Going to School with PTSD: Online Education and Anxiety

By James Hinton

I was an older student with an anxiety issue. After spending time in the Army, including several combat tours, I had been diagnosed with PTSD. Being around large numbers of strangers worried me. Noisy settings where I was not completely in control gave me the need to run for it. I would even feel a touch agoraphobic if I was not close to something I could bunker up within.

When I made the decision to obtain a college degree after getting out, these all presented me with significant problems. While some of the university classes I participated in had relatively small class sizes that enabled me to learn faces fairly quickly and find a certain degree of comfort with, large classes were a daily struggle. I would have to position myself close to doors so I could bolt outside for relief if needed. More boisterous classes could result in frequent, embarrassing episodes where I just plain had to get out.

Eventually I made it through and obtained my Bachelors, but it was not a particularly easy or enjoyable process. My struggles had frequently led to my considering quitting, which had only caused the depression that comes with PTSD to get worse. Preparing for class had been an anxiety inducing process that involved my wondering whether I’d make it through to the end, or have to make a dash for the door yet again.

I still wonder sometimes how I made it to graduation.

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Are High-Achieving Students More Likely to Have Eating Disorders?

By Anne Davies

Eating disorders are a major problem in our society – one which is growing all the time. Many blame the unrealistic portrayal of physical ‘perfection’ in the media for the rise, and there certainly seems to be little doubt that a sense of personal physical inadequacy and a need for ‘perfection’ are contributory factors in eating disorder development. Other theorized triggers for the development of an eating disorder include a history of being bullied, a poor social and/or home life, and genetic factors. However, what surprises many is the demographics of those who tend to suffer from eating disorders. Far from being a problem restricted to superficial teenage girls, the eating disorder spectrum encompasses a vast and growing range of people from all walks of life – and high-achieving students are particularly at risk.

students eating

Photo courtesy of Penn State via Flickr

Poor Stereotypes

Eating disorders are, unfairly, considered to be a disease suffered exclusively by teenage girls who are obsessed with their appearance above all else. Indeed, such girls are considered something of a cultural joke – the trope of superficial teenage cheerleaders heading merrily to the bathroom to throw up has been played for laughs many times. This is wrong on the one level – bulimia is a serious illness requiring extensive and intensive recovery. It should not be treated as a joke, no matter who is suffering from it. So ingrained is this stereotypical perception of eating disorder sufferers that many keep the fact that they are struggling with such conditions silent, so as not to be considered superficial. The former Deputy Prime Minister of Britain, John Prescott, revealed in 2008 that he had battled bulimia for ten years without breaking silence, as he was ‘ashamed’ of being high profile, high achieving, and male while suffering from the illness. More worryingly, the public’s reaction to the news proved him somewhat right – while many were sympathetic, others responded with incredulity and ridicule. This is deeply unfair. Not only is it cruel and unnecessary to mock someone with a serious illness, there is considerable evidence to suggest that high-profile high achievers like Prescott (and, on a lesser scale, valedictorians) are more likely to suffer from an eating disorder than many other groups.

Perfectionism

It’s all to do with perfectionism. Perfectionism is either a blessing or a curse, depending upon which aspect of your life you apply it to. Many valedictorians will recognize the urge to get things absolutely right 100% of the time. Being used to being good at academic matters, valedictorians sometimes find it hard to deal when they are bad at something – they aren’t used to it, and therefore haven’t built up the emotional software necessary to take the knocks and build from them. This is great when it comes to achieving in many areas of life – valedictorians are made from the kind of stuff that won’t back down from a challenge, and will persevere at something until they get it absolutely right. However, when one lets that perfectionism leak over into other life areas, things can go wrong – particularly when combined with the tendency to over-analyse which comes as part of the package for many high-achievers. Research is increasingly finding that obsessive perfectionism and over-analysis present a major risk for the development of eating disorders. If you can’t switch off and just let certain aspects of your life ‘be’, then you’ll start overanalyzing and trying to control every little thing, which can quickly lead to one becoming obsessively controlling about what they eat – particularly when combined with internal perfectionist pressure to look a certain way.

(Editor’s Note: Check out an article I wrote about students and perfectionism here.)

