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The Power of Partnership, Innovation and Learning

School Desk Blog: Being Anxious Versus Having Anxiety

I recently wrote a short message in a Ukiah High School parent newsletter suggesting it is normal for students to feel anxious sometimes, and that it is important to learn to manage life’s responsibilities even when feeling anxious. I received an unexpected number of responses challenging what I’d written. Clearly, I fell short in effectively communicating. While we have more resources and are doing more to support students’ emotional health than at any time in my thirty years in education, it is also clear we must do even more. And as we do more, we also need do a better job of connecting students and parents with the resources we offer. 

In this column, I’d like to address the first issue above – communicating better about the difference between feeling anxious from time to time versus the type of anxiety that is caused by trauma or a clinical condition. Feeling anxious is a normal human emotion, especially during adolescence. Facing trauma or living with clinical anxiety is a whole different, and far more serious, situation.

Nationwide right now, untreated anxiety is resulting in a suicide epidemic among high school-aged kids. It’s heartbreaking, both because of the senseless loss of life and because with treatment, the anxiety and depression that led to the suicides could have been addressed.

So what’s the difference between feeling anxious and having a more serious condition? The answer is not simple, but mental health professionals say that when the anxious feelings start interfering with a student’s schooling, personal life, and health, it’s time to pay more attention.

In the case of trauma, it is not the event that causes trauma so much as the student’s response to it. I received an excellent resource from a local parent, Julie Fetherston, who has studied trauma as part of her work. The resource, a summary of the psychological and behavioral impact of trauma on high school students by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, defines trauma as “an experience that threatens life or physical integrity and that overwhelms an individual’s capacity to cope.” Basically, if a student believes his or her life is in danger (even if it isn’t)—or that their connection to whatever social group matters most, be it family or friends, is threatened (even if it isn’t); it is as powerful as if the student’s life/belonging had actually been in danger. Usually, it is feelings of extreme fear or helplessness that cause trauma. Obviously, people’s backgrounds lead them to interpret situations differently, and thus experience trauma differently even when witnessing the same event, for example. And repeated exposure to trauma can lead to clinical anxiety, sometimes paired with depression.

Although all the causes of clinical anxiety aren’t entirely clear, researchers believe a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological and developmental factors cause the condition. With some variation, high school students with anxiety will often exhibit the changes in behavior that signal the need for intervention:

• Constant worrying

• Feeling overwhelmed to the point of tears

• Withdrawal from friends and other social groups

• Heightened irritability

• Angry outbursts

• Plummeting grades

• Absenteeism

• Increased risk-taking

• Increased headaches and/or stomachaches

 “Anxiety attacks” can include a racing heart, quick breathing, dry mouth, sweating, trembling and dizziness. While anxiety attacks may be easy to spot, using the list above to determine whether your child is experiencing serious anxiety that requires treatment is less clear. As with many topics, talking to your teen about whether they’re feeling anxious can be a touchy, complex thing. However, providing information and letting them know where they can get help is a great start. Helping them build a support circle of trusted people who care about them can help them build resilience. At Ukiah High, we have three social-emotional counselors, so there’s one resource to recommend. In my next column, I’ll expand on the other resources we have in place, as well as the support we are developing as a result of listening to students and parents.

As adults, most of us face stressful situations every day. Teens need to know that experience is a great teacher and sometimes the best way to overcome anxious feelings is to plunge headfirst into the work. Sometimes, action truly is the antidote to anxiety and the “buck-up-little-camper” approach works wonders. But not always, and in the case of a child experiencing the effects of trauma or clinical anxiety, never.

Pay attention. Take the time to engage, to risk your teen’s temper tantrum or eye roll, to ask whether they need help. Try not to judge others who are struggling and may need more support. Calling kids “weak” or “immature” because they feel anxious is, at best, cruel and at worst, exacerbating the problem. Whereas, responding to a surly teen with compassion can allow them to be vulnerable and to open up to the help they need. Let’s blend compassion and science to help students overcome anxiety.