Classroom Anxiety: Good or Bad?

Anxiety is a normal emotion in reaction to danger or to stressful situations perceived as threatening to a person's survival, even though we may not be consciously aware of the threat. Anxiety disorder and panic attacks occur when that normal reaction is exaggerated. Although a stressful event can trigger an anxiety or panic attack, sometimes they seem to occur for no obviously apparent reason. However, it is important to remember that for every effect there is always a cause.

Psychiatry suggests that abnormalities in the balance of some brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) may play a role in anxiety and panic. This theory is supported by evidence that antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications are useful in the treatment of anxiety for some patients. However these "chemical imbalances" are themselves effects of more fundamental causes that are not usually investigated or treated in general psychiatric practice. Anti-depressant medications (SSRIs) work for around 40% of people, while around 30% of people respond just as well to a placebo (harmless sugar pill which they think is medication).

Some amount of anxiety is not a bad thing.  In fact moderate amounts of anxiety can be quite a motivator.  Anxiety forces us to feel uncomfortable, and humans naturally move from a state of tension to relaxation.  Anxiety forces us into action.  However extreme levels of anxiety can cause us to function poorly, or irrationally.  So finding the right level of anxiety can be a motivating factor in optimum school performance.  We have an optimal level of performance whenever we're doing anything that requires us to demonstrate something about ourselves, whether it be taking a test, giving a speech, or performing a sport.

If we are too anxious, we exceed our optimal level and perform at a poorer rate due to the inability to concentrate, reason, or remember. On the other hand, if we are not excited enough, let's say due to exhaustion, we perform below our optimal level and perform poorly for similar reasons and with similar results. Therefore, the goal of performance anxiety reduction is to keep your performance level at the optimal or middle area, where you remain alert, attentive, but not over or under stimulated.

A typical day at school provides endless potential stressors. From the peer interactions on the morning bus ride to the timed test situation to a low grade that may halt a season of sports or other school activity, a child has many opportunities to test the “fight or flight” response. The “fight or flight” response is controlled by the adrenalin system. When this system is on, one feels stress or anxiety.

At the extreme end, excess anxiety might result in a panic attack.  Effectively a panic attack is a warning that something is wrong either in the environment of in the body. The interpretations of the physiological sensations as catastrophic triggers a massive release of adrenaline which exaggerates the sensations and further reinforces the idea that something is very wrong, which of course makes matters even worse.

Anxiety in childhood is problematic in many arenas. Children with anxiety at school may act out with disruptive behaviors. The disruptive behavior is typically an action that helps the child avoid the anxiety-producing stimulus. This can include talking, skipping class, “forgetting” assignments, fighting, and even substance abuse to produce an altered state of mind. Obviously, the disruptive behavior is not helpful in solving the problem, but at the moment it can be an acceptable alternative to that dreadful anxious feeling.

Strategies to Reduce Anxiety


On the night before your exam (right before you go to sleep works well), find a quiet place to relax. Close your eyes. Pull your eyes to the top part of your head, roll up and back, then take two slow, deep breaths. Do this a couple more times to get you more relaxed. Now, visualize yourself in the classroom taking the test. See yourself receiving the test, then calmly, confidently taking the exam. You see many of the questions you had formulated while you pretended you were the professor. You are organized and alert. You are enjoying taking the test because you want to demonstrate just how much you know about the material. Create this movie in your head. You are in command and in control. Repeat the positive visualization again in the morning, right before you get out of bed. When test time comes you will have already seen yourself confidently taking the test. Refer to this personal movie anytime during the test. This positive visualization will help you realize what you are capable of achieving.


You can do breathing exercises at anytime, before, during, and after the test. Breathing helps you stay emotionally grounded and rids the body of excess tension. It is also an effective way of reducing stress of any kind and only takes a moment to do.

If you can, close your eyes. Inhale through your nose deeply and slowly. Exhale slowly through your mouth. Do this two to three times or whenever you feel excess anxiety building up. This is an easy and effective exercise to do throughout the test.  A good night's rest and eating regular, healthy meals also helps you feel relaxed during the day.

For More Severe Anxiety

Teaching the child appropriate tools to decrease the anxiety is paramount.  Teaching appropriate responses for anxiety and questioning belief systems is a key component of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).  CBT is the most effective add-on to treatment of the underlying causes for anxiety. Studies show that CBT on its own it works well for over half of people with panic disorder (and agoraphobia) by reducing the catastrophic feeling and subsequent severity of attacks.

Unfortunately treating anxiety is not something that can be done through reading a book.  Similarly, assessment of anxiety symptoms needs to be done by a competent mental health professional.  If you suspect that anxiety is keeping you from achieving your full potential in school, or if you are a parent and you suspect anxiety is a problem for your child, you need to have an in-depth assessment completed by a psychologist or psychiatrist.