Techniques to help students suffering with anxiety

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
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Anxiety-related disorders are increasingly common among young people. Dr Pooky Knightsmith offers us five simple calming strategies that can be used in the classroom

Almost one in 10 young people aged five to 19 now suffer from an emotional disorder, according to NHS statistics, with anxiety-related disorders being the most common (SecEd, 2018).

Therefore, I would like to offer some practical strategies that you could try out with the children and young people in your care. Most of these can be adapted for students at a variety of ages and stages and are good for adults too. Each can be used either to try and instil calm at times of anxiety, or as a proactive calming measure ahead of more stressful situations.

You can talk through these strategies if they require calming, but you can also teach these ideas to students so they can use them themselves.

Below I have picked ideas that with practice, a student could learn to carry out discreetly as they continue with their normal activities. A card or a note reminding them to try these things or how to do them can be a helpful prompt for students who are finding things tricky.

A few helpful reminders for these strategies are:

  • Try to focus on the activity and let other thoughts pass by if you can.
  • Repeat the activity if it is helping but if you are not quite calm yet.
  • If possible, try these ideas for the first time at a time of calm, rather than introducing them in crisis moments.
  • Practice makes perfect – the more you try each idea the more likely you are to be able to use it at moments of high anxiety.

5,4,3,2,1

This simple technique can help to ground us and distract us if we begin to feel overwhelmed. Take a look around you and name:

  • Five things you can see.
  • Four things you can hear.
  • Three things you can touch.
  • Two things you can smell.
  • Then take one big deep breath.

It does not really matter what order you do things in – just remember to draw on your five senses.

Finger breathing/take five

As well as a good strategy for individuals, this can be a great way to calm a whole class if you are transitioning in from busy break times. I have often taught it to large audiences at busy conferences and felt the energy change instantly.

Spread one hand out in front of you like a starfish. Place the forefinger of the other hand at the base of your thumb.

  • Slowly run your finger up your thumb as you breathe in.
  • Pause for a moment at the top of your thumb.
  • Then slowly run your finger down the other side of your thumb as you breathe out.
  • Pause again at the bottom of your thumb.
  • Repeat this for all fingers before shaking your hands out.

Belly breathing

This strategy encourages us to deepen and slow our breathing. It can be especially helpful for students who talk about light-headedness accompanying their anxiety, which can happen when we begin to take fast shallow breaths (which we often do not even realise we are doing when we are anxious).

Sit up straight and place one hand on your belly. Breathe a deep slow breath through your nose, right into your belly; you will feel your belly pushing your hand out. Then breathe out as far as you can through your mouth – you will feel your hand move again.

Safe space visualisation

This technique is widely used in trauma therapy, giving the client somewhere safe to retreat to if things begin to feel difficult, but it can work equally well for a child who is feeling scared or anxious at school as they imagine themselves somewhere where they feel safer and happier.

Bring to mind a place where you feel happy and calm – this is your “safe space”. It is helpful if this is based on a happy memory or a situation you find yourself in often – I often think about snuggling up with my puppies on the sofa with a cup of tea in my hands.

Really focus in on the scene – when you are in that safe space what can you see, hear, smell? Where are you, who are you with and how do you feel?

Any time things begin to feel difficult in the current moment, visualise your safe space. Imagine yourself there and allow your body to begin to calm.

Some people find it helpful to carry a picture or photograph that prompts them to visualise their safe space.

Progressive muscle relaxation

When we are anxious, our muscles are often very tense and taut. This technique helps us to physically relax our muscles which both helps us feel physically less tense and prompts our brain to calm down.

Tighten the muscles in your feet as much as you can. Hold them really tense while you count to 15. Then slowly relax them while you count to 30.

Repeat this working up through your body. Pausing to tense then relax your legs, buttocks, arms and hands, neck and shoulder, jaw, forehead...

Do not worry too much about the order or the counting – just gradually work through your body from bottom to top (or top to bottom if you prefer) tensing then relaxing your muscles. It is surprisingly effective.

Conclusion

These ideas can be especially helpful to children who are specifically struggling with anxiety, but they could also be taught to whole groups or classes, as we all benefit from having a few ways to find a little moment of calm on a tougher day.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. Pooky provides regular support and advice in SecEd. To read her previous articles, go to http://bit.ly/2daU4zs. You can contact Pooky via https://www.pookyknightsmith.com/

Further information & resources

  • One in eight students have a mental health disorder, official NHS figures confirm, SecEd, November 2018: http://bit.ly/2QbgUi3


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