George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Wellness

I Literally Can Even: Exploring Anxiety for Good in the Classroom

November 4, 2015

I had a student tell me the other day that she was “odding”, which I found odd to say the least. When I asked her what odding meant, she told me, of course, that she literally can’t even, which is a phrase I hear a lot from my teenage and young adult students. In the last several years, I have seen anxiety on the rise; not just seen stressed out kids, but students who are paralyzed by the stress in their school day. They literally can’t even. But don’t take my word for it!

The statistics are dire.

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Anxiety has now surpassed depression as the most common mental health diagnosis among college students, though depression, too, is on the rise. More than half of students visiting campus clinics cite anxiety as a health concern, according to a recent study of more than 100,000 students nationwide by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State. And in our high schools, 8% have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but that is just the diagnosis numbers according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

We speak a lot about growth mindsets and harnessing soft skills, but stress can be a great enemy or a tremendous friend, depending on how you frame and hone it. I found quite a bit of research on stress in the workplace and how a simple reframing of stressful situations had a tremendous impact on how employees thought about stress in their own workspace and even more interestingly had a direct impact on productivity and even life satisfaction. So I began thinking what if it wasn’t the stress, but the way we speak and discuss stress with our young minds.

If we accept the inevitability of stress at school, we can chose to think of it as a tool rather than an impediment. One study in the Harvard Business Review stated, “When stress happens, thinking of it as enhancing rather than debilitating can lessen the risk to your health and materially improve your productivity and performance.” So stress can be both a sword and a shield.

The study continues, “There is an alternative approach which we found to be much more successful. Crum and I showed different three-minute videos to two groups of UBS managers. The first group watched a video detailing all the findings about how stress is debilitating. The second group watched a video that talked about scientific findings that stress enhances the human brain and body. The latter information is less well known, but equally true. Stress can cause the human brain to use more of its capabilities, improve memory and intelligence, increase productivity, and even speed recovery from things like knee surgery. Research indicates that stress, even at high levels, creates greater mental toughness, deeper relationships, heightened awareness, new perspectives, a sense of mastery, a greater appreciation for life, a heightened sense of meaning, and strengthened priorities.” (Source: https://hbr.org/2011/02/make-stress-work-for-you/)

So the simple act of explaining stress and its utility in the classroom, or showing a short video on how stress can enhance cognition could improve memory, increase productivity and mental toughness? Stress is both the paralyzing fear of speaking in front of a crowd or public speaking and the excitement of Christmas morning or an upcoming trip. It is both the energy and enthusiasm of recess and the nervousness surrounding assessment. Creating normalcy and recognition, not just in the identification of stress but its utility, can be an imperative in shifting anxiety from stagnation to forward momentum.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.

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