We all experience occasional stress — and some people more than others. Stress is our body’s way of handling demands that may cause a physical, emotional, or psychological reaction.
However, when stress is not managed or starts to overwhelm your life, it can lead to more serious issues like anxiety and depression. This is something many students, parents, and teachers are thinking about as we get closer to the start of the school year.
“We know that anxiety and depression levels have gone up dramatically for both adults and children over the last year and a half, and stressors will only increase these numbers if they are not managed with coping tools and self-care, and possibly even professional care,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill-Cornell Medical College and a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.
Stress, anxiety, and depression impair functioning, keeping children from learning and adults from functioning in their jobs. That’s why Saltz says students and adults must be taught to recognize the signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression, and work on developing tools to combat stressors.
“Kids and teens have been exposed to a far different environment of study and socialization, with many losing interest in academics and reporting a waning in attention span and ability to concentrate for long periods of time,” says Julia Turovsky, PhD, clinical psychologist, anxiety expert, and founder of QuietMindCBT.
More specifically, many students spent the last year studying and working for shorter durations and in different environments. Turovsky points out that students may also have lost socialization skills due to a lack of access to other kids, especially in groups.
“Students, teachers, and even parents have described having a ‘social battery’ that is more easily depleted, meaning they get overstimulated and tired from socializing with both individuals and in groups, and need to return home to rest and recharge,” she says. This can lead to high levels of stress for all ages.
However, planning for these changes can prepare everyone for a smoother transition when school starts. Developing stress-management skills can ensure that students, parents, and teachers have the tools they need for a successful and productive school year.
Students will face all types of stressors throughout the school year. Being equipped with tools to help manage the effects is critical to success. Here are some coping strategies:
Practice deep belly breathing
You can practice deep breathing between classes, at lunch, or before and after school.
- Sit comfortably, with both feet on floor, and place one hand on your abdomen. Make sure your muscles are relaxed.
- Breathe deeply through your nose until your abdomen rises.
- Hold this breath for 5 seconds, then exhale slowly through your mouth like you’re blowing through a straw.
- Repeat this pattern for 3 to 5 minutes.
Try progressive muscle relaxation
- Get in a comfortable position, ideally lying down.
- Start by tensing your lower leg muscles.
- While contracting these muscles, breathe in for 5 to 10 seconds, then exhale and release the contraction.
- Stay in this relaxed position for 10 seconds.
- Move your way up your body, contracting different muscle groups while breathing in and out, holding for 5 to 10 seconds with each breath, and then relaxing for 10 seconds before moving to the next muscle group.
Participate in regular physical activities
Participating in daily activity through exercise or sports can help reduce the effects of stress. Encourage your child to join a sport or activity, or exercise as a family in the evenings.
Recognize and accept all emotions
Turovsky says kids and teens need to understand that coping skills do not mean that all negative emotions, such as feeling unhappy, irritated, frustrated, deflated, or anxious, will be eliminated. Instead, coping skills should allow them to recognize these emotions, label and validate them, and engage in behaviors to ease them.
Learn to communicate struggles
Turovsky says students should be encouraged by parents and teachers to share when they are tired, distracted, or overwhelmed.
Specific coping skills may be different for everyone, but Turovsky says that for most of us, they may include sharing these difficult emotions with people we love and trust.
Find a few trusted listeners
It’s also important that students have someone who will listen to them in an attentive and nonjudgmental way.
Students of all ages should find at least two adults they trust and have access to most of the time. This could include a school employee, family friend, family member, community support person, or mental health professional.
Have your child write the names and contact information down on a card to put in their backpack or phone.
By now, many parents are experts at change and dealing with anything that comes their way. That said, managing a family, work, and school takes its toll, and countless parents and caregivers are already dealing with a high level of stress. Here are ways for parents to manage stress this school year.
Take a meditation break
Even a 5-minute meditation break — in the school pick-up line, before leaving for work or before going to bed — can help reduce stress and clear your mind, according to a
- To start a meditation practice, make sure you’re in a quiet place.
- Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and focus on the present moment.
- If your thoughts stray — to events that happened yesterday, to your to-do list, or to anything other than the present — acknowledge them, but then let them go, and bring the attention back to the present moment.
The more you practice mindfulness meditation, the easier it gets to keep your thoughts from spinning out of control.
Practice daily self-care
Parents are often the first group of people to put self-care at the bottom of their to-do list. But Turovsky says self-care is more important than ever. “Eating well, drinking lots of water, getting exercise and rest, and plenty of alone time will go a long way in preventing overstimulation and irritability,” she says.
Minimize your media consumption
Taking breaks from watching or reading the news and social media can help reduce stress. Consider limiting the amount of recreational (nonwork-related) time you spend online, or restrict it to 1 hour a day at a prescheduled time.
Surround yourself with supportive people
Social support is critical when managing stress. Finding people you trust — whether friends, family members, or coworkers — can help you mitigate the adverse effects of stress.
Set aside time each week to meet with a friend. If possible, use this time to exercise, since physical activity also decreases stress. Agree to walk together a few times a week or go for a bike ride.
In addition to the strategies listed for students and parents, here are additional ways teachers and other school employees can cope with stress.
Acknowledge your feelings
Like students, Turovsky says teachers and other school employees need to acknowledge that they may be dealing with burnout. When this happens, the best thing you can do is treat yourself with compassion.
“Practicing self-compassion includes recognizing your distress cues and negative emotions and validating them, rather than being self-critical,” says Turovsky.
Ask for support from your administrators
“The stress of burnout specifically is affecting many school workers, and this requires their place of work to reduce workload, to limit work hours, to permit hours after-work where they are truly off, and to create a safe workspace,” says Saltz.
Teachers and other school employees, she says, should also know that their workplace will support and guide them toward help with mental health issues if they are struggling.
Take a breath break
You can practice deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation — both discussed above — between classes, at lunch, or before and after school.
Practice daily self-care
Ways to managing stress during the school year include:
Here are some tips to make these goals a reality:
- Consider using Sunday to plan your meals and exercise for the week.
- Keep a spare gym bag in your car in case you have time to take a walk during lunch or after school.
- Stock your refrigerator with precut vegetables and fruit for grab-and-go snacks.
- Go to bed at a reasonable and consistent time each night.
Cleaning is also a form of self-care that can benefit mental health.
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If handling anxiety and stress on your own isn’t working, it may be time to seek professional help.
“Parents need to know the signs to look for, so that they know when it’s time to bring their child to a professional for an evaluation and possibly treatment,” says Saltz.
They also need to communicate with educators when they think their child needs more help, attention, tools, and support.
Additionally, says Saltz, parents need to know when they may need extra help. “It’s hard to help your child with anxiety if you yourself have an anxiety disorder,” she says.
Here are common signs of stress:
- feelings of irritation and anger
- lack of motivation
- feeling overwhelmed
- nervousness or anxiousness
- trouble sleeping
- sadness or depression
- trouble concentrating
- worsening of chronic health problems or mental health conditions
- changes in appetite
- increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other substances
- headaches, body pains, and stomach or digestive issues
It’s normal to experience temporary stress. But if you or your child are experiencing extended periods of stress symptoms, it may be a sign that stress is not being properly managed.
Start with your doctor or your child’s doctor. They may want to check for physical signs of stress or other health conditions. Ask about a referral to a counselor or therapist. Here are some resources that may help:
We all deal with stress. But knowing how to identify and manage it can help reduce the negative effects and keep you and your child healthy throughout the school year. By taking time for self-care, eating right, exercising, practicing deep breathing, reaching out to friends and family, and asking for help, you can get a handle on daily stressors.
If these interventions are not working and you feel like your stress or your child’s stress levels are getting too high, it’s time to call a doctor. They can help determine if a referral to a mental healthcare professional is needed.