A Closer Look

Stress and Anxiety: I’m Not Just the Presenter, I’m Also a Client

When I present on stress and anxiety or counsel teens, I often feel like I’m harboring the world’s biggest secret. Early in my career, I was so hesitant to self-disclose anything, I never mentioned my own experience, but now as I approach 20 years in and 20 years to go, I’m more honest with myself and others.

  • Generalized anxiety? Nailed it.
  • Performance anxiety? Proficient.
  • Panic attacks? Survived those.
  • Trauma? Dealt and dealing.

The reality is many of us end up in this business because we can relate. Some of us entered school psychology because we struggled in school ourselves, loved school so much that we are too scared to leave it, faced adversity and conquered it, or deal with inner demons daily and want to help others do the same. The teachers, students, and parents looking to us in times of need often think we can’t possibly understand, yet given that anxiety disorders rank among the most common diagnoses affecting adults in the United States (ADAA, n.d.), chances are, we can.

I don’t remember when I first experienced anxiety, panic attacks, or night terrors. I do, however, remember the first time someone recognized that I was disassociating from a conversation that triggered past trauma. It almost broke me because I’d been dealing with trauma in counseling for years, and those few minutes made me realize the journey was not over. It was daunting and jolting because it made me realize that no matter how much work I’d put in, I still had a long way to go. I think in retrospect it made me a better clinician, because I fully empathize with feeling like “what’s the point?” and wanting to give up, so I get the kids that are feeling stuck and hopeless.

Sometimes I work with teens who clearly have anxiety, some of whom seem to come about it naturally, as I learn when I mistakenly pick up the phone just before 4:00 p.m. on a Friday and an anxious parent is on the other end of the line. Other times school staff fail to recognize students’ anxiety and are frustrated by the avoidant, antagonistic, and adversarial behaviors they see instead. People deal with anxiety differently—some freeze, some run (flight or avoidance), some fight … the problem, and why anxiety often doesn’t go away, is because few people face it. It’s so much easier to avoid anxiety provoking situations because no one likes to feel anxious. Trembling, heart palpitations, tunnel vision, nausea, and hyperventilating, just aren’t the psychosomatic symptoms you crave.

When I work with students who are anxious, I have come to rely on a few tried and trusted strategies.

  1. I remind all students that anyone can benefit from counseling, but at some points in life people need it.
  2. I recommend Coping Skills Pros and Cons—my go-to resource I literally stumbled on when in a Pinterest rabbit hole. I remind students that everyone needs a toolbox of ‘coping’ skills because while a hammer is a great tool, it does you no good if you’re holding a screw. I also don’t use the word ‘coping’ because it can be a trigger word for anyone who has been therapized or hospitalized, so I instead ask them how they “deal” when things feel too difficult or overwhelming to manage.
  3. I teach about evolution. We think back to the caveman days in which you had to prey on wildebeest or become prey. I explain how our bodies respond to the stressors the same way they did thousands of years ago and how it’s up to the brain to determine the extent of the threat.
  4. I don’t allow or support removal of stress and stressors because it teaches people they can’t deal when they have to learn that they can.
  5. I get down. Literally, not figuratively, as my dance moves are actually scary. When I am called because a student is having a panic attack, I lower my center of gravity so I’m less intimidating (evolution, remember?), I speak calmly and slowly, I model rhythmic breathing, I wait it out, and I am just there. Channeling Brené Brown here: I want to teach students that *they* can manage their anxiety, and do not need to rely on me to do so.
  6. I use apps. I recommend apps. I send out apps like I’m getting a kickback. MindShift, Calm, AntiStress, etc.
  7. We don’t deny anxiety, we deal with it.
  8. We work together to recognize triggers, but then rather than ignore the trigger, we find ‘dealing’ skills which allow us to conquer them. Life doesn’t go away because you pretend it doesn’t exist.
  9. We utilize the Circle of Control, especially during times like now when anxiety is affecting an even larger percentage of the world. We admit that some things just suck, and we focus our attention on what we can control, what we can change, and what we can conquer.
  10. I remind my Juniors and Seniors that “you don’t have to finish college before you get there” (™ me 😊).

Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (n.d.). Facts & Statistics. Retrieved December 15, 2020, from https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics

About the Author

Amy Cannava, EdS, NCSP
Amy Cannava, EdS, NCSP, is a veteran school psychologist with a passion for bettering the world for queer and trans youth. As Chair of the NASP LGBTQI2-S Committee, she teaches professionals across the country about affirmative practices and WAIPER* (welcoming, affirming, inclusive, proactive, equitable, and responsive) schools. She is in constant motion, doesn’t say shy away from a challenge, is overinvolved in everything, and considers her own anxiety to be a daily conquest but not a life sentence. *WAIPER schools is a new acronym by the NASP LGBTQI2-S Committee’s Safe Schools for Transgender and Gender Diverse Youth (NASP, 2014) 2020 Position Statement Writing Team.