The Link between neurology, anxiety and communication

Written by Ebony Birch-Hanger 

Neurodevelopmental Therapist, Special Education Teacher, Teacher of the Deaf, Education Consultant & Music Specialist - www.ebonybirchhanger.com

Anxiety itself is not necessarily a problem. Anxiety is a natural and required response which often protects us from dangerous situations. We need anxiety to survive. However, once anxiety takes over our thoughts, our ability to think logically, and our ability to function the way we wish to, then I would consider it a concern that needs to be addressed.   

The way our neurological (brain and body) systems work together and how efficiently they are functioning can affect a student’s level of anxiety, how that anxiety manifests within them and how it is displayed to those around them.

In my presentation at the Special Needs Symposium, I will be taking attendees through the neurological systems (e.g. visual, auditory, proprioception) and explaining how they affect anxiety and communication. In short, any inefficiencies or stress in the neurological systems can trigger and/or exacerbate anxiety. Anxiety then places stress on our high-order cognitive skills and communication becomes difficult. I will also be discussing the various triggers for anxiety that exist in the school environment.

Because a student’s ability to manage their anxiety is largely affected by their overall neurological functioning, this ability will change from day to day, or even hour by hour. How a student’s anxiety presents (i.e. how it is visible) can also change from day to day.

Society in general can make assumptions that anxiety goes hand-in-hand with depression. Although the two can co-occur, a student can certainly experience one without the other. In fact, many students I’ve worked with and adults I know now, who experience high anxiety, appear to be very happy people and can say that they are genuinely happy. I know the same is true for myself, depression and anxiety feel very different and I respond to both experiences in distinct ways.

When a person experiences panic attacks this is a clear signal to outsiders that the person is having a severe response to anxiety and that they need support. But the absence of panic attacks does not mean an absence of anxiety. I have had only a handful of panic attacks in my life but have experienced anxiety continuously for many years.

It can be very difficult for students to communicate if, and when, they are experiencing anxiety. I have worked with many students who know that they just don’t feel ‘right’ or comfortable, but don’t have the word – ‘anxiety’, to explain it. There are also students who are unable to identify anxiety in themselves, even if they understand what anxiety is and can identify it in others. This can sometimes stem from difficulties with interoception – the brain’s ability to interpret and identify physical sensations in the body. Therefore, students don’t recognise the warning signs their bodies may be giving them. Even when a student knows they’re anxious, they may not be able to, or want to, explain this verbally to their teachers. This is because verbal communication can be very challenging to engage in during times of high anxiety.

During my talk at the Special Needs Symposium, I will be giving more specific strategies to minimise anxiety in the classroom, but below are a number of general strategies that are useful for classroom teachers, specialist teachers and CRTs.

Firstly, listen to your students and validate what they’re communicating. Even if you’re not giving specific advice, that validation through comments such as “It’s okay to feel what you’re feeling” or “I understand how you’re feeling”, can make a huge difference for a student.

Try to ensure the student has someone to confide in, whether that be a psychologist, a guidance counsellor, yourself, another teacher or even an older student.

As a teacher, I would advise always being upfront with your students by letting them know that you may need to pass on the information they share with you to the counsellor/psychologist. Many students may be happy enough for you to share information and relay back advice from the counsellor, if that’s required. They just don’t want to speak to that person themselves.

I strongly encourage non-verbal communication methods and will be speaking in greater detail about this at the Symposium. I myself would be much more comfortable sitting in a face-to-face session with a psychologist and typing to them, rather than speaking.

It’s often a great start to just open a channel of communication or let a student know that you recognise they’re having a challenging day by giving positive/encouraging comments e.g. “I appreciate the effort you’re putting in today”.

If you notice signs of anxiety in any of the students in the class/es you’re teaching reduce your demands/requests/expectations immediately, especially if it seems to be due to anything you’re doing or asking of the student.

If you don’t know the student well, try to identify a friend of the student and ask the friend if what you’re seeing is typical for that student and if there are strategies in place to support them. This can even be done with young students i.e. 'What does your teacher do when …………... is upset?'   

Finally, a smile or a kind word can go a long way.

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As mentioned earlier, anxiety can manifest differently in the same individual and therefore it can certainly present differently in various students. I have previously been asked if there is a distinction between anxiety experienced by ‘lower-achieving’ students and ‘higher-achieving’ students. My first response to this question is that academic achievement is irrelevant when it comes to a student's ability to manage their emotions. 

Anxiety does occur in both ‘higher-’ and ‘lower-achieving’ students, but probably for different reasons. My next points are of course generalisations, as everyone’s experiences are different, but are a good starting-point for teachers to consider. Students who don’t perform as well as their peers academically will likely experience anxiety due to: lack of confidence in their abilities; fear of failure; negative self-talk; uncertainty about task requirements; and concern about judgement from others. Students who perform well academically will likely experience anxiety due to: perfectionistic traits; fear of failure and fear of success; social isolation; over-analysis; and the pressures they place on themselves.

It’s important to note that the fear of failure for ‘high-achieving’ students is frequently unrecognised and it often stems from perfectionism along with over-analysing. I know that as a student myself, even though my track record of grades averaged as straight As, each time I had an assignment most of my anxiety came from the thought ‘What if I don’t get an A THIS time?’, what that meant about me as a student and what my teachers would think of me. Fear of success is also a very important consideration as increased anxiety can come from the thought that – ‘If I am successful at this task, people will expect even more of me and then I don’t know if I can meet their higher expectations.’

Looking back to the link between anxiety and neurology – any anxiety experienced by any student places greater stress on the neurological systems in the body and can result in school work, social interactions, executive functioning tasks and self-care becoming tough and exhausting. Therefore, supporting students with anxiety will greatly assist their ability to feel comfortable in, contribute to, and succeed, in the classroom.

Please come along and meet me at the Special Needs Symposium at the National Education Summit Melbourne on 30 and 31 August 2019.

Margo MetcalfMelbBlog