Control

High achievers often feel an intense amount of pressure – and it is well known that stress can manifest as disordered eating. When one feels pressured, one often feels that aspects of one’s life are spiralling out of control. An easy way to reassert control over one area at least of one’s life is through controlling one’s diet. One eating disorder which high-achievers are increasingly beginning to suffer from is a condition known as ‘orthorexia nervosa’. This manifests when a person becomes so absolutely obsessed with controlling the ‘purity’ of what they eat that their health (ironically) begins to suffer as a result. The degree of control required to sustain an orthorexic diet is phenomenal to the point of obsession, and ensures that the sufferer’s self-esteem quickly becomes dependent upon their diet. It’s frequently a slippery slope from orthorexia to anorexia or bulimia so, while it is of course very good indeed to watch what you eat and ensure that your food is healthy, if your diet starts controlling your life, take a step back and focus on more important things.

Self-Recognition

Perhaps the worst thing about developing an eating disorder is the impact which it has on the rest of your life. Remember, an eating disorder is primarily psychological – and it leaves little brain space for anything else. As such, your studies will naturally suffer while you battle the condition. It is vital, therefore, that you develop the self-knowledge necessary to recognize if and when your eating habits are becoming problematic. If you catch the tendencies early, and seek help as soon as possible, it will be much easier to break the condition and get your life back on track. Speaking out is the most important thing – no matter what sitcoms like Family Guy may claim, eating disorders are not a joke, and no medical professional or person who cares will laugh at you for having one. Help is available – just remember that your health is more important than your appearance!

Facebook Depression: Is It A Real Diagnosis? (Guest Post)

Tara Heath is a journalist who lives in California. She loves to write about health and wellness and parenting. She knows there are many dangers that come with social media and wants to help share her tips and thoughts on staying healthy and safe.

Almost everybody with access to a computer knows about the social media site Facebook. If you’re a parent, chances are your children use it, and more than likely, you use it yourself.

While social media sites are basically part of the culture for anybody under the age of 40, they tend to have more of an impact on high school and college-age teens. They are the ones most likely to be regularly active on Facebook, and they’re also the ones most likely to visit the site more than 10 times per day according to a study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Unfortunately, this relatively new technology may be taking a toll on some teens and young adults in the form of something controversially known as Facebook depression.

signs

What is Facebook Depression?

Facebook depression is a relatively new term designed specifically to reference feelings of depression and anxiety that many teens feel due to social media sites, much like the depression teens experience on the playground when they aren’t accepted by their peers. Only, in the digital age, Facebook depression relates more to friend requests and friends unfollowing them on the web than face to face interaction.

In some cases, teens may do things that could be considered risky in order to feel accepted, and then brag about their activities. This has led some researchers to believe that kids who don’t feel accepted on social media sites may be more likely to engage in risk-taking activities like doing drugs or having unsafe sex. Some teens even engage in self-destructive behavior like posting pornographic images of themselves or sending them to others at their school in a misguided attempt to be accepted.

Is Facebook Depression Real?

Facebook depression might sound like a strange term to some parents who may not understand the role social media really has in their child’s life. However, 22-percent of teens check their Facebook profile and information 10 times or more per day and 77-percent have cellular devices capable of giving them this access no matter where they are.

That’s why Facebook depression is a real thing. However, it may not really be any different than the feelings commonly associated with not being accepted by peers – the same feelings children had on the playground long before tools like social media sites were available.

depression

With social media becoming more and more a part of the culture each day, it’s important that parents realize how it can negatively affect their children. The internet can be an excellent tool for children to learn and grow emotionally, but it can also be problematic if parents ignore its growing role.

As a general rule, you should be monitoring your child’s Facebook account until they are older teens – children under 13 likely shouldn’t have their own Facebook account at all. By being vigilant as a parent you can make sure your children stay safe and don’t experience any of the depression that can come with sites like Facebook.


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How to get rid of test anxiety

Do you do great on homework and essays, but freeze up on exams?  Do you have nightmares about the SAT?  Two recent articles in The New York Times and Time magazine address this common malady, and they have some interesting advice on how to bring your nerves under control.

Thinking about test anxiety.

Thinking about test anxiety.

Advice from the Time magazine article “Relax, It’s Only A Test,” by Annie Murphy Paul (Feb. 11, 2013)

1.  Engage in “expressive writing.”  Spend ten minutes before the exam writing about your thoughts and feelings.  This helps you cast off your anxiety and focus on the task at hand.

2.  Do a “values-affirmation exercise.”  Choose something that’s important to you – for example, music, family, religion, anything – and write about why it matters to you.  Research has found that minority and female students who did this improved their test-day performance.

