Our anxiety – friend or foe?

This week, TCS’s Director of Guidance & Wellbeing (and registered psychotherapist (qualifying)), Ms. Koekkoek, is well-positioned to share valuable insights into anxiety, a timely topic as our Senior School students look to approaching exams.

Written by guest blogger, Ms. Krista Koekkoek

Our school counselling offices have been busy places these last few weeks. Students are delighted to be back on campus and are keen to tell us stories of their first rugby tackle, house dinner attire or interhouse visit (where they were, for the first time in two years, permitted to visit each other’s boarding residence). There is joy in these moments of sharing – laughter, delight, surprise – but there are also threads of apprehension.

Though the world continues to open up and become less restrictive for our young people, it also comes with increased worries on their part. Will they be good enough to make the rugby team? Will they be judged for their house dinner outfit? What if no one wants to visit them during interhouse or, worse yet, what if they don’t know what to say when someone does stop by for a social visit?

Studies report, unsurprisingly, that anxiety has been on the rise in adolescents since March 2020. The world has been destabilizing for us all – and our minds have been on high alert during the pandemic, whether we felt it consciously or not. And though adolescent stresses and worries persist at a higher level even as “normalcy” returns, helping young people understand anxiety and ways to manage it, can go a long way.

Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist specializing in education and adolescent development, references some helpful considerations for our teenagers in her New York Times article titled “Teenagers, Anxiety Can Be Your Friend” (March 25, 2021).

The gist of Damour’s position?

  • Anxiety is helpful. It might feel bad but it is designed to let us know that something needs some caution or thought. We should feel anxiety before a big test (and more before exam time)! It tells us we need to prepare and take it seriously. Studies suggest that feeling tense may actually improve our performance. Anxiety becomes unhelpful when it doesn’t match the level of the stressor (the test, the game, the social situation, etc.).
  • We don’t want to avoid anxiety. Though, in the short term, it feels better to skip a social event or ask to delay writing a test, in the long term, this actually makes our worries larger or perpetuates our need to avoid. Facing our worries can reduce anxiety, and doing so gradually, even the tiniest of steps, can be the best starting point.
  • We can work with our anxiety. We do not want to take it away – remember, it exists for a reason. But there are proven ways to settle our nerves. Our school counsellors have a toolbox ready to deploy.

It makes sense that our students are nervous. Why wouldn’t they be with all that has happened over the last two years? So, as adults, how can we help them (particularly now that exams are approaching)?

  • Let’s listen compassionately when they tell us their worries (and resist the urge to interrupt them!). We know what it was like to be in a pandemic, but we can forget what that might have been like for us as teenagers. They need our empathy more than anything. Let’s let them tell us what it’s like as opposed to supposing we know.
  • Let’s normalize how they’re feeling – of course they might be worried, stressed and anxious!
  • Let’s remind them that they do have the tools within them to face what they are fearful of (and if they don’t – there are people who can help).

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