Anxiety and Learning

Anxiety, stress and/or difficult emotions can impact a young person’s memory functioning, concentration and learning at school. Anxiety often takes up some of the capacity available for other mental tasks and as the depth and breadth of the anxiety increases, capacity to concentrate on academic tasks and solve problems decreases. This in turn can impact on a young person’s ability to learn new information, recall previously mastered materials and perform at their best. The following suggestions can help young people feel better prepared to cope mentally and emotionally with stress at school.

Breathing Activities

These activities help to reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety (i.e., tummy aches, sore muscles, headaches) by consciously and repeatedly practicing calming exercises. This helps to induce a more relaxed state and decrease physical tension so we are able to attend to other important things such as our teachers, schoolwork, friends and other activities.

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Slow Breathing

The focus of slow/calm breathing is simply to slow down the rate of breath, which sends the brain and body the message that there is no emergency. Try and take at least 10 breath cycles to experience the full effect. Instructions and recordings for doing calm breathing can be found on the Anxiety Canada website – ,click here

Belly (Balloon) Breathing (Deep Abdominal Breathing)

The focus of deep breathing is to breathe from your diaphragm. Abdominal breathing can sometimes give you more energy as it introduces nutrient rich oxygen into your blood. This is often a technique practiced by singers and actors to improve performance. An audio script for Deep Belly Breathing can be found at the Thriving Adolescent website: ,click here

Imagery Breathing

Many young people prefer having something concrete to imagine when doing breathing exercises. Consider using the following exercises involving imagery:

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Mindfulness Activities

Mindfulness involves intentionally attending to the present moment with openness, acceptance and without judgement. Mindfulness helps to reduce rumination, stress and emotional reactivity. These activities help young people centre and settle their attention, increase self-awareness and be more present in the moment.

Mindful Breathing Activity

Mindful breathing is different from calm or deep breathing as the focus is NOT on changing the breathing rate to induce relaxation but instead, to use the natural rhythm of the breath as an anchor to bring attention back to your breath (and away from distracting thoughts and sensations). Guided mindfulness recordings can be found on the Smiling Mind website or on their app – ,click here

Body Scan

A body scan is a guided mindful activity to help you shift your attention to different parts of

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your body, while noticing any sensations (e.g., tingling, warmth, pulsating, tightness etc.) you might be experiencing, without labelling them as good or bad. Body scan exercises can be found at the Thriving Adolescent website – ,click here and then click on the A-N-D exercise. Alternatively go to the Anxiety Canada website ,here.

Grounding Activity

This is a quick mindful activity that forces a spinning, anxious mind to re-orient to the present moment. Grounding skills are helpful in managing overwhelming or intense emotions. The activity goes as follows:

  • Name 5 things you can see
  • Name 4 things you can touch or feel within your body (e.g., chair on my back, feet on the floor, fingers on the table)
  • Name 3 things you can hear (e.g., a car, the clock, the humming of the air conditioner)
  • Name 2 things you smell or taste (or like to smell and taste)
  • Take 1 mindful breath

iPhone/Android Apps for Anxiety

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References and further reading:

Anxiety Canada Website: ,

Thriving Adolescent: ,

Smiling Mind:

Article by psychologist Alex Graham, 2019