Anxiety is a generalized mood condition that can often occur without an identifiable triggering stimulus. As such, it is distinguished from fear, which occurs in the presence of an observed threat. Additionally, fear is related to the specific behaviours of escape and avoidance, whereas anxiety is the result of threats that are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable.
Anxiety can be viewed as a sudden response to a frightening or worrying situation. A degree of anxiety experienced when confronting new or challenging situations is normal and can be helpful. It helps us face threatening situations, study harder for exams - generally, it helps us cope.
Anxiety disorder, however, can have quite the opposite effect and can prevent one from coping and disrupt daily life, making one feel anxious without apparent reason. Some may stop some everyday activities to avoid the anxiety associated with them. Anxiety can also lead to learning difficulties, since it is results in poor concentration on the matter in hand.


Anxiety in unsafe situations makes an important contribution to avoidance and preventing harm. However, in a learning environment where pupils should feel safe, anxiety is unnecessary and may be a sign of a disorder.
There is a well researched physiological basis for anxiety and some evidence of genetic traits. The flood of adrenalin triggered by anxiety does more than prepare the body for "fight or flight". Physical effects of anxiety may include heart palpitations, muscle weakness and tension, fatigue, nausea, chest pain, shortness of breath, stomach aches, or headaches. As the body prepares to deal with a threat: blood pressure and heart rate are increased, sweating is increased, blood flow to the major muscle groups is increased, and immune and digestive system functions are inhibited

External signs of anxiety may include pale skin, sweating, trembling, and dilation of pupils. Someone who has anxiety might also experience it as a sense of dread or panic. Although panic attacks are not experienced by every person who has anxiety, they are a common symptom. Panic attacks usually come without warning, and although the fear is generally irrational, the perception of danger is very real.  Anxiety does not only consist of physical effects; there are many emotional ones as well. They include "feelings of apprehension or dread, trouble concentrating, feeling tense or jumpy, anticipating the worst, irritability, restlessness, watching (and waiting) for signs (and occurrences) or danger, and, feeling like your mind's gone blank as well as nightmares/bad dreams, obsessions about sensations, deja vu, a trapped in your mind feeling, and feeling like everything is scary.

Cognitive effects of anxiety may include thoughts about suspected dangers, such as fear of dying. One may fear that the chest pains (a physical symptom of anxiety) are a deadly heart attack or that the shooting pains in your head (another physical symptom of anxiety) are the result of a brain tumor.

Relevance for teachers

Anxiety disorders are the most common of all the mental health disorders. Teachers should be aware of the symptoms above and if a pupil's behaviour or appearance seems unusually anxious the parents/carers should be informed and a referral to the family doctor advised incase specialist medical help is required.

Considered in the category of anxiety disorders are: Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, Social Phobia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Specific Phobia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Acute Stress Disorder.

There are many potential causes of anxiety disorders, including family history and genetics Some pupils faced with traumatic events or bereavement in their lives may be at risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Increased stress and inadequate coping mechanisms may also contribute to anxiety. There are, however, biological and psychological components associated with every anxiety disorder and the best form of treatment for extreme cases is a combination of cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy interventions. Depending upon the severity of the anxiety, medication may be used in combination with psychotherapy

Pupils who are anxious will not be learning and so it is important that you help prevent situations arising where vulnerable pupils may be at risk of becoming anxious.  Creating a safe and secure teaching environment will help ensure that vulnerable pupils, prone to anxiety, are supported to feel at ease and learn well.

Indicative reading

Beck, A. T., Emery, G. & Greenberg, R. L. (1985) Anxiety disorders and phobias a cognitive perspective, Basic Books
Richard, H. (1992) Counselling for anxiety problems, Sage
Craig, K. D. and Dobson, K. S. (1995) Anxiety and depression in adults and pupils, Sage
Powell , T. J. and Enright, S. J. (1990) Anxiety and stress management, Routledge
Merrell K. W. (2001) Helping students overcome depression and anxiety: a practical guide, Guilford Press


anxiety, mental health, depression

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