5 Mental Health Ministry Tips for Dealing with High Anxiety Students

Jason Wilkinson
September 22nd, 2020

Anxiety was already increasing among young people even before 2020 hit. Then…BAM. And now, more than ever before, youth pastors are needing to have some tools in their tool belt on how best to help students that are dealing with high anxiety students and anxiety attacks.

Because it is all too possible that you will have a student who is going to be on a trip, camp, event, or in a weekly program with you when their anxiety gets ratcheted up for reasons you don’t fully understand. 

Before we dive into how to treat anxiety, let’s talk a little bit about what anxiety is.

Anxiety hits when the brain releases chemicals that send people into a “fight or flight” response.

Imagine you’re walking downtown. You’re feeling good about yourself because your latest facemask is matching your shoes. Then, something unexpectedly strange happens. You see a bear come running out of the nearest burrito place and comes hauling towards you. What do you do?

Okay, that’s not likely to happen, but it wasn’t too rare for humans to have wild animal encounters even 100 years ago. So, humans immediately went into survival mode. They either fought off the animal, or they ran.

In our modern times, however, much of what causes us stress does not require a “fight” response. You cannot fight against exaggerated academic expectations. And most of us aren’t exactly living in situations where we need to run from a wild animal, so “flight” doesn’t feel natural, either.

What happens so often, then, is that people stew or ruminate on thoughts instead.

And things can spiral.

The brain releases stress chemicals.

The chest tightens up.

A person’s pace of breathing quickens.

The heart starts racing and hand palms get clammy.

This is an anxiety attack. And if a student starts experiencing this while under your care, it can be a stressful situation. But there are things you can do to support your student help calm that anxiety in the moment.

Here are five helpful tips or strategies you can use:

Tip #1 — Slow Down and Breath

Shallow, quick breaths are the friend of anxiety and the enemy of calm. You will want to help your student fill up their lungs and belly with each breath taken. To decrease anxiety, breath in through your nose for five seconds. Then, hold that breath in the lungs for two seconds.

Finally, breath out for another five seconds. Sit with the student and do it with them. Not only will that student forever remember your care for them, but they may also begin to associate you as a calming influence in their life – not just as the person who made them play a game that included them drinking liquid from their own sock.

Tip #2 — Play Catch

Hey…this is something you can turn into a game! Grab a ball that a student can catch with one hand. If you don’t have a ball handy, crumble up a piece of paper and begin to toss it back and forth, playing catch.

Have the student catch the ball with their left hand, then toss it to over to their right hand. Then have the student toss it back to you. You do this back and forth. This engages the body and puts focus on the activity, loosening the minds grip on what may be causing the anxiety.

You may even choose to continue to have a conversation with the student about what is going on while doing this. You will want to pay attention to the level of agitation that may be caused with the conversation, however, and may decide it best to talk about Animal Crossing instead.

Tip #3 Go for a Walk

When your mind sends your body into a fight or flight position, light exercise can help to lessen that anxiety attack.

Go for a walk.

Do some pushups.

Try some light stretching.

Whatever it may be, getting your student moving a little can ease that anxiety experience. Again, you probably don’t want to do full on wind sprints. For one…I hate running. But more importantly, the goal is slow down a racing heart. A decent paced walk and talk will do the trick.

Tip #4 Suck on the Sour

This is one of my favorites and gives me a reason to keep some candy in my pocket (like I need another reason).

Have some hard, sour candy around that will dissolves in the mouth over time. The intensity of the sour candy will quickly distract the student from whatever thoughts or emotions are driving the anxiety.

Warhead candy is one of my favorites. What is yours?

Tip #5 Muscle Relaxation Exercise

If you’ve got a little bit of time and space, I would suggest leading a student through a muscle relaxation exercise.

You can easily turn this into a meditation. Have the student sit comfortably on a chair and close their eyes. At your direction, using a soothing voice, the student will be led through the tightening and loosening of muscles throughout their body.

Breathing is also a big part of this exercise, and if you haven’t picked up on it already, I am a big fan of breathing! If you’d like to take a look at a muscle relaxation exercise, you can download one by CLICKING HERE.

These tips are not magic tricks and are not a substitute for a mental health professional. If your student has high anxiety, then you want to refer them to a counselor.

That said, the above techniques can help out in a spot or situation where the student is looking for you to provide some tangible assistance.

And with the increasing needs for mental and emotional health support rising in our young people, these tools can help you provide the love and support that God has called you to do.

Jason Wilkinson

Jason Wilkinson lives with his wife and two kids in Portland, Oregon. After 18+ years of leading in various student ministry roles, Jason recently transitioned into the profession of mental health therapy where he runs Wellspace Counseling, a private counseling practice in Tualatin. You can read more about Jason at wellspacepdx.com or contact him at jason@wellspacepdx.com.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.