From Health & Wellness: Understanding Anxiety
Angela Juurlink, M.Ed

Anxiety disorders are considered the fastest-growing mental health issue in America. Although there is not a definitive answer as to why the growth is occurring, we do know ways to support people experiencing excessive anxiety. At Tilton School, mindfulness is one of the five essential skills we focus on. Encouraging healthy balance, focusing on community, and offering students resources when they are struggling are just a few ways we emphasis mental healthcare. But, it's helpful to understand why you or someone you care about may be feeling this way.

As a parent, watching a child experience anxiety can be paralyzing. You may not know how to help or what to do.

It's important to realize that anxiety is often a normal response for anyone to experience. Without it, we would not slam on the brakes to avoid a car accident or make our deadlines at work. But for some, anxiety has gone beyond its useful purpose by mistaking daily events as life-threatening. This results in distress that is difficult to manage. When we stop to understand how anxiety has developed so much power over our lives, we can then start to address it in a more manageable manner.

Ten thousand years ago our anxiety was often a result of a life-threatening moment. A physical threat triggered our need to respond quickly in order to survive: fight or flight. Our brains have not evolved as quickly as our environmental surroundings. As a result, our perceived threats are now more psychological than physical. You cannot outrun or fight an awkward moment in a work or social gathering. 

The physical sensations we feel during a challenging social moment are the same we would experience with that saber-toothed tiger: sweaty palms, feeling hot, experiencing a tight chest, difficulty breathing, and feeling our heart pounding. If we were running for our lives, these sensations would be beneficial; however, sitting in a chair trying to understanding what we are experiencing can be scary. When we experience anxiety in moments that trigger fight or flight, but we are not able to engage in either option, it can make an already difficult moment feel unbearable. It is natural to fear this reaction and the possibility that it will happen again. This fear leads us to avoid more and more things out of fear, restricting our lives and options. 

What is important to note is that any space we give this anxiety reinforces the brain’s idea that there is something to be feared and avoided. If you start with one area, that fear will grow and seep into other areas.

The symptoms we feel during misdirected anxiety are uncomfortable but they will not kill us or harm us beyond our fear of them.

If we hyper-focus on them, they will increase in severity by feeding the anxiety and sending a message to the brain that there is indeed something to fear. If we accept that it is misdirected angst that carries with it uncomfortable, but tolerable symptoms, we can send a different message to the brain. By reassuring our minds that nothing is attacking us, our brains can release the fight or flight response (symptoms of anxiety naturally go down). In time, that internal dialogue changes our automatic brain response.

The above information may sound simple but in no way is it meant to sound easy. It is normal to have anxiety during tests or athletic performances especially when we have thoughts such as, “I have to do well” or “I can’t mess up”. Counseling is a helpful way to coach someone through this experience and change the patterns in the brain, not by avoiding but by learning a way to walk into this distress with significantly less fear. 

If you have questions, please reach out to School Counselor Angela Juurlink at ajuurlink@tiltonschool.org or connect with your child’s advisor. The Tilton School Peer Counselors are also getting intense anxiety-reduction training this fall as an additional same-age resource.

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