Anxiety and High-Achieving Students

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In my Grand Rapids counseling office, I work with a lot of high school students who are doing great in school with classes, grades, extracurricular activities and all the other things that put them on track to get into the college of their choice.

These are students who go the extra mile without needing much intervention from their parents. Many of these students have GPA's above a 4.0, which I didn't even know was possible when I was a student.

Unfortunately, many of these high-functioning students also suffer from anxiety.

The anxiety often comes from not being able to deal effectively with the pressures they feel to perform well in school and have a healthy balance between school and personal life. Anxiety may affect them in the form of having mild to severe panic attacks, withdrawing from their friends and family, and not being able to turn off their brains to relax and enjoy typical teenage experiences.

From my experience, most of these kids seem to have always had the anxiety; it's a part of their personality.

When they were young, it may have shown itself in being overly worried about things most kids their age didn't give a second thought. They are often very conscientious and try hard to "do the right thing." Usually, these are the kids that never gave their parents much trouble.

As they grew older, they did well in school and had good behavior, usually getting positive reports from teachers on report cards. As they got older, they were able to think ahead to their future and began to really buckle down in school so they could get into their preferred college and start doing something exceptional with their lives.

This is when the anxiety begins to show up—as they put a lot of pressure on themselves to excel and worry about whether they are doing enough. Sometimes, this pressure is accompanied by various peer pressures to fit in with classmates who may be more interested in other pursuits.

There are a few strategies I've found helpful in dealing with this type of anxiety. Many people want to get rid of anxiety altogether, but anxiety itself is not the enemy.

Some anxiety is actually a good thing. Anxiety is what propels us to succeed and do well on homework, in jobs, etc. Anxiety is also there to keep us safe from danger or risky behavior. It's the voice in our head that says, "Don't do that; you might get hurt" and the voice that says, "Better get started on that project now instead of waiting until later." If we had no anxiety at all, we would probably watch Netflix all day and never get anything useful done.

The trick is to accept that some anxiety is OK and even desirable, but learn to recognize when the amount of anxiety is within acceptable limits and when it's too much.

Below are a few strategies that may help your student—and yourself—manage anxiety more effectively.

1. Be Mindful of Your Anxiety

Don't try to get rid of anxiety altogether.

Many people try not to be anxious when they feel it coming on and this can be problematic. In fact, this can even make it worse because the more you try to not think or not feel something, you tend to think and feel it even more. (Try not thinking about purple cows for 60 seconds and notice how many times the image of a purple cow jumps into your head).

Trying not to feel anxious also adds to the anxiety when you start criticizing yourself as a failure for not being able to control it.

Rather than telling yourself to not feel anxious, try being aware of your unique way of experiencing anxiety.

What are the physical symptoms?
What is your thinking process like?
How long does your anxiety usually last?
When does it normally go away?

Asking yourself these questions reminds you that there is a predictable pattern to your anxiety—and knowing your pattern can give you some comfort that it will follow a certain course and will eventually subside in a predictable way.

Recognizing your pattern of anxiety can help you stop worrying about not being able to control your anxiety. Many people compound their anxiety by first having the anxiety episode, then mentally criticizing themselves for not being able to control it better. It often works better to accept your anxiety and recognize your pattern. Once you think about this, you'll be able to predict how long your anxiety is likely to last. When you can do this, you may notice that the anxiety subsides more quickly.

2. Practice It Before You Need It

Many therapists recommend taking several deep breaths or counting backwards by threes and other things.

This works for some people, but many people tell me these ideas sound good—but when you're in the middle of a panic attack, the last thing you can do is breathe or count.

However, these ideas do work better if you practice them (at least the deep breathing exercises) before you need to use them. If you practice deep (or meditative) breathing on a regular basis as a way of grounding or centering yourself, it will come more naturally during a panic attack and become a tool for helping you regain self control in stressful circumstances.

Not practicing them before you need them is like waiting until you have a flat tire in a snowstorm along a busy highway—and then trying to figure out how to use your car jack.

Meditation, yoga, tai chi, running and other exercises that involve doing a repetitive motion or breathing pattern can be great ways to reduce anxiety when you're stressed. Once you have developed a muscle memory for one of these activities to the point where just doing the activity feels relaxing, you can do the activity to remove yourself from an anxiety-inducing situation and get some relief.

3. The Voices in Your Head

Many people who experience significant anxiety can describe having two parts or "voices" in their head.

They have the anxiety voice that is kind of like an overprotective mother that always tells them they are failing, going to fail, or going to make a fool of themselves as they try anything new, such as meeting new friends or speaking up in a meeting. They also have that other voice that wants them to be brave, try new things and take some reasonable risks so they can grow.

A way to use this duality is to recognize and accept when that negative voice is speaking and keeping you from doing the things you want to do—without trying to shut it down. Once you're aware that this voice is speaking, acknowledge it and then allow yourself to imagine what the other voice would say to you at that moment.

Even if you don't feel you can act on it, thinking about what that calmer, wiser voice would say can help minimize the intensity of the anxiety. Many of my teenage clients find that thinking about what their calm parent, uncle, coach or grandparent would say to them in those moments helps them gain some control over the anxiety.

4. Focus on What You're Doing when You're Not "Doing" Anxiety

Many people with anxiety tend to torture themselves by thinking about and reliving all the times they experienced anxiety. We tend to find what we're looking for, so if you focus your attention on the times you fail, you may feel like you fail all the time, and the anxiety gets worse.

Instead, make a point to be mindful about the times you could have experienced anxiety but didn't—or when you had anxiety but it wasn't as strong as it could have been.

I had a client who was paralyzed with fear about public speaking in her classes. Instead of focusing on when she had anxiety and how to make it go away, we had her pay attention to the times when she was not anxious, or perhaps still anxious but less anxious than she expected. At our next session, she reported she had a speech in a class and while she was still quite nervous, her breathing was a little calmer than the last time. I suggested she continue to pay attention to times when her anxiety was less than before. Over a short period of time, by focusing her attention on what we call "exceptions"—what she was doing when she wasn't doing anxiety—she noticed a marked decrease in her anxiety levels and had more confidence that her anxiety would be going away. She could not envision her anxiety lasting for much longer.

Hopefully, these strategies can help you or your student learn to control anxiety. Yet it may be useful to consult a therapist trained in treating anxiety to get the most relief.

Gary Watson is a Grand Rapids-based, solution-focused therapist who works with many teenagers and parents to help them overcome struggles with school and relationships and get back to doing the things that work for them.For more information about Gary or about solutionfocused counseling, please visit his website at www.turnaboutcounseling.com.


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