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Opinion, Well-being

What is Student Anxiety?

Anxiety is a typical part of growing up. In fact, it is a normal reaction to stress. For most kids, feelings of anxiety and fear come and go. Most developmental phases lessen and disappear over time. Examples of normal developmental fears in infants and toddlers include separation from parents or sudden and loud noises.  Preschoolers may be afraid of dark environments or animals. Children in primary and junior grades may worry about performance or bodily injury. Those in intermediate grades may begin to experience stress related to their health and appearance. In high school, anxiety may be related to school performance, social belonging and the future. 

An exaggerated experience of thoughts, feelings, behaviour and sensations associated with stressful life events that interfere with functioning and/or cause distress is an indication that the person is overestimating the threat and underestimating their ability to cope. When anxiety overtakes the person’s ability to think rationally, it affects their ability to move forward. This is when teachers need to be concerned about students.

Everyone gets anxious at one time or another. Stress is normal and can be adaptive. Anxiety, however, may be observed in an exaggerated fear response, which means becoming fearful in a situation that is not dangerous. For example, you might feel anxious about learning to drive a car. As such, you might practice with someone you trust, drive slowly and be selective on the roads you choose. However, when feelings of anxiety occur persistently over longer periods, without appropriate reason or are exaggerated, the anxiety can become debilitating.

Fear is experienced when one actually faces danger. That is an example of an adaptive fight or flight response. When a person experiences high levels of anxiety with no real danger present, this is when anxiety may become debilitative based on the misperception of a threat.

Some anxiety is helpful because it keeps us cautious, safe and performing well. When a situation is anxiety provoking, if a person can harness the positive, the anxiety is not harmful to them and may actually motivate them to face the challenge. 

An exaggerated experience of thoughts, feelings, behaviour and sensations associated with stressful life events that interfere with functioning and/or cause distress is an indication that the person is overestimating the threat and underestimating their ability to cope. When anxiety overtakes the person’s ability to think rationally, it affects their ability to move forward. This is when teachers need to be concerned about students.

When is anxiety a problem? 

The flight or fight response is adaptive when facing danger. However, when the danger has passed or there is no real danger, a flight response (avoidance) or a fight response, (aggression) is maladaptive. Furthermore, if a person persistently experiences high levels of anxiety although no real danger is present, the anxiety becomes debilitative.

Most normal anxiety is short-lived. Anxiety may be a problem for students when:

  • it is very intense;
  • it is unreasonable or out of proportion to the situation;
  • it persists over longer periods of time; and/or
  • it interferes with their ability to learn, socialize and participate in activities.

If you are seeing these concerning signs, this is the time for you to seek the support of the mental health professionals in your school board or community. Professional support is important because the earlier we intervene, the sooner we can help. Early intervention can teach life-long skills for managing anxiety. There is effective treatment for anxiety disorders.

Adapted from SMH-ASSIST Anxiety Module, 2014


This blog post is part of CEA’s focus on student mental health, which is also connected to Education Canada Magazine’s student mental health theme issue and Facts on Education fact sheet on what the research says about effective approaches to improving students’ mental well-being. Please contact info@cea-ace.ca if you would like to contribute a blog post to this series.