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Tips for coping with back-to-school anxiety after a pandemic

Going back to in person learning after such a long period of being remote is triggering anxiety in students around the world. Here, tips to help you feel less anxious right now.

What is School Anxiety?

Anxiety can have a constellation of symptoms, and no two people experience anxiety in exactly the same way. Some symptoms you might experience can include:

  • Sleep problems: difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Feeling restless
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Frequent worries or intrusive thoughts (these are thoughts that feel scary and keep repeating in your mind)
  • Irritability (this is super cranky most of the time even if you don’t know why)
  • Muscle tension
  • Frequent headaches and/or stomachaches
  • Fatigue (this means feeling really tired even when you do sleep)

You might also notice some new changes to your own behavior that weren’t there before. Given the constant focus on handwashing, keeping a safe distance from others, and wearing masks, it’s completely understandable if you find yourself washing your hands or using hand sanitizer a lot (perhaps even when you’re just at home), worry about getting too close to others when you’re outside, or have a new fear of germs that you keep thinking about.

It’s really important to remember that you endured a very difficult year that included a lot of uncertainty and near-constant change. These feelings are to be expected, and you can work through them and learn to cope with your anxiety.

Coronavirus Back to School Signs of Anxiety: Know Your Triggers

Believe it or not, returning to school and being around your peers again will help you to feel safe in the world, even if it takes some time to adjust. Anticipatory anxiety (those worries that run through your mind as you think about the future) can feel overwhelming, but planning ahead to actually problem-solve some of those worries will calm your mind. Try these steps to prepare yourself in advance (or as you go):

How Our Bodies Tell Us We’re Anxious

It helps to pay attention to how your body feels when you are stressed and anxious. Our bodies send us signals—red flags—to remind us to slow down and get help when we need it. You might feel some of the following:

  • Fast heartbeat
  • Sweaty palms
  • Dizzy
  • Breathing fast
  • Tensing your muscles
  • Clenching your jaw
  • Stomach pain

4 Coping Skills for Anxiety

If you notice red flags (see the list, above), it’s time to use one coping skills to calm your anxiety. Not every coping skill works for every person, so it’s really important to try a few and practice them often.

  • Master deep breathing. Deep breathing is the most effective tool to deal with anxious thoughts, but it takes practice. One tip is to trace a square in the palm of your hand while you count your breaths. It goes like this: Trace up while you inhale for four, trace across while you hold for four, trace down while you exhale for four, and trace across while you hold for four. Repeat this twice to calm your worries.
  • stress ball or thinking putty is a great tool to keep in your pocket. Give it a squeeze when you start to feel anxious and this will remind you to slow your breathing.
  • Practice positive self-talk. When anxious thoughts make you feel like something is unsafe, take a big deep breath, listen to what the thought is telling you, and replace it with a positive alternative. An example might be, “I know my classroom is clean and safe for me to be at school today.”
  • Picture the stoplight. When intrusive thoughts take over your mind, picture a stoplight to work through it. On the red light, stop what you’re doing and ask yourself, “What am I worried about? Why am I having this worry?” Now picture the yellow light and think of some options to solve the problem. Do you need help? Can you use your deep breathing to calm down? Finally, picture the green light while you choose an option and go for it.
  • Plan ahead. Use a journal in the evening to write down your worries and potential solutions. That way you have a plan in place to tackle your worries each day.

Anxiety Support Strategy #1: Find Your Anchors

Everyone needs at least one person they can connect to during the day. Do you have a friend, teacher, or coach you feel comfortable talking to if you feel overwhelmed at school? If so, keep that person in mind and be sure to work on strengthening that connection by saying hello each day. If not, ask your teacher if you can see the school counselor for help with this.

Talking about your feelings of anxiety with someone you trust helps you work through your emotions. It’s really important to let your feelings out. If you keep them in, your anxiety will continue to grow like a giant snowball rolling down a mountain.

When anxiety builds but isn’t addressed with adaptive coping skills, it can lead to headaches, stomachaches, and sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep). Some kids even experience panic attacks. Some anxiety that isn’t addressed can make it difficult to concentrate and lead to forgetfulness, too.

Anxiety Support Strategy #2: Create A Routine

You probably get tired of hearing this from your grownups, but routines really do make a difference. That’s because predictability helps you know what comes next and what to do. Knowing what to expect helps us concentrate and feel less overwhelmed. COVID turned most routines upside down and while the new “normal” may look a bit different from life before COVID-19, school should become routine again soon.

In the meantime, you can create your own healthy routines by prioritizing sleep (including giving yourself enough time in the morning), finding time for daily exercise, and planning both your homework time and your downtime (you need both).

If your anxiety is making it difficult to get to school or your symptoms are interfering with your ability to complete your schoolwork and do your other favorite things, it’s time to see a licensed mental health professional. Getting help is the best way to get yourself back on track.

By Katie Hurley

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