Managing Back-To-School Stress

Heading into the school year can be a particularly stressful time. Hans Selye, a Hungarian scientist who was a pioneer in modern stress research, was quoted as saying: 

“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”

Today, several years after he made that statement, it still rings as true as ever. In an annual survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2013, teens reported their stress level during the school year far exceeded what was thought to be a healthy level. This makes heading back to school a great time to start implementing long-term strategies that can assist people in improving one’s ability to cope with stress.

Here are a few simple but important ways you can help with creating a successful and less-stressed start to the school year:

  1. Start the school sleep schedule early. A good night’s sleep is one of the most important stress reducers, as sleep helps to manage hormone levels, maintain a healthy body weight and repair and grow muscle tissue. Start the school sleep routine a week or two before the first day of school to help ease the transition from late summer nights. Getting into a good sleep routine will work best if you create a consistent bed time, keep away from the screen for at least 2 hours before that time and engage in some type of winding-down exercises before bed, such as meditation, gentle stretching, playing soothing music, or taking a bath.
  2. Be as prepared as possible. Visiting the school can help with feeling more comfortable and excited about returning. Ask who classmates are, and, if possible, find out if there is at least one friend in the classroom. Shopping for school supplies and other necessary items can be a fun transition ritual that has the important benefit of bringing a sense of control to a new situation. Along these lines, you can extend the preparation ritual by setting up a study area. A quiet, organized space that is designated for schoolwork will encourage commitment and follow-through to the homework routine. And, visit the NM Public Education Department website to learn more about what is being done to support schools.
  3. Talk about it, and stay positive. Another great way to prepare for the coming year is to simply talk about the feelings that one is experiencing. Find out what’s making someone anxious; validate those feelings and work together to come up with potential solutions. If possible, carve out some quality time before school starts to reminisce about the joys of summer, and to address any worries about the new school year. You might create a night-before-school special meal; find ways to show enthusiasm; help turn nervous energy into excitement. This may be especially important to do on Sunday evenings, which is when people most often become stressed about school the next day. As a support person in someone’s life, you send an important message by assuring them that they can get through a transition—even if it’s hard.
  4. Help set realistic priorities for school and outside activities. Talk about finding a balance among discipline, self-challenge, extra-curriculars, and enjoyment. A person does not need to play three sports or be on multiple academic team projects to be successful. Consider encouraging people to try something thing new this year. Working towards establishing a successful schedule can go a long way in reducing stress. Remember that part of any schedule should include down time, where there is an opportunity to debrief on the daily activities, and another time where nothing is scheduled and there is an opportunity to connect with one’s self. That relaxed connection can be a tremendous stress relief.
  5. Finally, be a role model. In this stress-filled world, it’s valuable for you to show others how to counteract stress. Let people see how you take a few minutes to sit still while you concentrate on your breathing. Tell people about your own commitment to create a less stressful year.

In many ways, school is the testing ground for a lifetime of challenges and opportunities that people will face throughout their life. Providing people with a toolbox of ways to reduce worry early in life can go a long way in promoting a lifetime of well-being.

And if there is ever a time when you need to talk about the emotional, mental, and behavioral things that come up, there is always someone here to hear you and talk to at the New Mexico Crisis and Access Line (855-662-7474), or on the Peer-to-Peer Warmline (855-466-7100).

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