Mental health: Strategies for students to handle anxiety

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Anxiety can be overwhelming. How can teachers and school staff support students who are struggling with feelings of anxiety? In this article, Dr Pooky Knightsmith offers a range of ideas and strategies

The skills and strategies for managing anxiety and the ups and downs of daily life are some of the most important our students can learn. Below are some ways young people can prevent and manage anxiety. These ideas will work for you too, so you might lead by example...

When in doubt: sleep

Sleep is the most important thing and there is very little that does not feel a whole lot better after a good night’s sleep; indeed, chronic sleep deprivation fuels the fires of anxiety and depression. Try to have open and honest conversations with students about the role of sleep and what optimal sleep might look like for them (and you). Try to develop a shared understanding that a “Big Sleep” can be a big help in hitting the reset button on anxieties (see SecEd, 2019).

  • Talk to students about sleep, be curious and explorative in these discussions. Celebrate sleep and speak positively about it.
  • Try to take the stigma out of sleep and help them find the benefits for themselves.
  • “Mood Journaling” and noticing how differently they feel after a good sleep can help.
  • Think about how to create a good environment for sleep.

Getting it out

A problem shared is a problem halved. And the sharing doesn’t have to be with another person. Simply taking the big scary, distressing thoughts in our head and turning them into something more tangible can be very helpful.

There are lots of ways of doing this and no right way – we might talk to a counsellor, parent, friend, or dog! Or perhaps we’ll write a journal, create poetry, or use music or art to express ourselves. It is about finding the right way for us.

  • Explore with students how different people get problems out of their head.
  • Never underestimate the power of a beautiful journal and pens.
  • If they choose to share with you, note what a privilege that is.
  • Encourage students to talk to a pet or school dog – pets are great listeners and never judge.

BACK FROM THE BRINK: This article first appeared in SecEd's recent Back from the Brink supplement. There are many students for whom school is difficult – with many different reasons why. The 16-page supplement offers expert advice across a range of areas for addressing common barriers to education and supporting students at risk of dropping out or falling through the gaps. Download this for free via

Control the controllable

There are always some things we can control and some things we can’t. By focusing on the things we are able to control, the world can begin to feel a bit more manageable and we can quell some of our worries and anxieties a little.

  • What can your students currently control?
  • Can they be given additional things to control or be responsible for?
  • Explore with students how they can take positive control over their physical wellbeing (sleep, diet and exercise).
  • Encouraging students to create routines, schedules and lists to help take control when they have too many thoughts or “to-dos”.
  • Bullet journaling can be a great tool for students who want to take control and express themselves creatively.

Tolerate uncontrollables

There are some things we cannot control. Helping our students to understand this and consider how to manage the distress that this can cause is a useful life-skill.

  • There are a whole set of skills that can be taught called “distress tolerance”, which is an arm of dialectical behaviour therapy (see online).
  • Encouraging a simple acceptance of what we cannot control can be a good first step.
  • Encourage students not to dwell or ruminate. Can they distract themselves from what they cannot change?
  • Teach students that we can change how we feel even if we can’t change how things are, e.g. via breathing/relaxation. Indeed, explore mindfulness approaches that allow curiosity without rumination.

A self-soothe box

It is very helpful to have a range of go-to strategies that can be used in moments of distress or challenge, or which can be used to proactively calm us. Different things work for different people at different times, so be open-minded and flexible.
A self-soothe box can be filled with things to help students feel soothed and calm in difficult moments, items that draw on the senses, with reminders to engage with strategies that have worked in the past. Students might also try:

  • Exploring breathing and relaxation strategies.
  • Coupling anxious moments with calming activities.
  • Creating a self-soothe box that is unique to them.
  • Calming activities like reading, colouring or crafting.
  • Creating mood-flipping playlists, e.g. a happy playlist or a calming playlist.

Notice negative thoughts

Different thoughts race through our heads all the time. When we are anxious or low, these thoughts can often be very negative and we can get stuck in negative thought cycles, also known as “cognitive distortions” or “thought traps”.

A key treatment for anxiety is cognitive behavioural therapy, which teaches us to recognise these thoughts and break the cycle. But even without professional input we can recognise and question negative thought cycles such as mind-reading (when we assume what others are thinking – “she thinks I’m stupid”), filtering (focusing only on facts that confirm our negative viewpoint and filtering out the good stuff), and labelling (giving ourselves negative labels based on small facts).

The first step is to notice these thoughts. The next is to look for the evidence for them. Always wonder: “What would a friend/parent say?” Then challenge these thoughts and consider if there is a different way of thinking.

It can take a while for students to be able to notice and challenge their own thoughts, but you can support the process by “noticing aloud” your own thoughts or spotting their negative self-narrative and challenging it together.

Talk to yourself... you’d talk to a friend. This simple hack is very effective. When we stop and take note of how we talk to ourselves it can be pretty horrifying. We would never dream of being so unkind or demanding of our friend.

So if in doubt, try to catch negative self-talk and replace it with the soothing words we’d use when talking to someone we care about. Challenge students to notice negative self-talk, to consider how they talk differently to friends, and to talk kindly to themselves.

  • 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. You can contact Pooky via or follow her on Twitter @PookyH. For her previous articles in SecEd, visit


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