On Anxiety

This post is prompted by a year of teaching some incredible, curious, devoted and generally stressed-out teenagers and young adults. It was somewhat eye-opening. Over the term as the weeks went on I realized it was more and more of them. I was a bit of a worrier when I was their age, so I empathize and recognize how Alexander can help. But there is and was definitely something else at play. It's a very different world now. Everything is amped up and intensified, including teen angst.

Part of what Alexander Technique teaches is non-judgemental observation to improve awareness of how you get in your own way. Students discover not only physical habits of slumping, holding their breath, or grinding their teeth- but also habits of judgment, overthinking, and self-doubt. Many have been told by doctors or family members for years ‘you have this condition, there is something off with how you’re wired, medication will help or you’ll outgrow it’. They have a diagnosis. And they lead with that diagnosis often when describing an experience in class or in an assignment. Their journals and homework are filled with statements about suffering from anxiety, panic attacks, mood-disorders and on. They live in fear of feeling what they feel because they’ve been told that it’s too much, or too big, or too extreme, or imbalanced. And sometimes it truly is; but sometimes of it is part of growing up and facing oneself. And although we’ve gotten better at acknowledging the challenges of adolescence, we have not improved at all teaching self-regulation, coping skills or how to move forward.

There are others who have not been diagnosed with anything, but maybe raised in such a way or gathered a lifetime of experiences that equates learning with never being good enough. Always work harder, never settle for anything other than best, failure isn’t an option. This method of coaching from well-meaning parents and teachers has led to a somewhat monstrous voice inside many that doesn’t allow any room for personal growth through trial and error, but only though some imposed external standard or measure.

In the middle of the winter while reading their journals I came across this piece on Self-Compassion for Stressed-Out Teens and shared it with them since it seemed like more than a few would relate. There was a collective sigh of relief to discover that not only was their experience more normal than they believed, but also that we weren’t interested in finding solutions, but to embrace rather than run from their experiences.

It is always so incredible to me at the beginning of the year how many students come in to an acting school - to learn how to become actors - but they haven’t a clue how to truthfully express themselves. I’m no longer surprised, because from about the age of 3 or 4 we’re taught primarily how to assimilate rather than cultivate ourselves.

“We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down.

There's something wrong there.” ― Neil deGrasse Tyson

For some, simply giving them an outlet to express themselves, was a huge revelation. In many modern education models, academic standards, testing, and grades have robbed students of developing an interest in learning. They know how to regurgitate what has been taught, maybe to demonstrate they were paying attention. But few have learned how to learn. How to investigate or explore with curiosity and inquiry. Learning anything, but especially art requires an investment of the ‘whole self’ - flesh and bone, body and mind, what motivates us and how we get in our way. With an excessive focus on results we've become devoid of the skills required for process and critical thinking.

This post is just a tip a huge iceberg and I am no expert. As always, my thoughts are based on my own experience, that of my students, and my colleagues. Please, leave a comment if this interests you too. Needless, to say there is far more at play. As a society we have undergone some relatively seismic shifts in interpersonal dynamics and overall sense of safety in the past decade or so.

Generally speaking for all students in today’s society, there are three additional and unique and very real factors that they are navigating- which I hope to explore further. My fellow teachers and I have discussed and theorized over our leftovers in the faculty lounge recognizing the huge differences from when we were students:

  • They’re the last generation being raised with a distinct line between having a purely analog life, or being split focused with the digital unreality of social media etc. in their pocket at all times.

  • They’re the Columbine generation - the American kids (75% of my students) were raised with the normalcy of gun violence in the safe and sacred space of a classroom. Many are in a chronic state fight / flight.

  • Finally, crushing student debt. The system is currently so stacked against them, and they know it. It adds a huge burden to being allowed to just be a student, to learn and grow.

It is our job as educators to provide them with the resources to grow, but we don’t have all the answers. Much to their disappointment. And discovery of the way forward comes from full acceptance of where you already are.

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