The Normalization of Anxiety
This may sound strange—but I love the fact that we’re talking about mental health issues today. While I hate that millions of teenage students struggle with such issues, at least we’re finally addressing them, rather than hiding from them, and beginning to take action against anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and other disorders.
Nearly everyone on planet earth experiences some anxiety.
Luna Greenstein, of The National Alliance on Mental Illness states:
“This fact is both positive and negative for people who live with anxiety conditions. It’s beneficial because most people have some understanding of what anxiety feels like and may be more sympathetic to someone who experiences daily symptoms. But because anxiety is ‘normalized,’ it can often be downplayed as a feeling everyone experiences rather than a serious health condition. Example: ‘Oh I know exactly how you feel. I had a panic attack last week when I thought I lost my wallet.’”
Remarks like these can make someone who actually experiences a genuine anxiety disorder feel dismissed. This is why it’s important for us to recognize the difference between feeling “anxiety” and having an “anxiety disorder.”
This is the emotion we all feel when we become overwhelmed with too much happening or with the feeling of being out of control. Life naturally brings stressors with it.
- We can’t find something important.
- We feel we can’t make progress.
- We fear we won’t have a good future.
- We are overwhelmed by messaging on our phone.
- We feel nervous or stressed out about a job interview.
- We lose hope over a situation.
These realities are part of every one of our lives. We must learn to navigate them as part of being human and living in the 21st century.
This is a chronic state of mind—the person feels overwhelmed, fearful, and distressed constantly, even in daily situations. While there are several types of anxiety disorders, they all share these symptoms, according to NAMI:
- Feelings of apprehension or dread
- Feeling tense and jumpy
- Restlessness or irritability
- Anticipating the worst and being watchful for signs of danger
- Pounding or racing heart and shortness of breath
- Upset stomach
- Sweating, tremors, and twitches
- Headaches, fatigue, and insomnia
- Upset stomach, frequent urination, or diarrhea
These are the realities of 40 million Americans; and almost a third of teens today. We are living in a new normal.
How Do We Lead Students Through This New Normal?
I believe we can respond with empathy and sympathy to students who simply feel anxious on any given day, and to those who endure anxiety disorders. In both cases, you may be tempted to think they are overreacting. (Sometimes they may be). But saying this instantly doesn’t help get to a solution. The person with an anxiety disorder is a pounding heart and perhaps sweaty palms; their stomach is in knots and they often feel dizzy or disoriented; they are deeply afraid, feeling trapped by this state. They can begin to cry so hard they get a headache, and it all happens within minutes.
In both cases, they need to know you can sympathize with them. Rather than telling them to “grow up” immediately, (that may have to be said later), we can say something like:
“I know you’re feeling overwhelmed about what just happened. I’m sure I would feel this way if I were going through the same thing. I am so sorry you’re dealing with this issue. Believe it or not, while this emotion feels like it will go on forever, it won’t. You will get through this. In fact, we both may be able to laugh about it one day.”
The goal for both situations (someone who feels anxious and someone with an anxiety disorder) is to sympathize with them, soothe the current pain and bring them to a point of hope that they can, indeed, navigate this situation.
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