5 Ways to Help Students Navigate Stress and Anxiety

Carl Dodd
December 17th, 2019

Perhaps it’s because my daily commute is at least an hour in each direction. Perhaps it’s because in Seattle (yes, Seattle!), the smallest drops of rain on the road can add stress, anxiety and many more minutes and hours to one’s drive. Perhaps it’s because I made a pledge at the start to never let the frustrations of the commute get into my head. Or maybe it’s because, no matter the length of time I spend in the car, at the end of my commute I know I’ll arrive at the therapeutic high school where I work,  supporting students with mental health issues as they navigate life with a constant background noise of stress and anxiety. Whatever the reason, when I think of stress and anxiety I’m reminded of my daily commute: It can’t be avoided and I need to learn how to navigate it well.

Stress and anxiety are things that all of our students will travel through at various key times in life. Some may have the natural ability to sail through with ease, while others may need to learn some skills along the way. But sadly, for some young people the journey will feel like such an insurmountable ordeal that they can find no next step, no way forward. In my work I come across many young people each school year for whom feelings of anxiousness and stress become a physical barrier. A barrier effecting everything from their activities, relationships, and even ability to attend school. 

As much as we (and probably your student’s families) would love to circumvent the topic (or take away the problem altogether), we don’t do them any favors by acting as snow plows that force these sorts of obstacles out of our student’s paths. We need to help them develop healthy skills and practices for the journey ahead. As your students navigate stress and anxiety, I  want to lay out 5 ways that you can help.

Know Your Regular Route

For some students, it is obvious to them when they are experiencing stress or anxiety because they find themselves behaving differently than usual. But in others, symptoms can be more difficult to detect. Some people naturally handle stress by bottling up their feelings and isolating themselves from others rather than showing visible signs that of struggle. Build real, healthy relationships with your students. That way you’ll know when students are deviating from their regular route or behaving in a way that is unusual. When I get to know my students well, I’m able to observe when they are displaying signs of stress and anxiety.

Prepare For Roadblocks By Understanding Coping Strategies

When I am working with students who struggle with anxiety and stress, I make sure to talk with them during times when they are in a healthy frame of mind. In those moments I encourage them to talk about ways they’re able to deescalate their feelings of anxiety. We talk about how they find safety in the middle of stressful situations. By taking the time to prepare for potential roadblocks before they happen, both you and your student can be ready to navigate anxious times in healthy ways. Where appropriate, and as much as possible, involve families in this discussion so that everyone is on the same page. You can work with your student to research coping strategies that may help reduce their anxiety.

Journey Together By Allowing Students To Process

Anxiety is actual a natural response to a perceived danger. Sometimes these perceptions can become distorted through experiences of trauma and crisis.  Even in the middle of stressful situations, there is an opportunity for growth. The ability for students to put their coping strategies into practice, to deescalate themselves within a safe situation, can allow opportunities for them to process what they are going through and to use the experience as a growth opportunity for the future. One suggestion is to encourage your students to journal about key times of stress and anxiety. Not only does it give you the opportunity to talk and pray with them, but it’s also an opportunity for them to share their reflections with any professional support they receive, perhaps from a counselor or therapist.

Finding Distractions By Redirecting The Brain

In the middle of anxious and stressful situations, key areas of the brain shuts down. Logic and reason may disappear as one’s body goes into survival mode. Simply telling someone in an anxious state to calm down, or to logically reason with them, is probably not going to help them. After helping an anxious student feel safe, my team and I use distraction to steer their mind towards a place of safety. Sometimes that safety can be found in hot cocoa; for other students it may be taking them on a walk so that they are able to be in motion and giving their body a physical response to the stress and anxiety they are experiencing. Have a few ready distractions in mind when navigating alongside one of your students in an anxious moment.

Plan For Next Time And Find a Better Route

After a student has experienced a crisis situation, I try to sit with them to explore what we could do differently next time. They’ve made it through, but I encourage students to process for themselves and reflect for the next time they experience crisis. Each time students journey through stress and anxiety, everyone involved has an opportunity for growth and a journey towards health.

Thank you for being willing to journey with your students, to walk alongside them, in some of the most difficult times. Be sure that you also care for yourself as you go, remembering that helping others through stressful times takes its toll on you, too. Find people to help you decompress, who will lift you up in prayer, and who can support you as you navigate the difficult situations we face in our ministries.

Carl Dodd

Carl Dodd has been ministering to children, youth and their families for 20 years. He has served in local, regional and national projects. He is currently Head of School at Eastside Academy in Seattle, a Christian High School working with at-risk students through counseling and recovery support. Carl also leads Youth Crisis First Responders (www.youthcrisis.org), equipping churches and ministries to respond to students experiencing times of crisis. Carl is married to Rachel and enjoys the outdoor life with their two girls in the lakes and forests of Washington.

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