Health & Well-Being: Reframing the Anxiety Conversation

Like many schools across the country, University School of Milwaukee (WI) has seen an uptick in anxiety among students since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other well-resourced independent schools, we have a counseling team well-versed on the topic, and we’ve brought in experts to provide guidance on how to support students. As a middle school head, I am seeing something unusual take hold, however: Before attending a first dance or giving a major speech, our students used to say that they had butterflies in their stomachs or that they felt nervous. Now they say, “I have anxiety.” 
My colleagues and I believe that some of our students are conflating the nerve-wracking feelings that accompany stressful events with a clinical malady. Students are invoking the word “anxiety” in the clinical sense because they fear that their worry isn’t normal. We’ve even seen students self-diagnose after watching wellness gurus on TikTok list the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Witnessing this phenomenon led me to ask new questions about anxiety. How can educators help their students uncouple clinical disorders from ordinary worries? How can we normalize anxious feelings and teach students healthy coping strategies? How can we help students be less anxious about being anxious?
These questions led me to Tracy Dennis-Tiwary’s book: Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good For You (Even Though It Feels Bad). She makes important distinctions between debilitating anxiety and the anxious feelings we all experience and presents a radical new idea: We should embrace anxiety and view it as a vital source of wisdom that can help us navigate life’s uncertainties. I reached out to Dennis-Tiwary to explore this more, and she shared with me some advice for educators and parents about how to support anxious children.

Reducing Stress About Anxiety

In her book, Dennis-Tiwary argues that we need anxiety. When I asked her more about that, she told me that “anxiety is not a disorder but an emotion. We cannot avoid it.” Anxiety is the brain’s way of dealing with uncertainty about the future, predicting that something negative could happen, even when something positive is still possible. Anxiety allows us to navigate the in-between. Yet anxiety is broadly defined as a medical disorder, often undermining our ability to engage and address everyday anxiety in healthy ways. 
Dennis-Tiwary says the way we think about anxiety can block our ability to cope with it. Having a lot of anxiety every day isn’t enough to have a disorder, she says. There must be functional impairment, which occurs when anxiety gets in the way of a person’s ability to work, go to school, or have healthy relationships. Similarly, thinking of the emotion of anxiety as a disorder can lead to avoidance behaviors, which then exacerbate the feeling and create a cycle of anxiety. “If we don’t allow kids to struggle with difficulty and uncertainty, they won’t learn to cope,” Dennis-Tiwary says.
While the rates of anxiety disorders among prepubescent girls and boys are the same, girls are more likely than boys to be diagnosed at puberty—a result of biology, some say. “But it’s more acceptable from a gendered-socialization standpoint for girls to experience and express vulnerable emotions like anxiety,” Dennis-Tiwary says. “Girls are also socialized to be more perfectionistic than boys.” Perfectionism creates more risks for anxiety disorders.
In her book, Dennis-Tiwary suggests that perfectionism needs to be replaced by excellencism. Trying to avoid failure or judgment from others—holding ourselves to standards of flawlessness—stokes feelings that will only lead to problematic anxiety. Instead, we should strive for excellence, she writes. “You must know that excellence is going to be less than 100%. You will fail along the way, but doing great work is a journey. When you allow yourself to make some mistakes, you are more creative and dynamic.”
She reminds parents that their job is not to protect children from life’s inevitable challenges but to prepare them to meet such challenges. When parents try to remove all obstacles to their children’s happiness—becoming snowplow parents—they make kids more vulnerable and less resilient. Adults need to lean into antifragility—systems that increase one’s ability to thrive because of encounters with adversity—to help our children better handle stress.  
Parents can initiate the conversation around anxiety by introducing kids to healthy ways for working through—not around—their emotions. Dennis-Tiwary uses a rubric she calls the three L’s: listen, leverage, and let go. 
  • Listen: Start to treat anxiety as information. Negative emotions give us information about how we are doing and what we need. Ask kids to write down worries that are concrete and specific (i.e., an upcoming test and particular concepts they don’t understand). Articulating anxieties in this way gives them information. 
  • Leverage: Young people can then attach the information to a goal that can be articulated. For example, they can use that test anxiety to make a study plan and focus on the difficult material. As soon as they make a plan, anxiety starts to decrease. Leveraging involves future thinking. When anxiety is identified, an action can almost always make things better. 
  • Let go: This is where people usually start, using avoidance as a coping mechanism. But in an ideal progression of this work, an individual has deliberately tried to listen and leverage. Yet sometimes anxiety doesn’t reveal its secrets all that easily, or other things in our lives need attention. “Sometimes we just have to go to bed,” Dennis-Tiwary says. “We must rejuvenate. For some of us, that means turning to a wellness or spiritual practice. For others, it means having coffee with a friend. I love writing poetry because it absorbs me in the present.”

In Practice

After reflecting upon Dennis-Tiwary’s research, I have two big takeaways that I hope to put into practice at my school. First, we need to start using different language to describe anxiety because the word carries such a heightened, clinical meaning right now. Using words like “worry,” “nervousness,” or “apprehension” can deescalate students’ fears and help them distinguish between anxiety disorders and anxious feelings.
Second, we need to normalize anxious feelings so that students who experience them can interpret them as ordinary. When we assign a project or a speech, we should tell students that feeling nervous is to be expected. Their nervousness indicates that they care and want to do well on the assignment. We can advise them to harness that nervous energy to make a plan for tackling the task ahead. Before speeches and performances, we can teach students how to do deep breathing that will slow their heartrates and provide a sense of calm. 
Being intentional about helping our kids manage the anxieties that are a natural part of growing up will build more resilient, self-assured adults.
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Elaine Griffin

Elaine Griffin is the head of middle school at University School of Milwaukee in Wisconsin, where she previously served as an upper school literature teacher and an administrator.