The anxious thoughts of students aren’t always just passing worries; they’re becoming deeply rooted, widespread mantras for young people across America. Anxiety is the most common mental health challenge that young people today face, and it’s the top reason why students seek mental health services in colleges across the country. In severe cases, anxiety is stopping teens from doing homework, reaching out to friends, leaving their homes, and even leading to depressive and suicidal thoughts. Clearly, we need to help teens learn to better manage anxiety.
Many anxious teens have some sort of trigger: a school subject that doesn’t come naturally, the cliques they face at school, or — hovering throughout their high school experience — pressure to apply and get into college. It can be tempting for the counselors and therapists who work with these students to remove as many of these triggers as possible, allowing students to simply walk out of class when the content gets tough, or eat lunch away from the chaotic cafeteria. But those solutions don’t usually get to the root of the problem, and in fact they can make it worse. Instead, according to a range of mental health experts, school counselors should focus on giving students the tools they need to overcome their anxiety, while fostering a school culture that embraces a sense of balance and self-regulatory skills.
Building resilience is an important first step. More so than in past generations, many teens today have all of their basic needs met, and they haven’t had much practice making mistakes. Especially in affluent communities, their parents are hyper-involved in their academic and social lives, so it’s unusual for teenagers to study, arrange a meeting about a bad grade, or even resolve a disagreement with a friend without parental help. When an uncomfortable or difficult situation arises, many teenagers just don’t have the skills to deal with it on their own. Instead, because they struggle with how to manage anxiety, they worry, envision the worst, and shut down.
The good news is that schools are increasingly tuning in to mental health needs, and they’ve gotten better at diagnosing anxiety disorders and teaching students how to manage anxiety. With that awareness, though, comes the question of how counselors should best support anxious students. Above all, it’s important that counselors teach students to overcome their anxiety, rather than merely escape their triggers. Anxious teens often just want counselors to help them feel safe again, but their problems will likely only escalate if they don’t learn how to cope with stress, discomfort, and panic.
Counselors can start by isolating what specifically is making the student anxious, and brainstorm how to make that situation more manageable. If one class is a trigger, then the counselor can try suggesting that the student move his seat or talk to the teacher. These actions demonstrate to the student that she has some control over herself and her surroundings, a key factor to building resilience. During counseling sessions, students can also practice strategies to calm down and refocus thoughts, which are both valuable tools she can later use in anxiety-inducing situations. Strengthening these self-regulatory skills such as prioritization, focus, and mental flexibility, researchers have found, is another fundamental way to develop resilience over time.
If students are feeling especially burnt out and nervous about college applications, they may need help considering and exploring alternative routes to a four-year college: taking a gap year, or first taking classes at a community college. Additionally, counselors can encourage teachers to emphasize a growth mindset in their teaching, which can help students to embrace challenges, rather than feel overwhelmed by them. Helping students to have freedom to feel mistakes are part of the learning process will allow for students to focus more on developing effective strategies connected to the academic task at hand, rather than worrying about getting a perfect score on a test.
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