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Copyright 2020 Sussan, Greenwald & Wesler 2020
All Rights Reserved.

Anxiety’s Spiking: Here’s How to Help Our Students

BY GUEST BLOGGER: HOWARD MARGOLIS

COVID-19 has caused untold numbers of America’s students (and family members, teachers, and school support staff) to suffer mild to severe anxiety. Some will be helped by the passage of time and new coping skills. Some won’t.

For those who won’t, especially those who suffer from severe anxiety, who intensely fear the future, it’s a crisis. It’s also a crisis for their families, their teachers, and America writ large.

Choices: When faced with problems of this magnitude, we have choices. We can groan, pity ourselves, and fall prey to our fears. We can lament that, “The pandemic’s horrible. Anxiety’s a natural outcome. We can’t do anything about it. It’s here. We’re all victims.”

Or, we can face the problem. We can ask and answer this question: How can we help affected students help themselves?

Relaxation and Attention: We can help many students (and ourselves) by teaching them how to lessen or overcome anxiety. In doing so, we can help them relax as relaxation and anxiety are largely incompatible. To a large degree, each is the antithesis of the other. It’s hard, if not impossible to feel anxious while relaxed. Concerned, perhaps. Anxious, unlikely.

We can also teach them how to strategically refocus their attention and thinking. Refocusing can help them enjoy the moment while minimizing or dispelling anxiety.

Summaries: Below are short summaries of four well-known approaches for reducing anxiety and, in many cases, increasing relaxation. They’re written for you, as it’s important that you experience and feel comfortable with an approach before you introduce it to students.

Simply put, people who understand and feel comfortable with specific anxiety-reducing and related approaches are far more committed and effective at teaching and maintaining the approaches than those who simply memorize the steps.

Counseling: While you’re considering which approach or set of approaches might work best with your students, remember that some students’ anxiety may be extreme. Extreme levels require help from highly qualified professionals who specialize in anxiety and related areas.

If you suspect that one of your students fits this mold, make a referral. Don’t wait. The quicker he (or she) gets high-quality help, the better off he’s likely to be.

Effectiveness: The four strategies have strong track records. Generally, they’re effective, but they’re not magical. They’re not 100% effective. Their effectiveness depends upon many factors, such as the understanding, skill, and commitment of teachers and school support staff, the support and training they get from their districts, and the quality of collaboration between teachers, support staff, and families.

As you read the summaries below, remember that students learn at different rates. What works exceptionally well for one student will work moderately well for a second, and less well for a third. But sometimes, the “less well” students of today can morph into “moderately well “or “exceptionally well” practitioners. The take-home point: Belief in persistence and the ability of students to succeed.

Strategy 1: Deep Breathing

To breathe deeply, sit in a chair with your feet flat and your spine straight. Close your mouth, inhale through your nose while slowly and silently counting to four at a slow one-second clip; then, hold your breath as you slowly and silently count to four at a one-second clip; then exhale through your pursed lips as you slowly and silently count to four a one-second clip. Repeat this sequence for two or three minutes.

One or two sessions morning and one or two in the afternoon can help your students prevent or shred anxiety as they become more relaxed. As a daily activity, deep breathing can do wonders. It can also develop into a highly beneficial habit. And it’s portable. Students can breathe deeply during remote classes, in-person classes, at home, or on the bus.

As you think about deep breathing, keep in mind: “Improper breathing contributes to anxiety, anxiety attacks, depression, muscle tension, headaches, and fatigue. As you learn to be aware of your breathing and practice slowing and normalizing your breath, your mind will quiet and your body will relax. Breathing awareness and good breathing habits will engage and enhance your psychological and physical well-being.”

Strategy 2: Distraction

When most people think of anxiety or relaxation, they rarely think of distraction. Nevertheless, distraction can be highly effective in increasing relaxation and lessening anxiety.

The more you focus on an upsetting problem, the bigger and more anxiety-producing it becomes. The “molehill becomes a mountain.” The small criticism becomes a gigantic, never to be forgotten, ever-present, ever-expanding, ever blistering, horrendous rebuke.

Often, reality differs from perception. The molehill’s not a mountain and the slight criticism isn’t a horrendous rebuke that will devastate your future. So how do you move from painful but unjustified anxiety to a realistic and justified understanding of the situation?

Here are two strategies that work well together. 1) Distract yourself. 2) Let time minimize the problem.

Let’s look at body weight and health. When trying to lose weight and improve your health, it’s critical to distract yourself when your mind focuses on your favorite food: hot, crisp French fries. You want the fries, and you want them immediately. Rarely will willpower stop you. Distraction is the answer.

Quickly leave the kitchen, take a shower, go outside to call a friend, or take a brisk 30-minute walk. (And if possible, keep the French fries out of your apartment.)

For your distractions to succeed, plan them so you know exactly how to do what, when, how, and where. If running is your planned distraction, have your running sneakers and clothes laid out so you can quickly change and run.

And here’s where time comes in. Walk away from the problem. If it’s in your office, leave. Distract yourself. Often, in less than 30 minutes, the enormity of the problem begins to dissipate. If you’re anxious about a paper that’s soon due and you’re bereft of ideas, take a brisk walk, play a video game, get a good night’s sleep.

Once you’ve distanced and distracted yourself from the paper and stopped bombarding yourself with destructive and unrealistic thoughts, i.e., “I’m going to fail. I’ll look stupid.”

Three good ideas might unexpectedly jump into your thoughts. Cognitive incubation was working. While you distract yourself from your anxiety-provoking problem, your mind was quietly working in the background.

