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When is anxiety helpful and unhelpful?

Anxiety is helpful when it is a response to a real and immediate threat or when it motivates us to improve our performance. The right amount of anxiety not only helps us avoid danger but gives us a nudge to take appropriate risks and meet our goals. For example, anxiety keeps us alert when crossing the street, prompting us to look both ways before stepping off the curb. It can also push us to study for a test, prepare for a piano recital or practise before speaking in front of a crowd.

However, anxiety can be unhelpful if it gets in the way of our ability to meet personal goals, have new or enriching experiences, or be able to fully engage in learning. When this happens, the amount of anxiety we feel may be out of proportion to the threat, the threat might not be clear, or we may be preoccupied by the possibility of a threat.

Here are some examples of unhelpful anxiety for students:

  • avoiding going to school because of a fear of being separated from a caregiver or not fitting in with a peer group
  • not starting an assignment for fear of making a mistake or producing an imperfect final product
  • not being able to focus in class because of persistent worried thoughts

In these examples, the studentu2019s internal alarm system is sending a signal of a possible threat, raising the level of anxiety.

Some peopleu2019s alarm systems can become activated even if there is no immediate danger or the danger level is low. Like an over-sensitive smoke detector that goes off every time the toaster is used, this kind of persistent anxiety can interfere with our ability to recognize when a threat is real and how to deal with it appropriately.

One of the most important messages about anxiety is that while it can feel uncomfortable, waiting to feel completely calm and confident before doing things can mean missing out on important experiences. Sometimes we have to act without knowing the outcome. We have to learn to live with some degree of uncertainty in order to have a meaningful and fulfilling life. Knowing that we can feel anxious and still do things is a vital part of learning how to cope.

Expecting to feel anxious sometimes, recognizing anxiety when it happens, and knowing some strategies to manage the symptoms can prevent anxiety from becoming overwhelming. The strategies taught in the EASE lessons help students learn about and manage everyday anxiety so they can fully participate in fun and important activities, even if they feel anxious.

Hypervigilence is exhausting

Students who experience high levels of anxiety, particularly if it is related to a traumatic experience, may have trouble distinguishing between real and perceived threats, or may have more sources of threat than other peers. They may go through their school days in a constant state of arousal, always on the lookout for the next threat.

This hypervigilance can be physically and mentally exhausting, affecting their focus, memory and performance in other areas. These students may release their pent-up tension and distress by lashing out at others without any observable provocation. Or they may unload on a parent or caregiver in a safe, private place after u201cholding it inu201d all day.

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