Anxiety and Returning to School

Is your child anxious about returning to school?

The better question is; why wouldn’t you be anxious? First of all, every typically developing human experiences anxiety on a regular basis. The surge of adrenaline, oxygen, and hormones that accompanies anything beyond the mundane routine of daily life is familiar to us all. If fact, our very life depends on having a sufficient arousal in response to problems in our environment in order to keep us safe.

Anxiety is an amplified and consistent sensation of fear. For example, when I hiked along The Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, or stood on a teetering high rise in Mexico before zip lining across a canyon, I assure you my anxiety flew up the dial in the range of panic. And likewise, when I step before a group of college students or an auditorium full of co-workers, the dial peaks. You know exactly what it feels like. The problem is, we can’t function in the world very well if that anxiety holds us back from achieving our goals or simply enjoying life.

Alternatively, anxiety is like food. We need it – in the right doses. Think about it; if we never felt anxious about a performance or speaking engagement there is a good possibility that we would blow it. We wouldn’t practice, prepare, show up clean or dressed (well maybe dressed). The point is, that feeling of butterflies in your belly, shallow breathing, rapid heartrate, and my favorite, sweaty palms and so forth is our response to what we perceive as a danger to our desired state of existence. Those of us who easily tip the scale toward anxiety, tend to perceive threat at a lower register, desire a more balanced or calm environment, and/or frame that feeling as anxiety.

Perception is everything, right? If I let my mind go wild with the worst case scenario or imagine how others will criticize my performance, my mind and body will begin to fight that possibility and help me defend the threat. If my preferred state of existence is calm, quiet, and pure peaceful serenity, I will have a stronger resistance to risk than my more outgoing counterparts.

So – if you or someone you care for easily becomes anxious and prefers a calm and predictable life they are also likely to be very bright, analytical, and they deeply care about situations and people. That being said, it is possible to make anxiety work in a more positive way for you. An emotion closely related to anxiety is excitement. Sometimes we can’t even tell the difference. I know I have started out excited about an upcoming event only to feel overwhelmed with the physical sensations of anxiety and want to retreat.

Our youth are usually excited about school and a little anxious about meeting new people, learning new routines, and having experiences that are new. Even the most confident young person can feel a little hesitant at a time like that. Now that Covid-19 has shifted even the most familiar of routines and situations, our children have a higher number of threats to their desired state and more substantial risk plaguing their perception of danger.

One simple method of tricking our mind into a state we can work with includes reframing the feeling of anxiety by engaging our thinking brain. Try calling it excitement. Shift your thinking into a more positive direction and let that sink in.

Another method of coping includes examining the truth behind our fears. The more mature a child, the more information they can handle and understand. Having a truthful description of actual risk versus our imagination that tends to blow things up is powerful. Knowing exactly what protective practices we should be using and why is important to share with our children.

On the flip side, we should proactively limit the amount of doom and gloom that comes from news media and social media. Staying informed is critical, but allowing it to fly in our faces all day and night is only going to hurt our hearts and spin our mind into an incredibly anxious state.

Get your mind off the flaming problem by brainstorming ways to help friends and family. It can be as big as making protective equipment or helping pass out donations or as small as encouraging others with calls and texts or bringing candy to your teacher. Try something that is proven to strengthen the connections between our emotional brain (the amygdala) and our pre-frontal cortex (the part that plans complex cognitive behavior). Doing something proactive makes us feel like we are more in control and returning to productivity.

Mindfulness. The simplest forms of mindful living increase our gray matter and we all need more neurons to stay productive. Attending to our slow and full breath forces our body to regulate and then our minds will follow. It can be done in the lunch line at school, grocery store, in traffic, and even better within the freedom of nature. Spending time outdoors does connect us to the more simple and beautiful parts of life, easing our overworked minds.

One more trick includes imagining the very acts of walking through the hallways and classrooms at school, getting on the school bus, and eating lunch with a pleasant and positive outcome. That will engage what we call mirror neurons. It will have virtually the same effect as physically practicing the steps. What we practice grows stronger so we will be more prepared and feel more confident after doing this.

As a parent, we should do our best to give our child the information they need in order to imagine each situation. Look to your school for an outline of their plans to protect and distance students. Some schools are eating in the classroom, some are sitting in cubbies or at a distance, or even with a divider. All of these scenarios can be drawn out and imagined with your child so they are ready to face the real thing, with courage.

We can reinforce their strength in doing things that aren’t easy and reassure them that we will always be there to guide them and care for them. Modeling a positive outlook and talking to them in a natural way about all the things that they normally experience when starting school will help ease their tension. Remember, everyone is a little unhinged right now and we will get through it together. Successfully navigating a stressful situation will bring confidence and a willingness to try again. Celebrate those mini accomplishments -there will be many!

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