20% of people who experience a traumatic event will develop PTSD.
Q: Any information regarding generalized anxiety disorder, also agoraphobia?
NAMI has fantastic fact sheets! This one on anxiety disorders provides helpful information about symptoms, types, causes, and treatment. Additionally, the National Institute of Mental Health provides some information on agoraphobia. For a more practical look, read this white paper on Agoraphobia via Shaw Mind.
Q: Do you have a course/show about depression and suicide?
Learners Edge offers courses to learn more about mental health and suicide prevention.
Course 854: Caring for the Mental Health of Your Students includes information on a variety of mental health disorders including depression. Suicide prevention is also a topic in this course.
PD 144: Awareness and Action for Suicide Prevention is a two-hour course which provides an opportunity for educators to pause, breathe, and focus on suicide prevention to increase awareness.
Q: How can a friend or educator support someone to avoid the acute edge – suicide?
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). This will connect you with a crisis center in your area: 1-800-784-2433 or check out this website.
Looking for more resources on suicide prevention? We’ve provided a few here.
Anxiety and School
Q: My own child has such bad anxiety that it makes it a struggle to get up in the morning. How can I help them with the anxiety and still get them to school on time?
Develop a bedtime and morning routine with your child. In each routine, be sure to include preferred activities and any strategies that have been shown to help your child regulate their emotions. Plan ahead, use visual prompts, use incentives, and try to stay calm. If anxiety or school refusal becomes a pattern and continually interferes with getting your child to school on time or at all, reach out to the school for assistance.
Q: As an educator, the parents have informed me that their child has anxiety. How do I support that student?
Listen and learn. Ask the student and family members what is helpful to the learner. Learn as much as you can about anxiety and mental health as it relates to education, school, students, and family members. Explicitly teach anxiety-reducing strategies, model them for the student, and encourage them to practice the strategies in low-stress times.
Q: How would you reply to an administrator who reacts to a student with high anxiety through avoiding, by saying, “Why would they do that? That’s a shame. They’re missing out.”?
Similar Question: What is the best approach to open the conversation with educators? How do you help other teachers understand that anxiety is real, and they should look for it?
Specific to the question from the administrator, this is a time when a scientific explanation of how anxiety can cause avoidant behavior due to the student perceiving a threat might be helpful. A gentle reminder that the student likely does not want to miss the event, but avoidance might be a technique the learner uses to protect themselves.
To open further dialogue with your colleagues including administrators, you could share the Angst website with encouragement to review the clips and resources. Teams could consider screening and discussing the film as a professional learning opportunity or plan a community screening to bring awareness to the topic of anxiety.
Q: How can we stop the constant bullying that triggers so much anxiety?
This is a tough question, but one starting place might be to review the Upstanders website from IndieFlix which also includes some excellent resources. We also recommend “Empathy-Based Bullying Prevention” and “How to Prevent Cyberbullying in Your Classroom” by Betsy Butler via the Learners Edge Chalk Blog. The website Stopbullying.gov via U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also provides some methods to decrease and hopefully eliminate bullying.
Looking for more on addressing anxiety? Many of these resources, strategies, and insights can be gained through Course 5102 Anxiety Awareness: Empowering Students with Help and Hope which uses Angst film clips as one of the primary resources in the course. We recommend this course to all educators, administrators, and other school staff.
Course 5102 | 3-Credits | K-12+
Course Description: Mental health professionals are shining a light on the pervasiveness of anxiety, highlighting the need for increased awareness and attention to this issue. Young people are notably affected: anxiety affects 1 in 5 children, and 70% of teens say that anxiety is a major problem facing their age group.This course will give educational professionals the tools they need to support students who have anxiety, including foundational knowledge about anxiety, its symptoms, and a look at Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Utilizing clips from the documentary, “Angst: Raising Awareness Around Anxiety,” participants will complete the course with ready to implement strategies for teaching coping skills, ideas for accommodations, and considerations for tools and processes to support students who have anxiety.