Addressing the Multi-Ton Gorilla in our Midst Throughout 2019

by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

StressI wish you and your families a happy and healthy 2019! For many, transitioning into a New Year is a time of hope and resolutions. Many see this transition as a time for positive change and a better tomorrow. While they should keep their focus on that positive change, we must not forget that there are those who are struggling now more than ever. During this time of transitioning, those who suffer from high levels of anxiety may not see any level of hope at all.

Throughout 2018, I was asked by many groups to speak on and assist them with understanding how the sensory item side of assistive technology could help those with differing abilities. We began to see a better recognition by the outside world of the value of sensory input and how it could calm and balance some individuals. The wonderful thing for me to experience was the amount of teachers, therapists, and people in general who found some sensory item they liked and began discussing how it could help them. There was a subtle transition to understanding what I and others meant when we said that everyone has some degree of sensory processing issues and that the use of appropriate sensory items could be good for all.

As I worked with various groups like school districts, hospitals, and support organizations, I began to get a better sense of an issue which is rampant throughout our greater community; anxiety. Anxiety has been around since the dawn of time; but in recent years, its effects have begun to reach more people at even younger ages. It is a belief among some that this spike in anxiety is simply due to millennials coming of age. However, as bizarre as it is to blame millennials for everything, the rise in anxiety is not their fault. We can trace early writings in Western Civilization regarding anxiety to Greek and Roman authors who addressed “distress” and the dealing with emotional outbursts. Yet, some in our culture look at anxiety as a weakness, rather than as a common issue.

2018 saw a rise in public admissions of issues surrounding anxiety. Even professional athletes, like Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, began to admit to dealing with anxiety and its comorbid colleague, depression. A recognition of the role of anxiety in daily life was presented with some understanding, while others hearing these stories continued to live in denial and make excuses. There are no excuses with anxiety. We all will feel it at some time and all have to deal with varying levels of it in our lives.

There are some positive movements in addressing anxiety in daily life. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an affliction for many individuals within our country. It is most associated with those who have served in our military. Its recognition can be the defining factor in helping those who suffer. There are programs being developed, like the one for VA Hospitals by Dawn Robinson, which seek to identify those with PTSD and assist in the development of a plan to help those individuals cope and live a better life, as anxiety-free as possible. As Ms. Robinson has stated though, the biggest reason for the lack of a PTSD diagnosis in our veterans is their belief that it demonstrates a sign of weakness and is therefore unbecoming anyone in the service. That idea is so far from being factual, yet is perceived as a truth. The valor of these men and women should be the focal point from the outside world, not the potential for a “weakness.”

I have spoken with many veterans over the years and have heard the horrors that they went through. I remember speaking with a veteran of Vietnam who shared with me human atrocities beyond imagination, yet spoke about how upon returning to the US had to deal with being shunned by many. For them, PTSD occurred on multiple fronts. As Ms. Robinson and the VA continue to develop this program, other groups should take note of how to incorporate it into their areas. PTSD is not simply a disorder afflicting our people in the service. It also affects first responders. Poilce, Firefighters, and Emergency Medical Technicians, along with doctors and nurses, have to deal with tragedy on a daily basis. For some, they deal with the stress and anxiety through alcohol and other pain killers. Anyone who has gone through a traumatic experience in their lives can also suffer from PTSD. Those who have had to deal with unexpected death or tragedy can feel increased anxiety. We cannot forget women who have endured rape situations and individuals who have endured significant levels of abuse too in this category. Trauma is something that comes in various shapes to individuals and we should never judge what trauma should be for anyone but ourselves.

Thus far, we have looked at adults with anxiety. We cannot forget that our children may have high levels of anxiety too. As an administrator, I saw anxiety in my students at the high school level. Anxiety for these students has continued to grow over the years. The stress of trying to fit in to groups has always been a part of the development of students. Yet, it does not mean that some students do not feel more pressure than others. In working with our students with differing abilities, acceptance is a critical issue. Some of these students have achieved a level of acceptance with peers and have healthy self-images. Other students struggle and seek to fit in through actions which may not be in their best interest. While part of this is a natural developmental process, if anxiety levels rise to a degree where self-injurious behaviors become part of the norm, then the student needs assistance. We cannot be content to say that “it is a phase” or “they will work through it.” These are the statements which may precede student suicides or other serious issues.

