Middle school age female student sits at a table holding her smartphone in front of her instead of doing her school work. Another student sits next to her and students can also be seen behind her.

How Anxiety Impacts Executive Function

Anxiety is being discussed more openly than ever before, with many people realizing that what they previously wrote off as everyday stress may be a part of a more chronic mental health problem. For people and students with ADHD and executive dysfunction issues, anxiety can be the norm, with ADHD and executive function issues creating a feedback loop with their anxiety. 

Executive function issues can cause anxiety, and anxiety can, in turn, affect executive functioning by impacting the brain’s ability to process information and make decisions. In other words, they often coexist or, to use a more technical term, are comorbid.

This challenging interdependence or coexistence of symptoms can affect people of all ages. As CHADD reports, up to 30% of children and up to 53% of adults with ADHD may also have an anxiety disorder. These statistics mean that children in every classroom are likely struggling with anxiety, yet it is not regularly addressed. Executive dysfunction can also negatively impact socio-emotional skills, putting further stress on students with anxiety.

At Effective Students, in addition to supporting the growth of strong academic management skills, we also focus on building social and emotional skills that build resilience in students and increase their confidence and competence for a more comprehensive developmental experience. Our academic coaches help students respond when they experience feelings associated with struggles or failures, introducing them to the grit-building process coming alongside them to help them persevere. The causes of anxiety cannot be altogether avoided, but certain skills can be developed to help make it more manageable. 

In this guide, we share an overview of how executive dysfunction and anxiety impact students and how academic coaching can help lessen some symptoms.

Middle school age female student sits in front of an open laptop, resting her head on her hand, with a bored look on her face.

Anxiety, ADHD, and Executive Function in Students

For many students, and even parents and caregivers, the highs and lows of academia are closely tied to emotions, evoking everything from fear and concern to frustration, stress, and exhalation. To improve overall student performance and experience, it’s important not only to focus on the academic part of executive dysfunction but the emotional part as well.

J. Russell Ramsay, Ph.D., explains the connection between anxiety and ADHD, writing in ADDitude, “Individuals diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety disorders tend to have more severe anxiety symptoms than do those without ADHD. But even adults with ADHD who do not meet the diagnostic criteria for anxiety may experience occasional and situational anxiety in their daily lives—precisely because of ADHD, which may cause time blindness, poor working memory, and exaggerated emotions, among other anxiety-producing symptoms.”

Students with and without ADHD diagnoses may suffer from the anxiety caused by executive function deficiencies. When it comes to planning, prioritizing, and completing tasks, these students may panic, feel overwhelmed, or become ashamed of their inability to get started. These students can learn the tools to better manage their executive functions, such as learning how to better observe a situation without first reacting emotionally. This is only one tool in the toolkit that gives the student control of their response, preventing them from entering the cycle of shame or incompetence.

In a discussion published in The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, Dr. Margaret D. Weiss explains that in a study, many patients were aware that due to their ADHD, “they were in danger of not being punctual, procrastinating, not meeting expectations, and of being demoralized through stigmatization. As a result, they would become anxious, and once they were anxious, their ADHD symptoms worsened. The effects of this syndrome can become a lifelong vicious circle.”

Anxiety opposes successful executive functioning, which can lead to more issues with keeping up with tasks and performing well academically. In fact, in the brain, when a person experiences anxiety, the amygdala, the part of the brain that protects us from danger, engages to keep them safe.  Since there cannot be two control centers functioning at once, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that solves problems, disengages, therefore making it difficult if not nearly impossible for the individual to solve problems successfully in a stressful situation. 

When this occurs in students, specifically around academics, we observe procrastination, task avoidance, emotional resistance.  Anxiety itself can occur around managing schedules, academics, and other goals, therefore impeding the further development of  executive function skills. The student is left at an impasse, often feeling very emotional without a viable solution. The student may appear as if they aren’t trying but the opposite is in fact happening, as they have become paralyzed.

Female adult with brown hair and glasses smiles at an elementary school age girl student who smiles back. The teacher holds a tablet in front of both of them and another student works quietly to the side.

How Anxiety Can Worsen Executive Dysfunction

Some anxious students may be able to hide their anxiety well, but there are a few key patterns to look out for to identify students struggling to manage their relationships between executive function and anxiety. 

Task Paralysis

Task paralysis is a common conundrum for students with executive functioning issues, and it can easily generate anxiety for the students. When students are so anxious and overwhelmed around tasks that they can’t move forward to try to complete it or even get started, students can feel even worse about themselves and become more anxious. This is why one characteristic of executive dysfunction is task initiation—students cannot begin a task such as homework.  

Task paralysis is also a compounding problem, only getting worse the more a student does it as it becomes a habit, something they do without thinking. If a student has been procrastinating or lost time on other tasks, it can feel insurmountable, which can lead to task paralysis and associated anxiety.

When task paralysis occurs, a student may find themselves staying up late to complete a task at the last minute, meaning that they won’t be doing their best on the project, test, or task. The resulting poor grade or negative feedback can bring on additional shame and disappointment.

One effective way to overcome task paralysis is to start with something easy, like organizing a binder or tidying a desk. Once that is done, students find it easier to begin homework with the easiest academic task. This creates behavioral momentum of getting things done in a snowball effect

Difficulty with Planning and Prioritization

Planning and prioritization are two of the most common challenges for students with ADHD and executive dysfunction. Students who do not have ADHD but do have anxiety can also find the initial planning process to be overwhelming, resulting in the students freezing.

