An old grandfather told his grandson, “My son, there’s an old battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth.” Somewhat worried, the boy thought about it, then asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man replied, “The one you feed.” –North American Legend
When a child’s stress response is stuck in the on position, anxiety becomes the sole coping strategy for all aspects of life. Health and the capacity to embrace learning challenge and life’s simple joys becomes an afterthought. Mere survival is the focus. Where do students and teachers begin when debilitating painful emotions and untrue stories that feel real, run rampant in classrooms?
Begin by Knowing the Enemy
Think of anxiety as a sentient being. Kind of like the little devil upon your shoulder that whispers lies, makes big promises and dismisses the angel on the other side. At my school, we use a Good Wolf/Bad Wolf theme to illustrate the point. Here is what students need to know about anxiety and the Bad Wolf:
- Anxiety is the relentless pursuit of unhealthy thoughts and unnecessary emotions that can consume a person’s every intention.
- Feelings of fear, anger, shame or jealousy convince the brain to release stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine. That is the Bad Wolf’s food.
- Anxiety is a master storyteller and it will tell any lie necessary to knock a child out of emotional balance and get what it desires.
- The Bad Wolf has a mean side. Your students most authentic dreams and desires are his most sought-after prize. Crushing them provides his greatest payoff.
Disconnection from Healthy Emotional Reward
The need to belong, contribute, play, learn and strive to be are best are undeniable truths of human nature. Well-being and emotional balance are the reward. This poses a formidable threat for the Bad Wolf. He will do all he can to distance children from the healthy emotional payoffs those beliefs and behaviors may provide. When he wins, the belief that a child doesn’t need friends, they are worthless and will fail in learning and life becomes their truth. Disconnection from those they love and purposeful behaviors intensifies the stress response.
Chronic Anxiety: An Unending Story of Lies and Painful Emotions
In the Bad Wolf’s perfect world, excessive or lingering stress becomes chronic anxiety. The brain adapts and the stress response becomes the dominant coping strategy for life’s adventures- even the ones that are supposed to be pleasurable and emotionally balancing. The Bad Wolf is free to feed with little effort and no fear of rational truth. A quiz, an uncomfortable interaction with a peer or an upcoming presentation hardly constitute a survival scenario, yet anxieties dramatic stories and the feelings attached to these relatively benign happenings say that they are. Anxiety is a master story teller capable of creating an unquestionable belief that the grass is blue and the sky is green. An untrue story becomes believable because irrational feelings are all consuming and compelling. Feeling is believing and behavior will always follow belief.
Hope in an Irrational Battle
The scenario seems bleak but Anxieties most powerful weapon is also its greatest weakness, and if acknowledged from a healthy perspective, it can lead children directly to their most authentic hopes, desires and place of happiness.
If anxiety relies on lies to perpetuate itself, it stands to reason that authentic truth and emotionally rewarding experiences would be the front-line tool in the battle against it. Fortunately, the same neural malleability that allowed the brain to adapt to a chronic anxious state is what can get it out. Connected experiences linking healthy emotional reward and behavior is the tangible proof an authentically rewarding story needs to become believable. But where can an anxious child look when all they have is lies?
Children only need one truth. Anxiety is not their friend and believing his stories leads to behaviors that inevitably make life worse. Here is a simple game plan to win an irrational battle.
Anxiety loves indecision and confusion but if children believe in the “I See You” game plan, a reliable road map emerges. Bravely follow the path. Acknowledge anxious stories and feelings. Do the opposite and life will always get better. So simple, it’s kids’ stuff.
If I am fearful, bravery will take me where I need to go. If I feel alone, look for support that is almost certainly there. If he tells me to quit, perseverance will bring me great reward. If a fear of heights makes me tremble, climb a ladder. If I am angered by a friend, say a kind word or give them a hug. Uncertain about a thought or idea, bravely stick up your hand and share it. Procrastination is an Anxiety favorite. Do your homework and look forward to class tomorrow. Acknowledge anxious stories because they always point in the exact opposite direction of truth, healthy behaviors and authentic emotional reward.
Classroom anxiety is pervasive and even the most resilient children need to practice healthy thinking patterns to stay ahead in the game. Prepare them. Remind students of the Good Wolf Bad Wolf story and the Opposite Game. Anxious feelings become less scary and perhaps even a source of healing. Every time students overcome an anxious emotion, they become a little tougher in the best way possible. Anxiety is rarely pleasant but it is an opportunity for growth. Fears are reflections of our greatest desires. Flip the story and a joyful rewarding life awaits.
Find more ready to use anxiety strategies here, or in the Emotionally Connected Classroom: Wellness and the Learning Experience. Bill Adair