Therapist Lori Losen visited two of my Classroom Guidance classes to discuss the topic of anxiety, a feeling some students know all too well. Students learned that from the ages of 12-18 they are developing their identity, and this can be an anxiety-inducing process. The frontal lobe of the brain is under construction and is the last part of the brain to mature, usually by about 24 years of age. The frontal lobe is considered the conductor and controls judgment, impulse control, and emotions. It is also the center of executive functioning skills such as reasoning and problem solving. When anxiety occurs, good judgment and impulse control can become compromised.
Symptoms of anxiety can be physiological, psychological, and behavioral. Physiological symptoms of anxiety include a dry mouth, rapid heart rate, sweating, muscle tension, hot flashes or chills, numbness, headaches, and stomachaches. Psychologically, anxious students may have feelings of uneasiness, fear, apprehension, or nervousness. Anxiety may also show up in such behavioral responses as anger, avoidance, irritability, social withdrawal, refusal to attend school, and lower academic performance.
Students were asked to silently rank their level of anxiety from 0-10. If anxiety is too low, there is little to no motivation. If anxiety is too high, a lack of memory and concentration can result. A 4-5 on a scale of 1-10 is a comfortable level of anxiety. When a student inevitably experiences anxiety and their level rises, they are encouraged to "get curious, not furious" (investigate their emotions) and "name it to tame it" (identify their emotions in order to work through them). Engaging in play on a regular basis is promoted, as this gives the adolescent brain a vacation and time to decompress. Students were also encouraged to engage in positive self-talk. Our brains are negatively biased, so we have to compensate for that by giving ourselves kudos and the occasional pat on the back. Students were reminded to frequently tell themselves that they're doing the best they can in that moment.
To conclude the lesson, students practiced three anxiety-taming strategies. These included belly breathing (taking deep, calming breaths that force the belly, as opposed to the chest, to rise), naming 10 objects they saw in the classroom, and naming five sounds they heard. The latter two activities encourage students to focus on the present moment instead of being anxious about future events or dwelling on the past. Students were encouraged to practice mindfulness, which trains the brain to be engaged in the present. Anxiety is a future-driven emotion, but staying in the present moment will keep students in a safe, anxiety-free space. Hopefully students will utilize these techniques if they are feeling anxious in the future.