From Your School Psychologist…
This is your Mental Health Minute:
It is normal for students to tend to feel anxious or worried from time to time, especially when life is stressful. Many students, however, have developed ways to cope with and manage the stressors they encounter in their lives, but sometimes, no matter how much they try, there are students who cannot get past these feelings. When these feelings are ongoing, severe, and interrupt everyday life, these may be symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
Both adults and children can be affected by GAD, and the symptoms for students can affect not only their mental health and social relationships, but also their education. The main difference between GAD and regular anxiety is that the anxiety and worry associated with GAD have existed over a significant period of time (6 months or more) and are so excessive and severe, that they struggle with being able to let it go, relax, cope, or otherwise control it in a way that it disrupts the functioning of their daily life. The types of things that are causing such stress, anxiety, and worry for individuals with GAD, may seem like insignificant concerns to other, but crippling to a student with GAD. Some students in school find it too difficult to even enter a classroom.
Childhood trauma, such as abuse (or witnessing abuse), as well as experiencing chronic health conditions of illness, put students at a higher risk for developing GAD at some point in life. It is also possible that GAD may result from experiencing stress (a big event or a number of smaller stressful life situations may trigger excessive anxiety). GAD can also be associated with genetic traits passed along in families or with certain personality types or disorders (e.g., borderline personality disorder). Drug or alcohol abuse can worsen GAD, and caffeine and nicotine have also been identified at substances that may increase anxiety.
There are ways to help students in their battle with GAD. Medication can be a first step for minimizing and dealing with the symptoms, but therapy, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), can help the student begin to understand how their thoughts and behaviors are affecting them and how they can start to take control. CBT can help students with:
- Developing effective coping strategies and learning to utilize those strategies in their lives
- Understanding and gaining control of their distorted views of life stressors, such as other people's behavior or life events.
- Recognizing and replacing panic-causing thoughts and decreasing the sense of helplessness.
- Managing stress and learning how to effectively relax when symptoms occur.
- Avoiding thinking that minor worries will develop into very bad problems.
While GAD may continue to be an ongoing condition for some, most people improve with a combination of medication and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. With parent consent, schools can also work with outside therapists to ensure they are best serving the student’s mental health needs while supporting their education.