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Anxiety Addressed in Assembly and Parent Meeting

Almost a year ago, Upper School Head Abbi Smith and Guidance Counselor Sarah Satinsky shared an ironic moment. Both had read an article by Matt Kristoffersen that described a new approach to treating childhood anxiety. Sarah shared the piece with Abbi, only to learn that she had also just read it. 
The women concluded it was more than a weird professional coincidence; it was an indication that they needed to take action. Sarah decided to reach out to the professor leading the research featured in the article, Eli Lebowitz, PhD., Director of Program for Anxiety Disorders at the Yale Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine. Dr. Lebowitz delighted Sarah by accepting an invitation to come and speak to various members of the Sanford community.

Nearly one year later, on Monday, February 24th, Dr. Lebowitz met with students from grades 8–12 during a one-hour assembly entitled "Coping with Anxiety." He set the tone by explaining to the student body that he has both personal and professional experiences with anxiety, specifically related to his fears of flying, heights, and early childhood obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Anxiety is very normal, and Dr. Lebowitz reassured the audience by saying, "The body is supposed to feel anxiety. It helps to keep us safe. It is like an internal smoke detector, with an alarm that goes off to warn us of danger."

However, smoke detectors can malfunction and go off when there is actually no danger present. Or, they can fail to go off when they should. Anxiety can act in much the same way. When it is present, it requires that people alter their behavior accordingly. Since our brains were wired in the early days of civilization to provide survival from predators, the standard responses are flight and fight. Those behaviors are not always the best choices for the stresses that are presented in today’s society. Nor are today’s stresses similar to those faced by early men.

Dr. Lebowitz shared the four components of anxiety and offered ways to combat them:
  1. Cognition: Anxiety can consume thoughts and push away all other, meaningful ideas. They can get stuck and make it hard to focus or even converse. Try to break ideas into small, manageable steps. Challenge anxious thoughts and try to interrupt them.
  2. Emotion: Fear and anger are two primary emotional manifestations of anxiety. Try to switch to another feeling. Maybe even try to find humor in the situation.
  3. Physiology: Rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, trembling, and dry mouth are common physical symptoms of anxiety. Employ deep breathing by pushing the diaphragm down and expanding the belly upon inhale. Use movement, a stress ball, or exercise to change the body’s reaction. Get enough nighttime sleep and eat a healthy diet.
  4. Behavior: Anxiety often evokes avoidant behavior. It can be good when real danger is present, but it can broaden fears and keep a person stuck in that fearful mode even when the danger is more imagined than real. Try to avoid less and try taking small steps towards addressing the thing being avoided. Find an easy place to take a chance, where success is likely and then continue to build on that.
Kanisa Tucker '20 bravely volunteered to have a sensor attached to her ear that measured her pulse rate and resonance, the up and down rhythm of the heartbeats used to determine the pulse. Both of these factors are physical measures of stress. Using the focused breathing technique, members of the audience could see Kanisa’s pulse and resonance rates lower, rather significantly. Dr. Lebowitz explained that by relaxing muscles, messages of safety are released to the brain, thus decreasing anxiety. This simple breathing technique is readily and easily employed and requires no special training or therapy.

Dr. Lebowitz concluded his presentation by soliciting advice from the audience as to how to best support a friend who might be experiencing anxiety. Some of those suggestions, all supported by Dr. Lebowitz, included:

  1. Demonstrate empathy.
  2. Be a good listener.
  3. Remain non-judgmental.
  4. Provide a distraction to the situation, physically, if possible. (i.e. take a walk)
  5. Change the environment or verbally reframe the situation.
  6. Suggest focused breathing.
  7. Recognize that by exhibiting normal responses of fear or anger, the person might not seem appreciative of your efforts. Remember your availability is invaluable.
Later in the day, Dr. Lebowitz conducted a similar assembly for students in grades 4–7. Following that event, he spent an hour with the entire fourth grade, where he held a question and answer session. Fourth Grade Instructor Missy Bloom shared: "Presenters like Dr. Lebowitz are so vital to our students' mental health, especially when nationwide one out of three students is diagnosed with some form of anxiety. His open talk with the students normalized anxiety and made students feel comfortable sharing their own experiences with the ways they deal with stress." Dillon Conway '28 added: "I thought the anxiety presentation was interesting because Dr. Lebowitz used examples from the Harry Potter movies and books to explain different types of anxiety. Then, he gave us easy strategies we could use to help us relax."

Dr. Lebowitz also addressed the entire Sanford faculty in an afternoon meeting. He concluded his time at Sanford with an evening parent meeting that was open to the public.

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