Activities, Anxiety

Real vs. Perceived Threat

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As many of you know by now, I have been working with an increasing number of students dealing with anxiety. They have all really enjoyed the What is Anxiety video, but even after watching the video, I have found myself explaining a few things in more detail. So… I made this sheet/activity to help my students understand the difference between real (the owl) vs. perceived (bear or fox) threats.

If you have followed my posts, then you may have already seen how I use personification of anxiety through the use of worry monsters. This sheet gives you another option to do the same personification technique, but in a slightly different way.

Setting the Scene

First, have your students watch the What is Anxiety video. Then, use the animal and tree cards (I laminate them and use binder clips to get them to stand up) to set up the following scenario on your table (you could also use these cute animal toys instead!).

(1) Explain to students that we are kind of like the bunny. When we experience anxiety our switch can turn on for things we think are real (the fox/bear) or things that are actually real (owl).

(2) Explain the difference between real and perceived threat by pointing out the different threats to the bunny. The bear and the fox are PERCEIVED threats – meaning, the bunny just THINKS they MIGHT be there (then tip them over). The owl is a REAL threat because it swoops down and tries to catch the bunny.

The problem happens when our switch (amygdala) cannot tell the difference between the two. A bear (perceived) is the same as an owl (real) to our brains, so it’s our job to take charge and tell/show our brain the difference.

Coloring the Bunny

Start off by having your students color their bunny. Let them be creative! Point out the colors they choose – especially if they are very bright. I like to point out how bright/colorful they are and ask if they think their bunny will stick out or blend in when in a grassy field. This has led to many insightful conversations about their own personal feelings regarding anxiety and how difficult it is for them to control.

Finish the bunny by having students fill out the first box. Name the bunny and identify the bunny’s strengths. Is it fast? Good at problem solving? Give students a chance to fill out this box and share their responses.

Foxes & Bears – Imagined Threats

When our switches turn on, we sometimes make dangers bigger than they actually are. In other words, we may react to the bear or fox in the woods as if they are there even if it’s only the thought or imagined threat of them being there that is triggering us. So, the next questions I focus on are (1) What are your bears/foxes and (2) What things feel like a real threat, but actually are not?

Just the thought that these things could be there is enough to flip our switch – like the bear/fox for the bunny. For the most part, these things are what we should have control over, but for some reason, they feel like a threat.

Once students fill this box out, explore their responses!

  • What did they write down? Why?
  • What parts can they control?
  • When was the last time one of these bears/foxes showed up for them? What happened? Was it actually as dangerous as they thought?

The Owl – Real Threat

In the video, an actual owl flies over the bunny to create the Fight, Flight, Freeze response. So, I use owls to represent the real threats. These often end up representing things that students feel they have very little control over – the “big” things that are very difficult for students to manage or problem solve independently.

So far, most of my students haven’t really listed many owls. In fact, one even stated, “I hate admitting when you’re right about what you’ve been teaching me…All of my problems are just BEARS! I make the problem worse than it really is and it becomes and OWL!”. Trust me – my mind almost exploded when the student made this connection – it was my win for the day!

That being said, please remember that this could be a triggering question for any students that have experienced any level of trauma, so ask this question with caution and an open heart – and be ready to process through the response if needed!

Who Can Help?

This is the last question I ask, and it’s really easy to answer if your students have already done the People in my Puzzle activity. When our switch turns on, we typically lose the ability to think rationally. Because of this, we quickly forget all of the resources we have available to us to help.

I explain that the adults at school are all there to help put a “cage” around the bear (or fox). Who helps cage up the bear (or fox) at school? At home? Put those names in the box!

Then, for some students, we’ll create visuals with pictures of these adults for them to use when they need help. These visuals offer a reminder of available resoures AND a nonverbal strategy that students can use to ask for that specific person to help.

Continuing the Lesson

This discussion following the video has given me an easy way to discuss anxiety in the moment. I am able to respond to students by simply asking, “Is this a bear or an owl?” or, “This seems like a bear moment. Am I wrong?”.

Once we’re able to regulate, we can then use the same language to debrief and problem solve. We can talk about what they thought the bear was versus what actually happened.

What are YOUR bears? YOUR owls? Start answering these questions on your own, then ask your students!

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