3.  Write down positive statements, self-affirmations or mantras and keep them in a handy place.  The article describes how girls at the Laurel School in Ohio were given “special test-day pencil[s],” which were wrapped in pieces of paper that contained encouraging (and true) statements such as, “Girls get higher grades than boys.”

4.  Make sure you’ve prepared for the test the right way!  It may not be enough to read and re-read your notes and books – you should also take practice tests, ask yourself questions about the material, and try to predict what’s going to be on the exam.

5.  Do relaxation exercises, such as yoga.  The article describes how third-graders who were taught breathing and relaxation exercises showed a significant reduction in test anxiety.

Advice from The New York Times article, “Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (Feb. 6, 2013)

This article’s a bit more scientific and complex.  Its basic premise is:

Understanding their propensity to become stressed and how to deal with it can help children compete. Stress turns out to be far more complicated than we’ve assumed, and far more under our control than we imagine. Unlike long-term stress, short-term stress can actually help people perform, and viewing it that way changes its effect. Even for those genetically predisposed to anxiety, the antidote isn’t necessarily less competition — it’s more competition. It just needs to be the right kind.

The article talks about the COMT gene, which has two variants: one that slowly removes dopamine from the brain, and another that clears it quickly.  People carry one variant or the other, or a combination of the two.  Studies have found that under normal conditions, those with the slow-acting variant have a cognitive advantage.  However, in stressful situations – e.g., test time – the people with the slower enzyme can’t remove dopamine fast enough, and those with the speedier kind take the lead.  They’re often the ones who do better on tests.

Some researchers have labeled those with the fast-acting enzyme “Warriors” and those with the slower variant “Worriers.”  One isn’t necessarily better than the other, it’s just that the Warriors may have an advantage in situations such as tests.  About half of us are a mix between Warrior and Worrier, while a quarter carry Warrior-only genes, and a quarter are Worrier-only.

So are we all predestined to be good or bad test takers, based on our genes?  Researchers say it’s not that simple.  People who are Worriers can significantly improve their performance if they are exposed to stress the right way and allowed to acclimate to it.  Based on their research, here are some more ways you can become a grade-A test-taker:

1.  Tell yourself that stress is beneficial.  It may sound weird, but it works!  Here’s an interesting tidbit from the article:

The first experiment was at Harvard University with undergraduates who were studying for the Graduate Record Examination. Before taking a practice test, the students read a short note explaining that the study’s purpose was to examine the effects of stress on cognition. Half of the students, however, were also given a statement declaring that recent research suggests “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” Therefore, if the students felt anxious during the practice test, it said, “you shouldn’t feel concerned. . . simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”

Just reading this statement significantly improved students’ performance. They scored 50 points higher in the quantitative section (out of a possible 800) than the control group on the practice test. Remarkable as that seemed, it is relatively easy to get a result in a lab. Would it affect their actual G.R.E. results? A couple of months later, the students turned in their real G.R.E. scores. Jamieson calculated that the group taught to see anxiety as beneficial in the lab experiment scored 65 points higher than the controls. In ongoing work, Jamieson is replicating the experiment with remedial math students at a Midwestern community college: after they were told to think of stress as beneficial, their grades improved.

The study found that the students were still stressed, but that “it had different physiological manifestations and had somehow been transformed into a positive force that drove performance.”  The researcher also found that “the people told to feel positive about being anxious had their blood flow increase by an average of more than half a liter per minute, with more oxygen and energy coursing throughout the body and brain. Some had up to two liters per minute extra.”  Amazingly, hearing that stress is beneficial can improve your cognitive function!

2.  “Inoculate” yourself to stress by engaging in competitive activities you might actually enjoy, such as math competitions, trivia contests, spelling bees, science fairs, chess teams, etc.  Although these things can be stressful, they can also be fun and rewarding.  And getting used to competition will make it easier to take tests.

Good luck!


 

For more tips on studying and much more, order your copy of The Secrets of Top Students today!

Thinking outside the box on education: 4 great books with a fresh new perspective

Some of the books with the most original, thought-provoking ideas about education these days aren’t even on education. They’re on subjects such as sociology, psychology, technology, and self-help, among others, but they challenge what’s going on in schools today. Here are some books that don’t fall into the category of education, but which have a lot to say about the way we learn.