Some teachers, coaches, and parents may suggest that planning and prioritization is the key to overcoming the challenges of ADHD and anxiety, without realizing that the planning and prioritization itself can be a source of the negative feelings. If a student is too anxious or doesn’t know how to break tasks down or fill out their academic planner, they won’t be able to utilize planning as a primary tool.

Fortunately, the executive function skills associated with planning and prioritization can be learned and practiced. With this additional guidance and coach-led exercises, students can begin to feel more confident in their own ability to manage their workload because they have a new experience of doing so successfully. 

Academic coaches can create repeatable educational experiences around planning and prioritizing, thus allowing students to feel differently about this exercise and understand the emotional relief it brings. Students will return to what feels good to them. Coaches can create this type of experience. 

Shame and Panic

For students with ADHD and executive dysfunction, the feelings may not stop at anxiety, as that anxiety can further lead to shame and panic. An article in the Harvard Business Review explains the phenomenon of shame and ADHD, explaining, “Forgetting to do something even though they know they have to do it leads to embarrassment, and forgetting consistently turns that embarrassment into searing shame.”

Parents and teachers may worsen the shame and panic in students even when they mean well. When parents and teachers don’t understand the shame and panic from anxiety, they may question and push the student, worsening the student’s confidence and creating a cycle of the student not believing in their own academic abilities.

In an academic setting and beyond, shame and panic, along with chronic anxiety, negatively impact a student’s overall emotional wellbeing. In turn, that declining emotional wellbeing can further hurt their academic performance, leading to a dangerous, vicious cycle.

Problems with Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is defined by the American Psychological Association as “the control of one’s behavior through the use of self-monitoring (keeping a record of behavior), self-evaluation (assessing the information obtained during self-monitoring), and self-reinforcement (rewarding oneself for appropriate behavior or for attaining a goal).”

Executive dysfunction and anxiety can lead to more extreme emotions, putting more pressure on the student’s self-regulation skills. This is often observed in the parent/child relationship when the topic of academics is discussed. Parents may observe an emotional response to a school-related question that is out of proportion to the question. While some emotional dysregulation in teens is common, parents that see a pattern of issues could be on to a larger problem. Issues with self-regulation compounded with task paralysis, feelings of shame, and planning difficulties make it nearly impossible for the student to feel emotionally secure and confident in their academic work.

The academic coach can help students become curious as to what happened and support parents as they remain emotionally neutral, modeling how to observe a situation without having an emotional response. This emotional self-control on behalf of both parties is the foundation to a healthy conversation about school.

Female academic coach works with a middle school student. The coach reaches across a piece of paper to point at something, which the student looks at.

Top Benefits of Coaching for Anxiety and Executive Function

When it comes to overcoming anxiety from executive dysfunction, students hugely benefit from working with an academic coach, like the coaches at Effective Students.

Practical Benefits of Academic Coaching

Through academic coaching, students can learn the executive functioning skills to help them strategize for managing tasks, planning, and prioritization. By working with an expert coach, students can learn clear strategies to overcome challenges, doing so while supported by a patient and encouraging coach.

Academic coaching provides more long-term benefits than traditional tutoring, as tutors are typically focused on helping students succeed in one specific subject, or even for one specific test. The skills learning in executive function coaching and academic coaching can be built upon and used for years to come.

Students who benefit from academic coaching include:

  • Students who need a better approach to managing their academic workloads
  • Students who are disinterested in academics
  • Students seeking more independence but struggling to find success
  • Students feeling stressed by their executive dysfunction

Academic coaches work alongside students, helping them learn a process that they can put into practice on their own. The support of a coach can reduce anxiety for many students, as they know they have someone in their corner helping them change their processes, not just get a certain grade on a test.

Emotional Benefits of Academic Coaching

The academic anxiety generated by executive dysfunction can be overwhelming, leaving the student feeling lost and unsure of the next steps to take. Because executive function coaching is a positive and task-related activity, students can get out of their own heads and move forward, easing the anxious and shameful feelings that stand in the doorway to success.

Students who practice building their stamina and response inhibition also develop and fine-tune self-regulation skills. Academic coaches create positive experiences around school while walking the students through the context of a task, utilizing intentional dialogue so students develop flexible thinking, establishing a positive emotional experience. 

Academic coaching is not a replacement for medical care needed to alleviate anxiety, but it can often offset some initial challenges that trigger anxiety. It is still important to get students the other resources they need for anxiety, like support from their doctor, counselor, or psychologist. Academic Coaching can help students better their relationship to academics and other tasks, complementing the growth in their overall emotional well-being.

Discover How Academic Coaching Can Alleviate Student Anxiety

Academic coaching can be a part of the solution for student anxiety, although it is always important to consult a healthcare provider for students experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

At Effective Students, we’ve created engaging courses and insightful programs that help students develop a robust skill set of executive functions, leading to long-term success. While our one-on-one coaching sessions are recommended for building executive functioning skills, we also have the Effective Student™ course. This course teaches some of the essential skills our coaches teach. 

If you’re ready to find the right option for you, contact our team to learn more.

© 2023 Effective Students by W3 Connections Inc.