With many students, it’s best to discuss different distractions and have them plan which to focus on when they’re starting to feel anxious. The sooner they distract themselves, the quicker their anxiety will start to dissipate.

Strategy 3: Relax and Recharge Time

We all need to relax. It recharges our energy and optimism. It makes us more clearheaded. We’re less likely to make mountains out of molehills. It may well prevent moments of baseless, dysfunctional anxiety.

Working, working, working, and continuing to work without relaxing and doing the things we enjoy saps our energy, erodes our creativity, engenders tunnel vision, increases our mistakes, and provokes anxiety. We need to prevent anxiety. We need to relax.

We all have different ways of relaxing and recharging. Below are several ways that might work for your students. No doubt, you can add to the list.

As you look at the list, keep in mind that it’s hard to be anxious when you’re relaxed and enjoying yourself. Is it possible? Yes. But it’s hard.

  • Spending 15 minutes relaxing and quietly reading a book they wanted to read.
  • Spending 20 minutes working on the art project they had hoped to work on.
  • Meditating for eight minutes.
  • Continuing yesterday’s chess games.
  • Running in place on their exercise mats.
  • Sharing jokes and funny stories.
  • Talking to friends.
  • Playing video games.

Encouraging students to choose an activity from a list you approved and they would like enhances the value of the activities. Choice strengthens motivation.

Strategy 4: Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

Students can do this abbreviated form of PMR in their seats. Basically, it requires them to systematically tighten and relax different muscles. By doing such, they better identify which of their muscles are tense or relaxed. And they relax themselves. This works especially well when they see highly respected peers enjoying it.

Here’s an abbreviated five-minute sequence.

  • Take a deep breath in. Hold it for five seconds. Now for five seconds purse your lips and slowly breathe out.
  • Repeat three more times.
  • Lay your right-hand flat on your desk. Now, make a fist with your right hand. Squeeze it hard. Hold it for five seconds. Now open your fist and let it fall limp and flat on the desk. Let it stay there for 15 seconds. Repeat three more times.
  • Lay your left-hand flat on your desk. Make a fist with it. Squeeze it hard. Hold it for five seconds. Now open it and let it fall limp and flat on the desk. Let it stay there for 15 seconds. Repeat three more times.

Depending on your student’s ages and abilities, gradually add other “squeeze – fall limp” sequences. This might include their forearms, biceps, faces, necks, and shoulders.

There are many variations of PMR. Most are similar. Baylor University provides an excellent, highly detailed variation.

Other Relaxing Activities

Below is a list of activities that can help students relax. (They can also help parents, teachers, support staff, and others to relax.)

  • Acts of kindness
  • Caring calls from teachers and staff
  • Caring for plants and pets
  • Collaborative learning activities
  • Comfortable but challenging assignments
  • Counseling: In-person or telemedicine
  • Daily diaries
  • Daily exercise
  • Daily gratitude lists and discussions
  • Gardening
  • Good sleep habits
  • Guided imagery
  • Healthy nutrition
  • Hobbies
  • Interesting books, podcasts, and audiobooks
  • Manageable goals
  • Meditation
  • Nature trips
  • Opportunities for choice
  • Outdoor walks and explorations
  • Outdoor walks and games
  • Selective focusing
  • Video conferencing (e.g., Zoom) with friends
  • Visualization

Practical Practices

When using these suggestions, keep seven practices in mind. Each supports the others.

  1. Make each anxiety-reducing activity satisfying and enjoyable.
  2. Think big, start small. Avoid overwhelming students. Teach one strategy at a time. Often, one is all you need.
  3. Listen to your students and their parents. Learn what they like and dislike. Identify their concerns, fears, and habits.
  4. Protect students’ health. Some relaxation strategies, like Deep Breathing and Progressive Muscle Relaxation, may aggravate students’ medical conditions. Before using them, get written permission from students’ parents and appropriate school personnel.
  5. Adhere to regular, predictable classroom routines that students find predictable, assuring, and comfortable.
  6. Ask relevant support staff, such as nurses, school psychologists, and physical therapists to demonstrate relaxation strategies like Deep Breathing and Progressive Muscle Relaxation. In their graduate program, they may have received receive the requisite training.
  7. When needed, help parents get the information and skills they need to assure their children routinely get a good night’s sleep. Poor sleep can easily exacerbate anxiety and undermine your efforts.

Perspective

Anxiety, essentially unsubstantiated fear of the future, can undermine academics, create interpersonal difficulties, and make life painful. In kind, supportive, and knowledgeable ways, teachers (support staff, and parents) can do much to remedy these problems.

There’s no time to waste. Even in the era of COVID-19, when just about everyone is anxious about the virus, part of our moral and educational responsibility is to help anxious students minimize their anxiety.

But we have so much to do. Is now the time to focus on anxiety? Yes. Anxiety is here. It’s painful, it’s often debilitating, and it can be dangerous. Though you may not be a therapist or school psychologist, and thus you shouldn’t act like one, it’s important to keep Martin Luther King Jr.’s principle in mind: “It’s always the right time to do the right thing.”

Excellent Resources

Howard Margolis has been a reading specialist and special education teacher in urban and suburban areas and a professor of special education at the State University of New York (SUNY) and a professor of Reading Disabilities and Special Education at the City University of New York (CUNY). His upcoming book, “Negotiating Your Child’s IEP,” was co-authored with Dr. Gary Brannigan, Prof. Emeritus of Psychology at Plattsburgh State University of SUNY.

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