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (Crown, 2012). This book is ammunition against a school system that increasingly views classroom education as an endless stream of group projects. While it’s important for kids to learn teamwork, all too often we forget the importance of solitude, concentration, and deep thought in the learning process. I know that when I was in school, I did my best work alone. As Ms. Cain writes:

What’s so magical about solitude? In many fields, Ericsson told me, it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he has identified as the key to exceptional achievement. When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only useful – they’re counterproductive. They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them. Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class – you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.” [page 81]

Another book about deliberate practice is Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, by Geoff Colvin (Portfolio Trade, 2010).

2. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), by Mark Bauerlein. (New York: Penguin/Tarcher, 2008). The title says it all. Technology may be causing untold damage to the brains of young people. I’ve written two articles about avoiding the pitfalls of technology in education (see my piece in USA Today and the follow-up post on my blog). In this passage, Mr. Bauerlein paints a disturbing picture of this country’s rising generation of scholars:

Most young Americans possess little of the knowledge that makes for an informed citizen, and too few of them master the skills needed to negotiate an information-heavy, communication-based society and economy. Furthermore, they avoid the resources and media that might enlighten them and boost their talents. An anti-intellectual outlook prevails in their leisure lives, squashing the lessons of school, and instead of producing a knowledgeable and querulous young mind, the youth culture of American society yields an adolescent consumer enmeshed in juvenile matters and secluded from adult realities. [page 16]

There’s a book on a similar topic, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), which I hope to read soon.

3. Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008). In addition to talking about the 10,000 hour rule (the theory that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice for someone to become an expert in something), Mr. Gladwell also discusses why Asian students often outperform their American peers, especially in science and math:

We should be able to predict which countries are best at math simply by looking at which national cultures place the highest emphasis on effort and hard work. So, which places are at the top of both lists? The answer shouldn’t surprise you: Singapore, South Korea, China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, and Japan. What those five have in common, of course, is that they are all cultures shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture and meaningful work. They are the kinds of places where, for hundreds of years, penniless peasants, slaving away at the rice paddies three thousand hours a year, said things to one another like “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.” [pages 247-49]

4. The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss (Crown Archetype, 2009). This one may be a bit of a surprise. Am I suggesting that you can get great grades by working four hours a week? Not at all. Nor am I encouraging you to outsource your schoolwork to India. But Mr. Ferriss does present some useful advice on how to work more efficiently and effectively, whether you’re a student or an entrepreneur. Here’s an example:

Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion. It is the magic of the imminent deadline. If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials. If I give you a week to complete the same task, it’s six days of making a mountain out of a molehill. . . . The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus. . . . . There are two synergistic approaches for increasing productivity that are inversions of each other:

  1. Limit tasks to the important to shorten work time (80/20).
  2. Shorten work time to limit tasks to the important (Parkinson’s Law). [page 75]

What are some of your book recommendations?


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Introverts Unite!

I love the article “The Upside of Being an Introvert (And Why Extroverts Are Overrated)” by Bryan Walsh in Time magazine. I’m glad that people are finally starting to give introverts their due. I am an introvert to the extreme – I got the highest possible score for introversion on the Myers-Briggs personality test. Ten times out of ten, I would rather stay home with a good book than go to a party. That’s not to say that I’m a social outcast or don’t know how to behave around people. I just find it hard to be around large groups of people for long periods of time. I can force myself, but it’s not pleasant. I suspect that there’s a connection between introversion and academic performance. Introverts like solitude, and solitude leads to mastery of skills. As Mr. Walsh writes:

Florida State University psychologist K. Anders Ericsson believes that deliberate practice — training conducted in solitude, with no partner or teammate — is key to achieving transcendent skill, whether in a sport, in a vocation or with a musical instrument. In one study, Ericsson and some of his colleagues asked professors at the Music Academy in Berlin to divide violinists into three groups, ranging from those who would likely go on to professional careers to those who would become teachers instead of performers. The researchers asked the violinists to keep diaries and found that all three groups spent about the same amount of time — more than 50 hours a week — on musical activities. But the two groups whose skill levels made them likelier to play well enough to perform publicly spent most of their time practicing in solitude.

Unfortunately it’s getting harder and harder to escape the distractions of group work. This is true in school and even more so in the workplace. I hope that writers like Mr. Walsh and Malcolm Gladwell (who wrote about a similar subject in Outliers) will convince people of the power of being alone.


Give yourself the gift of great grades.  Order your copy of The Secrets of Top Students today!