We cannot minimize what today’s students are struggling with in their lives. I grow annoyed with those who continually cite that they had it so much more difficult as children. “I had to walk to school 10 miles each way in six feet of snow uphill both ways daily! We didn’t have fancy calculators or cell phones either, so we had to count on our fingers and toes and do research in books.” I get that idea. I also know that you are incorrect to say that you had it “worse.” It was simply different. In many ways, our students are being forced to grow up sooner, compete on a global scale earlier, and market themselves positively by the time they are in middle school.  That stress can create unbelievable levels of anxiety; levels which may be do deep, they are not easily seen at the surface. Thus, we need to be conscious of actions and words of the students to understand where they are at better. Otherwise, we may not learn of these depths of anxiety until there is a school tragedy or a suicide.

Suicide is a large issue today. We have experienced the suicides of popular figures in culture. I have also had a number of friends admit to suicidal ideas based on where they were in life. Research suggests that there are more adults dealing with suicidal thoughts now than in previous generations. Why is this? There appear to be many suggested explanations for this.  Greater feelings of inadequacy and higher levels of stress creating greater anxiety are definitely major reasons for this. Let us not act as ostriches though and bury our heads claiming that the reasons are more superficial. High levels of anxiety today are influenced by what is happening to each of us.These may involve influences such as socio-economic issues, political issues, gender or racial issues, or religious issues. However, anxiety does not discriminate as it affects all people in varying degrees. So those of you trying to blame either political party or the era in which one was born are incorrect.

So what can we do to help in 2019? First, we need to assess ourselves. Ask yourself how are you doing today? I recently read an article by Candida Moss who suggested that journaling was one of the most recommended resolutions being suggested to individuals for 2019. A journal does allow for the processing of ideas and lets the writer go down into the depths of their mind for a better understanding of how they are doing. Along with that assessment, commit to a healthier lifestyle. You have always heard “eat well and exercise.” For some, baby steps are all that is necessary. Start walking each day and drink more water. Limit your fast food trips and make a few more meals at home. You do not need to suddenly become a fitness guru, but take the time to improve your health.

Next, learn how to listen. Many of us are able to hear things, but that does not mean we are really listening. Actual listening requires one to not make any judgments or to find a “solution” to another’s problem while hearing the words. Let the other person get their issue out. Be open to meeting someone for coffee or lunch to listen to them. Part of active listening also requires one to be aware when the best advice is to suggest that the speaker go get additional advice from a minister at their church or a counselor. We are not all walking around with degrees in psychology or psychiatry, so it would be better to suggest bringing up deep issues with a professional.

Third, learn how to respond. “You think you got problems” and “That ain’t nothing” are not only grammatically shaky, but also are non-supportive to the speaker. Listen, think, and then respond.  Always let them finish before even starting to put together a response. Life coaches will attest to the fact that may of their clients are first seeking an empathetic or sympathetic ear.  Watch cable shows and listen to radio shows where individuals with opposing points are involved. Most of the time is spent speaking over each other and not listening. When truly listening to another, realize that you have no point to prove.

Fourth, recognize that some individuals may need sensory items to keep them calm. I am not speaking of fidget spinners as those of you who have heard me speak, know my feelings about them! Other sensory fidgets, weighted items, and tight or wrapped clothing should not be pointed out and referred to in any negative manner. Fidgets are not toys and specialized clothing is helpful for some. Be aware that even actions like pencil tapping or leg crossing and uncrossing may be ways of releasing kinetic energy to help a person stay calm. Just be aware of the needs of others as well as your own needs.

Finally, be nice! We can always say be nice to others and that is important. But, be nice to yourself first! No one is perfect! Recognize that you may have some anxiety that is coming out in covert ways. Invite yourself to really look at the good things you bring to the table. Know that you are an amazing person who has so much to offer to this world! If you have concerns, share them with someone and don’t hold them in. If someone wants to share concerns with you, do the best you can for them, but do not take on their concerns too!

We all matter in this world! May 2019 be a wonderful year for you as you are a wonderful person!


Posted in SH Special Education Today Newsletter