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When Anxiety Affects Education

”Having an anxiety disorder is like being stuck in that moment when you realize you’ve leaned too far back in your chair, but have not yet fallen.” Teenage Student

Many teens suffer from anxiety, in fact, there are some studies that suggest 8% of teenagers currently have an anxiety disorder and 32% will develop one. Only 1 in 3 will get treatment. In my practice, I see severe anxiety leading to school avoidance or even refusal. Even if attendance is consistent, learning can be negatively affected by the physiological changes during feelings of stress. The brain becomes flooded with hormones that virtually shut off the ability to think. Imagine trying to do a math problem as you perch on the edge of your first bungee jumping platform. It just isn’t physically possible.

Learning differences often come along for the anxiety ride. 38% of middle school and high school aged kids with ADHD have an anxiety disorder. An already challenged learner now needs to overcome the increased academic demands as he or she progresses through the school years. But even kids without a learning difference may feel anxiety in school. In my practice I notice that anxiety of any sort can often lead to an outward or inward behavior that often leads to social exclusion or rejection, creating more dysfunction. The examples I see are oppositional behaviors at home or school, substance abuse, self-harm, social isolation, inability to complete school work, fighting with parents, overuse of technology, even physical or verbal abuse.

So what is stress? It can be defined as perceived demands that exceed one’s perceived ability to meet them. This is often the result of confusing “needs” vs. “wants.” You can recall this from the “I love Lucy” when Lucy tries to sort chocolates on a fast-moving conveyor belt. Or, in our teens, perhaps the “I need to go to Yale” vs. “I want to go to Yale.” One scenario may create a perceived demand over ability and the other may create motivation. According to the American Psychological Association, the number one stressor for teenagers is doing well in school. Other factors are getting into a good college, their appearance and family conflict.

Anxiety is when stress gets to be too much. Most of us have adapted to anxiety; we know that anxiety helps keep us safe, is a response to real danger and prevents us from repeating mistakes. In a disordered anxious state, the person feels functional impairment, like a “false alarm”, that leads to unnecessary avoidance. The measure of anxiety is the intensity of the avoidant behavior. Thus, an important part of my practice with teens is to recognize the avoidance as the treatment trigger.

Incredibly, avoidance feels really good right away! It is immediately self-reinforcing. We often say avoidance and fear are good teammates. As parents, we try to help, but oo often anxiety’s coercive behavior cycle takes over. Child experiences anxiety, acts out — Parent is an expert soother — Child feels better, suffering is over — until is starts over.

Anxiety in education may result in school refusal, but I posit that it is the avoidant behavior needs attention. When we can treat the avoidance as emotional rather than behavioral, children develop tolerance and resilience that serves them for the rest of their lives.