Monday, April 11, 2016

Anxious About Toads and Other Things


I never did like toads. I remember going to the local park with my family as a child and being anxious that I would see one. Or one might touch me.

My father always said, the toad is more afraid of you than you are of it. I always doubted that, but he said it all the time.

My anxiety was not exclusive to toads, however. Boys, radiators, public speaking, and crossing the street by the library were all things that I worried about throughout childhood. It was hard to do somethings, but I always found a way. Except for when toads were involved.

Last Friday, I attended a workshop about anxiety in schools. I learned what anxiety is and how we as educators can support students who struggle.

All people experience anxiety and it serves an evolutional purpose, as it helps us to perform better. Anxiety become a problem when it gets in the way of our "joyful development" into the people that we are. Take my toad example: How many fun games did I miss out on because they took place near the pond and I was afraid of running into a toad? More than I care to know about.

While severe anxiety is a serious mental health concern which needs professional attention and intervention, I learned on Friday that there are things educators can do to support students with anxiety. The solution is to help the student (or yourself) learn to normalize the anxiety by coping with it.

Anxiety is cool in that is shows us what is important to us. When students are worried about a test, it is because they care about their grades. When they are anxious about social interactions, it means they want to like and be liked by their peers.

The trick is to have students learn that there are specific skills to managing anxiety that must be developed and practiced - it's not a magical process. Students (and all people) can learn to manage their anxiety by asking three important questions:

1. What is the worst that could happen? The toad could attack me and I will die of either toad-phobia or toad-infection.
Notice how fantastical my answer is here - anxiety is often about unnamed fear and helping students articulate the fear is an important first step.

2. What is most likely to happen? I might scream and feel a little grossed out, but the toad is going to hop away from me and hide.
See the difference? My anxiety told me one thing, but reality will show me another.

3. What is your plan? What can you say to yourself or do to help yourself? I could remind myself that my dad was right and the toad really is more afraid of me than I am of it. I could remind myself that that toad is not a danger to me - only kinda gross. I could scare the toad away.
Notice that I am taking responsibility for my thoughts and actions. And that I am not removing myself from the discomfort.

I have already found this sequence of questions to be very practical and useful. A student I know was worried about making a cold call to a college admissions office. We went through the steps together, laughing about the fantastical things the admissions officer might have said and then focusing on the plan - what questions he should ask and what to do if he didn't know what to do. He asked me to leave the room when he made the call. Later, he reported that it went well and he got even more information than he had hoped.

I was proud of the kid and he was proud of himself. He took an anxiety provoking experience and turned it into a moment of success and joyful development.

In terms of my joyful development, I was walking with my son a few nights ago and we happened upon a toad hanging out in a neighbor's drive way. My son is almost 6 feet tall, so I admit that I was tempted to scream and jump onto his back. But then I remembered to ask myself the three questions - with an emphasis on the third. Instead of screaming, I planned to be curious about the toad. What was he doing here? Can I get a good picture of him? Is is a boy or a girl?

My questions helped me to stay within the anxious moment and turn it into joyful development. You might argue that the picture I took was not all that good. But my dad sure was proud of me when I texted it to him!